Every year, Dr. Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of the Circular Congregational Church in Charleston (and City Paper columnist), creates a lecture series for his congregation and the public. The lectures take on matters of both spirituality and ethics, both as a reflection of what Rutledge believes the church is all about and in honor of the tradition they've carried on for decades.
"I've been at the Circular Congregational Church for a little over five years," Rutledge says, "but my predecessor was there for more than 30 years, and he was both a pastor and an ethicist. There's always been an interest in learning and scholarship at this church, and I think people who come here want to marry the life of the mind to the life of faith. That's part of our philosophy."
That's why Rutledge designed the lectures to bring in some of the best theological and ethical scholars in the country to Charleston to speak on topics of their choosing, and also why he made sure the series is free to the public.
"We want to educate ourselves and ground ourselves in good theology and ethics, but we also want to offer that opportunity to anyone else who's interested," he says. "It's not just for us; these good ideas are to be shared and discussed."
In some cases, the lectures are created in concert with other churches and denominations around the city. For example, the first lecturer that Rutledge scheduled when the series started three years ago was James Cone, a major figure in what's known as "black liberation theology." In brief, that theology re-contextualizes Christianity as a way to overcome the oppression that those of African descent have suffered, from slavery to apartheid and beyond.
"For those lectures, we partnered with the Charity Missionary Baptist Church, a primarily black church, who we've worked with for many years," Rutledge says. "This time, our friends at the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue are going to join us. There's an interfaith element to what we're doing. It's not outreach as in trying to convert people, it's more outreach in terms of trying to build partnerships and work together and learn about ethics and apply them together. We celebrate our differences and the way we partner together."
As with Dr. Cone's visit, this year's series will involve race, a topic perhaps not far from many people's minds in the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, Va.
This week's speaker is Professor Albert Raboteau, a scholar of American religious history whose many books include Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, African-American Religion: Interpretative Essays in History and Culture, ed. with Timothy Fulop, and most recently American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.
The topics of Raboteau's lectures on Sept. 6 and 7 will be "Why am I Here? A Personal Religious Journey" and "Suffering and Forgiveness in the African-American Religious Tradition."
"I invited Prof. Raboteau after we were on a panel together," Rutledge says. "We were talking to some divinity students about reconciliation and forgiveness in the African-American religious traditions, and he was speaking about those ideas in the context of the murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church. I was able to relate what I and other clergy had experienced. With him you get such rich history, but you also see how it plays out in the present moment. I think the hope with him is that the more we understand our different histories, the more we'll understand the moment we're in."
While Raboteau could not be reached for comment for this article — the guy's busy and out of the country and all that — he spoke to The Atlantic last year about the need for "prophetic voices in a time of racial violence." Raboteau said, "The prophetic voice presents another alternative to the dominant narrative. The prophetic voice creates discomfort, and a sense of shame: Is this America? How can this be happening in a country with these values? How can this be going on — a police state murdering black men? How can this go on in America, and is there something I can do about it?"
Rutledge says that the recent racial strife the country has seen wasn't the main thrust behind bringing Professor Raboteau to speak, but that he certainly might be able to bring some perspective.
"I think what's happening in the country has been at a boil for years now," Rutledge says. "On my drive here from Houston in 2012, I was listening to stories about Trayvon Martin. I participated in a demonstration for Trayvon the first day I was here. So it's an ongoing story, but we're deeply pained by it and wondering what it means. Is it a moment for us to do something we've never done before? When does it turn the corner? When do we break free of these old patterns? When we invited the professor here, we didn't know Charlottesville was going to happen. He will arrive in that moment, but it's a much broader topic. He can help us with this when we look back at our history and see some of the same things. And maybe bring a kind of perspective."
Rutledge says that in their best moments, these events come off less like lectures and more like storytelling, or even autobiography.
"It's someone presenting what's been their life's work," he says. "I think for all of us there's the question of what your own personal story and struggle have been, because it's out of that that the passion comes. Whoever you are, there's a reason you're that person. "