Monday, March 22, 2010

The Beatitudes: A Black perspective

I am working on a small group project at ESR looking at the Beatitudes from different social locations. I have very much appreciated the comments on the first Beatitudes post. Below is a look at the Beatitudes from a different social location. This is a bit more formal than my usual more spontaneous posts, but still readable, I hope--and short. I'm interested in what you think--I believe Hayes's view align with the responder Steven, even though he looks at the Beatitudes from a Torah-based location. Both see the Beatitudes as a radical call to change.

In "Through the Eyes of Faith : The Seventh Principle of the Nguzo Saba and the Beatitudes of Matthew," Diana L. Hayes views the Beatitudes from the perspective of an African-American Roman Catholic. She identifies the Beatitudes entirely with the oppressed and enslaved, and places them within a context of African religious beliefs, rejecting Eurocentric readings that spiritualize their message as otherworldly.

To Hayes, the introduction of slavery into the New World overturned the prior assumption that all humans, regardless of race, were equally part of the human family, and replaced it with an ideology of racial superiority and inferiority. Conversely, the Beatitudes (along with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount) represented a “dramatic shift in understanding from … ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ … to the calling down of God's healing grace upon those who suffered trials and tribulations for the sake of the Kingdom of God.” (20)

The Beatitudes, to Hayes, are nothing less than a call to revolutionary change. (20)

For Hayes, the Beatitudes, in both Luke and Matthew, address slaves and former slaves, but not the rich. Both versions are equally important: Luke speaks to material needs, but Matthew calls the downtrodden to internalize their own significance: “For, as the poor, as the mourners, as the oppressed and marginalized … Matthew's audience was in the unique position of having the freedom to see clearly what was good, what was just, and what was righteous before God, because they had no vested interest in the outcome.” (21)

Further, Hayes identifies Jesus with the subject of the Beatitudes. He is not simply the speaker from afar: “Jesus knew how hard it was to be poor, because he was poor; to thirst after justice, because he did and died still thirsting; to mourn the loss of loved ones, because he brought Lazarus back to life. Jesus knew … .” ( 33)

Likewise, the American slaves understood the Beatitudes through lived experience and drew comfort from Jesus’ promises in these verses.

Hayes also aligns the sermon on the mount with the African Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles: unity, faith, purpose, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics and creativity. (These principles are celebrated in Kwanzaa.) (26) Like the Beatitudes, Hayes says, the Seven Principles call for revolutionary change in this world, not an afterlife. (22)

Finally, Hayes understands Jesus as black. “The Jesus of history … was and is black himself in his very being, if not physically, because he was born into and identified with the poor and marginalized.” (31) She quotes from James Cone’s God of the Oppressed (New York: Crossroad/Seabury, 1975): "It is in Jesus that blacks see the validation of their humanity; Jesus is, therefore, black because we, as the oppressed, are black. It is because the black community is an oppressed community, because—and only because—of its blackness, that the Christological importance of Jesus Christ is found in blackness.” (31)

Hayes’s social location is quite different from mine and offers a powerful reading of the Beatitudes as a text that excludes me and my peers. By marginalizing my group—whites, the well-to-do, the not-oppressed—Hayes challenges me to understand Jesus’ message in a more radical way and to knock on a door that is closed to me, whether or not I realize it. If Jesus is black and is himself suffering oppression, mourning, spiritual brokenness and persecution—and if I love and align myself with Jesus—I must also align myself more closely with the marginalized and suffering. Hayes’s message is humbling: whites must join blacks and other afflicted people, and not vice versa. In the circle around Jesus, whites and the wealthy stand on the periphery. Blacks and the poor are closest to Jesus.

Do you agree that Jesus was "black himself in his very being?" IS Jesus the Beatitudes embodied?


Bill Samuel said...

Identification with the poor and the outcast is clearly a hallmark of Jesus' ministry. The Beatitudes are a good example of that. They are preaching good news to the poor.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

We all project ourselves a bit on Jesus. If we are white, we project a bit of whiteness; if black, we project a bit of blackness. If privileged, we hear his words in ways that do not challenge our privileges more forcefully than we bear, while if marginalized, we project a bit of our own fury against being marginalized.

I agree with Bill that Jesus identified with the downtrodden. Interestingly, though, he also seems to have identified with the privileged — people like the rich young ruler, Nathanael, Salome, and Joseph of Arimathea — although he invited them to give all they had to the poor, and praised them when they made restitution with generous interest for their ill-gotten gains.

The question I ask is, what does Jesus look like when we stop projecting?

Hystery said...

The differences between the historical Jesus and the archetypal Christ in his (and even sometimes her) manifestations is a pretty cool topic of exploration but always pretty tricky given how very little we can rely on from the historical perspective and how deeply and wildly varied the archetypal images have become in the past two thousand years. It is amusing, fascinating and sometimes even edifying to hear folks argue about the "true" nature of Christianity or of Christ. In the end, I think that though I would like to have these answers, I will content myself with taking the approach that obedience to the Light is always more important than definitions of it.

Tom Smith said...

I very much like the "Christmas" song "Some Children see Him."

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes. I do think we need to take this so seriously if indeed we want to follow Jesus. Good words here, and we need to listen and learn from the perspective of others.

Actually internally most all my life I've struggled and seem to live in deficit and brokenness. God has done a lot to help me through and in spite of that, but sometimes I wonder if my own inner brokenness hasn't helped me to more easily align myself with others who are broken. Yet we have our comfort zones that we want to hold on to.

Unknown said...

I can't get through Luke without understanding the Kingdom of God as here and now on Earth, or the poor as the economically poor. Mammon represents one of the biggest idols in Western Society. Even worrying about money is idolatry. When you've got nothing left to lose, you've got nothing left to worry about. And that's when you know (rather than read) that all you have to do is love God. Christ is the Beatitudes.