I. God and the Trinity
III. Holy Spirit
IV. Salvation, Soteriology, Sin
VIII. Systematic Theology and Political Action
I dedicate this Thesis to the woman who raised me and was also my mother and my first Pastor Evangelist Idella Cora Thomas and to my dad Leonard Thomas as you both showed me what integrity, love and follow through is through the stability that you gave me. To Aunt Florence who has always answered her to Mother me. To My husband, Brad Hauger, who stood with me in this process and who loves me despite this call.
To Dr. Thomas Copeland who engage me in the work of justice, whatever my crazy idea was you never said no so that I can help defend and advocate for community. To my nieces and nephews Tamika, Odessa, Jerrica, Jodie, Cora, Jalidey, Jelan, Yandora, Quiana, Alaysha, Eric, Lynn and Darnell. By living your lives, you remind me of new possibilities as this work is about creating a planet of peace, and justice for your children. To my sisters, Debra, Norma, Suzy, Nancy, Regina and Debra McClain. To my brothers, Leonard and Harry. To the Blackshear Family you taught the importance of family. To Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, Pastor of The Riverside Church, you showed me hope. To Father Michael Pfleger and Rev. Jeremiah Wright your sermons and your friendships taught me how to be prophetically authentic in doing this work. To Dr. Otis Moss III, Pastor of Trinity UCC, you taught me theology in action.
To my Family at New York Theology Seminary and Rev. Dr. Dale Irvin you told me from the beginning that you would match my faithfulness with yours and you kept your word.
To Rev. Dr. Arnold Thomas who pushed me to get it done
To Trinity United Church of Christ and The Riverside Church NYC your prayers and ministries is the fuel to my soul.
As far back as I can remember, I heard my parents say to ministers “Don’t forget your Bible and newspaper.” My parents always judge preachers who had no social or political understanding of biblical texts. They would see ministers in their communities who would not touch on what the people were facing and would consider those sermons empty and devoid of substance.
My parents believed that they were not just responsible for handing out government cheese to welfare recipients during the Reagan years, but that as elders in the church, their responsibility, along with the ministers, was to advocate for and sometimes create public policy. They thought there must be a balance between the theology of prophetic action that supports protest and organizing the protest called for by the prophetic message. I put this memory out of my mind until I had started seminary. However, when I came to seminary and I met people like Obery Hendrix, Jeremiah Wright, Peter Heltzel, and Father Michael Pfleger the message of my parents came back. Each of them in their own way has echoed the sentiment that real ministers have a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other hand, that Jesus always advocated for rights and never against rights as he preached against injustice and bigotry. Howard Thurman, mystic and philosopher, believed preachers must have a word for the men and women with their backs to the wall as the preachers seek to marry the historical Jesus and the Jesus of Faith.1
When I Googled “newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other hand”, I discovered that this is an original statement made by Karl Barth, a prominent Protestant theologian (1886-1968). He advocated that we must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and read both to address the social issues of our time. He consistently stated in interviews that the pastor or young theologian should interpret the newspaper from the Bible. A theologian should never be formed by the world around, but should make it his/her vocation to show how to live regardless of the world’s changing environment. This came from a Time magazine article published on Friday May, 31 of 1963 during the height of the Cold War, and though Barth framed it at the time as an East-West issue, he ultimately brought theologians back to basics with this statement, “Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?” What do these statements mean to me as I listen to both our friends at NPR and our friends at FOX News?
In our Practice of Prophetic Ministry class, we studied Jeremiah 31:15 -16 and Matthew 2:18: “Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. 16 Thus saith the LORD; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work, shall be rewarded, saith the LORD; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.”2
Looking at Scripture from the vantage point of the bottom up inspired me to look at this scripture in terms of current world events. I viewed it using the lens or eyes of recent mothers in the newspapers. Mrs. Martin was weeping for Trayvon because her child was no more, and Mrs. Garner was weeping for her son because he was no more and Mrs. Gray was weeping for her son because he was no more and Mrs. Brown, weeping for her son because he was no more. The cries of these mothers can be heard clearly today as were the cries of Rachel and the Lord stated that there was work to be done in order to be rewarded with the return of the children. Where is the second part of the scripture in today’s terms? The answer is that it is the role of the young theologian to bring the word of God to comfort these mothers but to also call them to action to do the work needed to “come again from the land of the enemy”. One need only look as far as Jordan Davis’s senseless death and the work his mother, Lucy McBath, has done to see the Scripture being relevant and present in today’s world.
Ramah was a small town about five or six miles north of Jerusalem. The community as located on the border between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern regime of Judah. Ramah was the point at which Nebuchadnezzar assembled the people of Judah for their long trek into the captivity in Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Ramah is also one of the possible locations of Rachel’s tomb giving the lamentations an even more bitter tone and prominence.
Good theology calls on us to live in the current world and care for and protect the hurting of our world. When we read biblical text, we must merge together the message of the scriptures to the historical faith and social-political understanding of today to meet today’s needs. For example, Rachel, the wife of Jacob and the mother of Benjamin and Joseph, is also considered a matriarch of Israel. This mother, Rachel, is weeping from heaven for the lives of her children, the twelve tribes of Israel. Her weeping is so great that it brings the promise of the Lord to return “her children” to the land of Israel. There we discover that in Jeremiah's day, Rachel was weeping because it was from Ramah (possibly her tomb) that the conquering Babylonians were deporting the captive Jews from Jerusalem. In this way, her child is both her cause of weeping and her hope for the future. She remembers giving birth to her son while dying, herself, and watches her children being led into captivity. In Matthew 2:18, we see in the midst of her grief God tells her not to give up and tells her that her children are her hope for the future. She is caught between grief and despair, and joy and praise. As the Scripture of Jeremiah finds relevance to the author of Matthew many years later, so, too, must we find the relevance in the suffering in our world today. Many years ago, when I was a about ten or twelve, my parents and I performed in a play called Showboat at the Youngstown Playhouse. I had made friends with an actor named Robin. As the show was coming to completion, we received word that Robin had been in a car accident. I was so troubled; but even as a child I also remembered my Mother talking about prayer and the man named Jesus. I could also remember a Pentecostal mentor of my mother who had ordained her. I called him and asked him to pray for my friend. He answered he would pray for Robin but he also sent me to the hospital to lay my hands-on Robin and pray as well. When I got off the phone I told my Mother about the call and she drove me to the hospital that night where as soon as I walked into the room I saw Robin’s Mother grieving over her child. Yet standing over her son’s broken body she also had a look of hope that her son would recover despite the pessimistic reports from the doctors. I did as I was instructed and placed my hands-on Robin and had begun to pray as the room fell silent and then the voices of the adults joined me voice in prayer. Robin’s mother was the loudest and most mournful. Robin survived, though with some scars; but the marks meant nothing to his mother who saw only that God had returned her child to her and for that she sang His praises.
We stand in collective grief and mourning while understanding and anticipating hope. We lift our angry voices for Ferguson, Florida, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Baltimore, Cleveland, Youngstown, Los Angeles, and places all over this globe. The town of Ramah does not sound any different than Baltimore, Ferguson, New York City, Los Angeles, and Youngstown, or even Tel Aviv. We are in trouble, for a nation of black and brown children are being ripped from their mothers’ arms by police brutality and black on black crime. In this text, we find the universal struggle of humanity.
Globally we see a Palestinian conflict that ignores a Palestinian cry for justice and liberation where Zionists have written out the historical proof that Palestine is not just Muslim but it's also Christian and Jewish and I bet the occupation misplaced millions of people who are Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Zionism is nothing but a political movement that is about worshiping the land rather than worshiping a true God of justice and a Jesus of liberation. The deceptive political views of Zionism ignore the diversity of Arabs. Father Stifan Ateek, in his book Justice and only Justice: a Palestinian Theology of Liberation says the church in Israel- Palestine is a composite, a rich Mosaic bringing together Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism for centuries. The responsibility of faith is to speak the truth and to transcend both south and national interests. Speaking to God’s truth and exposing passionately and sincerity” for the good of the people has a way of penetrating. Atteek further states that Palestinians are also Jewish. When speaking about Palestinian conflict one must preach justice and liberation for a diverse people who have lived under siege since 1940. “ p.146 Year after year many of us have watched black child after black child gunned down.3 We mourn for them but also moan for America’s racialized past. This is not just about Michal, Trayvon, and Garry, but about race and gun laws supported and funded by the NRA and gun lobbyists. We have seen how yet another person of color becomes a non-person when a black boy encounters someone with racialized attitudes. Let’s let this biblical narrative prod our consciences to speak to all people of faith of the divine will.
We must remember that Jesus calls us out of the grave into a new imagined life. By seeking justice, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, calling us to do justice and walk humbly with our God. When God speaks to Rachel in the second half of the text, God tells her of a new transformative hope that has happened in the midst of her tears. Jesus shows us with the cross, a transformative moment of hope and redemption.
When I preached on this text, I explained that Matthew is not merely quoting clear predictive prophecies about the Messiah. Rather, he is associating the events in Jesus' life with a wide range of events in the history of Israel. I said it's a bit like that word-association thing psychologists do.
In Jeremiah's day, Rachel weeps over her children once more, this time because they are being led into captivity and exile near the very spot where she is buried. She is then comforted with the promise that her children will return. Once again, her offspring are both her cause of weeping and her hope for the future.
In Matthew's day, Rachel weeps yet again: this time over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. No words of comfort are given her in Matthew, but the very next verse speaks of Herod's death and the return of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Israel. Just as in Jeremiah's day, the situation seems bleak, but the hope of salvation lives on.
In Jeremiah's day, Rachel’s children know the experience of living in exile, and like the Israelites of Moses' day, they go through their own “exodus from Egypt”. Just as Rachel was comforted with the promise that her children would be restored, and just as Moses' birth was a sign that the Israelites' deliverance was near, so Matthew's readers are meant to understand that the long-awaited Messiah has been born and the hope of salvation is close at hand.
But today we see the graves filling up with children, sons and daughters dying of violence, neglect, war and famine. Political oppression here in America is going on through the cutting of poverty programs, “stop and frisk”, tagging of our Latino children who are threatened of being ripped away from their parent’s arms and homes, building a wall on the Mexican border (a manifestation of the heart of this administration’s bigotry). Jesus’ heart breaks and as Rachel cries become louder and louder. I write a letter to Jesus about Rachel’s situation:
Long ago you heard a voice of a Mother in a city called Ramah, weeping and bitterly mourning. I can imagine Saint Peter running down the heavenly corridor of gold saying “Jesus more babies and children are being slaughtered” and Rachel’s weeping is getting louder. Jesus, when you reached Rachel, you spoke to her and those who wept from heaven with her, and reminded her that her children are not dead but asleep.” (Luke 8:52). Her response is humble and loving as any Mother who wears grief as geo-physical reality. She says to you, “for you said once for me to spread my grief before you and all of heaven. For the mourning is called for and my tears will be the river that connects heaven and earth.” Jesus, I can only imagine the powerful sight of tears from heaven flowing to earth. Oh, what a sight it must be for heaven as Rachel relives the anguish and grief each time a child is gunned down on Palestinian streets, or a Syrian refugee is dying to be free, or when there is another victim of violence here in the United States. Oh, how will she protect her children from the illegitimate orange-haired devil who is taking away foundations of stability for the children of the world?
Oh, what anguish for Ramah, the continued slaughter of innocent children as if the grief and tears of mothers are not heard. Has humanity learned its lesson? For when you called the heavenly angels and the ancestral presence in a meeting I can but hear and feel the heavenly love and concern. What historical conflict you must have had for the house of Israel under Babylonian captivity. For this house was also your place of refuge many years later for you and your family. Oh, so it must have been for Rachel because she had celebrated your birth from the heavenly balcony. She saw God’s plan unfold, that a land that sentenced her children to death would serve as a place of birth and celebration for her king. For it pained you, Lord, to see Trayvon Martin gunned down while carrying a bag of skittles on the evening of February 26, 2012. That night Rachel grieved and screamed out with his mother; and again, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty. How heaven must have grieved for Michael Brown August 9, 2014, for the Charleston nine; in your sight, black lives do matter. Oh, how Rachel’s heart breaks again and again over a system of white American supremacy and its hold on America’s soul. And how she did cry when twenty children were gunned down in Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 because of our collective love affair with guns and our dismissal of those with mental illness. And Rachel’s heart continues to break over her ancestral land because of 15.8 million Palestine children who have been killed and scarred by war and violence. I know that the last word is not about the weeping, but about your prophetically seeing beyond the tears; about your letting the tears transform the lost to community change. You want more from us in holding one another accountable. Rachel’s tears are a battle cry to keep doing justice and love with mercy. Rachel’s tears call us to change laws and fight oppressive systems for us, our children and our children’s children. Rachel demands that we respond and say “Here I am Lord.” We are not just going to march, but we are we are going to demand educational access; we are going to demand a more strategic war on poverty; and we are going to demand that violence in our communities be understood within a bigger system that is rooted in white supremacy. We want federal service, not military policing. We are going to make these demands until justice roles down like a stream and righteousness rolls down like a river of Rachel’s tears.
I.God and the Trinity
For many people, God is messy, a collage of pronouns and images that reflect how God shows up and is lived out in the world today in major and minor ways in society. God could be in the image of the unjustly slain: the spirit of Black Lives Matter, two police officers, a drag queen at Pulse in Orlando, a mother weeping for her dead children. These cries echo the cries of one Jewish carpenter whose radical presence was a promise of liberation and freedom for the Jewish community of his time. This one we know as Jesus is God as the Power that confronts oppression and marginalization in modern times and the past, as is witnessed in the historical biblical text and by prophetic communities of faith. God is the one who bestows us, as communities, with the means to speak to the political, social suffering of a people. God speaks through us with radical confrontations of love, justice, liberation, peace, grief, and pain. God is God of the Oppressed.
The divine liberation of the oppressed is at the center of the presence of God in humanity. God is the fount of an identity that interrupts the sexism, racism and bigotry leeching humanity’s soul, as illustrated by a depth of evil found in today’s US national and global political discourse. This profundity of evil clouding our world raises the problem of evil. But Cone (1997) raised an important question regarding the problem of evil. “When theology defines the problem of suffering within the context of philosophical discourse, it inevitably locates the Christian approach to suffering in the wrong place. …the problem [of evil] is: how do we rationally reconcile a God unlimited both in power and in goodness with the presence of evil… [But the focus of the biblical] God is on what God has done, is doing, and will do to…bestow upon the oppressed the freedom to struggle against their slavery and oppression.” (Cone, 1997, p.196) This sets the stage for our need to deepen our understanding of the living power of God within the context of the reality of evil that is threaded throughout humanity.
As Christians, we get locked into perceived narratives about our faith that have good and bad things going for them. In some ways, they give us a contextual view that the power of God is our image, an image that stands despite our own theological manipulations, miscalculations and misinterpretations. But they also reinforce how we have edited the Christian narrative so justice and equality become obsolete. An example, as Cone (1997) pointed out, is with how the Euro-American view of personal piety, twisted by the fallen situation that emerged in the wake of the thirty years’ war (1618-1648), watered down the need for us to use the sacred text to inspire us in how to respond to human suffering (Cone, 1997, p.34). Cone (1997) pointed out that for us as Christians the emphasis is on what God has done through Jesus (Cone, 1997, p. 164). This implies that our image of Jesus has divine implications. So, when you ask church folk for God’s identity, it immediately makes me think, “Wow, that’s complicated!” It’s complicated because I believe Jesus acknowledged the responsibility of his divinity in John 8:58 when he responded that, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Therefore, Jesus came to fulfill the will of the divine and stated this truth in his inaugural sermon, as encapsulated in Luke 4:18-9; and from that point on Jesus walked in his divinity while preaching the year of the Lord’s favor. Jones and Lakeland (2005) point out that this raises the question of whether the three Abrahamic traditions can learn from their histories of hatred and bloodshed new visions of being a people of God. Hendricks (2007) points out that the Abrahamic traditions are historically connected to an oppressed community from the tribe of Judah. Jesus’ ministry began with a proclamation that God sent him to proclaim a radical mission of economic, social, and political change (Luke 4:18-19) (Hendricks, 2007, p. 7). He promised to bring good news to the poor. His focus on the poor as a class, was, and still is, a way of changing our world. Jesus also raised the promise for the release of political prisoners of Roman authorities. Therein, Jesus promised direct confrontation with Roman authorities to change their unjust policies. Finally, he promised to let the oppressed go free, which makes clear that Jesus promised not a personal but a collective liberation against the machinations of empire, (in his context, the Roman government).
In this regard, Luke 4:18-19 is important because it announces that the mission of Jesus’ ministry is not just about personal healing but the confrontation of political forces that oppress humanity. This theme reoccurs throughout the New Testament narrative, as we see in Jesus’ concern for the "shape" of his society (Hendricks, page 54) and in Jesus’ birthright as a Jew (Luke 2:39). His self-identification as a true Israelite is also to be seen in the context of the Roman occupation of Israel, which began around 63 BCE. The Bible contextually makes it clear Jesus, like Paul, was a Jewish man oppressed by Roman authorities (Hendricks, 2007, p.55). Roman domination of the Jewish people gives validity to the interpretation of Jesus’ mission as a holistic, political and social mission for the Jewish people that was meant to enable others to do likewise.
Jesus found inspiration for his ministry in the story of Exodus that, for the Jewish people, was a story of liberation from oppression and an extended promise to Abraham, which was tied in with how his own story involves his family first escaping oppression by Herod and then escaping being illegal immigrants in Egypt. The exodus was a major event for Jewish people and serves as an anchor of faith of liberation for the oppressed.
(Hendricks, 2007, p. 16) It, like the Jewish people’s rejection of their monarchy, tacitly given in1 Samuel 8:14, 18, were meant to separate the Jewish people from the temptation of covenanting with oppressive peoples, or being like all other nations instead of a light for the world.
Jones and Lakeland (2005) calls out the evil of corruption of religious institutions by saying that this sin dwells within the church so “that one must speak of sin and members and of the church itself (Jones and Lakeland, 2005, p. 224).” Historically, the sins of the church have included: political indulgences, beheading of women, and justification of slavery. To paraphrase, by ignoring these hard truths of our historical failings to live up to God’s intention for us as God’s servants, we water down our understanding of God in ways that underestimate God’s divine identity and God’s intent to liberate us from the fallen state we were born into and grew up in. As such, God’s identity is fundamentally connected to the humane treatment of all human beings. We must creatively respond to the evil in our world by keeping God portable so we can discern the will of God to do justice by confronting evil through loving people. We thereby testify to who is God through living out our faith in Jesus as God’s revelation of what is divinity and humanity. When talking about the manifestation of the Spirit and understanding the metaphysical presence of God either in scripture or through modern theologians, when scripture talks about the Holy Spirit we see it as a living entity, as a manifestation of Jesus and Jesus’ spiritual father. Each is part of God. Thus, was coined the term 'Trinitarian'. That expresses incarnational evidence that helps us make historical sense of the metaphysical realities and the existence of Jesus and God. In John 8:48-59 Jews question Jesus wanting to know if Jesus was the son of God and Jesus said that he existed long before Abraham. Modern theologian William Hamblin in his writing “Cooler than Cupid” acknowledges that what is historically happening to the Jewish community of his time has an influence on how our Christian tradition expresses itself within the context of prayer, worship, and in our expression of the metaphysical image of the Christ in our lives and in the church. The importance of the divine man is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. Israel is consistently calling upon the name of God in diverse ways as in hymns of praise and in times of oppression reciting Jewish texts (page 5). The Greek term for “I am” is used as a divine title as Jesus claims the divinity of “I am who I am”. Jesus creates this designation for himself. Even though this upsets the Jewish religious people, overtime he publicly claims that he and God are one.
But, although our imaginations are active and we feel a sense of sacredness when we see images of God, we untimely cannot fathom what God looks like because God is image- less. I believe that this is the point of the Trinitarian formula as it connects our image of Jesus to our image of God while also fulfilling the absence of Jesus’ physical presence here on earth. Karl Barth says this when describing the incarnation and the grace of God and how God physically manifests God’s self through the Trinity. He “corresponds to himself the concrete ways that God is given to us in history, and directly to the three interrelated ways of existing within God’s own life. Trusting that the livingness of God is with us and for us in the suffering of history, we speak of the Trinity as the one true God. In doing so we exercise radical faith that, as Catherine LaCugna writes "we do not know the subtle image of God but the real living God of Jesus Christ and the spirit of the God who saves - this is God.” This living experience of God comes in the lived experience of who God is through our relationship with one another. God lives in actions of justice that have been imagined through our experience of the living Trinity and our faith in Jesus. And it is our faith in Jesus that his very lived experience is connected to his earthly identity. Jesus was born into a poor Jewish sect, born to an unwed teenager, and reared by his stepfather. This Jesus of Nazareth was destined to come in conflict with imperialistic systems of his day. The Trinity also connects this earthly identity to his divine identity that connects us in our faith with him as we struggle to be in relationship with one another. This interconnectedness challenges us in humanity to imagine a world that Jesus worked, lived and died for, a beloved community here on earth as it already exists in heaven.
In the 20th-century, American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916) raised the beloved community, and Dr. King repeated that this vision as a goal of building beloved community comes from the idea of redemption and reconciliation, the train that can transform opponents to be in right relationships with one another and with God. This vision from Jesus is that the kingdom of God is something we can create together through peace and through a fair distribution of wealth so that every man and woman can feed their children, so that every man and woman can go to the hospital and have medical care, so that every man and woman to marry their partners whether gay or straight. This is what it will be when the Trinity connects us to one another by the kind of justice that represents love. But this idea of loving community doesn't just speak of Christian unity but also includes our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist brothers and sisters because they are also residents of the earth. Even when we speak of our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters it is important to remember they are from an ancient faith that is connected to the Abrahamic faith. The echoes that we must find in one another are global echoes of seeing humanity and the divinity in one another.
1 Thurman, Howard: Jesus and the Disinherited Beacon Press 1996 4
2 Barth,Karl http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,896838,00.html 5
3 Ateek Naim Stifan A Palestine Theology Of Liberation and Justice: Marynoll New York 2002 9