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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Our Captivity to Racism, Part 3

In the last couple of weeks we have looked at the fact that all of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, have prejudice against others. However, for those of us who are white, when we combine our innate prejudice with the white privilege that is characteristic of US society, this makes us racists. The first step towards liberation must begin with acknowledging our own racism.

Last week we followed the first step of confession with the second step of repentance – turning away from our racism – and we discussed the ineffectiveness of the current models of salvation currently taught in our churches and seminaries. More effective and more contextual models for us to follow might be the Rich Young Ruler and Zaccheus where following Jesus is intimately tied with making right our relationships with others, particularly those who are marginalized or oppressed. You cannot have right relationship with God without right relationship with people.

And this all takes us to this week where we will focus on the nature of those relationships and how we live those out. This requires we live incarnationally among those we are most distant from. For those of us who are white and benefit from white privilege, this means living intentionally in relationship with people of other races and socio-economic groups.

Now, this can conjure up some incredibly unhealthy images of the great white hope coming to save people of color. Quite frankly, these images are all too real and have been devastating in their impact on communities of color. But incarnational relationships as modeled to us in Scripture are actually mutual, reciprocal and egalitarian in nature. I need the other person as much or more than the other person might need me. Their hopes, dreams, and fears are my hopes dreams, and fears. This is the essence of incarnational living.

Incarnational relationships are absolutely necessary to addressing our own racism, but individual relationships alone will not effectively address societal racism. They provide a lens with which to see societal racism – something I cannot see on my own. Incarnational relationships sanctify us individually, but we also must make real the Kingdom of God in our society. There can be no individual holiness without social holiness. This is where the rubber hits the road for the Church.

I want to suggest here that at present the Church is almost entirely irrelevant in addressing racism because we do not acknowledge our own racism, we do not follow the Rich Young Ruler or Zaccheus models of repentance, we do not live out our sanctification through incarnational relationships and we do not address systemic racism. Other than these things we are doing great!

The truth is that addressing systemic racism or societal injustice of any kind is not an added burden if we are truly incarnated among those directly impacted by racism and oppression. Advocacy naturally flows out of the deep love we have for people directly impacted by injustice when we are incarnated among them. If there is no advocacy happening in our lives or in the life of our congregation, then it is likely we lack incarnational relationships among people directly experiencing injustice. And there is some strong research that bears this out.

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in their excellent book Divided by Faith, studied evangelical Christians in the United States and their views towards racism (2000). Their findings are still relevant because they show how the individualism innate to evangelicalism not only prevents relationships with those who are marginalized by racism, but actually promotes the social systems that perpetuate the causes of racism. Historically, evangelicals during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were not active in the struggle alongside African Americans. Southern evangelicals often sided with the segregationists and the Northern evangelicals were “more preoccupied with other issues – such as evangelism, and fighting communism and theological liberalism” (Emerson and Smith 2000:46).

Evangelicals are now verbally opposed to racism (though I contend that all whites, including white evangelicals, are racist in the US), but they understand racism solely on an individual level with very little recognition of the social, economic, or political reasons for its existence. Racism is seen by evangelicals, according to Emerson and Smith, as a problem of personal relationships and not as something inherently systemic.

Emerson and Smith found that white evangelicals and black evangelicals view racism very differently. Black evangelicals generally see racism as involving every aspect of society including schools, treatment by the police, the judicial system, participation in elections, and even churches. White evangelicals, on the other hand, due to an individualistic perspective, are generally unable to see the advantage that racism plays in their favor (Emerson and Smith 2000:91).

Emerson and Smith describe the solutions white evangelicals put forward to the problem of racism as ineffective. White evangelicals contend that the United States will no longer be racist if everyone will “become a Christian, love your individual neighbors, establish a cross-race friendship, give individuals the right to pursue jobs and individual justice without discrimination by other individuals, and ask for forgiveness of individuals one has wronged” (2000:130). What is striking is how entirely individualistic this solution is and how this leaves the social, economic and political orders intact. Moreover, even the encouragement to enter into cross-race relationships is singular, implying that one black friend is enough to eradicate societal racism. “They do not advocate or support changes that might cause extensive discomfort or change their economic and cultural lives. In short, they maintain what is for them the noncostly status quo” (2000:130, italics mine).

Essentially, Emerson and Smith claim that white evangelical Christians are unable to approach racism, or any social issue for that matter, because they do not have the “cultural tools,” or resources within their worldviews, to work towards genuine reconciliation in a racialized society. Moreover, Emerson and Smith present a sobering finding.

The white evangelical prescriptions do not address major issues of racialization. They do not solve such structural issues as inequality in health care, economic inequality, police mistreatment, unequal access to educational opportunities, racially imbalanced environmental degradation, unequal political power, residential segregation, job discrimination, or even congregational segregation. White evangelical solutions do not challenge or change the U.S. society . . . The result . . . is that white evangelicals, without any necessary intent, help to buttress the racialized society. (2000:132)

This is a hard word to be sure, but again, racism will not be effectively addressed unless we are brutally honest with ourselves and with one another. And for too many whites in the US – evangelical or not – our individualism has served to sustain the social, economic and political orders no matter how unjust they may be. In serving the needs of the individual, much of Scripture that addresses the broader social and structural issues of justice are either spiritualized or simply ignored, making such entire sections of the Bible like the minor prophets obscure texts that have little significance or application to our lives. The church that refuses to question or challenge the social, economic and political structures in society while providing ministries for those who are casualties of the status quo ends in being so fused with those structures as to almost cease being the Church that God calls us to be. Speaking and acting prophetically are as important to the life of the Body of Christ as providing food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, or clothes to the naked.

And all of these must ministries must be rooted incarnationally among people most directly impacted by injustice. The truth is that many of us who are white lack incarnational presence among people directly impacted by injustice because developing incarnational relationships take time and we are often geographically separated from people experiencing injustices. Segregation still exists in other words.

The time factor is, in many ways, simply a matter of commitment, but the geographical separation is more nuanced and perhaps more important. There are numerous historical, political, economic, and sociological reasons for this geographical separation, but what has been most tragic to me has been the way in which the Church has accepted this geographical segregation between races and has even benefitted from it. Thus, segregation continues unabated.

Suffice it to say for now, for those of us who are white in white-dominated churches truly want to build incarnational relationships with people of color and with people who are directly experiencing injustice, then we must be ready to sacrifice the facilities we have constructed in the homogeneous and isolated enclaves in which we are held captive. While this is a subject for another post, perhaps we should dump the temples we have erected, like King David to match our own opulence and look to the simple tabernacles (which are essentially tents) where God truly resides.


White racism is destructive and deadly, as seen so repeatedly on the evening news. But praise God we are shown that our salvation is at hand. All that awaits is our answer. And our answer will not be one that we can voice. Our answer is one we live out. For those of us who are white, we must acknowledge we are racist, we must repent of that racism, and we must be ready to expend the necessary time and energy to enter into incarnational relationships with those directly impacted by injustice. Not only does our own liberation from racism depend on it, so too does the liberation of our society. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Our Captivity to Racism, Part 2

I am taking a few weeks to look at racism in the United States in light of yet another shooting death of a young black man by a white man. Last week we looked at the fact that everyone has prejudice, but the presence of white privilege – combining prejudice with power – means that all white people are racist. When it comes to racial harmony, we all have sinned and fallen short of the Kingdom of God to paraphrase Paul.

So, what do we do? We must confess our sin – and I emphasize must because all too often we blithely skip over the first step of confession without offering any real thought or personal acknowledgement and then we wonder why we have not experienced liberation from racism. But as we confess and accept not just the presence of racism in society but our own participation and even benefit from it, what do we do next? What kind of models of salvation should we look to?

First, I suggest we understand what conversion should entail. If, as many anthropologists would agree in a general way that culture is the shared knowledge, beliefs, morals, customs, and norms acquired by the members of a society, then one's worldview is the heart of one's culture. And I want to focus on our worldview for that is what must be impacted to effectively address our innate racism.

Worldview, according to a former professor of mine from Asbury Seminary, Darrell Whiteman, means “the central set of concepts and presuppositions that provide people with their basic assumptions about reality” (1983:478). These assumptions govern not only what we do, but how we think and what we believe, even what or who we are loyal to. Worldviews are powerful and this is where transformation must occur for authentic conversion to happen. Conversion that does not impact one’s worldview is simply behavior modification.

While most modern missiologists tend to view worldview in a positive light Sherwood Lingenfelter, a missiologist who taught at Fuller Seminary, reminds us that culture is also a prison. He claims that from culture, “We find comfort, security, meaning, and relationships. Yet the walls of culture restrict our freedom and sets barriers between us and others of different ethnic origin” (1998:20). Thus, challenging one’s cultural walls is often like challenging one’s identity. And this is where, in a pluralistic and globalized world, the closer we get to one another it is quite often the more tribal and resistant to culture change we are. This is where we see whites claiming reverse racism, which again, is racism prejudice joined with power, thereby making reverse racism a fable.

I mention all of this because I don’t think our current models of Christian conversion or discipleship are impacting us at the worldview level, thus making them solely a form of behavior modification, especially in the area of racism among white people. With such deficient models of conversion and discipleship, for whites who have been raised in a culture embedded in racism, it means that we are innately racist. And even if we have come to Christ, there is a better than average chance that we are still racist because our worldview in how we view and especially relate to people of other races has not been converted – simply modified.

As a white person I have been raised to be nice to other people, but I am inherently racist even though I have “accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior” because the model of conversion I have been raised in and even taught in seminary too often has not impacted my worldview. There are no white hoods, no burning crosses, but our biases, joined with the privilege that we have from a society that favors whiteness, means we are still racist if there is not an intentionally corrective way of relating to people of color.

So, how can we be saved from our racism? The first thing I need to say is that we can be saved and for that, praise God! God can save us from the arrogant and paternalistic attitudes, from the control we demand to run things “our way,” thinking “our way” is best. We can be saved from the unbiblical practice of separating “good” or “deserving” African Americans (meaning black people who we think want to be more “like us”) from “bad” or “undeserving” African Americans. We can be saved from our own sympathy for African Americans which alienates us by objectifying African Americans or people of other races as “things” to be fixed. Yes, God wants to save us from these unbiblical habits and attitudes, these assumptions and loyalties that have kept us separated from people of color for generations.

I want to suggest that our models for salvation are insufficient for whites held captive to the sin of racism (and again, I believe that is all of us). For me, speaking from my own experience as an evangelical Christian – someone who accepted Christ when I was 12 and then struggled for years for lack of effective discipleship because I was taught the essence of Christian maturity was merely reading the Bible and praying A LOT and being nice to people and refraining from a long list of things that other people found to be a lot of fun. I am a Christian who has struggled to experience salvation at the worldview level because I have been taught that behavior modification is simply easier to attain.

So, out of my own sinfulness and brokenness I have tried to adhere to different models of conversion. These new models fit perfectly people like me – people with good intentions who have been raised in relative affluence (emphasis on relative for there are always poorer people and wealthier people), who have benefitted from the current social, economic, and political order – an order that benefits whites and demonizes people of color. The models are based on the story of the Rich Young Ruler (RYR), found in all four gospels, and Zaccheus, in Luke 19.

Focusing specifically on the RYR what is especially significant for our discussion is that before the RYR is invited to follow Jesus, he is first told to go sell all he has and give to the poor – to initiate relationship with the poor. Most discipleship models teach that our decision to follow Jesus comes first and once we have mastered the essentials of Christian faith – reading the Bible, prayer, and participating in a body of believers – then we can think about participating in missional outreach. We think that we must start out weak and then grow strong before we witness even though most of our missional encounters with vulnerable populations are as short-term missionary tourists. As Jesus did with the Pharisees, he turns our pedagogical models upside down.

With the RYR, Jesus first demands right relationship with others before we enter into right relationship with him. With Zaccheus, immediately upon Jesus’ entrance to his home Zaccheus acts justly for the poor and for those wronged by his unfair business practices. In fact, Zaccheus goes well beyond what the law demands of him so great is his joy of coming into relationship with Jesus – a very different ending from that of the RYR. With both of these stories, the models of discipleship immediately go to making right relationship with those who have been wronged – with the poor and oppressed – before intimacy with Jesus is attained.

I don’t know about you, but this is no less stunning to me now than the first time I read the Rich Young Ruler as a kid in middle school. It blew me away then, it blew me away in college when I started to try and live this out, and it blows me away now. It just cuts against the grain of all that I know and have been raised to practice. Funny how Jesus gets a kick out of doing that to us time and time again.

The question I can’t help but ponder now is why we don’t use these models more today in our churches? I think there are a number of reasons, but the one that jumps off the page at me is simply the fact that we have chosen to focus solely on our individual relationship with Jesus through merely reading the Bible, prayer, and attending church and these are programmatically easy for churches to focus on. Focusing on these individualistic practices is safe, profitable (indeed, check out Christian bookstores – focusing on individual spirituality is an enormous industry while books on the poor are almost non-existent), and this allows the church – white churches especially – to remain isolated in our homogeneous enclaves pretending to be vital without hardly impacting our culture or society.

What if we stopped the ineffective models of salvation and discipleship that have given us a church filled, from top to bottom, with isolated, individualistic, self-indulgent, racist Christians, and what if we started following the models of the Rich Young Ruler and Zaccheus? Man, what if that really happened? I actually believe it is coming more into reality as our younger generations get sick and tired of the typical church b.s. and look for more authenticity. I can only hope our institutions do not snuff out these cries for honesty so that they can mature into real revolutionary alternatives to how we do church.

Following the RYR and Zaccheus models is messy for it involves what cannot be programmed easily and which takes a lifetime of learning; a constant failing, feeling broken, learning, and trying again. Incarnational relationships among people of color are not easy – we have deep holes to climb out of. Yet, I do not see any other way for us to even begin to effectively deal with the racism endemic to our society, and to our Church – even to ourselves.


I believe as white people in the United States, we are racist. We must begin here. Praise God, we do not have to end here. God has shown us some ways to move forward. They ain’t easy but the good stuff never is. The only question is, will we do the hard stuff innate to our call to follow Jesus?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Our Captivity to Racism, Part 1

After watching the over-militarization of the police in response to mostly peaceful protests by the folks in Ferguson; after seeing the murder of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis; after seeing video after video showing the police treat African American men with brutal force for the most mundane of matters; after all of this, what I wanted to make the title of this piece is, “All Whites are Racists.”

I didn’t though. I chickened out. I honestly get tired of people – especially the non-stop talking heads on TV – throwing out words such as “racist” with little thought or context. It’s a controversial word that carries a lot of power, but often very little substance or meaning. People yell racist when they have very little idea what it means. In the end, it detracts from the value of the word and even more importantly, from the possible change that could happen if we readily accept what it really means to be racist. Sadly, although it makes for good news television, using the name without any thought detracts from the substance of what should be a meaningful and possible transformative conversation.

I wanted to put this title out there to be provocative, but I changed my mind because I honestly want to be more serious than provocative so pardon my cowardice. I want to be listened to and not just heard.

But yes, I do think all whites are racist. So, let me explain.

Racism is embedded in our culture. It has been since this country was discovered. Yes, in the last 50 years some much-needed transformative steps have been taken, but much of these were taken to get us to a place where we are not murdering, raping, and oppressing people of color and specifically African Americans out in the open as a means of entertainment. And let us not forget, it took a generation of African American leaders who sacrificed their livelihoods, their families, their sanity in some cases, and even their lives to get us here! So, let’s try not to break our arms giving ourselves a pat on the back for where we are at this point in time.

Still, there has been progress.

But we still have a culture deeply embedded in racism. It goes beyond the fact that our criminal justice system imprisons African American men at a much faster rate than whites when they commit the same crimes. It goes beyond the fact that neighborhoods are still very much segregated as are the schools serving those communities, not to even mention our churches, the most segregated institution in our society. It goes beyond all of this because racism is so deeply embedded in our culture we rarely openly talk about it. It is as accepted as our beliefs that the world is round and the sky is blue. To use a fancy term, racism in our culture is hegemonic.

In a study of the colonization of a tribe called the Tswana in South Africa, Jean and John Comaroff discussed the process of colonization as being hegemonic. Hegemony, for the Comaroffs, is “habit-forming . . . For it is only by repetition that signs and practices cease to be perceived or remarked; that they are so habituated, so deeply inscribed in everyday routine, that they may no longer be seen as forms of control – or seen at all” (1991:23, 25). Colonization of the Southern Tswana was established through adopting the daily activities of life within the Tswana culture through a common exchange of ideas and practices with their colonizers.

It is my contention that white privilege and racism directed against people of color in US society has become hegemonic, something accepted so easily as to rarely be discussed, at least in any kind of deep or profound way or when there is some kind of horrific event such as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

Although hegemony is pervasive and unspoken, the Comaroffs assert that hegemony is also quite fragile. Once the colonized became conscious of the contradictions within their own subjugation to the colonizers, the hegemony was broken. When the silent hold of hegemony is spoken out, it loses its intensive grip on those held captive and instead becomes an ideology to be debated and changed by the various groups involved. My hope is that we can move racism from the unthinking reactionary yelling, and identify the hegemonic ways in which we participate and benefit from white privilege and perpetuate racist attitudes, behaviors and ideas. For when it comes to racism, whites are in captivity as much as are people in color, although we benefit from it at the same time.

I will discuss ways we can be saved from racism in my next post, but for now, it is enough to identify racism as hegemony. How is racism hegemonic? There are numerous ways of course, but I would point out not just the fact that churches are perhaps the most segregated of institutions in our society, but even more, there is a common belief – hell, it was taught in my doctoral classes in seminary – that to grow local churches numerically, you can only do so homogeneously. From an institutional standpoint, diverse, multi-cultural churches just are not financially sustainable.

This seems stunning when we look at how the church was birthed – on the day of Pentecost when the disciples of Jesus were so filled with the Holy Spirit they spoke in other languages! A Church birthed in diversity and justice is now ironically dying and becoming irrelevant through the homogeneous synchrotization between church and dominant culture.

However, the historical growth of the Body of Christ throughout the book of Acts – from the diaspora of the Church after Stephen’s martyrdom, to Philip witness to the African eunuch, to Paul planting churches throughout the Roman Empire, to Peter witness to Cornelius and his household of God-fearers, to the first church council in Jerusalem when the early leaders finally acknowledged that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus too – every expansion  of the Church was accomplished through crossing the racial, ethnic, moral, social, economic, and political barriers of the day.

Somehow – and there are numerous sociological and historical reasons that are beyond the scope here – we have turned this biblical truth on its head. We now accept the false truth that to experience growth – numerical as well as spiritual – we must do so homogeneously. Rare it is do we have truly multi-cultural and multi-socioeconomic churches; diverse churches in make-up and leadership. And when I say multi-cultural churches I mean churches lived out in faith from multi-cultural perspectives. I have seen (and been a part of) too many churches where there are different races and ethnicities present, but it is, for all intents and purposes, a white church: white worship, white discipleship models, and white leadership.

Racism is hegemonic in the church – speaking very generally I know – in that as whites we tend to be discipled by other whites while any cross-racial relationships occur more in a missional context; “us” reaching out to “them.” From this framework, is there any wonder why racism is so endemic in the Church?

I will focus more on solutions in future posts, but with hegemony, remember, we merely need to raise this to the level of discussion – something I hope is done here, though likely not for the first time I admit. But let me posit this: what would happen if whites intentionally left their white churches and went to churches where they are in the minority and then intentionally submitted themselves under the cross-racial leadership of the leaders in those churches for their spiritual growth? What would happen if we took our large all-white churches and split them up and intentionally planted small groups within predominantly cross-racial neighborhoods and let them attend churches where they are the minority?

I know one thing as I write this – I do not have all the answers. Heck, I doubt I have even a few of the answers. But I know I live in a racist society, I am part of a racist Church, and I struggle with racist thoughts and feelings. I know I must be intentional if I am to be free from the binding sin of racism and this must first start with my recognition in the very silent, subtle ways in which racism has infected my life and the life of my Church and culture. Freedom starts with recognition.


More on this to come but I pray the hegemony of racism is broken, and that racism can be deeply discussed, not in an effort to score points or point fingers, but as a means to live into the power of the early church. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Michael Brown, Yazidis, and Our Racism

It has been an unusually eventful news week. Seeing yet another unarmed black youth gunned down sends outrage through me as a parent of a young man who is perceived to be African American (he is biracial; his birth dad is Caribbean and his birth mom is white). And you know what? I am exhausted from being outraged by the constant racist murders of young black men and the fact that it continues means that we have yet to fully exercise this demon from our society.

At the same time, I am also struck by the grotesque images of ISIS in Iraq and the brutality they are committing against vulnerable people, including the genocide they are threatening against the Yazidis (which is also spelled Yezidis). It reminds me that for whatever reason this is happening – and I believe that there are numerous reasons for this with one of those being the horrible foreign policies put in place by President Bush that are still coming back to haunt us – we have to accept the fact that there are people who are simply bent on evil in the world and no diplomacy or reasoned outreach will stop them.

I also think far too often we settle for the most simplistic explanations for why we see such social evil in the world. I do not want to add to the simplicity – really, to the stupidity. There are reasons for the violence – both in Iraq and against young black men in the streets of the United States – that are beyond my capability to understand if only for the fact that I cannot see life through the eyes of those responsible for the violence being done. However, I am struck by at least one common theme I see in both of these events.

It is striking to me that there are some who see the highly weaponized police in the streets and who applaud their efforts to “maintain the peace.” They aren’t alarmed by the fact that much of the police weaponry was supplied to them by the Pentagon due to a directive in the early 90s to provide local police departments with the weapons they had a surplus of. That means our local police have weapons at their disposal that were meant for war. The fact that police departments are armed for war means that a war of some kind will eventually be found – or created. You don’t arm yourself for something you don’t expect to happen. So, now we have police, in far too many cities, who, far too regularly, over-react to situations and then exacerbate small events into large scale violence. The presence of such heavily armed forces can easily fan peaceful protests into violent outbursts.

At the same time, we see ISIS systematically killing and brutalizing entire populations as they make their way through Iraq, including a group called Yazidis and even some Christians. They are unashamedly attempting to commit genocide particularly against the Yazidis while President Obama takes even the most timid of steps to protect the Yazidis through humanitarian food drops where they are trapped and one round of air strikes against ISIS to protect them. While I am certainly no fan of re-invading Iraq – a quagmire of a foreign policy for the past 14 years, I am greatly in favor of doing whatever it takes to protect victims from genocide. Yeah, I may not win the “Liberal of the Week” award for being ok with US military involvement in Iraq, but I believe we have to protect victims of genocide even if that means military intervention in addition to the use of all other efforts.

At this point, I feel like I have to ask this: would we be a little more outraged over the murder of Michael Brown if he were an unarmed, white, suburban teenager? Would we demand answers a little more intensely if his parents were members of a local United Methodist church, members of the PTA, and Boy Scout leaders?

Or what if the Yazidis were Brits or Northern Europeans? Would we be more inclined to defend them no matter the cost if they were people who looked like us, whose names sounded like ours, who professed beliefs similar to ours?

I don’t know the answers to these questions of course and those who say they do are just trying to make headlines. But I do believe these are questions worth asking. I cannot help but wonder if, for some of us at least, our white privilege prevents us from having empathy for those being victimized unless they look or sound more like we do.


I continually will wonder if all the military that is in place in Ferguson might be better utilized in Iraq pointing at ISIS rather than being pointed at the black and brown members of the Ferguson community. It seems to me we will have a more peaceful and just society when we see the value of black lives as important and significant as white members. When we do, maybe the Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins will live to see adulthood and maybe then, the groups such as ISIS will be stopped and the Yazidis will be allowed to live in peace. And maybe the parents of children of color can sleep a little easier and not be as exhausted at the constant feelings of terror that grip when our children simply walk down the street. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

To Do Justice AND Walk Humbly...

This past Monday I officially started my long-awaited sabbatical. I definitely have some things I want to accomplish while I am away from work, but I mainly want to have fun, rest a lot, hang out with my boys and did I mention have fun? I have greatly appreciated everyone’s good wishes, many of which have been accompanied with statements encouraging me to enjoy my “well-deserved rest” for the cause of justice. I understand the sentiment and, like I said, I am very appreciative, but to be honest, I am really not that tired from the work of justice.

I honestly love what I do. I get to work with amazing United Methodists from all over who are committed to seeing justice made a reality for those who have known injustice. The overwhelming majority of those I work with are people directly impacted by broken systems, or those incarnated among those directly impacted by broken systems. These are United Methodists who witness the brokenness of injustice among people they love intimately, who care for those whose lives are torn apart, and who steadfastly and faithfully make witness of a better world, a better Kingdom where the poor are valued and the marginalized are recognized and treasured.

Working alongside these kinds of folks does nothing but excite me and encourage me, inspire me and make me want to work that much harder. I don’t need a sabbatical from my sisters and brothers in the field. Man, they are what get me up in the morning.

Nope, my sabbatical comes from being worn out by those who live and work in the same city as I do. Yep, Washington DC. And nope, I am not talking about the knuckleheads in office – you can’t get worn out by someone for whom leadership and progress are a complete surprise.

I am talking about the supposed “leaders” of the issues I work on, at least the leaders the media loves to quote. In the over 8 years I have been in DC I have seen more ego-driven, narcissistic, self-absorbed leaders of “justice” movements than I have seen in the 36 years of my life prior to arriving in DC combined. And these are supposed to be leaders of justice!

The personalities honestly wear me out. I am so sick of press conferences because I know almost every one is a battle royale of who gets to speak, in what order and for how long. And don’t get me started on rallies – good Lord, those things can be a real mess. Few and far between are the leaders who speak out because they know and experience the injustice directly or who are incarnated among those who do. Few and far between are those leaders whose passion for justice is so great that they speak out not because it will advance their name or sell more copies of their latest book, but rather, because it will advance the cause of justice. Like Jeremiah, they speak because they are unable to hold it in.

It is a rare thing – and I mean a rare thing – for justice and humility to go hand in hand these days among some of our “leaders” for justice. But it shouldn’t be.

In the first chapter of Isaiah, as God rebukes God’s people for expecting God’s blessings while they practice empty traditions, God instructs the people to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed” among other things. However, before God tells us to do justice God first says to “wash yourselves, make yourselves clean.” I feel like far too often those of us who care for social justice forget our own individual righteousness – which necessarily entails humility.

Even more bluntly, one of the most quoted Scriptures we like to use to support the work of justice (and it does support that work by the way), is from Micah – a contemporary of Isaiah’s – who tells God’s people to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (6:8)

Something tells me that doing justice and walking humbly means God doesn’t give a damn what the order of speakers are for an immigration press conference. Yes, we should utilize every resource we possibly can to build the movement to defend and support the rights of immigrants, but I also believe we have grown far too dependent on certain justice personalities and this breeds the cult of personality that makes Washington DC such an odious place to be.

I believe we should be wary of always looking to the same voices. Why do we look for these same old personalities when we need to hear first the voices of those directly impacted by broken systems and then invest our lives for years in their lives so that we are adequately shaped and formed by their perspectives? The more incarnated we are I believe the less we will be dependent on the prima donnas of justice, those whose voices have become rather stale and routine. What we need is a fresh movement of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of those directly impacted. If it is justice we seek, then we only have to hear God speaking from within ourselves.


I will be happy to end my sabbatical early if we can do that. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hobby Lobby Makes the Score, Christendom Church-1, Missional Church-0

A lot has been made by many people about the Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court this past week and well it should. The continuing favoritism towards corporations by the Roberts-run Supreme Court – now assigning the right to religious beliefs to privately-owned corporations is radical and dangerous in my opinion. The fact that those religious beliefs by corporations trump a women’s right to full health care coverage, while men have that same full coverage (all the vasectomies and Viagra you can dream of!), is indeed disturbing, but just another step in the long journey by this Court to protect the rights of corporations over and above people. The fact that this Court protects corporations while not protecting minority access to a fair education makes the future prospects of this court deeply troubling.

Still, at the same time, I feel a certain, though limited, sympathy for the owners of Hobby Lobby who profess to want to run their business by “Christian” principles and felt that providing their employees access to certain types of contraception would violate those principles. Now, this claim is certainly contentious – claiming “Christian” principles over specific areas of business while not over others makes those primary claims specious. Further, as I will write later, I feel it was a horrible move to take this claim to the Supreme Court – horrible in terms of the missiological public engagement of the Church.

What I have found particularly troubling has been the lack of thoughtful reflection on both sides of yet another cultural divide. Hobby Lobby has gone the way now of Chik-Fil-A in that there is no neutral position. You can’t shop at Hobby Lobby unless you are making a political statement. I am not worried about the future of Hobby Lobby – religious conservatives will certainly support their business and good Lord, I know that religious conservatives like to shop! But Hobby Lobby has become another watchword in which feelings are evoked at its mere mention with no real thought as to why.

For example, I jokingly posted on Facebook the other day, “I am proud to say that I have boycotted Hobby Lobby my entire life.” That is, of course, a joke. You can’t boycott something you have never shopped at, nor ever will.  Sadly, but predictably, the two sides lined up on this post – progressives commenting “me too!” with conservatives spouting their support for Hobby Lobby and Chik-Fil-A!

So, in the midst of this kind of bumper sticker silliness I cannot help but wonder what should be the missional purposes of the Church. How can the Body of Christ be missional? In other words, how can the Church love God fully and love the world fully as well? That is what it means to be missional.

In competing justice claims as represented in the Hobby Lobby case where, theoretically, cases could be made for all sides, we are forced look at the context and also continually remind ourselves of the purpose of missiological engagement. Is missiological engagement undertaken to defend the Church or our claims, to stake our ground and, in viewing the world as the opposition, stand ready to refute all competing claims? Or, through viewing ourselves in missional service to the world, do we see where God is already present and then look to build salvific bridges between those “outside” the Body with those on the inside? I would obviously opt for the latter as the former reflects the Christendom Church, a Church fused with cultural or state-sponsored power. While the missional church exists often (though not only) on the margins, the Christendom Church sits (and “sits" is the key word) in the middle and expects others to come to it.

I would propose that when the social positioning of the Church is defensive and refuting whatever claims are made by those outside the Church; that when we stake our ground and build up our rhetorical walls viewing the world suspiciously and oppositionally, we are not being missional. We are instead the Christendom Church. There could be valid times for this social position and I admit some would argue that the Hobby Lobby case is included in just such a time. I wholeheartedly disagree of course. But when this position is repeatedly taken up by the Church in issue after issue (remember Chik-Fil-A!) it is self-defeating. Indeed, it cancels our mission of love and service to God and to the world. Christians defending their claims may legitimize those claims for certain Christians, but this is only retrenching and  is rarely evangelistic or “winning” to those who do not hold those claims prior. It might feel good to members of certain churches, but it is not missional.

A crucial aspect of being a missional church is that when we enter into the public realm we do so advocating for justice for others before ourselves. What does advocating for justice mean? I believe it means those in the Body redemptively utilizing their access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied. This mirrors what Jesus did for us. Indeed, Jesus did it for the whole world and so must we.

So, what does this mean in the Hobby Lobby case?

It means that for missional Christians we do all we can to ensure full health care coverage for as many people as possible. The Hobby Lobby owners chose instead a Christendom model of defending themselves and their claims, no matter how legitimate they may sound to those who politically or culturally agree with them. But, in the end, they entrenched themselves within and behind their belief systems rather than living out the gospel claims of loving and welcoming others. While Christendom might force societal or political change through dominance and the use of power, this is actually triumphalism without much of a disguise. Further, for any student of Christian missions, triumphalism most often results in Christian syncretism – the minority acceptance of the dominant religious belief system on the surface while having no change or transformation in their worldview.

The missional church, as modeled by the New Testament Church, advocates for the welfare of the other above oneself, especially when we have such tremendous access to so many resources. Should Hobby Lobby cover the health care of their employees? Absolutely! The claims of valuing and respecting life can still be more than lived out through many other ways other than restricting the rights of others. But the Christendom Church is interested only in their own rights and that is why this case came before the Supreme Court.

I am constantly reminded of this as I think of adoption. Our youngest child is adopted and is biracial and when we adopted him we went through a Christian agency that worked in coordination with a number of other Christian agencies in the area. That meant there were many, many families willing to adopt children. It is of course possible that our experience was not always the case, but since we chose to adopt biracially there was no wait time. In fact, the agency could not get us through the process quick enough. The problem was, in all of the families in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex waiting to adopt children during the entire time of our adoption process – approximately six months – there were no families willing to adopt biracially.

I don’t put this forth as an indictment of Hobby Lobby or the entire supposed “pro-life movement” (and I contend that if you are against abortion but supportive of the death penalty and cuts to crucial social services then you aren’t pro-life), but I do think it opens an important window for how those so passionately opposed to abortion can more effectively socially witness their support for life. To put it succinctly, perhaps more White supposed pro-life families should be willing to adopt non-white children. Until one’s opposition to abortion becomes a welcoming, hospitable presence to all of life (from innocent baby to supposed guilty murderer in prison), the “win” for Hobby Lobby and those who oppose abortion is a somewhat futile win. It was a “win” that entrenches their belief system but transforms no one. Only sacrificial love can do that. And the missional church thrives on sacrificial love. The Christendom Church doesn’t.

So, instead of lobbing political grenades at one another – or totally abdicating our political engagement altogether in the name of pseudo-peace – perhaps we can rethink and re-engage in a way that puts the needs of others ahead of ourselves. We will avoid retrenchment, we will be attractive to others outside our belief systems and more than anything, the transformation of the world will once again be attainable and something for all of us in the Church to focus on – and maybe even agree on! Instead of Hobby Lobby winning a court case, focusing on the needs of others would mean a win for everyone inside and outside the Body of Christ. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Advice to the Newly Ordained from a Lay Person

Every May I get to watch the Facebook updates of folks who are graduating from seminary, many – though definitely not all! – also becoming ordained and for some, beginning their full-time vocational ministry through an appointment to a church or ministry. Often times the first appointments are at a small country church off the beaten path. It is exciting to see the faces in the pictures, seeing both the excitement and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Though I have never been ordained, I have served churches in various capacities and, much more importantly, I have attended church for all of my life. I have worked under and attended church under some really, talented, amazing pastors. My current pastor is the most amazing pastor I know in fact. I have also worked for and attended church under some pastors who were either awful or abusive. I have seen the good and the bad and I feel deeply invested in the life and ministry of the Body of Christ.

So, I want to offer my unsolicited thoughts and hopefully, exhortations to all entering full-time vocational ministry – particularly those newly ordained and beginning their ministry in the coming weeks.

First, no matter what your theological or political leanings are, your call is essentially the same: love God entirely and love God’s people (meaning everyone!). One particular encouragement I want to make will sound strange coming from someone who works at GBCS, but here it is nonetheless. Don’t try to be prophetic. Just stick to what is essentially the same call for all of us – love God entirely and love God’s people (meaning everyone!).

Why don’t try and be prophetic? Here’s why. I am quite suspicious of people or organizations who wake up one day and “decide to speak prophetically” about some issue they feel passionate about. How are you, of your own volition, able to speak with God’s mind and God’s voice regarding something God is deeply passionate about? Certainly it is incumbent on us to speak and act on what God is passionate about, but we do not have the power to be prophetic. I believe the prophetic is more gift of the Holy Spirit than a result of our own decision-making, or especially the decision of some group or agency in the church.

I also strongly believe that you can think you are being prophetic and not be loving, but you cannot fully love without being prophetic. Try loving all of God’s people in your community (and remember Wesley said the world was his parish and not just the butts in the seats of our comfortably-located sanctuaries!) without ultimately speaking out for those who are marginalized or oppressed. If you can go 2 years – heck, if you can go for a single year – without speaking to the economic inequities, or the demonic nature of racism, or the warehousing of millions of people through the criminal justice system, or the objectification of women, or any number of other issues present in your community (and I don’t care where you live, they are there) then you really haven’t loved the people in your community. You likely do not even know your community. You are probably just doing church maintenance.

More importantly than speaking, if you are loving God’s people then you will not be able to go a year without finding ways to bridge any separations or detachments that exist between your congregation and your community so that all the people in your community and congregation may not only know your love – they might know the love of the Body of Christ and hence, the presence of God. Love God’s people, just love ‘em.

My second exhortation is this: after a few years (maybe shorter for some or longer for others), you will be tempted to think the problem with the Church is with the people. But let me tell you this: the problem ain’t the people, it’s the system; it’s the institution. I know there are problem folks in every congregation and unfortunately, some congregations have more than their fair share. The Church attracts problem people like white on rice. But who did you expect to be in the church? A church full of Oprah Winfrey’s – fully actualized, spiritually self-sufficient (though is one supposed to be spiritually self-sufficient?), and extremely wealthy so there is never any problem with the church budget? The healthy don’t need a physician, the sick do, and sadly, the church is swimming with needy, enmeshed, emotionally detached, angry, racist, classist, hurting people. Sometimes it feels like the church is drowning with them. Guess what you are supposed to do?

LOVE THEM. Yep, go back and see #1.

The problem ain’t the people, it’s the system. What kind of system anoints one person to head at least one, and sometimes, unbelievably up to 4 congregations? What kind of a system circulates people around geographically every 3-5 years touting that this sole person is the fount from which all of the vital ministry of the local congregation will emanate? What kind of a system is it that calls good behavior paying the bills and adding butts in seats (and let’s face it, you could have one butt in the seat if that one butt paid all of your apportionments and the system would only sit back and smile) and rewarding that “good behavior” through higher paychecks and bigger churches just as if you were working at IBM?

What kind of a system does all this? A corporation, not a Body.

So, when you are tempted to blame the people for their odd behavior, remember, they are behaving exactly as the system expects them to. I truly believe that for the Kingdom to break through in your local congregation you are going to have to resist the strong temptation of corporate relevancy and institutional conformity and you will just have to love God’s people. #1 really is a keeper. Don’t buy in to someone else’s definition of a good church “career.” Just love God’s people and let those who climb the institutional ladder get lost in the building of their own empires. Be true and love God’s people.

Thirdly, remember that as you are called to be ordained, as God has called you to lead the Church, as you have been set apart for the purpose of serving the Body of Christ; lay people are called to ministry as well. If we have received the transforming power of God’s grace and love, then we are called by God to participate in the building of God’s Kingdom. God has significant callings on the lives of lay people. Often, it is the lay people who will do mighty things more so than those who are ordained.

Just as you resist corporate relevancy and institutional conformity you will need to resist the false dichotomy that has developed separating the ordained from the non-ordained. As a lay person I do not mean to take anything away from those who have gone through ordination. It is a high and holy calling and one I celebrate for many of my friends though not for myself personally.

But those who are ordained are not loved by God any more than anyone else. You were not created more special than others. In fact, your calling is most difficult of all for you are called to empower and lift up others, often while standing unheralded behind the stage. That can be hard!

But as soon as you see your congregation as not just a bunch of random individuals waiting for you to pour your magical words into, and instead, see us as fellow members of the Body of Christ filled with the Spirit and called to do amazing and spectacular deeds for the building up of the Kingdom of God, the sooner you will see the Kingdom moving in your community. Our churches are vital not because we have a preacher who is the best in town. We have significant ministries in our local congregations because we have churches filled with people collaboratively living out missional dreams and visions given to us by God for the purpose of building the Kingdom; a Kingdom eradicating poverty, eliminating oppression, and celebrating diversity. As an ordained leader, lead us in the articulation and manifestation of those dreams and visions.

And in a letter already too long, lastly, have fun. Too much in the church is taken WAY too seriously. There are too many battles, too many fights and too many endless debates and “conversations.” Fighting oppression, lifting up those who are voiceless, welcoming the marginalized into our communities and so much more all is fun! Live into the excitement that is the Kingdom and make folks laugh along the way.


God has called you to the most important work on the face of the earth: leading the Body of Christ in building the Kingdom of God on earth. There is truly nothing greater to do. So, work hard, pray unceasingly, take care of yourself and your family, and laugh. It’s a good life.