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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Kick-Butt Quotes from Mother Jones

In his fantastic book, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott Gorn tells the story of a labor leader from the beginning of the 20th century, before women could vote and at a time when “labor leader” was another name for “American subversive.” Mother Jones led the struggle for the rights of workers back when unions were seen as un-American. To demand rights for the worker was akin to forfeiting your belief in capitalism. Yeah, not a heck of a lot has changed.

Reading this book reminds me that we cannot forget the movements for justice that have brought us where we are today, though we are tempted to. Mother Jones was not perfect, but she led the fight against child labor. She was also part of movements for the 6 day work week (which ultimately became the 5 day work week), the right to unionize and collectively bargain, and the right for a minimum wage (now a right to a livable wage). All of these things were fought for with peoples’ lives – and they continue to be. Ownership in the United States will give up nothing without a fight. Reading about Mother Jones and her struggle for the worker recaptures our own history as the social creeds of most our denominations were created during her lifetime (the UMC Social Creed was developed in 1908) and were rooted in the struggle for the rights of laborers. Though, as you will see she was no fan of the Church, I pray we will recover our struggle for the rights of workers as part of our identity and a major part of our mission moving forward.

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living. (p. 282)

The enemy seeks to conquer by dividing your ranks, by making distinctions between North and South, between American and foreign. You are all miners, fighting a common cause, a common master. The iron heel feels the same to all flesh. Hunger and suffering and the cause of your children bind more closely than a common tongue…I know of no East or West, North or South when it comes to my class fighting the battle for justice. (p. 106)

How sad it is the earth filled with wealth! So many of God’s children suffering! What is it to us if the church bell tolls each Easter morning and announces the resurrection of the Christ? It has never yet tolled for the resurrection of Christ’s children from their long dark tomb of slavery. (p. 147)

The employment of children is doing more to fill prisons, insane asylums, almshouses, reformatories, slums, and gin shops than all the efforts reformers are doing to improve society…I am going to show Wall Street and the flesh and blood from which it squeezes its wealth. (p. 132)

We don’t want sympathy, we want to stand up straight before the world that we are fighting the battle for your own cause. (p. 216)

During the past seventy years of my life I have been subject to the authority of the capitalist class and for the last thirty five years…I have learned that there is an irrepressible conflict that will never end between the working class and the capitalist class, until these two classes disappear and the worker alone remains the producer and owner of the capital produced. (p. 149)

I long ago quit praying and took to swearing. If I pray I will have to wait until I am dead to get anything; but when I swear I get things here. (p. 158)

When I know I am right fighting for these children of mine, there is no governor, no court, no president will terrify or muzzle me. (p. 178)

You men have come over the mountains, twelve, sixteen miles. Your clothes are thin. Your shoes are out at the toes. Your wives and little ones are cold and hungry! You have been robbed and enslaved for years! And now [evangelist] Billy Sunday comes to you and tells you to be good and patient and trust to justice! What silly trash to tell men whose goodness and patience has cried out to a deaf world! (p. 182)

On the impotence of political parties impacting workers’ lives: “Money prostitutes them all.” (p. 231)

We have fought together, we have hungered together, we have marched together, but I can see victory in the heavens for you. I can see the hand above you guiding and inspiring you to move onward and upward. No white flag – we cannot raise it, we must not raise it. We must redeem the world. (p. 176)

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?