Robert, Danny, Kip and Today’s Reality

As I’ve been struggling to wrap my mind around our country’s current reality and how pervasive racism and hate groups are, 3 people from Seminary keep coming to mind.

Robert Fife. Dr Fife was a highly respected New Testament scholar and the reason our New Testament library was one of the finest in the United States. When Dr Fife traveled to speak, instead of a speaking fee, he’d ask for a particular book. At the end of his career he donated over 10,000 theological books to the library. But Dr Fife was also a World War 2 Veteran – he served as a chaplain on the front lines and one of his last acts as a chaplain was to help liberate people from the Nazi death camp in Dachau, Poland. People would ask Dr Fife to tell them stories from his experience and he would reply that he gives one lecture, one time per year where he talks about what it was like to liberate people suffering in that atrocious death camp. 

I never met Dr Fife. I never attended his annual talk on his experience at Dachau. He had retired by the time I was in seminary and to my knowledge had stopped giving his annual talk. You may, gentle reader, be thinking, ‘This isn’t a very good story. You’re writing about a guy you never met who gives a talk you never attended.”

But here is what impacted me: everyone around me talked about Dr Fife’s talk. They said things like, “Have you ever sat in Dr Fife’s talk about liberating people from a Nazi death camp?” They were visibly shaken talking about it. People not much older than me who had never fought in a war, profoundly impacted by a 3rd person account of someone who came face to face with pure human evil. People also said that every time Dr Fife gave his talk, he cried his way through it. Even though it happened 50 years prior, he couldn’t get through his talk without crying. That’s how profound the evil of Naziism and white supremacy was, that 2 generations afterward, it still affected a man to the point that he would only talk about it in a highly controlled environment.

Danny Johnson. Danny was a fellow student, but was married with teenage kids, which is to say that I just categorized him as really old. Danny was also black, the pastor at Thankful Baptist Church (Still is the pastor!) and had marched with Dr King. Danny was a phenomenal preacher in a way I will never be. I remember one chapel where Danny put a bottle of bright pink Pepto-Bismol on the pulpit and read from the label, “Shake well before using.” He built an entire sermon from the expression, “Shake well before using. That’s what God does with all of us.”

Boom. Mic drop before mic drop became a meme.

But Danny also showed me how white my lens is when approaching scripture. I knew I was white (I am actually closer to translucent, but that’s another blog for another day) but I did not know I had a distinctly white lens through which I viewed all of scripture. Danny once preached on the Exodus connecting MLK to Moses as the liberator of people in captivity. As he was preaching, I thought, a) MLK is an excellent modern illustration of Moses and b) I have never once heard MLK used as an example that way in a white church and I would never have thought of it either.

Kip Elolia. Kip was an Ethiopian New Testament Scholar who joined the faculty while I was a student. I was utterly challenged by his mission to ‘dispel the assumption that western theology is normative and universal while other theologies (African, Asian, Latin American, and Black) are local, contextual and limited.’ I spent a year under his teaching taking in all manner of theology from the margins, “bottom up theology” (as opposed to “top down”), and orthopraxy as a needed corrective to orthodoxy (i.e., right practice connecting to right thinking.) As I read sharp theologians from Columbia, El Salvador, Japan, Aboriginal Australia, African American, Feminist African American, Native American, my eyes were opened to how one sided history is, how difficult it is to see social advantage (to coin a phrase from one of our church interns, Brendan Reed) and how much more difficult it is to set aside social advantage for the sake of the disadvantaged.

Yet that really is the very heart of the gospel.

So as I watch press conferences, read news articles and see violence and hatred openly celebrated in this country, I think of a World War 2 Veteran who sacrificed so much that it profoundly affected him the rest of his life. I think of a fine African American Preacher who has lived this reality all of his life and paid significant price to stand up to racism. I think of a brilliant immigrant from Africa who enriched my life profoundly. To say that White Supremacy is wrong seems to not say enough. To think of these people and how their impact shapes my leadership today makes me want to figure out what sacrifice is required of me and how best to offer it.

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