Interview: Walter Strickland on Charles Octavius Boothe and Respecting Black Theologians

Walter Strickland Faithfully Magazine
Walter R. Strickland II

This interview was published in Faithfully Magazine No. 2 (Summer 2017).

Walter R. Strickland II teaches theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. He is also the seminary’s Special Advisor to the President for Diversity. Strickland was elected as first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention at its 2017 annual meeting (after this interview was conducted). The Chicago-born, California-raised married father is also an author, with his latest project being Plain Theology for Plain People (Lexham Classics) by 19th-century theologian Charles Octavius Boothe. Plain Theology for Plain People “destroys reductionist stereotypes of [B]lack faith,” according to Strickland.

How did you get involved in writing the introduction for the new edition of Charles Octavius Boothe’s Plain Theology for Plain People by Lexham Press?

I was doing research for my dissertation and I stumbled across Plain Theology for Plain People and I just said hey, someone needs to do it justice and give it the air time it needed because (Boothe) is on point and should be heard just as much as any of the other people who are considered greats who’ve done theology and who have done pastoral ministry. But because he’s a Black man, there’s an injustice at the presses and so somebody had to do it justice, and I figured why not me.

Did you have to sell that argument very much to the publisher?

You know what, I didn’t. I told them, “This is a gem that’s been covered up because of the racism of our past and somebody needs to step up and republish it” and they said, “We’ll do it.” It was funny, because I was pitching a different book to them called The Story of Black Christianity that they accepted. Then I said, “Hey, I’ve done a talk called ‘The History and Theology of the Black Church,’ it’s gonna be along the lines of that.” I sent them a link to it and in that I said, “Hey, I want to reprint Charles Octavius Boothe’s Plain Theology for Plain People and they just jumped on it. They’re the ones who came to me about it, and then I told them why I wanted it to be republished. It’s actually a good thing on them because they had been wanting to include other voices, especially in their Lexham Classics series. I went to them about one book and it ended up being three: the book I pitched, which is The Story of Black Christianity in America; then this book they asked for [Boothe’s Plain Theology]; and then they said they wanted me to do a reader on African-American Christianity, compiling a lot of those works that had been covered up and getting them out there. Even still, they’ve in recent days approached Jemar Tisby and they’re gonna approach Karen Ellis and others. They’ll approach several other people to do other volumes to really get a lot of the African-American Christian legacy out there. It hasn’t been out there because of the disparity of the intrigue with that work and the presses historically.

Why do you think Lexham is now focused on including more ethnically diverse Christian perspectives?

Lexham’s new editor, who was appointed maybe a year and half ago, Brannon Ellis, is a Ph.D. from (the University of) Aberdeen and he really gets it. He’s really trying to push their publishing house towards a variety of cultural perspectives. Then also Todd Hains, who’s the associate editor that I’m working directly with, in his training was able to get a perspective from somebody else. Essentially, what’s happening is that the power brokers at Lexham have shifted. Both are still White men, but at the same time they’re like, “Hey, we have the power to now wield this for good and that good includes our bringing in voices of other people and other groups that have not been heard.” Those two, I would say, are leading the charge at Lexham to say “we have to change this.” … I do think, overall, that the Spirit’s doing something in this area. I think it’s slow-going, but as the Lord puts people in positions of power in places, I think we’re going to be seeing more stuff like this from White evangelicals. Not that everybody is always on board but I think the Lord is putting some strategic people in places to get some information out and to change some institutional structures both in publishing and outside of publishing, and education, denominational life, what have you. (I think) we’re gonna see some changes coming down the pike.

Regarding Boothe, he’s a very interesting person. He was born into slavery, worked at a law firm when he was a teen and taught himself how to read. Where did he get his theological training, or was he self-taught in that also?

He was all self-taught theologically speaking. The place where he had the most exposure to Scripture was at that law firm, because the law was based on Pauline theology. Pauline logic, that Roman logic is what the American legal system was sort of based upon, loosely speaking. In law schools, even now, but especially 20 years ago, people would have to read the Book of Romans and understand the Book of Romans and how it was constructed. In the 1850s, 1860s that’s definitely the sort of text that they would have been relying upon heavily. During that time [Boothe] would have been introduced to Paul especially, and then his intrigue with the biblical text just began to grow. As far as his rigorous study of Scripture, that’s probably where it began.

What are some things you admire about Boothe’s life and legacy? At the same time, how would you recommend him to contemporary Christians who may favor reading modern work over historical writings?

As far as his life and legacy, what I personally admire is just the fact that somebody can rise up in the midst of struggle. He was born into slavery, as we said, he was disconnected from some of his family early on. There’s no mention of a father, so I assume his mother was used to birth a lot of children which was the practice back then, the continued destruction of the family and separating parents from children as chattel. Out of that, the Lord can still raise somebody up. Out of the brokenness, the Lord can still restore something. As he … gets educated, he begins to educate others to be an agent of justice in the public square, as he was dealing with some public issues there with immigration. He was dealing with justice issues in general as Jim Crow segregation came into play in a major way, as lynching was at its height in the 1890s. So out of the ashes can come something beautiful.

I think that would encourage people today as well, because people have some rough situations that they’re coming out of. The Lord can still use people in those situations to do something great. I think sometimes folks downplay the potential influence that they could have because of their current scenario or the scenario that they are born into. This book [Plain Theology for Plain People] is a great example to me about how somebody can still rise above those circumstances. As far as to contemporary people who stay with work that’s been written today, I think it’s a very similar message. But I would add that — and this is basic, nothing revolutionary — if we don’t know where we’ve come from, we don’t know where we’re going. That’s the reason why you read history and you read the [church] fathers and you read some new names and faces that are coming into the Christian narrative, especially in America, that have been obscured because of racism. I think this gives us a better picture of where we have come from so that we can have a better, accurate portrayal about where we should be going.

In Boothe’s time, the Black Church was a vital vehicle for everything pertaining to African-American life. How do you see the Black Church of Boothe’s time compared to the contemporary Black Church?

I think the call is the same: to be salt and light, to restore brokenness. I think that’s the same both then and now. What you’re getting at is that the historical context in which the Black church then finds itself versus now is very different. Back then, the Black church was almost the sole institution (where) Black people could do anything where they led themselves. That’s important because the church had to suffice in the political realm, the spiritual realm, and the social realm. Those sorts of things were all achieved in the church context because that’s the place where we were free to do what we wanted to do. Now, there are other avenues for that. Millennials are frustrated at times with the state of the Black Church, especially as it pertains to some of the stereotypes of Black ministers. We have the sort of “Preachers of L.A.” idea that’s been put out there. There’s this charge of (not) being thoughtful. I’ve been in conversations with some people who, for the most part, grew up in the Black church but they’re looking for something to really dig into. But the church really didn’t have the thoughtful answers that they were hoping for so that’s an alternative that I’ve been seeing, a trend of people who have grown up in the Black church and are frustrated with its sort of intellectual apathy and then are moving on to something else.

I think that Boothe begins to answer some of those questions, begins to debunk some of those stereotypes, not just of the preacher but of the purpose of the Black church. Yes, the church can be activistic but it can also be thoughtful, which are usually seen as two different purposes. I think the purpose of the church is the same: to be an agent of restoration (and) of brokenness, politically, socially, spiritually, emotionally. But the environment now is more challenging because of the introduction of several different types of avenues to express that. I think that the time is here for the church to rise up and be that sort of holisitc restorative agent that it could be because when we look around, there are people who are beginning to look for that holistic development, that holistic change. But what we have, especially in the era of social media, is people who are talking a lot but not really doing much. Then we have people who are doing a lot but they’re not really hitting the crux of the problem which is the restoration of the brokenness in people. Then, therefore, those people begin to work well in the structures of society to reform them to bring about the justice that God embodies Himself.

You sit on the advisory council of the MLK50 Conference, a Christian gathering scheduled for April 2018 in Memphis, Tennessee. We see a lot of these kinds of conferences, where there’s group dialogue, instruction and so forth. Will there be a lot of repenting?

I think that that’s important. I think the significance of repentance, especially being programmed into something that’s of this magnitude, would speak very loudly and boldly about how we still participate in some of the structural realities that privilege one group over another and then even are comfortable to remain that way. Even for privileged Black Evangelicals or privileged Blacks who have somehow found a way to leverage some of the changes that were meant for the entirety of Black people and just keep them to themselves. That’s a whole other conversation. But what I’m saying is there is repentance that needs to happen on a broad scale. … Currently, it’s not structured into what’s going on to my knowledge, but I think that could be a very profound moment for those who are participating and even those who even watch from a distance to see what’s going on. But as far as what’s going on right now, it’s gonna be a lot of folks there from all different backgrounds. People who are from Memphis, but also beyond.

One of the first big critiques that the event got was that who in Memphis is going to be involved. Since then, there’s been a lot of Progressive National Baptist pastors included. In fact, (representatives) from all the seven historically Black denominations are going to be involved, as well as those who are going to come in from all over the country. I can’t reveal some of the things that are going to happen specifically, but there are going to be those who are there for the event who are working now to figure out how we can leverage what we are able to for the sake of the Memphis community. There will be tangible steps and evidences of repentance given to the community that we are going to be inhabiting for those days, but I can’t really jump into the specifics of those. But there will be some restorative acts done that are of a scale that I’m excited about.

On another note, you’ve been nominated as the first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. How do you feel about that?

It’s humbling. I’m 33, and to have a young man being put up for a role like that that’s of a denomination of this size is rare. But really, I’m seeing this as an evidence of something happening within the life of the convention to have a young, Black male—especially in the times that we’re living in in the running for the vice presidency. We’re still grappling with the rumblings of Trayvon [Martin], Mike Brown and the list goes on of these incidents that are of high profile with young, Black men. I think that the convention is saying something with my nomination. … [It] seems like a very pleasant and happy glimmer when you have a person who is young, who’s Black and male in the running for this office because those three things together have a stigma in our society.

In the broader Southern Baptist landscape, some might consider me more as an intellectual because of my role at the [Southeastern Baptist Theological] seminary as a professor. Then also not to mention the work that I do at Southeastern Seminary as far as with diversity, as far as racial justice, as far as shaping, re-shaping the historical systemic injustices of our institution (and) re- situating those so that they sustain a more holistic vision and picture of the Kingdom as it relates to both race and gender on our campus. It seems very exciting that the convention as a whole would be so excited about me running for this. Hopefully, it’s a sign towards a desire for unity. Hopefully, a sign that our disposition towards minority Evangelicals is developing, and not just saying, “Hey, come and preach at our things and then go home” but actually come and sit at the table and structure these things, or restructure these things to help develop a more equitable structure, denominationally speaking, so that more types of churches can flourish. I think those are all things that excite me about it.

Are there any other projects, besides the books, that you’re working on?

The “Kingdom Diversity” podcast is going to be switching gears a little bit this coming fall. We’re taking the summer off, in line with the academic calendar. It’s going to be called “From the Lectern” and what we’re going to be trying to do is equip the church to be agents of restoration. That’s in a broad sense — spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, politically. What we’ll be doing is really instructing, teaching, imparting doctrine to critical race theory through a Christian lens, to thinking about very important issues like immigration, talking about a swath of things. It’s really going to be geared at equipping people, being a resource and directing them to resources that could help them in that development. … It really fits in with what we’re after as a school, as an educational institution. It will be primarily myself and then we hired a Director of Hispanic Leadership Development, and Dr. Miguel Echevarria is fantastic. He’s a Ph.D. in Greek and New Testament. He’s teaching here on our faculty, also directing our efforts both on campus and abroad, as we have partners in Cuba. … We’re doing a lot of work down there but he’s also doing a lot of work on campus here, too. So it will be he and I who are doing the majority of that, but we’ll have other folks on as well to help us.

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    Written by Nicola A. Menzie

    Nicola A. Menzie is Managing Editor of Faithfully Magazine. Nicola is a religion reporter in NYC whose bylines have appeared on the websites of the Religion News Service, The Christian Post, CBS News and Vibe magazine. You can find her on Twitter @namenzie. Email: nicola.menzie (at) faithfullymagazine.com.

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