My Book Agent

A Literary Agency Getting Authors Published Well

Woodyard, David

Liberating Privilege: The Breakthrough of God and the Persistence of Normality

1. The book raises the question, “Can a straight, white, male make a contribution to liberation theology?” Its methodology is to begin in the condition of oppression and multiply forms of marginalization. The location of straight, white, males typically is one of privilege – in multiple ways. And we have presumed to contribute to liberation theology. Does the agenda of writing theology from the context of “what hurts” disqualify those who are not victims?

I am not aware that this is being addressed; perhaps an affirmative answer has been assumed. For nine books I have assumed but not argued the affirmation. In this document I hit the issue directly and in relation to multiple contexts. Using some explicit biblical material, I argue that Scripture does not preclude the possibility that the privileged can get it right. Pharaoh’s daughter, the Centurion at the cross, and Miriam are instances of “getting it” in a privileged location.

While a number of persons are in a position to develop this thesis, to my knowledge they haven’t in any explicit way. I’m not uniquely qualified but I am a willing partisan!

Timing is an interesting issue. I and others should have done it decades ago. But, we didn’t. It is late in the day but not too late.

I imagine that the market for this book, audience, would primarily be faculty who teach courses like I do – “Introduction to Theology” and “The Reality of God”. We read Black theology, feminist theology, and gay lesbian bi-sexual theology among others. The class tends to be “none of the above”. This manuscript would be an excellent “fit” for courses like that. Of course, this presupposes an academic readership of straight, white, males! There could be a readership among progressive clergy, even congregations.

2. The Introduction, Six Chapters, and Postscript are as follows:

The Search for a Center and a Location

Chapter One
Does God Not Communicate With Us Also?

Chapter Two
Straight, White, Males and Heteronormality

Chapter Three
Economic Privilege, Complicity, and Liberation

Chapter Four
Piety, Privilege, and Power

Chapter Five
Demonic Privilege and Divine Accountability

Chapter Six
When the Sacred Canopy Folds

The Relinquishment of Privilege

Clearly this journey begins with an introduction to the issue. What follows are six chapters which explore the issue and possible resolutions in the biblical tradition, along with addressing very specific issues from the economy to patriotism, to false “sacred” canopys. And each works toward the claim theology can be written by those not hurting at the moment.

3. While the entire manuscript is available, a chapter that might introduce the level of discourse is “Piety, Privilege and Power”.

As some face the altar in a sanctuary they may be distressed that the American flag is prominently positioned on one side, and another flag with religious symbols on the other, apparently verifying the one on the opposite side of the altar. The triangulation of flags and altar appears to them as a hint that ultimacy is evenly distributed. Other worshipers may hold fast to the creed, “This nation under God”, and be confident a Transcendent dimension is secured appropriately. No authorization intended. Confidence prevails in one and distress in the other; patriotism and piety protrude and for some call for differentiation. And privilege is lurking behind it. Many may be comfortable singing “God Bless America” in church while others remember the blending of the swastika and the cross in another era. The worry is that God becomes domesticated. A lively conversation on the flag may be worth having but a movement for its withdrawal could be unproductive at best.
At issue, of course, is not the flag; location is. Interestingly some are not so sure. One form of dispute has emerged in our Capitol. An amendment to the Constitution has been crafted which speaks to the “physical desecration of the flag” and one of its proponents suggests “alone of all flags, it has the sanctity of revelation”. But another Congress person protests “our flag, while revered, is a secular symbol and thus should not be worshipped” (Robert Jewett, Mission and Menace, pp. 283-284). The flag is for saluting, period. Nothing sacred is entailed. There is always, or potentially, power in symbols and what they designate should be under consideration. The concern is that piety will become a subset of patriotism. Over time traditional straight, white, males have been proficient at that! And privilege aspires to sacred authorization.
It might be more fruitful to explore the concerns in a framework less contentious. In the measure one wants to sort out the issues central to patriotism and piety, a set of contemporary narratives might be explored: what is the difference between the ways in which they are blended in the rhetoric of Martin Luther King and the ways in which they were in the events surrounding 9/11? In both, piety and patriotism are in contention or collusion. Their interface is prominent and convincing to some – and not others. Each set of narratives provides considerable allegiance and prophetic disposition. In at least some discourse, neither one is menaced by humility! Piety is prominent in a political (patriotic) agenda. Privilege is prominent in both.
Martin Luther King Jr. was, of course, a preacher and his involving of religious language is predictable; the political implications of it less so perhaps. The most obvious and compelling rhetoric of King drew confident connections between the deliverance of the Israelites and the civil rights movement. He notes that both the oppressed Israelites and the oppressed Black community were enabled to envision a “Promised Land” and be confident God would “be ahead of them in the clouds” and there was an indisputable overlap. Along the way he counseled protestors to have their activities be carried out “with dignity and Christian love”. The non-violence he inherited from Gandhi he was confident was authorized by the New Testament. At the conclusion of the bus boycott against discrimination he equated “reconciliation” with “redemption”. And at the Washington movement his “I have a dream” speech was infused with biblical illusions. He anticipated he might not make it “to the Promised Land” but affirmed that this journey for justice would be assured by the God of justice. In every sense his piety underwrote a political agenda. And the flag was prominent as well, if only for security.
Certainly the events of 9/11 could yield a purely secular agenda. While there may be an element of that in the narrative crafted by President George W. Bush, the fusion of piety and patriotism prevailed in his role as “preacher–in–chief”. He personified the historic contributions of straight, white, males. Often as not the shock of 9/11 hovers around the reality we were invaded in a sense for the first time in history. Our wars and our global struggles were transactions on the real estate of others. But the more relevant issue might be the sense in which America had assumed some sacred overtones. It was allegedly on the ship coming over that Governor Winthrop invoked “the city on a hill” image and the trail as this often translated into indications of being a “chosen people” undergirded by Transcendent attachments. Some would see both images as thefts from the biblical tradition.
It is possible but somewhat difficult to separate the event of 9/11 from the rhetoric in which President Bush framed them. President Bush under the tutelage of Billy Graham had a profound sense of God’s direction in his personal life which he frequently transposed into a national agenda. He repeatedly affirmed “How good we are” and that an “axis of evil” was at large in the opposition. He was not hesitant to claim the existence of “a wonder working power” active in our national life. And he was bold to claim “we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom…” In one of his more ubiquitous affirmations he declared “God wanted me to bomb Iraq”. In robust rhetoric and with a confidant narrative, President Bush stepped forward to establish a fusion between the God of the Bible and American foreign policy.
Both King and Bush unambiguously blend their agendas with a version of the biblical faith. Both claim a breakthrough of God. Is there any difference between the two? In a sense, both build bridges between events at hand and those of the biblical era. Rightly so; a God of history is not locked in the past or framed in the heavens. But, can one claim legitimate mirroring in both proclamations? Are there “prisms that refract the history and cultural norms of early Israel for a twenty-first century audience” (Hugh R.Page Jr., Israel’s Poetry of Resistance, p. IX)? When Bush and King are moving between “this and that” are the bridges touching comparable realities? Are the transactions comparable? Is the Spirit energizing resistance or is a self-interested agenda protruding?
It is certainly clear, as we have argued previously, that the Scriptural events are driven from below, from those marginalized and bereft of clear options. Whether it is the Israelites or events centering on Jesus and those who followed him, the reality of oppression predominates. And God is, as James Cone argues, the God of the oppressed who suffers with them and toward a new future. The Scriptures are not about the privileged, except in so far as they are on the wrong side of history. And they are not alone. This suggests that the bridge King provides is between “a then and a now” with striking resemblances. The only privilege is the God who sides with them. One need not critique the personal religiosity of President Bush to examine his 9/11 rhetoric. “It is what it is” and it need not provoke dismissal. But the transition from personal to public piety is another move that begs for examination. While it is likely that America was victimized, clearly the persons and structures on this scene were. One need not dispute that God has an agenda for America to envision similarities between the Israelites and the tragic events of 9/11 inappropriate at best and disingenuous at worst. What exists on either side of the bridge bears no resemblance to each other. The most powerful nation in the world clearly experiences tragic circumstances but oppression and marginalization were not among them. We were still “the land of the free and the home of the brave”, at least with tarnished self-image. And the “God of our Fathers”, political fathers, bore slight resemblances to the One whom Jesus called Father. That Parent put privilege at risk.
Whether or not one is distressed by the flag alongside the altar, using religion to sustain our patriotism is beyond defense. And in the measure piety is at the service of that to which the flag points, the faith tradition has been compromised and polluted. C. Eric Lincoln labeled it “Americanity.”
That piety and patriotism are intuitively linked to power may not initially evoke recognition. Aggressive debates likely would not center on the premise both are necessary, even inevitable. But controversy arises around the degree to which one or the other or both are benign and innocent. However, less than radically unmasking should reveal that power resides in the sacred and the political in bold ways. The love of country and the love of God are instances of power for those who profess them. Whether they are perceived or collateral realities, mired in tensions, or one collapsed into the other any challenging by true believers provokes elevated blood pressure.
To submit the issues to deeper analysis might not lead to an evaluation of events leading up to the decision for crucifixion. But the drama of Jesus and Pilate is worthy of analysis, perhaps even introspection. An entrenched tradition has a power structure hierarchical in nature. Pilate has Jesus under surveillance and presumptively at his discretion. The best spin would seem to designate the encounter as the power resident in Pilate and the truth embodied in Jesus. Clearly Pilate has “a network of influence and leverage” (Brueggemann, Truth Speaks to Power, p. 2). And typically, Pilate seeks “out versions of truth that are compatible with present power arrangements” (p. 4). Curiously, Pilate attempted to pre-empt the exercise of power; “I find no crime in him” (John 18:38). And he held out an alternative; the crowd did not prefer Barabbas, a robber (John18:4). Pilate then reposed his jurisdiction and he “took Jesus and scourged him”: he imposed a crown of thorns and the symbolic purple robe. Once more Pilate attempted to “opt out” and lay it out to the crowd with the instruction “take him yourselves and crucify him” (19:6). They were ready even as Pilate was reluctant. At best, he was a victim of location.
At that point Pilate re-engages Jesus who gave no answer to a relatively benign question. “Do you not know I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Then Jesus submits his claim: “You would have no power over me unless it is given from above….” (John 19:11). At that point the drama gets inverted. As Paul Lehmann asserts, now it is Pilate before Jesus! (The Transfiguration of Politics, pp. 48-70). The agent of the state is suddenly at risk. Power itself is called into question and the silence of Jesus and his later retorte submit “validation”. Lehmann goes on to clarify: “the point and purpose of the presence of Jesus in the world, and now before Pilate, are to bear witness to the truth, that is, to make effective room for the reality of God over against the world….” (p. 53). And Lehmann notes, the “calm and confident Jesus”….. (trumps) an uneasy and tormented Pilate” (p. 59). The power of the state and the power of God are joined. Ironically the silence of Jesus uncorks the jurisdiction of Pilate. “The silence of Jesus is the sign that the end is the beginning of a new humanizing order of affairs” (p 66). By any measure, Jesus is unpatriotic; the piety of “time and space” for God unmasks power and renders it harmless. Jesus preempts differences and invokes God. Brueggemann notes that the narrative echoes the Exodus, certainly in a community of memory (p. 12). Jews at the time could not have heard it otherwise. It was a defining moment with prophetic validation prominent. The breakthrough of God is embodied.
And that word calls for a reconfiguration of power in its manifestation as powerlessness! Think of the event allegedly at the inception of Jesus’ ministry. When Solomon conceived of and executed the building of the temple in Jerusalem it was an unambiguous assertion that God has been captured for political advantage. It kept God in “his” place, authorizing the regime of the King. What could be more audacious and presumptuous than for an unknown Jew to stand up and read from the book of Isaiah: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18) Those are prerogatives appropriate to a king. Is he delusional? Or is the power of weakness forthcoming? Lehmann again alleges that “the power of weakness, when borne by a messianic presence, is the disclosure in weakness of a strength that turns, as it were, the flank of strength that has been unmasked as weakness” (p. 33). And that makes a world of differences without worldly power! It seems a new beginning and the end of worldly power and a “counter imagination” is released in the world. And it is a strange new world in which Pilate and the state are at the mercy of Jesus and the faith community. In the end it is the Easter narrative that triggers the vulnerability of the powerful. Piety subverts patriotism in the unmasking of power. In Pilate before Jesus power is unmasked and neutered, and the final validation is an empty tomb. While Pilate can orchestrate execution he cannot thwart the weakness that overwhelms it. The power to refuse power in silence is vindicated, leaving Pilate no place to go for vindication. In thwarting the authority of Pilate, patriotism has yielded to piety. And power has become limp! Piety on the cross subverts privilege and signals an impending breakthrough.
While one maybe conversant with the claims of American exceptionalism, a religious framework is not necessary or inevitable. Patriotism may prevail without concurrent piety. In an era marked by secularism, a severance is apt to prevail or at least be preferred.
Exceptionalism can be understood as a communal act of self-authorization and appraisal. One scholar writes of a “missionary persuasion” with a new insistence that American be admired, almost worshipped (Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, p. XII). While the rest of the world may have a deficit of confidence, arrogance elevates the nation into a hubristic existence that eventually takes the form of invulnerability. Its capacity for self-congratulation places the nation beyond the contours of nationalism. Certainly the founding fathers had a hand in the formation of a Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. While not entirely original, they were gifted with a disposition to identify the nation with the highest ideals and structures in history. It was a version of liberation, albeit a delusional one.
Confirmation of that exceptionalism was enhanced by “the disintegration of communism” first evident in the collapse of the Berlin wall, and in the emergence of the lone superpower status confirming that none were like us. And the duplicitous feature is a sense of uncontested eminence. “Only partly in jest, President George W. Bush saw himself as the world’s sheriff” (p. 28). And any estimate of a sheriff is marked by a curious mix of power and perversity. While espousing the mobility of democracy, “It replaced the divine right, and hereditary right, and customary legitimacy with this supreme authority of the people” (p. 36). One has only to reflect on the era of the cold war to find evidence of unmatched superiority. The world’s geography was transformed and the “military-industrial complex” were sufficient to establish victory, power, and prominence in world affairs. Plenty and power coalesced to reassure ones prominence in global affairs. Privilege reigns! That it would find expression in foreign policy was a given and a gift to world order.
A former Secretary of State referred to America as “the indispensable nation” (Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty, pp. 31-32). As such it has a responsibility for world governance. Apparently one does not have to think like a straight, white, male! But the exercise of power is not a function of strength alone but its innocence and purity. As such it is totally appropriate to position oneself as a model for others, and if need be execute it. Exceptionalism has a passport to privilege. While this mentality may currently be particularly intense, it has an origin often alluded to by Presidents like Reagan, Johnson, and Bush. They reference a sermon by John Winthrop on the journey to a new land: “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” (quoted in Cherry, God’s New Israel, pp. 42-43). The trail of that leads to further biblical lineages: we are “God’s chosen people”, and “the new Israel”. As such we are on a mission, a global one free of boundaries. The interests of all are served by the grandeur of our reality, graciously shared (or imposed!). One administrator in particular conceived of the Iraq war as evidence of global benevolence (Woodyard, The Church in the Time of Empire, pp. 14-17).
But then there was 9/11! Exceptionalism experienced a face lift, or perhaps a tummy tuck. Vulnerability was in evidence, an essentially new experience for Americans. The presumption prevailed that the land was secure, beyond the reach of alien forces. The closest threat was Pearl Harbor and that seemed more on ships than space. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote prophetically that the “false security to which all men are tempted is the security of power” (Beyond Tragedy, p. 98). The pillars of a righteous and mighty society were rendered insufficient against the intentions of a few “traitors”. As the sole superpower surely no nation would dare. But a hand full of individuals did and the myth of a sacred space was torpedoed. Power no longer assured invulnerability after 9/11. The damage to the national psyche was astronomical. In a sense the American soul was terrorized at the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and presumptively the Capitol itself. President Bush reading a children’s story in Texas and Vice President Cheney in the basement of the White House were not able to restore the illusion of exceptionalism. Some wounds are not subject to erasure.
President Bush with his arms around a firefighter and a megaphone to amplify his considerable voice could not resurrect exceptionalism. For once power was helpless and authority was problematic. Movements to grieve and then move on could not heal the wounds to exceptionalism and the confidence in power and the illusion of innocence. For the moment at least it had suffered a mortal blow and resurrection seemed unlikely. Those with a religious spin tried. Some scholars with reputations for judicious engagement were blunt in the assault on claims of innocent victimization. The efforts to repair or restore the American soul were dismissed with the claim “the official account of 9/11 is false and this false account has been used to support this farther extension of the American Empire” (Griffin & Scott Eds., 9/11 and American Empire, p. VIII). Duplicitous portrayals were devastated and then dismissed by allegations of “conspiring theorists”. Without engaging the debate, one can name efforts to purify the sacrifice. Judicious author and journalist, Anna Quindlen exonerated a mediation on 9/11 by Eugene Kennedy. Likely he was on the mark with the assertion, “the headlines in that Tuesday’s morning papers are the last pictures we have of a world unaware it would never be the same again” (9/11 Meditations at the Center of the World, p. 5). But then the rhetoric shifts: “we embrace the city where God is surely present to us in the smoking ruins from whose sight we can fashion no distraction” (p. 29). Sacred space has been violated. But perhaps the claims of exceptionalism are mixed with ashes. Piety can hardly resurrect the politics and patriotism.
While the setting of exceptionalism has largely been secured in the secular framework, it is not likely to rest there. The reality, as has been suggested previously, is that a sacred dimension of exceptionalism readily gains prominence. This is most common when the nation has a President with a vivid religious experience. As noted earlier, President Bush has been identified by some as “preacher–in-chief”. The swiftest evidence of that is the claim “God wanted me to bomb Iraq” and similar sacralization of a national agenda. While this may have peaked in the Bush presidency, it is not uniquely situated there. One can call up a vivid American Civil Religion as is evident in the work of Robert Bellah. But piety can be more conspicuously sacred. Exceptionalism is reluctantly a “stand alone” phenomenon. It thirsts for ultimate authorization and legitimation. The nation under God is more likely this God under the nation. One could argue that exceptionalism and the sacred became synonymous. Just the truth mentioned earlier, The Mighty and the Almighty, would appear to situate God under the “jurisdiction of nationalism”. Piety and patriotism/political are in sink, congenial, and comfortably aligned. Privilege preservers! Up to this point, straight, white, males have been on the wrong side of history, the history God unfolds and a new world evolves.
Piety at its best can expose the demons in patriotism. Consider Jeremiah Wright. The media got it wrong. Their “unsolicited interjection” (John L. Jackson in The Obama Phenomenon p. 165) severed content from context; location and message are cohorts, even combatants. In the framework of the Black Church, a bulwark for grief and resistance, “goddamn American” had legitimate echoes, even necessary ones. In the spirit of the biblical prophets the pastor “called out” the nation in the name of justice. Historically the Black Church has been a place for sharing wounds inflicted by white supremacy: “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…..” rings true and echoes through the memory and the reality of being black in America. But it is also an agent of resistance and even revolt. Consider all the ministers surrounding the Reverend Martin Luther King, Black and White to be sure, and the defiance of honky norms. Militancy shaped by love and in the form of justice is a bulwark. While “courteous accommodation” has often shaped the public images, it cannot finally obscure “Black religion’s confrontational prophetic tradition” (p. 167). Resistance to slavery was the wound of the Black Church’s creation. In the light of that Jeremiah Wright is simply engaged in a “symbolic reversal,” is exposing the demons in patriotism. As such it is disingenuous and perverse to designate him an “agitator” (p. 197).
Consider a portion of the sermon entitled “Confusing God and Government” as a framework from which the press engaged in an excision.
Not God Bless America, God damn America. That’s in the Bible,
killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens
as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts
like she is God and she is supreme. The United States government
failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.
And “while whites sought to communicate with an essentially private African American religious audience” (p. 171) the prophetic imagination “outed” public sins violating international justice. And the Black community understood because they were of a piece with their own almost 400 years in a white society. In these words the “symbolic reversal” circled the centuries and eventually went global.
….when it comes to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent, she failed. She put them in internment camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. The government put them in chains. She put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education, and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law and then wants them to sing God Bless America….
It is worth remembering that Barack Obama did not bring any religiosity to the table when he, as a young lawyer, advocated for justice in the south side of Chicago. Initially his journey of hope for a different world preempted balanced theology with ecclesial moorings. But in time he learned of a church and a pastor whose agenda matched his own, indeed undergirded it. His spirituality was born in the streets as he found an institution with an agenda imbedded in its DNA. It is not difficult to imagine him fired by the rhetoric of Jeremiah Wright. Here was a preacher and pastor, versed generously in the theology of James Cone, who framed his agenda in transcendent terms. They were about what he was about with an authority only transcendence can critique. His was a piety in the service of patriotism uncommon in the churches and unimaginable on the streets. But it was there, even as evil was. The piety prevailed against the ways of the world. Here public discourses prevailed against forms of patriotism which preempted its origins and indeed rebuked them. The prophets of old came alive in the preaching the media prompted white America to reject. The castrates of privilege is not good “news” in a controlled media.
Initially Barack Obama got it right when he confided he could no more sever his commitment to Jeremiah Wright than disown a member of his family. Perhaps understandably as a candidate for President the baggage was more than he could handle. But you have to wonder if rejection of his pastor felt like an irreverent compromise. For the reality is that this subverts the biblical tradition evident in the prophets. The penetration of patriotism and the exposure of idolatry linked to perversity is normative. Piety has to turn to patriotism when it turns from the God of justice. Public discourse on the role of the church and its faith tradition controls the worldly formation of our justice in the sanctuary as well as the streets. The church is called to be the enemy of the state when the state is at odds with the purposes of God. Calling out the perversity of patriotism from the halls of piety is a sacred duty embodied in the biblical prophets. Consider Amos: “Let justice fall down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (Amos 6:24). And then play the words of Jeremiah Wright against the ruminations of Fox News,
We took the country by terror, away from the Sioux, the Apache,
the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapahoe, the Navajo. We bombed
Granada and killed innocent citizens…..We bombed the black Cuban
community of Panama with Stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers, toddlers, pregnant mothers and hardworking fathers…..we bombed a plant in Sudan to pay back for the attack on our embassy….we bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki. America chickens are coming home to roost.
How can one suppress the echoes of biblical prophets too long caged in sanctuaries of irrelevance and accomodatory patriotism? Jeremiah Wright facing off white supremacy in the government, the military and the media is but a reflection of Helmut Thielicke in a Tubingen church preaching for justice while the gestapo soldiers lined the sanctuary around with machine guns. Hardly a voice in the wilderness or a whisper in the streets! It is piety impregnated with a prophetic tradition which renders patriotism an honorable tradition which has been raped by self-serving national agendas.
Intuitively Jeremiah Wright knew, perhaps with a spin from James Cone, that Jesus was anything but patriotic. His piety had better things to structure with his agenda. The temple was sacred- secular territory, ruled and run by the political establishment, and Jesus had the audacity to announce its demise. And he even bordered on violence in relation to the money changers there. Any patriotic person would know there was a sacred settlement about the clean and unclean; and he had the audacity to dismiss it. It was less than cool to win over the tax collector who was an agent and emissary of the regime. Healing on the Sabbath was conspicuously unpatriotic as it was “the law of the land” and to violate it was not a sacred but a secular defilement. At every point he made common cause with the marginals and made them principles in the kingdom of God. Of course, the cross was a reward for his lack of patriotism! In more ways than one can recall Jesus effectively said “God damn the state”. Jeremiah Wright was only mimicking his savior on that day in the pulpit of the United Church of Christ. The Jesus event echoed through the sermon. And it did not serve the purposes of a candidate for President of the United States.
But the preacher and sermon do not stand alone in Black worship. Piety can carry a tune alien to the interest of patriotism. While the idiom of rap, hip hop, and spirituals are more stark and perhaps subversive, the more evidently benign gospel and blues music when decoded are offensive even threatening. Ironically, sung by color blended choirs, usually tilting to white, seem safe and even entertaining while subliminally advance the interests of liberation. Once decoded their offense to patriotism is on display and provides rhythmic support for the preacher’s message. Subversion is not inevitably signaled in blatant terms of rebellion. But what precedes that is the development of a consciousness and an identity which can resist. Then David L. Moody writes, referencing W.E.B. Du Bois, “as an interpreter of the spirituals, Du Bois conveys to his audience the importance of the Negro Spiritual in the formation of a consciousness. When confronted with dehumanizing situations, it was the spirit-filled melodies of ‘these songs’ that kept the mind and the body of the African American together” (Political Melodies in the Pews p. 10). Music had the function of giving expression to hope against despair and joy against death itself. The word of the preacher alone was not sufficient to sustain integration and identity. Singing was and is a centering activity which enables survival and expectation. “Personal agency” is sustained and empowered for African Americans through “Sorrow Songs” (p. 13) as the forces of white supremacy close in and disable. But the “coded message” might seem benign to the oppressor: “crossing over Jordan” was “a reference to escaping to the northern side of the Ohio River by means of the Underground Railroad……(it) was a network of people who hid fugitive slaves and helped them escape to freedom…” (p. 14). Piety turned political undermined patriotism. And the white slave owners, and their original acts of supremacy, never “got the message” of subversion of their interests. The spoken word of revolt was put to music in ways apparently benign. Hence the bond between God and an oppressed people was both preached Word and vibrant melody.
When Jeremiah Wright engaged in “symbolic reversal” the choir and the congregation were set on a journey of liberation. Piety gored patriotism and blood spilled inevitably. To his credit, Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope, acknowledged in reference to Wright’s claim, “I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change” (quoted in Moody p 39). One has to wonder how much of that echoed in the White House. Piety’s intervention in patriotism calls for a liberating community. “Yet to understand and appreciate fully Reverend Wright and President Obama, one must also develop a sophisticated appreciation for the complexity of black religion” (Jackson, p. 177).
The journey with piety and patriotism calls for a final test. What would be revealed if it was laid beneath the cross and concurrent events? Hovering around the crucification narrative is not a comfortable place to be: the suffering God is in full display and the orders of the world are embraced by evil. But being there may yield a voice we have not heard. One that sets privilege on edge.
The disciples were with Jesus when it was safer – in the upper room with a sacrament in the making. Even Judas was among them. The next day Jesus was alone, essentially without acts of compassion until one person embraced the burden of the cross. Even the women, typically more faithful, viewed the events from afar – or so it was reported, they “stood at a distance”. Carrying the cross is difficult enough to imagine but being on it beyond comprehension. A shiny brass or gold cross on the altar is so much more compatible with our sensitivities. Some brutal acts followed with only one gesture of compassion. Those gathered “mocked him” (Matthew 27:31). Then, “he saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matthew 27:42). All the signs were that he was finished. But of course he wasn’t; Easter morning was forthcoming. Now when it was over that day, patriotism hit the mark while piety was on the run. It was a centurion, one of the “military industrial complex,” who put it right: “Truly this was a son of God” (Luke 23:54). And others acknowledged he was innocent (Luke 23:54).
What could be more unlikely than that patriotism spoke when piety had abandoned Jesus, Odd, is it not; a soldier decoded the event and declared what piety overlooked; what might one draw from that? Perhaps the truth attested finally in Scripture does not always reside in the self-evidently faithful. God may provoke the world to express the Word! If not regularly at least in moments. And that sets us to look and listen in unlikely places for the Words God speaks outside the orbit of faith. Even the patriotic voice can speak a discerning word in events bleak for the moment. How odd of God to choose a soldier while aspiring saints were on the run! “Truly……” an agent of patriotism proclaimed the Word.
One emerging scholar powerfully concludes this narrative with the following commentary.
This soldier was the first to proclaim the consequences of Jesus’
death, but he is not the last. The story continues, for the crucified
One rose from the dead and calls each of us to attest to the efficacy
of his death through our words, our actions, and the affliction and
liberation that flow into our lives. As we heed the call, we take
our place next to a Roman centurion….. (Hieb, Christ Crucified
in a Suffering World, p 244)
“Next to a Roman centurion”? How uncomfortable would that be? Unless, of course, the centurion is the straight, white, male we are meant to be. And the breakthrough of God is on the cusp.

Albright, Madeline. The Mighty and the Almighty. (New York, Harper Perennial, 2006)

Bacevich, Andrew J. The Limits of Power. (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2008)

Brueggemann, Walter. Truth Speaks to Power. (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)

Cherry, Conrad (ed). God’s New Israel. (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1971)

Griffin, David Ray, and Scott, Peter Dale (eds). 9/11 and American Empire. (Northhampton, Olive Branch Press, 2007)

Griffin, David Ray. The Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11. (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006)

Hieb, Nathan D. Christ Crucified in a Suffering World. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2013)

Hodgson, Godfrey. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009)

Jackson, John L. in The Obama Phenomenon, Henry, Charles P., Alla, Robert L., and Christmen, Robert. (Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2009)

Jewitt, Robert. Mission and Menace. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008)

Kennedy, Eugene. 9/11 Meditations at the Center of the World. (Maryknoll, Orbis Press, 2002)
Lehmann, Paul. The Transfiguration of Politics, (New York, Harper Row, 1975)

Moody, David L. Political Melodies in the Pews. (New York, Lexington Books, 2012)

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Beyond Tragedy. (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955)

Page, Hugh R. Jr. Israel’s Poetry of Resistance. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2013)

Wright, Jeremiah. “Sermon Excerpts” in Moody, David L., Political Melodies in the Pews. (New York, Lexington Books, 2012)

Woodyard, David O. The Church in the Time of Empire. (Washington, Circle Books, 2011)

4. David O. Woodyard
Professor of Religion
Denison University
Living Without God-Before God, Westminster Press, 1968
To Be Human Now, Westminster Press, 1969
The Opaqueness of God, Westminster Press, 1970
Beyond Cynicism: The Practice of Hope, Westminster Press. 1972
Strangers and Exiles: Living By Promises, Westminster Press, 1974
Journey Toward Freedom: Economic Structures and Theological Perspectives, with Paul King, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982
Risking Liberation: Middle Class Powerlessness and Social Heroism, with Paul King and Kent Maynard, John Knox Press, 1988
Liberating Nature: Theology and Economics in the New Order, with Paul King, Pilgrim Press, 1999, Republished 2012
The Church in the Time of Empire, Circle Books (U.K.), 2011 (Nov.)

“Empire: Is American the New Rome” (Honors and Department Seminar)
“Religion in American Society” (Honors and Major/Minor Seminar)
“Individualism in U.S. Society”, team taught with an anthropologist
“The Human Condition”, team taught with an economist
“Introduction to Theology”
“The Reality of God”
“Religion and Psychology”
“Religion and Society”, team taught with an anthropologist
“Religion and Philosophy”
“Science and Human Values”, team taught
“Theology and Literature”

Board of Directors, Union Theological Seminary, New York City
President, Hospice Services of Licking County
President, Planned Parenthood of East Central Ohio
Advisory Committee, Battered Women’s Shelter
Habitat for Humanity
President, Partners United (Youth at Risk)
B.A., Denison University, Philosophy Major
M. Div., Union Theological Seminary
D.Min., Vanderbilt Divinity School, summa cum laude

Denison Alumni Chair (2009-2016)
Charles & Nancy Brickman Distinguished Service Chair (1998-2003)
Denison, Teaching Excellence Award
National Center for Study of Freshman Year, Outstanding Freshman Advocate
Crossed Keys, Teacher of the Year
Mortar Board, Faculty Service Award
Delta Gamma, Teacher of the Year
Delta Chi, Teacher of the Year

5. What happens when a Church profoundly moved by this sacred act of inclusion realizes that it cannot truly rest until all in the world are fed? What a glaring contrast to the works of empire that, by necessity, has some who must go first, some who must be last, and some who are ignored even though they are forced to go without! The Church in the time of Empire affords us the significant opportunity to begin questioning the defining dynamics of progressive Christian practices.
Gary V. Simpson, Senior Pastor
The Concord Baptist Church

The church’s greatest potential in this time of empire is to offer authentic community in a sea of individualism. The American Empire, Woodyard writes, works hard “to create a world of disconnected but obedient selves who become ready agents of its agenda” (page 94). He reminds us that, whereas empire’s power depends on creating and sustaining private selves, the American church must return to its roots to lift up the reality that Jesus knew: we belong to God and to one another. Belonging to God subverts empire’s political claim to ultimacy. Belonging to one another subverts empire’s psychological claim over identity. Woodyard tells us that, in our time, the church should be “Rome in reverse,” a community immersed in a different way of viewing life and viewing ourselves. Our life as the people of God is based on a “failed life,” on a view of life that recognizes the cross and that widens the margins and welcomes the unwelcomed.
Can the church in America do this? Woodyard leans toward some hope and possibility, but I remain skeptical. The American church seems to me to be so captured by individualism and wealth and militarism that I see little hope. I’d be glad to be wrong, though! I do hope that all of us will read Woodyard’s fine analysis of our life in empire, be inspired by his insights into how to live our lives as the people of God in the midst of empire, and thus be converted.
Nibs Stroupe, Pastor
Oakhurst Presbyterian Church

6. I wrote (nine books) and teach from a platform of commitment to the agenda the biblical tradition positions us in the world with an obligation to transform it. While the market for the book is largely theology classes, the fact that I have taught and published over four decades suggest a market of former students, some professors.

Leave a Reply