The Subversive Scholar: The Danger of Being a Theologian in the 21st Century
I remember the first time I was told that I was “dangerous.” It was during my Sophomore year in Bible College and revolved around an unfortunate statement made by the school’s athletic trainer during a Chapel Break-Out session. During his opening remarks, the trainer decided to break the ice by telling a joke….about then Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden drowning in the town lake (I believe the content of the joke was, “If Senator Obama and Biden drowned in Lake _____, who would be saved? America! I know…a real knee-slapper, right?). Enraptured by a sensation of pure nausea, I gathered my belongings, stood up, and walked out of the chapel auditorium (my good friend, Michael Ford, also accompanied me in protest.)
Later on that night, I met with some concerned classmates in the student lounge and began to discuss ways in which we could air out our grievances to the University. Brother Jerome Foster had the brilliant idea of drafting a petition demanding an apology from the athletic trainer. A couple of students, unsure about the necessity of making our grievances public, inquired as to why a student-led petition was necessary. Unbeknownst to them, this inquiry served as the impetus for me to unleash the fire that had been kindling within me since the offense was committed earlier that morning. I began to pour out, from the depths of my soul how we must not allow these egregious, thoughtless words go unchallenged. I spoke about the sin of indifference. I spoke about the bruised fruit of Southern racialistic naivety and how, tragically, far too many seminaries in the South were guilty of being milquetoast when it came to aggressively disciplining schismatic racialists who sought to pollute the proverbial waters of redemption and reconciliation that flowed through the halls of the seminary.
Upon the completion of my impromptu diatribe, my good friend Forest Prophete replied,
“Jay, if you don’t be careful, they’ll sit you down for good! People who speak like that usually don’t stay around too long. You’re dangerous, Brother.”
In all honesty, I was energized by Forest’s comments. Being rooted and cultivated in the Black tradition, I had grown to admire men such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Though he was not African-American, Robert Kennedy held a prominent place on my Mt. Rushmore of socially conscious activists. To have a brother place my words in that same pantheon of rhetorical opulence left me feeling rather humbled and thankful. It wasn’t until two years later that the term “dangerous” would take on a much darker connotation for me.
The second time I was called dangerous was not like the first. There were no racialistic jabs thrown. No civil unrest. No soliloquies.
Just me and a beautiful classmate at Starbucks.
Consumed by the confidence of ten men and the wisdom of none, I told her that I loved her, fully convinced that I had met my Coretta in the flesh! Her response was as unforeseen as a Mayweather right-hook; she told me I was dangerous, but not with a smile. She acknowledged the fact that God’s hand was on my life, and she believed that I would be used in a major way to further the cause of Christ. However, she also saw me as a man whose words could potentially spark a lot of controversy. She knew that I would never lead a quiet life. She knew that normalcy was not included in the hand I was dealt. She knew my burden for the oppressed. She was aware of my anger against injustice. She knew that life with this gadfly would be dangerous, and she wanted no part of it at that time.
I was crushed. While I fully embraced the possibility that my love for God and zeal for his kingdom would cause me to be spurned by those outside of the kingdom walls, I never expected my passions to sting me like that! How many of us know that a love deferred will cause a sailor to question his entire life’s voyage?
Maybe my theological convictions were a little to harsh.
Maybe I needed to find knew things to occupy my thought-time.
Maybe I should look into dropping out of seminary and joining a parking-lot ministry. Those brothers always have a smile on their faces.
It was at this point that I began to inquire exactly what it meant to “study theology”? What was the task of the theologian? Should those who undertake the task of teaching and preaching the Word of God prepare themselves to be social stigmas?
Though I knew, instinctively, that the answer was yes I had a hard time accepting it. After all, most of theologians in the back of my textbooks look happy. They all have great careers. They all wear nice, starched Oxford shirts. I wanted that life.
All I wanted to do was graduate from seminary, marry a beautiful woman who could harbor my righteous seeds, and write many books from an isolated, hilltop cabin in Colorado that would showcase how brilliant I was and explain how it was an egregious sin against the Holy Spirit to live in isolated hilltop cabins in Colorado and how, instead, we should all live in communal solidarity with the broken because Jesus lived amongst the broken (There aren’t any seminarians who share that dream, right?)!
Needless to say, God destroyed my hilltop aspirations!
Instead, he began to give me a different vision of theology and His desire for His theologians. Instead of wealthy scholars in Oxford button-ups, I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. lying in a pool of his own blood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Instead of gated compounds in Colorado, I saw Dietrich Bonhoeffer swinging from the gallows of the Konzentrationslager Flossenbürg Concentration Camp.
I saw Balthazar Hubmaier.
I saw John Huss.
I saw Polycarp.
I saw Peter.
I saw Paul.
I saw Jesus.
Then I saw the goals I set for myself, and I wept bitter, cold tears.
The task of the theologian is not just another vocation.
We’re not like lawyers.
We’re not like med-students.
We’re trained officers called to lead a non-violent militia of righteousness.
We’re not called to write books in order to feed our families an earn a wage.
We’re called to write books in order to feed the Shepherd’s sheep and raise the consciousness of humanity.
We live in a culture where, to say that another individual is wrong based on the edicts of God, is to ensure one’s vocational demise.
We live in a world ravaged by war, plagued by injustice, and poisoned by the streams of subjectivism.
What does it mean to speak for God?
What is the purpose of excavating the Scriptures? The accumulation of awards and medals and emeritus faculty positions!
God help us!
Christianity, in its puritanical essence, is a subversive religion. Jesus established His Kingdom to be antithetical to that of Caesars. The Lord’s Supper was a subversive act. The singing of hymns to Lord Jesus was a subversive act. The refusal to partake in pagan rituals and events was subversive.
Are we subversive? Though our aim is not to coerce the culture, does your work speak against its ills?
Do you step outside your door and shake violently by the rapturous iniquity that surrounds us all? Do you think that is a silly notion. If so, check your pay stub…you might be on the Empire’s payroll.
I oftentimes think what seminary enrollment would look like if they pose a picture of Dr. King dead on a balcony on their fliers. What if they made a banner of Bonhoeffer hanging from the gallows? What if they REALLY showed what happened to Paul, Peter, James, and our Lord? What would enrollment look like if they showed us what would happen if we truly allowed our academics to be the impetus for our actions?
They know exactly what would happen.
That’s why our brochures are filled kids playing ping-pong.
Ping-Pong is great, but the revolution awaits.
The world is languishing in the cesspool of its own iniquity and it needs to know that there are some men and women who have taken the danger into consideration and are willing to risk life and reputation in order to salvage some.
The call to theology is a call to embrace the danger.
I thank God my comrades see me as dangerous.
I don’t like ping-pong anyway.