“Who Do You Say I Am?” – On Fear

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“Who do you say I am?”

Matt. 16:15, New International Version

This is the theme verse to this series on hermeneutics: the interpretation of scripture. Whether directly or indirectly, our individual and communal hermeneutics answer the above question. Who do we say Jesus is, in our words and actions?

Continuing our engagement with Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, this week we are addressing the question: How does fear influence the development of our hermeneutics?

Fear is a motivating factor in human behavior, and we adjust our behaviors and practices in order to avoid that which we fear. For instance, I am afraid of the dark, so I have a pretty night light in my room that projects the moon and stars onto my ceiling and walls in different colors.

There. I said it.

The night light reduces the amount of darkness in my bedroom, which, for some unknown reason–unknown to me, at least–allows me to fall asleep in what I believe to be a safe environment.

While many people experience fear, Thurman connects it specifically to the experiences of the disinherited and the oppressed. People who are powerless to defend themselves against violence, especially violence that is approved or sanctioned by authority figures, understandably live in a state of heightened fear, or at least vigilance.

Thurman asks in each chapter, almost as a reminder to the reader,

Is there any help to be found for the disinherited in the religion of Jesus?

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 47.

What does Jesus–what does Christianity–mean to the individual or community who is fearful of violence and authority? Not because they are criminals, not because they have done anything wrong, but because by virtue of who they are, they know that they will not be protected by the system (Thurman, 45).

Actually, what does Christianity mean to the family of Breonna Taylor?

There are many cases in which unarmed African-Americans were killed by police officers and did not receive justice. Breonna Taylor’s is one of those cases. In Louisville, Kentucky, during an alleged drug raid by plainclothes police officers late at night more than one hundred days ago, Breonna was shot in her sleep. She bled out until she died. Breonna was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), an essential worker, and despite the lifesaving work she was doing for others, she had no one to protect her. Since her death, several protesters have been arrested, but the police officers who killed her–Jon Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, Brett Hankison, and Joshua Jaynes–have not been arrested or charged in her murder.

Breonna Taylor’s murder came at a time when the country was–finally–collectively reeling with rage because the camera footage of the murder of George Floyd brought to light what many African-Americans have known for a long time: that a police officer can feel confident and brazen enough to kill a person of African descent in public without consequence.

Is there any help to be found for people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the way American Christianity is currently set up?

It is important that I distinguish between my use of the term “Christianity” and my use of the term “Jesus,” because it would be inaccurate to, as Thurman does, describe Christianity as “the religion of Jesus”. Christianity is the product of several centuries of interpretations of scripture; councils and summits at which a select group of individuals met to determine which books of the Bible were legitimate and which were not; creeds and confessions of faith that come out of specific historical and cultural milieus.

Even today, Christianity means different things to different Christians. I once had an acquaintance in seminary who would take care to distinguish the “true Christians” from everyone else who called themselves Christians. Her definition was more than just a simple interpretation of the Gospel; it applied to the boundary between progressive and conservative Christians. In her eyes, progressive Christianity as we see it today is a false version of Christianity, while a more conservative version that holds to biblical values is the “truth”, except, of course, those who don’t believe in female preachers, despite that clearly being a “biblical value.”

Because of this, I would prefer to ask what Christianity has to offer to the oppressed. If I phrase it that way, it is much easier to see its shortcomings, whereas “the religion of Jesus” evokes an ideal image, a WWJD “What Would Jesus Do” utopia.

Thurman writes:

There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.

Thurman, 39.

When an individual knows that no matter where they go or what they do, they will not be protected from any potential or imminent danger, fear must haunt them at every turn. Cloaked in a shroud of fear, they develop a hermeneutic in which Jesus is a protector, someone who is purely good, someone whom they can trust.

Thurman recounts a discussion he had with his mother when she took him outside their home to see Halley’s Comet. When he asked his mother what would happen if the comet fell to earth, she answered him,

Nothing will happen to us, Howard; God will take care of us.

Thurman, 57.

Thurman’s mother’s hermeneutic is based on a deep faith in the goodness of God. 

People like Thurman, Taylor, Floyd, and all people who are part of disenfranchised and disinherited communities must rely on Christianity as representative of a God and a Savior who cares for them. Who do they say Jesus is? A God and a Savior who is ever present in times of trouble. One who counsels them not to be fearful, but to take courage, trusting that God will always be with them (Joshua 1:9).

People who are fearful need to know that they have a Savior who is not only present and protective, but who is also opposed to the threats that they face. Fortunately, the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible are replete with examples in which God expresses disdain, even disgust, for injustice and the victimization of people who are unable to defend themselves. 

If the Psalms are the questions, I believe the prophetic writings are the answers. In the Psalms, David, Asaph, and others cry out to God about God’s apparent invisibility and disregard for the plight of God’s people:

Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.

Psalm 10:1-2, New International Version

Yet, God would answer:

Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”?

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31, New International Version

This is only one example of many, but I believe that as long as we know that God is with us, and that God renews our strength so that we may persist through not just spiritual trials, but also the difficulties and injustices of life, we need not fear. Thurman writes that as long as we understand that we are children of God, we can carry ourselves without fear, but with confidence in our identity (54).

I hope that we are able to work through our own fears by trusting in God’s presence and goodness. I hope that we are able to reclaim and be assured of our dignity as children of God regardless of how we may be represented by the authorities.

I haven’t done this in a while, but, true to my nature, I suddenly have a song to share:

“Stand In Your Love” by Josh Baldwin

BONUS:

“No Longer Slaves” by Jonathan and Melissa Helser

I. “Who Do You Say I Am?” Hermeneutics and Christian Social Activism

I kid you not when I say this will be the title of my dissertation (or, maybe just the theme).

This post is my first in a series in which I attempt to connect the theologian Howard Thurman to the concept of hermeneutics.

Chapter One of Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited concerns this very topic, “Jesus: An Interpretation.” How we interpret who Jesus is and what He stands for affects how we believe we should engage with the world as Christians.

I open this post with Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:13-17:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Matt. 16:13-17, NRSV

Who do we say that Jesus is?

I believe that this question is not only the foundation of the sermons that we hear (or preach) and the ways that we worship (including hymnody, liturgy, and even the language that we use), but it also deeply influences how we live our lives; specifically, how we interact with other people, how we interpret other people, and how we engage with our societies and communities.

The different between liberal and conservative Christians is based on a fundamental difference in the answer to that question. Even Simon Peter’s (or Peter’s) statement that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” is interpreted differently. (In other translations, Peter says that Jesus is the “Christ”).

First, a word study. On the most basic level, the word Messiah comes from a Hebrew word called Mashiach. This word means “anointed” or “consecrated” (Strong’s Concordance, 4899). Although this word was used generally to refer to those who were anointed, such as kings and priests, beginning in the New Testament, it came to be specifically associated with Jesus.

The alternative word, “Christ,” comes from a Greek word called “Christos”. This word also means “anointed” (Strong’s, 5547).

We have two different words used for the same individual. The word Messiah comes from Hebrew-speaking Judaic culture, and the word Christ comes from the Hellenic/Greek culture.

In addition, Jesus’s actual name, a common Hebrew name “Yeshua,” comes from the Hebrew root formed from the letters yod, shin, and ayin, which would be the equivalent of y, a “sh” sound, and the vowel sound “ah” (though, technically, the ayin is a consonant that can take on the sound of any added vowel, which I will not discuss in detail here).

I mention the root of Jesus’s name (yasha: to deliver) because it is similar to the sound of the word “Mashiach.” Yeshua, and its Greek counterpart, Iesous, means “salvation”, or “deliverance.”

On the most basic level, we can say Jesus is the Son of the living God, who is an anointed deliverer, or an anointed savior. (Except most traditions would probably capitalize the words “Deliverer” and “Savior,” because Jesus shares in the Divine nature of the ‘Father’).


So, who do we say Jesus is? The answer comes down to our idea of what the Messiah is meant to do, what salvation looks like.

Howard Thurman is part of a theological camp that believes that salvation includes delivering people from their current lived conditions, especially if they are poor, marginalized, or victimized for reasons that are outside of their control: those with their “backs against the wall.”

There is another theological camp that would argue that salvation primarily consists of delivering people from sin so that they can live a holy life and go to heaven. (Though, technically, we don’t go to heaven; heaven comes to us.) The evidence of salvation is a “changed” life in which we don’t engage in sinful behaviors anymore.

The problem with this view, although it is the most widely accepted and “orthodox” view, is that it only focuses on a portion of sin: personal sins vs. corporate sin. Personal sin consists of those sins which we commit as individuals, while corporate sins are committed by a group of people.

I think the only time many Christians think of corporate sin as a sin is when their pastors preach on Sodom and Gomorrah….

This misconstrued view of sin results in a misconstrued view of salvation. So it becomes okay to say that Jesus comes to save us from behaviors and attitudes such as lying, jealousy, rage, and rebellion, but the outcomes of economic and social inequality are not for a savior to fix, but for the underprivileged to “pick themselves up by the bootstraps” and attempt to solve their own problems.

What does this have to say to the children of God who are backed up against a wall? Especially when their social position is no fault of their own?

Thurman writes,

“To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail.”

Thurman, 11

Is it any wonder, then, that Christianity has lost whatever social influence it may have had?

Those who deliver sermons are tasked with speaking God-given messages. Preaching or otherwise communicating a Gospel that emphasizes a transcendent, spiritual, “deny yourself” or “don’t sin” approach while neglecting to address the injustice that is reflected in generational poverty, segregated neighborhoods, and public education systems tied to property taxes, is an act that communicates to a congregation that God is more concerned about our perfection and cleanliness than our ability to live long enough and well enough to do God’s will.

At Bethany, when Jesus was anointed by an unnamed woman, some who were present complained that the ointment she used was wasted on Jesus when it could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus responded:

…”Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.

For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Mark 14:6-7, NRSV

Jesus spoke these words before his death. At that time, no one knew that he would be resurrected after his death, or even that he would send his own Spirit to be with us after he ascended to heaven. However, now we can say that Jesus is with us. If the Spirit of God is in this world, Jesus is with us.

Therefore, if Jesus is with us, we now have the time to show kindness to the poor. In fact, it is Jesus himself who gives us the desire and ability to do so.

I don’t believe the poor are suddenly going to miraculously go away. I don’t believe that injustice is going to miraculously go away. I do believe that it is our responsibility to faithfully continue to remedy that through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Just because we always have the poor with us, it does not mean that we should find excuses for society to stay that way. And I believe that the duty falls upon all of us to contribute to this work. This means not just missionaries and churches and charity organizations, but also legislators and political representatives. Those who have the power to help should do so.

When I was in college, I was part of an organization that existed to produce Christian leaders in America. They would say things like, “America’s leaders should be shaped by Christian values.”

However, Christian values are as diverse as the members of that organization. They don’t only include the preservation of life from the womb and traditional family units, but they also ensure that once born, the child can thrive, no matter what type of household they are born into. They ensure that health insurance and other benefits are not limited to those who have the privilege of being legally married. They ensure that generations of poverty and the inability to acquire wealth are remedied by equal access to affordable higher education and employment opportunities.

Our answer to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say I am?” is reflected in our engagement with these issues.

Last scripture:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34-36, 40

I am glad that I attend a church where our leadership encourages us to love others as Jesus does and to stand up for people who either cannot stand up for themselves or are ignored and spoken over when they do. I am also glad that I live in a country that has the resources to solve many of the above issues. I only wish their budgetary allocation was in line with what their values allegedly are.

Imagine if instead of it being the church’s responsibility to do charity and food drives, laws were passed that made sure that every household had access to enough income to be able to ensure that each member could eat well, have a roof over their heads, electricity and running water, clean clothes, and maybe even cable? Imagine if insurance companies couldn’t overcharge on premiums or doctors couldn’t charge exorbitant prices for potentially life-saving procedures like MRIs, CAT scans, and surgeries? Imagine if, more than just visiting people in prison, we made it possible for them to live fulfilling lives when they got out and solved the issue that made them go to prison in the first place?

What a wonderful world it would be!

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Introduction: Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” and the Subjective Nature of the Human Hermeneutic

Hello dear ones

Dear friends

Hi again,

(One day I will come up with an appropriate greeting for potential readers. Alas, today is not that day.)

I must have been out of school for far too long, because I have assigned myself a book report…


As an academic person, my research interest has always been Hermeneutics–the interpretation of the Bible–and how it influences the everyday manifestations of the Christian faith in life and worship. (I.e. the connection between Hermeneutics, Practical Theology, and Social Behavior).

I am going to begin a series on a book called “Jesus and the Disinherited,” written by an African-American theologian named Howard Thurman. In this book, Thurman seeks to answer the question, “What benefit does Christianity offer to people who are oppressed?” In his words? How does Christianity help people who have their “backs against the wall” (Thurman, 11)? How does the message of Christianity resonate with people who are poor or who experience discrimination?

When I was in seminary, many of the books I studied were by White men like Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. These men wrote eloquently, persuasively, and one might argue, “truthfully,” about the nature of God. They addressed concepts such as pneumatology (the person and work of the Holy Spirit), and soteriology (the work of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection). I learned that there were multiple theories of what Jesus was meant to accomplish. Was He a blood sacrifice meant to atone for our sins? Was He the substitute, killed and punished in our place? Or was He the recipient of God’s wrath against sin, which again, should have been unleashed upon us?

These are all important questions, and they are the reason I loved seminary so much. If my degree program allowed me to have majors or concentrations, they would have been Systematic Theology and Practical Theology, specifically Worship and Liturgy. I enjoy wrestling with these questions.

However, the issue with these concerns is that they are primarily lofty and transcendent, aloof from the everyday concerns of the average person. The individual whom Thurman depicts as having their “back against the wall” is less concerned with the very specific task, whether atonement or substitution, accomplished by Jesus, and more concerned with what God has to say about their inability to feed their children, the discrimination they experience, or the fact that they are one paycheck away from homelessness.

The truth is that the gentlemen I named above are situated in a very specific position of privilege that allows them to spend their time asking these abstract theological questions. Over time, these questions and those asked generations before them have become a theological standard, resulting in the application of creeds and statements of faith, which in some cases do determine whether one is an adherent of the “true” faith.

We now have the divisions of “High”, “Middle”, and “Low” Christologies, which skew quite clearly against these people who have their “backs against the wall.” For the higher the Christology, the more it attests to Jesus’s salvation as a lofty spiritual event worthy of divine intercession, while the lower the Christology, the more “earthly” it is; the closer it is to the human experience. Thus, people like Howard Thurman or Gustavo Gutierrez would be cast under the light of theological suspicion, whereas a Timothy Keller or John Piper would pass with flying colors.

In some cases, I consider myself a moderate. I believe it is most likely that each group has 50% of the message. The transcendent nature of God and the immanent nature of God need to be married in a way that shows that even though God is divine, heavenly, holy, and mysterious, God also deeply cares about our suffering and is not just with us in a type of spiritual sympathy. As someone who came to earth enfleshed in Jesus Christ, as a social minority (a poor Jew within the Roman social majority), how can God not have answers to the questions of the oppressed?


Next up:

“Who do you say I am?” – Matthew 16:15

My theory is that an individual’s response to this question varies depending on how they have seen–or how they believe they have seen–Jesus intervene in their life.

Also, what does the apostle Paul have in common with what the mainstream media calls the “White Evangelical”?

Christ, Class, and Coffee is now H. Rebekah Keazer, M.Div

What’s up? So long, no write!

I decided to change this blog’s settings so that the content automatically posts to my professional/theological Facebook page, which I normally wouldn’t post about, except it will result in a significant departure from the content I usually post.

My hope has always been to write more in-depth theological posts, less like devotions and more like serious answers/responses to real-life questions.

So from now on, this will be a page that grapples with the question of the Gospel’s response to issues and phenomena such as feminism, racial justice, and theodicy (i.e. why bad things happen to good people, which we’ll probably never have an exact answer to, but it doesn’t mean I can’t theorise about it).

I am trained as a sociologist and my interests lie at the intersection of sociology, history, and theology. Hopefully, as I explore my true interests and connect them to the Gospel, I will have more regular content, because I’ll have more ideas and inspiration.

I’m excited about the new direction this blog is about to take.

A Litany for COVID-19

Hi everyone!

I wanted to share a prayer for everyone affected by Coronavirus COVID-19, which is pretty much everyone. Whether we or someone we know has contracted the virus, or our schools and workplaces are closed, this situation probably touches us in some way.

A Litany for the Coronavirus COVID-19

For hope in the midst of despair, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For calm within the storm, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the healing of those who are ill, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the wisdom to balance compassion with social distancing, and to understand that social distancing is also a form of compassion, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the safety of health care workers, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the protection and preservation of the vulnerable and immunocompromised, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those in need of company and fellowship, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the poor, homeless, abused, and all with nowhere to go, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For leaders of governments, workplaces, schools, churches, and other organisations, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For international students who can’t return home and children for whom school lunch is their only guaranteed meal, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the Church to be our Churchiest best to all in need, in as many creative ways as we may need, Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

60 Minute Scripture Reflections #1: The Proclamation of John the Baptist

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God:

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,”’ John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” (Mark 1:1-8, New Revised Standard Version)

Basic points:

  1. The “good news” is another way to describe the Gospel. It is easier (I think) to explain that the Gospel is good news.
  2. Baptism is “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance means to turn away (Hebrew word teshuvah) and not do something again. “For” implies causation. This means that anyone who is baptized with a heart of repentance will have their sins forgiven.
  3. There are two types of baptisms: water and the Holy Spirit. Water Baptism is that which results in the forgiveness of sins. Holy Spirit baptism isn’t explained in this passage.

Questions/What I Think:

The “good news” mentioned in this passage seems to refer to the coming of Jesus. John the Baptist is preparing people to be ready for when Jesus comes. In order to be ready, the people must be baptized with a pure heart of repentance, which means that something that John says must have convicted them in their spirits, for everyone in Jerusalem and the Judean countryside were going to be baptized. Based on my understanding of Christian theology, the Holy Spirit does the work of convicting individuals (which is not in the external sense of being convicted of a crime, but in the internal sense of having a dissatisfaction or sorrow with oneself). However, the Holy Spirit doesn’t appear on the scene until Jesus begins to be tempted by the devil. So my question #1 is about motivation: How were people convinced? Are there any details left out in the passage for why the people were convicted of their need for repentance? 

June 18-19, 2016: My trip to Israel and a taste of Tel Aviv

This summer, one of my greatest wishes was granted. I was blessed with the opportunity to visit Israel with a Pro-Israel/Jewish Christian organization catered to student leaders. The organization is called Passages and the trip was sponsored by Philos and the Museum of the Bible. Traveling was a little stressful because my family and I arrived at JFK airport much earlier than everyone else and we had a large stretch of time with nothing to do. Fortunately, I was able to get a cup of coffee and keep in touch with the group via Facebook–thank Heaven for free airport WiFi!

Despite the fact that I had never traveled alone before, I was not nervous going through customs and being interviewed by myself. Fortunately, El Al staff were very friendly and professional. I felt very safe and comfortable under their charge. I was also comforted by the presence of one of my friends from Princeton.

The day had barely begun and I was still seated in gate B31 when one of the students was already speaking prophetic words over us. This was while we were waiting for our baggage to be checked a second time. I’m really glad that even though Israel and El Al have heightened security, I wasn’t scared, nervous, or stressed. The only thing that was disappointing was that when I got my suitcase back from Ben Gurion/El Al baggage claim, the little padlock was missing. That’s not their fault. I just left it open for security reasons.

After arriving at the airport at approximately 5:30, my plane finally took off at 11:30, headed for Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Israel. I spent the majority of the flight sleeping, mostly because I was tired, and partly because I was afraid to eat anything on the plane. I wasn’t sure if I would become nauseated, even though the food was certified Kosher. I kept myself entertained when I was awake by reading the Hebrew names of the states and countries we passed. The Hebrew names for places are exactly the same as their English names. Fortunately, I know enough phonics to be able to notice that.

Once we had arrived, we felt the effects of the time zone change. Plane takeoff was at 11:30pm US time. 9 hours and 50 minutes later, we would have landed at 9:20 am. However, in Israel, the time is 7 hours ahead. Therefore, the time ended up being 5:20pm. It felt as if I had been flying for an entire day. When we finally arrived in Israel, customs was a breeze. After meeting our tour guide, driver, and security, we boarded the bus and went to an incredible Middle Eastern restaurant called The Old Man and The Sea. The food literally just kept coming, course after course, until we could eat no more. And then it still just kept on coming. The waiters were also awesome, holding competitions to see who could balance the most dishes when removing them from the table.

Tomorrow we go to the holy sites in Jaffa.