Dr. Cain Hope Felder

Our Spotlight of the Month for the month of July 2011 is Dr. Cain Hope Felder, a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at the Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD), a minister, editor, author and co-author of numerous books and publications.  He is also Founder of the Biblical Institute for Social Change, located in Washington, DC, as well as a world-renowned scholar and lecturer.  Destiny – Pride finds it a privilege and an honor to have him share with us his life’s journey.

Destiny – Pride: Good afternoon, Dr. Felder.  Thank you so much for accepting our invitation to be our Spotlight of the Month for July 2011.  You have achieved so much in your life’s span so far, and we know we won’t be able to cover everything, but let’s start out by learning a little about your early years – your birthplace, your parents, siblings and childhood memories.

Dr. Felder: Well, brother Rufus Mayfield, thank you so much for this opportunity to share, as you have tried to identify various African American men and women who over the years have tried to make contributions to their communities, to the nation and to the world. 

Talking about my beginnings, they’re rather humble, as is the case with many of us who have been fortunate and blessed to see the footprint of the Lord each step of the way as we evolve.  I was born in Aiken, South Carolina, which is right across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, in a small town called Wagner, South Carolina, in the township of Giddy Swamp; so I’ve told people I literally was born in the “Swamp” – Giddy Swamp in Aiken, South Carolina – in a very modest wooden structure.  In fact, last year my family reunion was down in Sally, South Carolina, where every July they have the “Chittlin’ Strut.”  My brother is retired – my only living brother out of five brothers, so there’s only one brother now that I have.  I’ve actually performed funerals for three of my brothers, two of my children, one of my sisters, and my mother. 

All of this has been a part of the journey of humble beginnings and part of the later migration to Boston, Massachusetts, where my folks ran out of money.  I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and I thank God for it because, had I stayed in South Carolina, I’m sure that my education and my exposure would have been different because of the litany of people who came in to assist me.  My mother [Lula Mae Felder ] had given permission to a lot of ministers who were doing their work at Boston University School of Theology to assist me.  I got to first meet Dr. Martin Luther King in the context of him being a doctoral student at Boston University.  Also, I was involved in the settlement house and in my local church – the Church of Ordinations – where the Goodwill Industries of America was founded, and I was a part of that outreach effort.  Social workers came and pulled me into the settlement house related to the Goodwill Industries, Walker Memorial and the Church of All Nations. 

So I was, unbeknownst to my own self, being slowly molded into community service – social work, the ministry – in my early formative years, meeting very fine people from different races from Boston University School of Social Work and Harvard Divinity.  I then got involved with the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts.  I became a Cub Scouts leader and a Boy Scouts Master of Troop 27.  That was really within the context of the War Memorial Social Services.  Of all of the kids, I was the only one that was able to participate and benefit from a lot of that.

Dr. Felder poses with the HUSD Graduating Class of 2008

The crème de la crème or the pièce de résistance in this regard was that I had a white teacher when we were relocated out of the ghettoes of the south end during the Boston redevelopment process.  They moved a lot of black families on the Jamaica Plain and on the outskirts, and my mother, on Aid to Dependent Children [“ADC”, later named “Aid to Families with Dependent Children,” or “AFDC”] was able to move us out to Dorchester, an all-white community at that time.  I was put in Champlain School. 

I’ll never forget that I had a sixth-grade teacher by the name of Ms. Ellis, a big white woman, but she took an interest in me.  I was the only black in the class.  Various kinds of incentives she gave me.  One quick one was that every week we would have a word for the week – a word for the day, sometimes. So the students were asked to find a word that was three syllables or more, and be able to come in and define it, share with the class and explain what the word meant.  So she would ask, “Does anybody have a word for today?”  Everybody would look around at everyone else and say “no,” but I decided one day that I would go home and look in the dictionary and try to find a nice word [laughter].  I came up with the word “commensurate.”  I said, “Oh, that’s a nice word.” 

So the next day, Ms. Ellis asked, “Does anybody have a word for the day?”  I said “I do,” and I was the only black kid in the room.  She said, “Okay, would you stand up” because if you got the word right, you could write it on the board and you’d get a gold star.  I said, “Yes, Ms. Ellis.  I have the word “commensurate.”  She said, “Oh, ‘commensurate’ [laughter], what does that mean?”  I said, “‘Commensurate’ means being in proportion to.”  She said, “Fine, can you spell that and write in on the board?”  So I wrote it and she said, “You get a gold star.” 

After that, I suspect she took a particular interest in me, to wit, she actually recommended me to attend the Boston Latin School.  You could only get into the Boston Latin School – which was founded in 1635 – if you were recommended by the principal of your elementary school and you had submission grades that you would not have to take the entrance test.  That school was founded as a prep school for Harvard and it was a very prestigious school.  My mother did a lot of domestic work.  When I got into the [Boston] Latin School, she was working for all of these wealthy or fairly well-off Jews.  They were quite stunned that the lady who worked for them and who was doing their housework had a son at the [Boston] Latin School.  That was very impressive. 

What I’m trying to say is that these early years were punctuated by this multi-racial exposure to mentors, direct and indirect, both in the summer – through summer camp – and in the winter – through the church and settlement house – with many people doing their field work at the settlement house and at the church.  So I was exposed to all of these white graduate students and seminarians.  I never had a black teacher until I came to Howard, and my father in the ministry, who is now deceased – Negail R. Riley – and who got his Ph.D. in Social Ethics from Boston University, and his wife – Gwendolyn Riley – are both Howard graduates.  They told me when I was at Latin School, “Now for the last six years, you’ve had nothing but white teachers.  You need to be in an environment where you see black achievement in diverse fields, and I’m telling you, Rufus, when I came to Howard back in 1962, first on the band for the Kennedy inauguration – his father went to the Latin School, so I came down with the band – I was like a kid in a candy factory!  I had never seen such a school of architecture for blacks! 

I mean, up in Boston all visible achievement was white; we blacks lived in the ghetto.  It was liberal, but it was that kind of Irish Catholic and Italian racism against the blacks.  We had gangs that were there.  My mother shielded me from a lot of that, but you still couldn’t help but get involved to some extent.  But when I came down here to Washington, DC, back in 1962 – I’ll never forget it – as a student in the fall of ’62, I was really one of the happiest persons in the world.  I took my first airplane flight to Friendship National Airport at the time [Now Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport] and became a freshman here, and eventually a philosophy major, Greek and Latin minor.  I was telling people I was going to be a social worker, but I knew that I was going to probably wind up as a minister.

Destiny – Pride: You spoke briefly of your mother and father.  Who are they, and how many siblings do you have?

Dr. Felder: I had two sisters and six brothers, so there were nine of us.  My father was a peanut farmer in Aiken County, from a large family – the Felders – but he had mental problems and evidently had to be hospitalized.  I do tell this when I’m preaching sometimes:  The remarkable thing is that while he was hospitalized, evidently he assaulted my mother, and I am the product of that sexual assault.  My mother told me about it when I was 13 years old.  It was kind of like a “coming out” for me.

Dr. Felder and participants of the 2007 Teen Summit hosted by the Biblical Institute for Social Change (BISC)

I had always asked her “Why did you name me ‘Cain?’”  My next youngest brother in Boston was named “Abel,” and there was another brother finally that she had with another man named “Seth” – all of these biblical names.  I asked, “But why did I have to be Cain?  He was a murderer; he was a wanderer.  Why would you put that name on me?”  She gave me permission to speak on this once I retired her back in 1985, when I moved her from Boston to down here to take care of her.  My mother told me, “You know, Cain, you need to go on and talk about how you were born and how you were named.”  Remember, I was 13 and she worked for a lot of Jews; so it was sort of like a bar mitzvah.  She said, “I named you ‘Cain’ because of how you were born.  You were born in utter sin.  You were born in an assault.  You were born in all of the ugliness attached to it:  a brother murders a brother.  When I opened up the bible, there it was, so I gave you that name.” 

She said, “But remember, that’s not your full name.”  I asked, “What do you mean?”  She said “You’re so different from all of your other brothers – you don’t have a full brother, or a full sister, so you’re really unique.  I started weeping and she said, “Now I see that you’re weeping.  I want you to understand your whole name.  What does your grandmother call you?”  I said, “Grandmother calls me ‘Cain Hope.’”  She said, “I do, too!  You’re not named just ‘Cain’  it’s ‘Cain Hope,’” and I say that may have been, Brother Mayfield, my call to ministry, being empowered by my mother who stopped going to school in the sixth grade, to my becoming a “Latin School Negro”, there learning Latin, with four years of French, three years of German – all before I came to Howard!  No one from either side of my family had ever graduated from high school, and here, a sixth-grade woman who in the south used to pick cotton in South Carolina was empowering and choosing this “bastard” child to understand that, though you began in sin, there’s no telling what the Lord will do with you!  So you have here the basis of a profile that I myself didn’t know what was going to come of all of this.  All I knew was that I was being led by a certain spirit to move forward.

Now, during the sixties, Stokely Carmichael – Kwame Ture – was one of my classmates.  Claude Brown of “Manchild in the Promised Land,” was on campus.  I knew him.  He was from Salem Church, but later as an intern I worked in Harlem, but not just at Salem, but also Metropolitan United Methodist Church there in Harlem.  So I would say that I got exposed to the black power movement, not deeply with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] at first, but later, when my father in the ministry, and mother [Dr. Negail and Gwendolyn Riley], went to Arkansas to teach at Philander Smith.  They asked me to come down in December of 1963, which was my first train ride through the south.  Now, as a Yankee, and shocked and scared as all hell, I was going through the south on this train all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas back in December 1963.  When I got there, he said, “Cain, you know, it’s about time for you to get involved in the movement” – this is my father in the ministry, who was a professor in religion and a minister of the chapel there.  He said, “I want you and the two girls to go on downtown and participate with the SNCC sit-in of the Woolworth lunch counter.”  I said, “Now I don’t know about all of that; I’m from the north.”  He said, “That’s why you need to be exposed; to see what happens.  Take the girls with you and you’ll be all right.”

When we got there, the White Citizens’ Council was marching back and forth.  I’ll never forget it.  I walked in there.  We took our seats at the counter.  I said, “I’ll have three cups of coffee and three apple pies.”  That white woman looked at me like I was crazy! [Laughter]  She heard my voice, so she knew I was from the north.  So she said, “What?  We don’t serve no Negras here.”  Then she left the counter and went in the back.  We didn’t know what to do.  We just sat there.  And then the White Citizens’ Council came back.  What the upshot of it was, they didn’t accost us!  They came in and said a lot of negative stuff, and scared us half to death.  But after a while, we were able to get up.  We left – without our coffee or apple pie – and we walked back out of the front door. 

The next day, we went to the Howard Johnson – we got a kind of feeling of power.  So we went into Howard Johnson and they saw us coming.  They said, “That’s all right; the word is out.  We’re going to let you come on in.  We’ve got to serve you.  So already there was movement immediately in Little Rock, because someone had put the word out.  They said, “Look, we’re not going to have this nationally blasted because of the incident with the children in the school.  So I could say that I got sort of my “trial by fire” in Little Rock, and that was a scary, scary thing.  Even coming back to Howard for the next two or three years, I found parts of Washington was even segregated.  So, in a way, once I was exposed to the fact that we had two countries here – one country oppressing blacks legally, unabashedly, and getting away with it; and then another one at least being sensitized to the horrors going on with their tacit approval – those were the kinds of things that began to shape me quietly.

Destiny – Pride: Are you married and are there any children?

Dr. Felder: Yes, I’m married to Dr. Jewell Richardson Felder now, and I’ve been married to her for a number of years.  I have three children – two children by my first wife, and they were born in Oxford.  Both of them, unfortunately, died.  I got divorced back in ’69 and remarried because I really wanted a child.  I have one child who still lives by her mother, but unfortunately over the years, we were unequally yoked and very different in temperament.  As a result, unfortunately, that could not last, so I was single for 15 years. 

In fact, when I came here from Princeton – before I came to Howard – I threw myself into my work.  One of the things that I was able to do, after I got uncoupled from my second wife, was to say, “You just try to produce work; do some literature.”  I became almost like a workaholic.  I didn’t really have much of a social life, and that’s how I was able to produce a number of my edited works, articles and books and things over the years.  You can see in my resume and times of publication that there’s a block from 1996 to 2000.  In that area, I did the least.  It was like this “footprints” painting.  We see here the footsteps of the Lord walking beside you; and then one set of footsteps; and the response from the individual is “That’s when the Lord was carrying you.”  So I would say that during those 15 years the Lord was carrying me and I was the “classical” scholar.  I had time for nothing; I had to write and re-write.  I was doing editing work.  I was editor of the Journal beginning in ’82.  All of the preparation of small articles.  Every article I would do I would fully document and develop it as was scholarly possible so that maybe one day it would be published.  So I didn’t just write an essay, I always documented everything.

And then, I’ll never forget, I was sitting at 1240 Randolph Street, where the School of Divinity was located when I came here in 1981, after resigning from Princeton.  I hadn’t quite finished my dissertation at Columbia University in New York.  I came under some duress, but then Lawrence Neal Jones – his picture is there in my office – became sort of my mentor.  He had been the Dean of Students at Union [Theological Seminary] in New York.  If it hadn’t been for him, I never would have left Princeton; I would have fought out there.  But when he asked me to come back to Howard, it being my Alma Mater, I felt that this was an opportunity for me to develop something without constantly having to be approved by whites as scholars.

Dr. Felder addresses the congregation from the rear of the church during the 2007 BISC Teen Summit.

Destiny – Pride: You’ve talked about a lot of the question that’s coming up, so tell us about your academic achievements.

Dr. Felder: Well, I’ve never realized, until I got to Princeton, that I needed to pull together all of my background to be a “white” scholar of the bible – because my library was all German, French, Hebrew and Greek.  I mean how many blacks would be able to be in conversation with me about what I was studying and learning?  And I said, “You know, I’m learning all of this stuff, but I don’t want to just be quoting white people for the rest of my life!”  They were training me to be good at a white school as a black man who has a specialty about white intellectual history, white achievement and white interpretation of reality.  But there’s nothing here about black people!  I said, “I’m not white!”  So here, I had an identity crisis – at Princeton.  And I began to go to the libraries at Princeton and I looked for books by blacks.  There was very little.  I had to dust a few of them off of the bottom shelf, but there was nothing scholarly.  There was nothing where you see the Hebrew, the Greek and all of that. 

That’s what then made me offer my first course at Princeton: Ethiopia and Arabia in Biblical Antiquity!  When I proposed this to the Bible Department, Rufus, they looked at me like I was crazy!  There was a woman there who said, “This is most novel.  What would you have in mind?  What passages would you possibly use?” [Laughter]  That’s how far off it was to them.  They said “Well you are not going to be allowed to do this.  You don’t have your Ph.D. now.  How can you come here to Princeton and say you want to teach such a course in our curriculum?”  I said, “Because I believe there’s enough material to talk about it.”  They said, “All right, then you give us a bibliography, you show us your syllabus.  We have to approve everything.  I said, “Never!  How can you make me do this?  Nobody has ever done that!  I have been here for two years, and I’ve never heard anything about anybody having to present their syllabus!”  They said, “If you want to teach such a course, we out vote it and that’s what’s going to happen.”  They took me out of the room, and then brought me back.  They said, “You have to do this.”  Then, I knew I had something when they protested this much about me doing such a course. 

Then, when I got to the course, there was nothing but black people there:  Caribbean, Africans, and African Americans.  A lot of white kids had said they wanted to take the course, so I went to them and I said, “I thought you were going to take my course on the biblical Ethiopia stuff?”  They said, “What do you mean?  Your bible professors told us that it was just for black people.”  I said, “What?!!”  I said, “Oh.  I think we’ve got something here.”  And it made me very sad.  Then I realized that it’s not about religion and truths; it’s about the sociology of knowledge and the politics of specialized knowledge.  How does the structure of “whiteness” collude in order to keep our people oppressed?  By making them feel they have no history. 

Like a white man down in Mississippi told John Henrik Clarke, a black historian, when he asked him: “Did my people ever accomplish anything, sir?”  The white man looked at him and said, “Son, I’m sorry to tell you; your people haven’t done nothing.” [Laughter]  John Henrik Clarke got on a bus and went to New York, marched up to the Schomburg Center, and never left.  But that was widespread in the south – and in a lot of parts of the north – that Negroes came into history as slaves.  They’re not in the bible; there’s no significant reference to them.  Northern Egypt and Africa have nothing to do with black people and we should stop trying to make Jesus black or say that there’s any kind of black persons in the bible.  But I had the background; I had the languages; I had the library; and I had the resources, in terms of the orientation. 

Later I received an invitation by Lawrence Jones who said he was re-doing the faculty and he wanted me to come to Howard.  He said, “You’ll be our resident expert.  You can write on anything you want.”  He said, “Finish your dissertation; we’ll support you one hundred percent.”  I said, “Well, I’m at Princeton, you know.  I can’t leave Princeton and come to Howard as Assistant Professor.  I haven’t finished my Ph.D. yet, but you know I’m going to do that.”  I said, “Would you hire me as an Associate Professor with tenure, even though I haven’t finished my Ph.D., just as an incentive to come?  He said, “Well, that would take a little stretch.”  I said, “Well it would take a little stretch for me to leave here!”  He said, “Cain, I’m going to go back and ask the Vice President – Lorraine Williams – if we can get a special dispensation for you to leave Princeton and come here.  You’ve got to finish up that Ph.D. and we’ll give you tenure even before you get it.  We will approve it, if I can.  After talking to Lorraine Williams Larry came back and said it was done.  I, therefore, resigned from Princeton.

When I got here in ’81, I went to Dean Jones and I said, “You, know, I was unfair.  That’s not right.  Why should I come to a black school – if I really respect blackness and black people, and disrespect the school by saying I wanted special dispensation.  I don’t deserve tenure unless I finish this Ph.D.”, because that could be a dis-incentive.  I could get lazy because I already have the tenure.  So I said, “No.  Take that away.  Tell Lorraine I withdraw it.  Just give me as much money as you can, because I’m broke.”  I said, “Give me the Associate Professor, but without tenure.  He said, “Well now, I’ll be doggone!”  I said, “Yeah, I don’t feel right.  It will be an incentive for me to finish.”  So he said, “Well, we’ll do that.  We’ll give you the same salary; we’ll just take the tenure off the table.  When you finish, we’ll put it back on the table.” 

So when I finished the Ph.D., I then said that I needed to make sure that my research skills did not atrophy, so I needed to take over, in 1982, the “Journal of Religious Thought” – to become the editor.  So, since 1982, I have been the editor, publishing articles, initially coming out twice a year.  Now it comes out once a year.  So for over 25 years I’ve been the editor.  Now the thing is, with the “Journal of Religious Thought,” after awhile I said, “You know something?  I’m critiquing and reading everybody else’s stuff; I’m not even publishing anything of my own!” [Laughter]  Jim Cone.  Cornell West.  I knew all these guys.  They all were asking me to review their articles and to promote them in the “Journal.”  Rufus, I said, “Wow.  Wait a minute, now!  I’m helping everybody else with their books.  I need a book out!”  In 1988, Vincent Harding, a black constructionist, came out with a book, “There is a River.”  When he called me to ask for my help with “There is a River,” I said, “Look, I need to write a book.”  He said, “Oh, absolutely!  Forget about mine; you put your energies into your own book.”  So when I came to the realization that I was ready to write a book, not one of them discouraged me.  They all said, “Forget about helping me if you have a book project.”

Dr. Felder and participants in the BISC 2011 Black History Program

Jim Cone, especially was the one.  I was sitting in my office at 1240 Randolph Street and said, “What am I going to write on?  I’ve got all of these articles.”  And I started looking around.  I said, “I don’t want to write a book about ‘white people’ this and ‘white people’ that.  So I looked over and I saw a stack of all of the articles that I had written.  I jumped up, and got one stack and put it on the floor; got another other stack and put it on the floor; got another one and put that on the floor.  I said, “These are the articles that I have written over the past several years.  There’s a book right here, probably!”  So I called up Jim Cone in New York, and I said “Jim.”  He said, “Yeah, Cain, what’s up?”  I said, “I think I want to write a book!”  He said, “It’s about time!”  I said, “I’ve got all of this material here.  Can I send it all up to you and you tell me whether I’ve got a book in there or not?”  So I sent the material up to New York.  He called me back in about two weeks.  He said, “Cain, you don’t only have one book; you have about three books here.”  He said, “It’s just a matter of organizing the material,” and he gave me some instructions.  That was the beginning that lead to me – in the next year and a half – to publishing my first book, “Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family,” and this book came out in 1989.  It is now in its 24th printing.  White folks told me that “Troubling Biblical Waters” was going to end my life. [For a list of books by Dr. Felder, click here.] 

Then Jeremiah Wright did a study guide and presented it to me in Chicago at his church – Trinity.  The Study Guide for Dr. Cain Hope Felder’s “Troubling Biblical Waters,” has gone through three printings.  It’s a highly technical book because I was challenging all of the white scholars.  Unfortunately, some of the people who did the study guide for Jeremiah Wright wanted to impress me on how smart they were; so they made the study guide almost more technical than the book!  [Laughter] 

Destiny – Pride: Okay, let me ask you the next question because we haven’t gotten to the second page yet.  [Laughter]

Dr. Felder: I know.  Isn’t that awful? [Laughter]  I told you it was going to take a while [Laughter].

Destiny – Pride: What and who in your life – briefly – have had the greatest impact upon you and the choices you have made?

Dr. Felder: That’s easy.  Number one, in terms of my family, it would be my mother, no question about it.  The very same thing on who kind of ordained me, who supported me through college and who never gave up on me, despite my limitations – my mother.  The second person to have a great impact upon me was my father in the ministry – Rev. Dr. Negail Rudolph Riley and his wife, Gwendolyn.  I came up under his tutelage.  Another person was a white social worker, Don Hufford, of Wichita, Kansas, who later did his Ph.D. under my inspiration.  He did his Ph.D. at either Wichita State or the University of Kansas, and he did his dissertation – of all things – on the educational philosophy of E. B. Dubois.  I’m still in touch with him and his wife right now.  He was very athletic and very influential, but a wonderful guy.  So he and Negail Riley were two people at the settlement house, the summer camps and Boston Goodwill Industries that had a great impact on the formative years of my life. 

Now here at Howard, of course, as an undergraduate I had several people that I really admired.  One was Dr. William Augustus Banner.  I had him in several courses in philosophy.  I think he’s almost in his 90’s now.  I had lunch with him a few weeks back and presented him with one of my books.  He didn’t know that I was so impressed with him, but he had a classical training Ph.D. from Harvard and was a very decent and inspiring man.  So coming back on the faculty, I finally was able to let him know.  I would run into him from time to time, because I was a philosophy major.  So as for professors, he was a very inspiring person for me. 

Later as I developed in my life, it would be people like James Cone of New York, who we see as the father of black theology.  I did the first review of his book “Black Theology and Black Power,” which came out in 1969.  I was always very positively influenced and inspired by C. Eric Lincoln in Sociology and Religion, but Jim Cone and I had a closer relationship and I was really inspired by him.  When I finished my Ph.D., I would tell him first, and he gave me a big hug.  He was very, very encouraging and helpful in the “politics” up at Union and Columbia.  Other people would be Gayraud Wilmore, in the National Committee of Black Churchmen and who is head of the Black Caucus for the Presbyterian Church.  He has been a prolific writer who wrote “Black Religion and Black Radicalism.”  He was very inspirational. 

Now in terms of others, there were some women whom I noted as great achievers and very inspiring.  I was very impressed by Toni Morrison, my English teacher when I came here to Howard.  I had Toni Morrison as my English teacher back in ‘1962, ’63.

Destiny – Pride: You’re kidding!

Dr. Felder: Yeah!  I had a little crush on her, I suppose [laughter], but I ran into her later when she was at Random House and I told her how much at Howard her presence had influenced me very positively.  Finally, I’ve mentioned Negail Riley and I’ve mentioned C. Eric Lincoln, but the two people in “Troubling Biblical Waters” that I quote the most are James Hal Cone of Union Seminary in New York and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Destiny – Pride: Of what faith are you?

Dr. Felder is present as his friend and colleague, Rev. Anthony Motley, receives a Proclamation

Dr. Felder: Well I am ordained now in the AME Church – the African Episcopal Methodist Church – Second Episcopal District under Bishop Richardson.  For most of my adult life I was United Methodist, predominantly white, but I found after awhile that once I defined blacks in antiquity and blacks in the bible as a lead field for myself, the Methodist kind of backed away from me, so I then “backed away” from them and became AME.

Destiny – Pride: What are your perspectives as it relates to religion in the United States?

Dr. Felder: Religion in the United States right now is in a massive crisis.  It’s in a massive crisis of integrity; a crisis of deception and distortion on huge, monumental proportions.  As in the Pastoral Epistles’ H&Ms there, it says “practicing the form of religion, but denying its power.”  I think that we practice public religion and we see various manifestations of Christianity in either the high services of the Catholics – which is kind of like the state religion from the Vatican – or we see the variations of protestantisms by certain denominations, or even non-denominations; but there you see oftentimes a culture of the Christian religious enterprise.  So essentially, you’re seeing a religion that is now the victim and the arbitrator of the popular culture and commercialization of religion – that is “religion-for-profit.”  Religion-for-profit – promising people anything, but the bottom line is that the people will provide the resources, money and that the religion will thrive.  Why else would large churches on television pay thousands of dollars to broadcast these so-called “ministries?”  A lot of it is for self-aggrandizement and profit. 

Now there are exceptions, for example, the Saddleback Ministry with Rick Warren and others.  I mean they really try, from whatever profits they get, to give back to the ministry.  So, you do have examples like that.  But by and large, religion in America is in a state of crisis, and the simple way to put it is that the ideals of the bible are sacrificed on the crucible of the culture and the politics of the United States – the political economy of the United States.  So religion is only useful in the United States when it serves the national, political economy.  It has become too respectable to be any earthly good from a “transformative” point of view.

Destiny – Pride: Wow!

Dr. Felder: Well, it’s true!  So much so that even we who are professors and others are intimidated and bullied from being able to tell the truth.  In my books, at least I tell the truth.  That’s why I don’t get the honorary doctorate degrees; they won’t give them to me.  I was amazed last year, when in February, the Board of Trustees gave me the Distinguished Alumni Award for 2010.  Then in March, I got the Union Seminary Trailblazer Award.  But I noticed that it wasn’t the “Union” Award; it was the “Trailblazer” Award among the “black” graduates – so that was a “segregated” award.

Destiny – Pride: Well you see that my jaw dropped, because I am in total agreement.  This is not my interview, so I didn’t want to interject myself.  But I truly am in sync with what you said.  Now the next question is in relationship to the previous one.  How do you see religion as it relates to the African American experience today?

Dr. Felder: In many ways, the black church has sold its soul for glamour, for tinsel and for too much self-aggrandizement of the pastor.  We’re living in a time when you have black Baptist Bishops, which is completely ridiculous.  Baptists are of a totally different congregational structure.  So what you have are ministers who have become so wealthy and powerful that they don’t care about tradition, so they threw all of that out.  They’re only interested in Lear Jets and Bentleys and helicopters.  That is a shame; it’s an absolute disgusting shame that we have allowed this to happen.  That’s why we don’t see people come into ministry to become transformation agents and prophets anymore.  What we’re seeing in a lot of the young preachers is that they want to be CEOs; they want to have a big church – a mega-church.  What we see is that they’re coming in for the glamour of it.  They want to have a television ministry.  They want to come into preaching and learn preaching as a technique to get people to tithe.  That’s what we’re seeing.  The rise of the Christian celebrity!!

Destiny – Pride: Now you’ve hit on some of it, but how far, if at all, have we strayed from the religion of our forefathers, and where do you see us heading as a people and as a country?

Dr. Felder: The leadership and the professional classes of our people who have made great progress in their American progress and in business have too often compromised so much of themselves for material prosperity and professional approval in a predominantly white corporate America that they’ve lost touch with the people and the cultural values that kept our people going as change agents in the past.  What I would say is that too many of us who have been successful and have gotten the white man’s degree and who are now doctors, lawyers and teachers have become so much so full of our own selves in our individual success that we’ll throw a bone here or there to the people but, by and large, we are very distant from our people.  We are enjoying the good life with the dominant society, and whenever we can do that, we will.  And I understand that.  I’m saying that Christianity does not require a vow of poverty, but it does require a balance.  So if you’re going to be prosperous, then how do we help more and more people in the community succeed?  A lot of my writing is like that.  I can write on all kinds of esoteric subjects, but no, I keep writing and challenging pastors and others to try to reflect at least something of the ministry of Jesus; reflect something of the prophetic chastisements of God that are in the bible when we’ve gone too far.

Dr. Felder holds a conversation with students

You know, one of the greatest disappointments that I’m experiencing now as one who was so enthusiastic about Obama, is the way – and last night [Wednesday, June 22, 2011] really kind of demonstrated it when he came on television – in which we’ve seen the ideals of a wonderful miracle happen with a well-trained, articulate strong family man, and in two and one-half years, he has gone from being a peace transformative person into one who has been intimidated by the military industrial complex so much so that he’s now talking like the Republicans he once opposed. 

I’m very concerned about President Obama in terms of his movement further and further from the peace and reconciliation and withdrawal of the troops out of Iraq that was where he stood in 2008 to almost a person that’s hardly recognizable in this regard – who now has been so co-opted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all of his advisors who seem more interested in protecting the mortgage bankers and Wall Street, whom he has helped or repeatedly made great loans to and encouraged that, but who has done very little for the masses of African American people – or even the Latinos – who voted over 60-something percent for him.  It’s like they’ve all been put on the back burner.  Even last night when he was on television talking about the 10,000 reduction.  I thought 10,000 was the starter just for July, but listening carefully to him he’s talking about it only begins a withdrawal of 10,000 that won’t reach that figure of 10,000 until December.  Absolutely outrageous!!  And then he gave us these other numbers – a very long, detailed and protracted withdrawal. 

This is the same man who in 2008 said that we should get out of Iraq.  And if we should have gotten out of Iraq then, it seems to me that definitely, with Saddam Hussein done as well as Osama bin Laden now dead, that we have no basis to continue to put African American men, Latino men, white boys and girls in harms way in this ridiculous and defensible war.  And so the thrill is gone, and a lot of us who supported him enthusiastically before, feel that he has been co-opted by all of those and have been intimidated by the Republicans and allowing them to get their way.  It’s very, very unfortunate!  So I think these next two years are going to be difficult, and I think that he’s going to be in for a big surprise unless he begins to show the people who really put him into office – the Latinos, the Latinas, the African Americans and others, along with whites of good will who are progressive and who are against these wars – that he needs to show us something for a change!  I sound like I’m campaigning, don’t I? [Laughter]

Destiny – Pride: Yes you do [laughter].  What would you consider to be your greatest disappointment and how, if at all, have you come to terms with it?  What about your greatest achievements?

Dr. Felder: My greatest disappointment is the loss of a lot of my youthful idealisms.  I was a very idealistic humanitarian who believed that the ideals of the bible – particularly the New Testament – really could serve the cause of social justice.  I have worked at that trying to demonstrate that the ministry of Jesus and the prophetic witness of the bible in the general sense compels society to move to more concerns about the poor and the marginalized.  Frankly, my biggest disappointment is to see that there’s such demonic powers against that that it seems almost impossible!  I’m not giving up, but I’m saying that that’s why Dr. Martin Luther King was killed and that’s why we see other great martyrs who stood for social justice.  I think that was a bitter pill – the waning sense of my social justice enthusiasm as I get older – and I hope I can recover it.  That’s why I keep writing and I keep preaching and I keep going.

My other great disappointment is to recognize – not the futility – but the limits of love.  Even of “agape,” the Christian love, where you love not for what a person can do for you, or will do back to you, but when you love and show the love and love and love and it’s still not enough.  That’s, I think, another part of it.  That people you’ve helped and loved, again whether it’s a daughter, whether it’s a son, whether it’s a brother, or anybody else in the community – a student – and you showed, again and again, sacrificial love, expecting nothing from them but to see their achievement!  And then to go forward, and it all falls through.  You ask God hard questions, and I think that those are, too, realities.  It doesn’t mean that you stop loving, or you stop trying to do it, but in the back of your mind it just pushes you too close to the precipice – where you wonder, “What’s God doing?”  And yet you come back and slap yourself and say “How dare I question God?”  So it’s that kind of tension of being a person of great belief and some erudition, who is a tremendous idealist, believing so much in social justice, and yet seeing the rich get richer; the poor get poorer; the rich gloat over their riches and stand over the poor in their humiliation.  And even when you get a miracle like a Barack Obama in the White House, you see how he’s chipped away all of the great elements of what could be done.  I mean, I’m not talking about being revolutionary.  Of course you can’t be revolutionary, but at least, on one or two occasions, show some spunk and not just give us a lot of palaver.

Now, in terms of my greatest achievement, my greatest achievement – and I want you to hear this because it’s very important.  My greatest achievement, my friend, is liberating myself from Princeton and the Ivy Leagues and placing my life in Howard University – coming back to Washington, for better or for worse, realizing that once you do this kind of research, the larger society is going to ignore you and punish you, one way or another.  Why complain about it?  And it’s not just the larger society of them; it’s your colleagues here – hear me now.  Even if you get some recognition, as I certainly have in parts of the black church.  There’s no question about it that people know who I am, particularly after the African Heritage Study Bible and all that we’ve done.  It’s been fascinating that the French – the francophone countries – now have the whole African Area Study Bible.  That’s a great achievement.

Dr. Felder and wife, Jewell Felder, at their wedding

In fact, I was introduced at New St. Mark’s Church over in Baltimore last Sunday in such a wonderful way that I said, “My goodness!  I didn’t realize that the pastor thought that of me” – that he was giving me that kind of an introduction.  It was very humbling.  Therefore, I would say that in coming to Howard, despite the downside, I’ve been able to produce within the research areas that I’ve wanted to.  I’ve been able to get recognition.  I’m in the nation’s capital.  I may not get the honorary degrees.  I may not get the big money that Cornell West and all these other entrepreneurs of religion and the black experience are getting.  Cornell West is a “revolutionary millionaire.”  So you can see what that’s about.  I mean he’s a brilliant brother.  So brilliant that with everything he’s doing, he’s making millions, and still tries to present himself as a “radical.”  Now talking about a “chameleon.”

Destiny – Pride: You say he’s wealthy off of his revolutionary dogma.  That’s kind of a “disconnect,” isn’t it?

Dr. Felder: It’s a profound disconnect.  It’s worse than that because you then present yourself as a radical.  But Cornell is a phenomenon in a remarkable way like Obama is a phenomenon.  Cornell is a phenomenon because he maintains his radical image and he is a very profound thinker in a number of ways.  But Cornell is a “player.”

Destiny – Pride: Are you saying that because he’s making millions in his radicalism, he knows where the line is and therefore knows where “not” to cross?

Dr. Felder: Yeah, he pulls back strategically.  He has the wisdom to know how to play it.  That’s why he’s called a “player.”  He knows how to play the game in the Ivy Leagues, where he has stayed.  Cornell has gotten his Ph.D., his undergraduate work with Harvard; he has his Ph.D. from Princeton; he’s taught at Yale and Columbia and Union in New York.  He’s just been in Ivy League schools.

Destiny – Pride: What do you do when you want to relax? Any hobbies or interests?

Dr. Felder: I like to travel, not just to lead tours, which I do almost every year at the Egypt/Israel Bible Lands in West Africa and South Africa.  I’ve taken many trips abroad.  These are educational trips.  That’s part of my problem.  My wife tells me all the time that I don’t relax enough.  I’m comparatively close to having lost having fun.  I just celebrated a birthday and my wife and I went on the cruise around Washington.  We danced one time, and I said to her, “Isn’t it interesting that it’s been years since we’ve gotten on a dance floor and had a dance?”  Now to be honest with you, what I “like” is when we go out and I can go to a nice play or concert with my wife.  A classical musical or symphony.  And we have done that periodically, but that’s an area where my doctors tell me I need to improve.  They said I need to take more time out for myself.  I like to swim, but I don’t swim.  I don’t play golf, but I’ve gotten a couple of people who say that they’re going to teach me just for the sake of walking on the golf course.  But I’ve been so nervous about those damn golf courses because of the images that they represent.  So I tell you, I need to do better [regarding relaxing and enjoying himself] but I don’t.  But I love swimming; I love taking cruises.  I used to play chess but I don’t do that anymore.

Destiny – Pride: What insights or last thoughts do you have for our visitors?

Dr. Felder: Two things, and they come from the very much neglected Epistle of James in the New Testament.  James comes right after the Epistle of Hebrews.  I did my dissertation on the Epistle of James.  It only has five chapters, but I spent five years doing a dissertation on the Epistle of James.  It’s very neglected.   

James is the brother of the Lord.  In the first chapter he opens up with a remarkable indictment of American culture by saying “Count it all joy, brothers and sisters, when various trials and tribulations come your way because with these very trials the Lord is trying to prepare you to deepen your faith and to deepen your wisdom so that you will be ultimately lacking nothing.”  In other words, don’t just wallow in the sadness and the tragedy of trials and tribulations, but know that they may be a test of your true identity and caliber for service for the Lord.  I’ve always been impressed deeply by that.  So he says “Count it all joy, brothers and sisters.”  When we look at the history of African Americans, we’ve been treated so shabbily – but NEVER forget it!  Allow that shabby treatment and those pains and trials and tribulations that come to us – unique as African Americans – to prepare us for the great transformative role that we can have as a people of faith changing the soul of America.

The fourth chapter, verse 14 says:  “You do not even know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are but a vapor, a mist, that appears for a little while and vanishes.  Instead of worrying about money, you should say everything and if the Lord wills or wishes we will do this or that.”  This was originally a Hellenism, but in Arabic it’s “Insha Allāh” [ن شاء الله)] – if God wills.  Muslims say it all the time.  But they got it from the Greeks – “thelasay” [Ean Ho Kurios ] – which was written six centuries before Islam. 

So my closing words are, no matter how many challenges, difficulties and temptations come our way, don’t give in to it for private pity parties.  See how the Lord is trying to get your attention to give you a new identity.  The second thing is don’t think that you are God’s gift to the world and you’re all of that.  James 4:14 states, “You’re but a vapor” ultimately; we’re just here for a very short amount of time.  So the question for us – and for me, which saves me from cynicism and forgetting all of my ideals – is the recognition that if I’m but a vapor, then while I have this human consciousness, I’m going to pay attention to the vapor that’s within – my spirit.  Karl Barth, the great European dogmatic theologian, says “Eternity precedes us.  What connects us to eternity is the spirit that lives beyond the flesh.” And that is the vapor.  It appears for a little while, and then it vanishes.  But the “vanishing” from the earthly realm is a “reconnection” with the spirit eternal that precedes us.  So we come out of this eternally.  Religion, if it doesn’t have a transcendental perspective, to put all of the mundane, earthly, material “litter” into a perspective that is humbling, then religion has no purpose.  I think the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church all buy into all of the glamour and the splendor; all of the jewelry and all of the gold.  Even the Protestant Church.  All of them.  But all of that is suppose to point, not to human materialist possession, but to a higher reality.

Destiny – Pride: Dr. Felder, thank you so much for sharing this brief moment with us.  You indeed have had a full and fruitful life in academia and as well in the areas of religion and spirituality, and we applaud all of the work you have done in all of these areas.  We wish you continued success in any future endeavors that you may pursue.  It has indeed been an honor to converse with you.

Dr. Felder: Thank you, thank you, indeed, Brother Rufus Mayfield!  I am glad you were patient enough to wait for me here in my office, because I have so much that I’m trying to do, even during the summer.

Back to the Spotlight list

Posted in