‘Does God care about those of us who’ve had knees on our necks?’

Presbyterian Historical Society webinar covers Black Liberation Theology, BLM, voting and Matthew 25

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Charles Lattimore Howard, Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, participated in a Presbyterian Historical Society webinar on Black Liberation Theology and mass movements on Oct. 22, 2020. (Screen shot)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Rev. Dr. Charles Lattimore Howard was two-thirds of the way through the Presbyterian Historical Society’s webinar on Black theology and mass movements  when he got a question that took him back to graduate school.

A white male viewer in his 60s said he was struggling to understand Black theology. How is it different from his Presbyterian theology? Is it something he can’t understand as a white man? Is it based in Christianity?

That took Howard, now the University Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, back to comprehensive exams, which he had to take before he could start his dissertation. And they were comprehensive, so they could cover anything from Jesus Christ to the present day.

“I go into my advisor, who I adore and love, and part of the (book) list that was given to me, and it’s pages and pages … overwhelmingly: male, men, and men from Europe and America,” Howard said. “One Black man on that list: James Cone. One other person of color: Gustavo Gutierrez. One woman on there: Rosemary Radford Ruether.

“What is Black theology? It’s reconstructing the center, so that when we tell the history of theology, it’s not just telling it from one perspective. It’s bringing other voices into that narrative, into that story. … It’s bringing in names from the continent of Africa – not just James Cone and (Gayraud) Wilmore, not just Katie Cannon. Not just them. It’s folks from the continent of Africa. It’s East Asian and South Asian. It’s South American voices. It’s making the list reflect that. Still Christian. Still Presbyterian. But inclusive, bringing in voices from the margins. It’s the liberative work that a historian doing Black liberation theology can do.”

The answer was one of several times Howard returned to the idea of bringing under-represented, marginalized voices into the center of the theological conversation — not pushing others out, but expanding the center — during the hour-long conversation with PHS Public Services Associate Sonia Prescott.

Sonia Prescott, Public Services Associate at the Presbyterian Historical Society, moderated a webinar with theologian and author the Rev. Dr. Charles Lattimore Howard on Oct. 22, 2020. (Screen shot)

Click here to watch the Presbyterian Historical Society’s webinar with the Rev. Dr. Charles Lattimore Howard.

Bringing the conversation to current events, Prescott asked Howard how we should understand the Black Lives Matter movement from a theological perspective.

Howard started with some history, noting Black liberation theology emerged in the 1960s in widely-read academic works around the same time as the civil rights movement, Black power and other movements such as women’s rights, gay rights and the anti-war movement.

“I bring that up because so much of theological reflection right now is happening right next to the contemporary mass movement of Black Lives Matter, and to be fair other movements including Occupy, Arab Spring, Enough, Me Too — there are real theological anchors within all of that,” Howard said. “That’s literally happening on the street where pastors, theologians, clergy and other people of faith are out their marching, trying to make sense of ‘What does God think of this?’”

“’Is God laying on this ground with us at this die-in?’ From the Christian perspective, ‘Is the Christ who died on a wooden cross also dying with me in this intersection?’ ‘Does God care about those of us who’ve had knees on our necks? What might Scripture say about that?’ And how do we bring that into religious spaces?”

Howard added that a lot of people do question the church itself, particularly parts that are tethered to earthly powers and principalities “that are part of the oppression.”

The now-infamous June incident in Washington, D.C., where protesters in front of the White House were tear gassed to make way for President Donald J. Trump to walk to a nearby church for a photo opportunity with a Bible prompted Howard to reflect on the fact that there were protesters also speaking in the name of God in front of the White House, and that there has been a historic tension between faith used as a tool of oppression and in struggles for liberation.

“Black liberation Christian theology is right in the middle of all of this,” Howard said.

Like many others today, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Howard said people of faith need to vote.

He reflected on moments in the Vice-Presidential Debate where U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic challenger who is a woman of African and South Asian descent, stopped current Vice-President Mike Pence from interrupting her by saying, “I’m speaking.”

“’Don’t interrupt me, don’t silence me, I’m speaking,’” Howard recalled. “She said it a couple times. It sticks out to me, and it points to the importance of using our voices, particularly for groups who have been systemically and physically at times silenced, whether it’s at a nationally televised debate, or whether it is with our pointed fingers, pushing buttons in a voting booth.”

Learn more about the Presbyterian Voting Campaign.

The question-and-answer portion of the discussion also introduced Howard to the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 invitation, which encourages congregations to combat structural racism and systemic poverty.

“You ask the question, ‘Where would Jesus be if Jesus came back right now and walked among us,” said Howard, whose new book “The Bottom: A Theopoetic of the Streets” comes out Oct. 30. “That walk would look similar to the walk 2,000 years ago. Jesus doesn’t land in Rome in the center of power. He was born in a manger in Bethlehem and then raised in Nazareth — small fringe towns. Similarly, right now, he would be with the poor, whatever that means, with folks on the street. Jesus was essentially homeless. … How much money did Jesus carry around? None. Judas had the money.

“We have to be concerned with those who don’t have. It looks more like Christianity when we do.”

Finishing his answer to the questioner struggling to understand Black theology, Howard turned back to the Presbyterian Church, and who is at the center.

“Scholar, tell me the history of the Presbyterian Church,” Howard said. “You can start with Jesus or start wherever you want to start. But if you go through that story, and there’s no Black names in that narrative, there’s an aspect to that story telling that — is ‘oppressive’ too strong a word? — it’s marginalizing.”

“Can you retell that story to include us? To include Katie Cannon? Because you can. To include big Black Presbyterian churches, to include the cruelty of burning down Black Presbyterian churches, to include Southern Presbyterian churches leaving because they want to hold on to slavery. Tell that story. That’s Black liberation theology right there. And you can do it, and you’re invited to do it as a white man. And you can continue to be part of this liberation. Thank you.”

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