Opinion

Am I not a theologian too?

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., left, meets with the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, center, and the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker at First African Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention on Sept. 25, 1963. King was SCLC president at the time, Lowery was vice president and Walker was executive director. (Carl Lynn/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

(RNS) — When you think about the great theologians, what names come to mind?

Those who have profoundly impacted my theological foundation include the Rev. James Cone, philosopher Cornel West, the Rev. Eboni Marshall Turman and theologian Christopher Morse.

Cone, West and Morse were among my professors in seminary so I had the privilege of actually engaging with these revered minds. But is my list, our collective lists of theologians, missing someone?

Why don’t more of us study and think of theological giants like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his chief of staff, the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, as theologians? Social justice luminaries such as King and Walker are somehow viewed only as activists or civil rights leaders — but not as theologians. This is problematic.

If you explore the writings and scholarship of Walker in particular, who died in January at the age of 88, you will discover that he was nothing short of a civil rights icon — but a giant in so many other fields as well.

An archival photo of the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

He was a composer, an ethnomusicologist, affordable housing developer and also one of the most important theologians of our time. He was the author of some 30 books and chapters that cover a rich theological tapestry of topics such as “Living in Hell” and “Spirituality as an Instrument of Social Change.” He taught and mentored countless graduate theological students at Virginia Union University, United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and a myriad of other universities as a guest speaker or lecturer.

Take a look at the deep roots of how we (especially within the African-American church) think about G-d, how G-d relates to creation and the contours and purpose of our faith — and you should be compelled to acknowledge and appreciate the writings, teachings and scholarship of Walker as he thrived simultaneously as a social justice activist and theologian.

“For him social justice was his focus of Christianity and you can trace that directly to the gospels,” said the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, who gave Walker’s eulogy at his memorial service at New York’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, where Walker served as pastor for more than 35 years.

Richardson, chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches and of the board of trustees of Virginia Union University — his and Walker’s alma mater —  added that Walker was also responsible for connecting him and hundreds of other African-American ministers to doctoral studies at United Theological Seminary.

He was “a prophet and professor, a preacher and scholar,” said the Rev. Sherry B. Austin, once a Wyatt Tee Walker Fellow at United Seminary. “He was true to the principles of the church and academia and he combined profundity with simplicity,” she said during the memorial service.

Theologians are important in all our lives. They are the researchers and scholars who write and lecture about the weighty questions we all — people of faith and no faith — contemplate and wrestle with.

For centuries, humankind has looked to theologians in Judaism, Christianity and Islam for answers to our most significant challenges. And over the course of time, seminaries and universities have given us a pantheon of nearly all European, male theologians to revere and esteem. This small corpus of white male religious scholars is considered by some to be the authors but not finishers of our faith. But they are not its last sages.

As we witness the youth in this country speak truth to power, hear women give voice to age-old traumas hiding in plain sight and watch queer and transgender people expand our understanding of G-d’s penchant for diversity, is it not time to open up the list of who is counted among the great theologians?

It is time to hold up more than just the names of dead old white men such as Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Kuyper and Paul Tillich. Theologians such as Walker, who explored the unique religious experience and formation of faith of African-American Christians, must also be studied by anyone seeking to know what faith looks like in action.

Some of Walker’s papers are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in Harlem, and others have been donated to the University of Richmond. The papers at the Schomburg include unpublished works such as “The Phenomenon of Afrocentric Christian Faith” and his work with the International Freedom Mobilization, a 1979 U.N. conference of African and African-American religious leaders fighting to end apartheid in South Africa.

I advocate for the inclusion of Walker as a giant among theologians in hopes that his work will inspire others to wrestle, debate and formulate their own theologies. In a world filled with so much injustice, the theological works of Walker help us to think critically about how our faith must respond.

(The Rev. F. Romall Smalls is associate minister for social justice at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y.; the spiritual care counselor at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center; and a senior affiliate chaplain at New York University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service or the other institutions listed above.)

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F. Romall Smalls

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  • “When you think about the great theologians, what names come to mind?”

    Aquinas, Augustine, Francis of Assisi et. al. but as you now know, they were wasting their time and our time as the supernatural no longer computes.

    Summing up the Christian supernatural with an updated Creed:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

  • It’s hard to take you seriously when you denigrate Reinhold Niebuhr as a “dead old white man.” Wyatt T. Walker is dead too by the way.

  • “He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.”

    Find it — then we’ll talk.

  • The bones have decomposed or were eaten by wild dogs and therefor lost in the dirt environment of Jerusalem.

  • Another possibility:

    “Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God’s hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus’ failure and
    death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to
    maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing.”

  • Well, that would certainly explain why every one of his disciples (save John) gave his life to, and was killed for, preaching the factual truth of Jesus’s resurrection – NOT.

    There’s a reason Reimarus’s theory never gained any traction, even with the enemies of the gospel – it makes no sense at all in light of what happened after the fact of Jesus’s death.

  • Fantasies. Bones don’t “decompose” within the time frame we’re talking about. And Jewish burials were secure – they weren’t pillaged by wild dogs, or anything else. Jesus was buried in a tomb that was sealed with an enormous rock rolled into place. What’s more, the Jewish authorities heard of his body’s absence right away, as they immediately concocted a BS cover story about his disciples having stolen it away. None of it holds up to even a cursory examination.

  • Obviously, you are not familiar with Roman crucifixions and what happened to the victims. The tomb and rock were stories invented by four non-witnesses to give credence to their cause.

  • Obviously, you are trying to climb on top of the argument by claiming rhetorically irrelevant superior knowledge. What happened to the victims of Roman crucifixion is that they died a protracted and painful death – in effect, tortured to death. Jesus was entombed in a badly battered condition Those facts have nothing do with the credibility of Jesus’s resurrection. If your fallback is that his disciples “invented” the story “to give “credence to their cause,” that doesn’t jibe with the fact that every one of those same disciples left their family, their “financial security…and standing” behind, and fanned out around the globe, devoted to carrying the Good News to others – and that they gave up their lives in doing so.

    The disciples preached the good news of Jesus’s resurrection because they had seen and handled it firsthand. They devoted their lives to the telling of that story, because they knew it to be true.

  • They preached mostly fake news as rigorous historic testing shows that only 30% or less of the NT is authentic. The reality is there was no resurrection and your god will not be returning.

  • Islamic terrorists give up their lives to their Allah every day does that make them saintly martyrs?

  • Hey, that reminds me. This weird suggestion that Jesus’ crucified body was “eaten by wild dogs”, is linked with your skeptic hero Dominic Crossan.

    It’s a huge error. Curiously, this mistake doesn’t even appear in Crossan’s primary textbook, The Historical Jesus. I guess he knew better than to say that mess in his main book.

    But it ain’t enough to say it’s wrong. You have to be able to say WHY it’s wrong. Tim Chaffey gives good reasons in this article.

    https://answersingenesis.org/jesus-christ/resurrection/the-body-was-moved/

  • He says with zero evidence.

    gainsay – verb

    with object and negative Deny or contradict (a fact or statement)

  • The comments about wild dogs appeared in Professor Crossan’s book Who is Jesus. And you cited reviewer assumes that everything in the NT is true which we know is not. And you still have not addressed the specifics of the Easter con.

  • Professors Crossan and Reed go in much greater detail about Roman crucifixion and burials of the dead bodies in their book Excavating Jesus, Behind the Stones, Behind the Texts. pp. 245-250.

    An excerpt: “Keep in mind that crucifixion was not the punishment of citizens and aristocrats but of slaves, peasants and bandits. Those former cut chambers and left ossuaries all around Jerusalem and those latter who died of natural causes dug shallow and elusive graves, but the victims of crucifixion left no traces save one. The norm was to let crucifieds rot on the cross or be cast aside for carrion. The point was to deter lower classes violators of Roman law and order. “

  • “The norm was to let crucifieds rot on the cross or be cast aside for carrion. The point was to deter lower classes violators of Roman law and order.”

    The mandating of leaving a body to rot preceded the Romans and continued on well into the early modern period.

    It was ordered by the state to deter crime.

    For example, after the crushing of the revolt of the Thracian gladiator Spartacus in 71 BCE, six thousand survivors of the revolt captured by the legions of Crassus were crucified, lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.

    The Gospels explain that permission was obtained to retrieve the Body of Jesus, and that the tomb used had been prepared by a wealthy Jew for his own burial.

  • Riiiight…one group dedicates itself to proclaiming a victory OVER Death, while the other proclaims the victory OF Death over whatever stands in their way – and you can’t tell the difference. With thinking like that, it’s no wonder you’re confused about so many things.

    People don’t suffer martyrdom to preach a message they know to be false. That was the point of bringing it up, a point that you missed entirely, choosing instead to focus on a feature of superficial similarity (strength of conviction) that ignores the all-important question: conviction of WHAT?

  • what do you mean by a “gay agenda” and how do you think that RNS is “always promoting” such?

    As to Marxist – I doubt you understand the concept since you wouldn’t make such a comment if you did.

  • So, your ultimate retort is “I don’t believe any of it.” Yeah, you pretty much made that much clear from the beginning…so we’re basically back to square one: I believe the testimony of the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, your belief is that they were lying – and it is a “belief,” since (apart from time-travel) there is no possible proof available either way. And as far as “God” is concerned, one can’t prove a negative, so your disbelief on that score is also an act of faith. Welcome to the community of (dis)believers.

  • Good stuff, OttoZeit! And you made a good point: If you weren’t there, then give a valid reason as to what those who were there were lying about the events they believed to have occurred, and I mean secular historians. As I have said before, it wasn’t historians who claim Jesus the Christ didn’t exist.If the fact practically the entirety of Western Civilization hinges and pivots on the reality of the Christian Faith and the foundation of that Faith, Jesus the Christ, then the intellectual paucity of the so-called “mythicists” crowd is downright scary!!! ???

  • That’s a point worth repeating: it wasn’t historians who challenged the historical reality of Jesus — it was “theologians” who were basically committed to an anti- supernaturalist view of Jesus’s life and ministry.

  • As far as I know, Crossan (despite his deep seated aversion to the gospel) never denied the historical reality of Jesus – which is the delusion we were discussing. If you’re going to butt into somebody else’s conversation, at least try to stay on topic.

  • “Butt” as per Professor Crossan and others, less than about 30% of the life of Jesus depicted in the NT is authentic which puts a severe damper on the beliefs and views of any Christian theologian.

  • “As I have said before, it wasn’t historians who claim Jesus the Christ
    didn’t exist.If the fact practically the entirety of Western
    Civilization hinges and pivots on the reality of the Christian Faith and
    the foundation of that Faith”

    So you have a compelling reason not to look at the issue rationally or view facts which would run counter to your stated belief.

    Frankly the most honest approach to the matter is not to make definite claims on either end of the argument. But to simply say, “there is no evidence which does or can exist to verify the claims here one way or the other”.

    The NT is not a historical document and was subject to numerous revisions, edits and changes centuries after the alleged facts.

    There is also no way there would be mundane records of the existence of Jesus due to his low birth status and lack of interest by Romans at the time.

    Historians have so little to work with on the issue that they simply treat Jesus as an assumption and dodge the issue by discussing early Christians instead.

  • Crossan’s (and the Jesus Seminar’s) so- called “scholarship” has been assailed on numerous grounds by numerous critics. In fact, the Seminar employs a methodology so obviously circular in its logic, so dependent on questionable presuppositions, that one critic writes:

    “The structure of its process is pitifully simple: Assume that Jesus was not divine, and exclude from the historical record – the only one we have, by the way – everything that suggests he thought he was. What’s left? Why, the very thing you assumed in order to prove the thing you set out to find. I don’t let freshmen get away with this in a bluebook examination.” (Adam Brooke Davis, “The Ineffectual Jesus of the Jesus Seminar,” Guest column in The New Oxford Review, July-August, 1996)

    I could go on…but I won’t, because I’m not trying to convince you of anything; you long ago settled into your negative “conviction” (rivaling that of the Islamicist martyrs you complain about), and are not open to countervailing arguments. I am simply providing the countervailing arguments for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with the Seminar’s dubious and controvertible procedures.

  • The Jesus Seminarians: Contemporary NT exegetes specializing in historic Jesus studies.

    Requirements to join, typically a PhD in Religious History or Religion with a
    proven record of scholarship through reviews of first to third century CE
    scripture and related documents.

    “Adam Brooke Davis is Assistant Professor of English at Truman State University in Missouri. One of his specialties is comparative oral traditions.”
    Not what you call impressive credentials to sit in judgement of NT exegetes.

  • It didn’t take an “expert” to notice that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. And it doesn’t require a “New Testament scholar” to point out that the Seminar’s reasoning is circular, “tautological,” and logically designed to lead them inexorably to where they wanted to go in the first place. In the end, any thinking person can throw the Seminar’s own “final general rule of evidence” back in their faces: “Beware of finding a Jesus that is entirely congenial to you.”

  • I’ve already opened that door. In fact, I used to live there. But I left, because I found it to be a cramped, constraining and impoverished view of life. You’re welcome to it, but there are other keys, and other doors that don’t go nowhere – and they are not hard to find. But everything depends on your willingness to use them.

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