A presentation from the GTU's Panel Discussion on December 6, 2002
by Rev. Dr. James A. Noel
Associate Professor of American Religion; California/H. Eugene Farlough Chair in African American Christianity, San Francisco Theological Seminary
I am here on this panel not only as a faculty member of one of the GTU schools but also as a pastor of a Christian congregation-Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, CA where I preach each Sunday. Therefore, the topic of this panel is one that is foremost amongst my concerns as I attempt to envision my homeletical focus during, what for us is, the Advent/Christmas season.
The social location of my folks-middle-class, African American, with a tradition of Civil Rights social activism and some ideological leanings toward Black Nationalism and Afro-centricism-makes it easy to preach against the war. Any negative reference to the impending war in prayers and sermons always elicits "Amens" from the congregation. Most African Americans do not regard the Bush Administration favorably and, therefore, all of its initiatives are met with a hermeneutic of suspicion or, even, rejection in the black community.
I am congratulating neither my congregation nor myself because I recognize a very real danger in the ease with which I am able to criticize the Bush Administrations policies. In congregations such as the one I pastor because we have already provided an affirmative answer to the question of: "Should we oppose the impending war?" it is easy to leave the question of why we should oppose it insufficiently clarified. Both questions are biblical. Theological, and ethical and demand our serious reflection if we expect to answer the praxis question of what form our opposition should take.
In 1970 the Brooklyn pastor Richard John Neuhaus wrote an article that was published in The Annals of the American Academy of Social and Political Science titled "The War, the Churches, and Civil Religion." He, of course, was reflecting on the Vietnam War. The observation he made was that:
At the popular level, the relationship between religious devotion and specific social commitments has not been clarified effectively, resulting frequently in alienation of membership caused by "mixing politics with religion." Religious opposition to the war has more to do with what Robert Bellah has described as American civil religion than it does with explicitly Jewish or Christian formulations of theology and ethics. The civil religion is, in turn, dependent upon the latter. The churches and synagogues face the challenge of enabling the civil to illuminate and guide the course of American power in the Third World. The question of American power and world revolution is central to the Vietnam debate, and, although organized religion's opposition to the war has been gratifying, little progress has been made on the required reconstruction of American civil religion (p. 128).
Neuhaus noted also that most of the books, articles, papers produced by church persons and church bodies were polemical in nature. I happen to think Nehaus's observations are relevant to our present predicament. Hence, I am asking myself how I can move beyond a polemical response to the impending war and help my congregation ground it intuitive response of opposition in thoughtful theological reflection—which, in turn, should lead to energetic and creative praxis.
I think Neuhaus's observation that what is being contested and what is at stake is American civil religion is a provocative way of stating the issue. When I think of American civil religion I think not only of Bellah who coined or popularized the term but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose broad appeal in the Liberal community had to do with his ability to appeal to American civil religious sensibilities.
On of the high holy days in the Black Church is Sunday preceding the King Holiday in January. Then there are all the Sundays in February during which there is a focus on Black Salvation History wherein King is also a prominent figure. The question African Americans ask during the celebration of these holidays is how we can keep the King tradition alive. That of course means defining what that tradition is in terms of today's challenges. My approach will be to begin my treatment of King where a lot of people prefer to end. Instead ending with his "I Have a Dream" speech I will begin with that moment in his life but focus my attention on his Riverside address "A Time to Break Silence" and his "A Christmas Sermon on Peace (1967). These I believe represent classic texts in pastoral theology, social ethics, and American civil religion as well.