The persuasive power of incarnate truth

An example of unpersuasive Christianity comes from Albert Raboteau, who reports on a white missionary's difficulty in witnessing to recently freed slaves: "...the freedmen's distaste for moralistic preaching was directly rooted in their experience of the dichotomy between Christianity and the practice of Christian slaveholders."
September 1 st 2006

Recently a friend and colleague of mine was lamenting that many African Americans were allied with the Democratic Party. He was concerned that votes from the African American community were being taken for granted by these same Democrats. In his opinion Democrats hold positions that are actually detrimental to African Americans (like raising financial support for public schools without discriminating evaluation), and that create a sense of dependence on government, such that more independent initiatives by African Americans to strengthen the African American community itself were being suppressed. Such suppression may not be the product of malicious intent in the Democratic Party, but suppression resulted, nonetheless. Although I had some sympathies with my colleague's perspectives, I touched upon what I thought was a determinative factor for this present state. There are certainly many other factors involved, but this one I shared because of its potentially pervasive effect, not only in the national, sociopolitical environment in America, but also for theological training affecting ministry in and from within the Church of Jesus Christ, in North America and elsewhere.

I raised the point that to be found convincing by people, particularly those of a marginalized community, one must do more than hold forth a "position," or a "truth" if you expect such people to embrace this "position," or "truth." Why should African Americans forsake views and convictions that many hold in community, to identify with many of those of the dominant community who really do not embrace African Americans and their burdens?

The connection that I made was a deliberate one: African Americans as a people, and their burdens. Truth, however, that can embrace, can then be embraced. This can happen only in the context of both, the development of human relationships, with the offering of argumentation for positional truths. Racism dramatically inhibits the development of relationships and therefore can inhibit the potentiality of agreement on various positions.

Following those who care

People often require persuasion to adopt another perspective with its consequent attitudinal and behavioral changes. Such a practice of persuasion can be understood as the discipline of rhetoric which Aristotle in his Rhetoric defined as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." In ancient rhetoric, the character of a person was a powerful instrument for arousing convictions on a given matter. In light of this consideration the process of discipleship, the building of leadership, the challenge of facilitating a conforming of people's behavior to standards inculcated in the gospel, is often more a function of persuasion than mere argumentation. People follow those people whom they are convinced care about them and their interests. The "truth" of any position becomes more gripping when expressed by a believable communicant. In a racialized society as presently exists in the United States and elsewhere, trust and respect are fundamental to transformative dialogue and instruction between people of multiracial, multiethnic backgrounds.

The Lord Jesus modeled this relationship between the reality of incarnation and embodied truth. Assuming for the sake of space that Jesus is the one being portrayed in John 1:1 and 1:14, the Evangelist records Jesus' words to his disciples in 14:6: "I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me" (translation and emphasis, mine). Here with an emphatic "I am," Jesus identifies certain elements about Himself that will eventually press people to a response of commitment for, or against Him. Among them is His claim to be the embodiment of truth (he aletheia). If Jesus' words are reliable, then truth is more than just a standard, or a series of propositions that depend merely on form to be assessed as valid. Without neglecting the full deity of the Lord Jesus, we can understand His words as a demonstration that truth can have flesh, that it can be interwoven in the fabric of a person. Truth can then be encountered in humanity and through such humanity, it can also communicate with, affirm and commune with, other members of other human communities. Elsewhere in John 12:32, Jesus says that "if I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me." The exact method that would be implemented to insure such "drawing" is not explicitly stated. There are, however, inchoate signs in 12:27-36 that, along with larger thematic qualities of the gospel itself, point to this combination of incarnation and truth as affecting Jesus' drawing power. Full delineation of all details in this passage is beyond the scope to this piece, but two observations will be offered.

First, Jesus recognized and proclaimed the meaning and significance of the "hour" (mentioned twice in verse 27). This recognition and proclamation encompassed all that He was as fully God and fully human. He would not be swayed from the purpose for which He came. As the Son, He would facilitate glory to the Father, as the One capable of shedding sacrificial blood, he would draw members from all of humanity to Himself. Fulfilling His role in the context of the Father's will placed Him in the realm of truth. Second, the reality of a realm, or sphere, of truth is affirmed by Jesus' words in verses 35-36. This affirmation also entails further incarnational possibilities directed towards those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus challenged them to consider the fact the "light" was among them and that they should walk while they had light. Light not only carries the meaning of truth, but it also is that which is portrayed as embodied in a person, namely, Jesus. Jesus identified Himself as the light of the world (8:12). By believing in Him as the light, such respondents would themselves become "children of light." They would the opportunity to become incarnations of truth. Jesus in the totality of person embodied truth and obediently ministered in the sphere of truth. Though He would die a horrible and shameful death, this combination would effect the "drawing."

The Church must never forget that presently, we exist in a racialized society. According to Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in their Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, a racialized society is one in which a person's race dramatically affects every experience and aspect of life. Much progress has been made in American race relations and the advancement of the African American community, but the monstrosities of slavery, supposedly under divine sanction, separation laws, and lack of the dominant culture's full acceptance over time, still have left their marks. The development of trust and the facilitation of reconciliation built upon the foundations of forgiveness and soul-healing, have become much more critical towards the development of effective theological training and consistent church community formation. It is at this juncture of trust and transformative theological training that I find Paul's words in 2 Timothy 3:14-15 (NIV) especially poignant and to the point:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Elsewhere, Paul uses other types of argumentation to encourage the continuation of belief, or the maintenance of a conviction, but, here, a unique type of call is extended. This call for continuing in elements of faith no doubt has a "truth" dimension, but it also incorporates recognition of relationships. Paul's call is to maintain conviction because you "know those from whom you learned it." These convictions were indeed truth, but it was believed, and demonstrated by those who taught them to Timothy.

Looking to "the confessor"

In his monumental work, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South, Albert Raboteau provides an illustration of how maintaining even a true doctrinal stance can be questioned because of character and practices inconsistent with that doctrinal stance. Some people would not follow points of confession on the basis of appealing to the truthfulness of said point of confession, alone. They also look to "the confessor."

Apparently, there were some slaves in a part of Virginia who were claiming direct revelation from God, received in their hearts. They were apprehensive of seeking God's voice, or God's direction, through Scripture because, "They said their masters and families were Bible Christians, and they did not want to be like them." In another situation, Charles Stearns, a missionary to freedmen after the Civil War, lamented the "immoral piety" of some of these freedmen. Raboteau succinctly identified a contributing cause of the problem:

The fact which Stearns failed to appreciate was that the freedmen's distaste for moralistic preaching was directly rooted in their experience of the dichotomy between Christianity and the practice of Christian slaveholders. Recently freed blacks were unwilling to listen to another white man preach to them about moral duty.

Members of the advantaged group may have been anchored in truth, but this foundation, in and of itself, did not always draw positive response.

These examples many be old, but they are also paradigmatic for the present: the need for persuasion towards embracing truth. One could make the case in light of the examples above, that the problem was a lack of understanding, or the inadequacies of the "sin-sick" soul. These are certainly factors. Based on my recent conversations with fellow African American theological scholars, however, I do not dismiss these pervasive problems of ignorance and sin's effects. But they reveal the need for reminders of an essential relationship between truth and demonstrations in life. Such reminders will be treasured by those seeking to instruct in biblical and theological truth in order to disciple and develop leadership in the church of Jesus Christ. This calls for instruction in communities that maintain unity in confession on the one hand, while embracing racial and ethnic diversity on the other.

Pervasive truth is persuasive truth

My African American colleagues, who presently teach in schools less conservative than mine, were trained in conservative evangelical seminaries. There were no dramatic demonstrations of racism but there were some other subtle manifestations. They spoke of a certain condescending and paternalistic behavior on the part of some students, faculty members, and administrators. I am sure that voices could be raised immediately about a lack of malicious intent on the part of the majority of such people. Be that as it may, with claims to defend biblical and theological "truth" would come also the responsibility to seek out demonstrations in concrete relationships of said truth. My friends did not forsake fundamental confessions of the faith, but they did develop a distrust for how they were taught to interpret the Scriptures and what was propagated as authentic Christian thinking and living, according to their respective seminary communities. Perhaps it was unfair to associate problematic people with the truthfulness of certain methodologies and positions. This simply makes conformity to proclaimed truth in all ways possible, so crucial. If they had experienced more of an embrace, along with the emphasis on "truth," who is to say what results would have occurred in terms of their specific career decisions.

Jesus, as he embodied truth, could proclaim and teach in a way that sometimes resulted in conflict, but He could also affirm and commune with people, helping in the matter of arousing belief on the part of many of those He encountered. The effect of a racialized society is to perpetuate distrust and fear. Unfortunately, this distrust and fear can manifest itself in theological training through a lack of affirmation of African Americans and other minorities. This in turn can transform distrust and fear of that which is taught and the way it is taught.

Lamentations then, like my colleague's on the matter of political affiliation, can be raised legitimately. For him, it was appropriate that "truth" be recognized and action consistent with this truth, should follow. Truth alone, however, can be very cold and without needed encouragement. Truth that is incarnational, that is, pervasive in life and willing to affirm, would be more persuasive truth. The marginalized in any given setting, generally flow to where they are embraced.

Topics: Religion
 

Dr. Bruce L. Fields is associate professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He has taught at Trinity since 1988.

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