“The bonus of being white in Ferguson…”

The bonus of being white in Ferguson meant nigh-immunity from plunder. The bane of being black in Ferguson meant nigh-inevitable subjugation under plunder. Plunder is neither abstract nor theoretical. Plunder injures, maims, and destroys. Indeed the very same people who were calling on protestors to remain nonviolent were, every hour, partner to brutality committed under the color of law.

-Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Justice Department’s investigation in Ferguson.

Why I’m Still Mad About Jackie Robinson’s Stripped Title

JRW_US_CHAMPS_LLWS2014This morning Chicago woke up to learn that our Little League Champions, Jackie Robinson West, have been stripped of their title, ostensibly for using players from outside league-prescribed boundaries. Throughout the day I’ve watched as friends have posted their reactions on social media and one type has caught my eye. It goes something like this: Yes, it’s really sad that these young men have to suffer the consequences of adults who made bad decisions, but rules are rules and this was the right decision. I especially noticed this particular reaction because I agree with its logic in theory.

But only in theory.

There was an emotional reaction on social media today that was also worth noting. This one goes something like this: It is no consequence that the first all-black champions are the ones who are being targeted for violations. This would have never happened to a mostly-white team from the suburbs. It’s an emotional reaction because it’s almost impossible to prove. But does that mean it’s wrong?

I’ve written about this extensively and I don’t have the time to cite the endless examples now, but the fact remains that young, black men in this country face an incredibly uneven playing field. From how they are perceived in classrooms to how they are profiled on the way home from school, young African American boys have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as their white peers.

So yeah, all things being equal we Chicagoans could be frustrated about the coaches and other adults who made poor decisions and then move on. But all things aren’t equal and it’s the worst that this team who inspired such joy has been made into a reminder of something so wrong.

To me they will always be the rightful champions.

A Sermon on MLK Weekend: The Injustices of Earth and the Resources of Heaven

Most of you know my oldest son and you know that, like his younger son, he is adopted. You may not know that my son can trace his ethnicity through Filipino people, Puerto Rican people, and, especially, African American people.

Tamir Rice
Tamir Rice

My son is five years old. This means that in seven years he will be twelve years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when two Cleveland police pulled up to check out this “young black male” while he played with a toy gun a friend had recently lent him.

In seven years he will be the same age Tamir was when he was confronted by a white police officer had been deemed emotionally unstable and unfit to serve in his previous policing job.

In seven years he will be as old as Tamir who had exactly two seconds before that emotionally unstable, police officer pulled his gun and shot him twice.

In seven years he will be the same age of Tamir who, after being shot, was left unattended on the ground for four minutes. Rather than administering first aid to the mortally wounded child the officers tackled his fourteen-year-old sister who was running to his aid. They handcuffed her and put her in the back of a police car where she watched her brother bleed.

In seven years my son will walk in Tamir’s shoes. In twelve years he will walk in Trayvon’s shoes and Jordan Davis’ shoes. In thirteen years he will walk in Michael Brown’s shoes.

After Michael Brown’s killing, Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote about the despair his death elicited in so many parents. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.

I think about my son and I think about these other sons and I think about the truth and desperation of Ta-Nehesi Coates and I feel anger.

When we consider that that it has been forty-seven years since Rev. Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis and yet we are still trying to convince this nation that Black Lives Matter, I get angry.

When we consider that it has been fifty years since the voting rights act was passed, sixty one years since separate schooling based on race was unconstitutional, and yet we are still fighting to protect voting rights and still fighting for quality education for all, I get angry.

When we consider that it’s been one hundred years since Ida B Wells shone the spotlight of her journalism and rhetoric on the rampant lynching of unarmed, innocent African Americans and yet today we face the mass imprisonment of black and brown citizens, a reality unprecedented anywhere else in the world, I get angry.

When we remember that the Civil War ended one hundred and fifty years ago yet our nation remains unconvinced about the basic personhood of black and brown people, I get angry.

When we remember that the first Africans were stolen from their continent four hundred years ago and brought to America, when the wealth and power of this nation was purchased with the sweat, blood, suffering, and deaths of the descendants and kin of those enslaved Africans, and when America has the audacity to place the blame of black suffering at the feet of black people, I get angry.

When we hear pundits lie and spin about the suffering and prejudice faced by brown and black people, when they ignore the white supremacy that has been this nation’s religion for hundreds of years, I get angry.

I’m angry this morning because what James Baldwin wrote was true in 1972 and it’s true in 2015:

The truth is that this country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort.

I’m angry this morning because theologian James Cone is truth when he writes, “Whites cannot separate themselves from culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront history & expose sin of white supremacy.” Yet, how many of us white people are willing confront that history and expose that sin?

I’m angry this morning because of the lies our nation continues to tell. I’m angry because we kill our prophets and then sanitize and commercialize their legacies. I’m angry because my son is five and soon he will be twelve and then seventeen and then eighteen. And, if I’m honest, I’m angry because the injustices of this earth seem so entrenched that I wonder whether there is any realistic hope for anything different.

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We are not the first to wonder about earth’s injustices. The young church in Ephesus who received Paul’s letter wondered about these things. Within this center of imperial and oppressive power they struggled to know how they would maintain their new identities as followers of Jesus. Like us they had to ask, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? How do we worship the Lord in a place such as this?

Our passage, Ephesians 1:17-23, shows two ways the early church answered this question. As we listen to their answers, as we see their example, I hope that added to the anger we might feel today will be hope. After all we are not the first to face the injustices of earth. We are not the first to walk closely with righteous anger.

The first thing Paul directs the church to do is to focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. Notice the passage:

17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

A simple way to summarize Paul’s run-on sentences in verses 18 and 19 would be: I pray that you would know the power of God. Not some generic power or some generic god. I want you to know the power of the living God who raised Jesus, the Messiah, from the dead. This is what Paul wants.

Some of us tend to focus on the unjust and corrupt powers that surround us. And we need to see these and call these out. But they can never to be our primary focus. Because there is no life there. There is no hope there. A person lost in the dessert and dying of thirst will only find it so helpful to have his circumstances described to him. What he needs is someone with a way out of the wilderness. He needs the hope that despite how terrible things appears, there is a way out.

It’s the same for us. We have to be honest about the corrupt powers and sources of injustice in our city. But these cannot be the primary focus of our sustained attention. They cannot be our only focus. No, our primary focus must be on the one who elicits not anger but awe. Our focus must be on the one who elicits in our hearts not pain but praise. Our focus must be on the one who compels not despair but delight. Our focus must be on the one who compels not worry but worship. Our focus must be on the one who provokes us not toward apathy but toward action.

In other words, we must focus our best attention not on the corrupt, impotent, and fraudulent powers of this world, that peddle in division and destruction. Rather, we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We are called to focus our gaze on Jesus who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame. We are called to behold the One who even now is seated at the right hand of God the Father, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the age to come.

This was the secret weapon held by many of the leaders and participants of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course they looked at the injustices around them; many of those women, men, and children were forced to experience profound injustices every single day. But as clearly as they could describe those corrupt powers and as precisely as they could articulate what needed to change in America, many of those individuals had an even greater and more determined focus: their Savior. And so they could experience the worst of racial injustice without being overcome by it. They could taste the venom of hatred without it ever taking their hearts hostage.

We can see this focus on God’s power through Jesus in one of Rev. Dr. King’s sermons, this one in New York City in 1967 as he made clear his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?

See, it’s not simply that we focus on the only genuine and authentic power in the universe, the power of God. It’s that when we worship and esteem Jesus our lives actually change. One of the ways we change is that we begin to see the resources of heaven that are available to those of us who are citizens of that kingdom.

Rev. King at Riverside Church.
Rev. King at Riverside Church.

22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Paul says: God has placed everything under the feet of Jesus, the head of the church. Our incorporation in Jesus means that the power that is at work and available through Jesus is available to us as well! So Jesus can say things like:

18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [Matthew 28:18-19]

And,

12 “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:12-14]

As we are given the Spirit of wisdom and revelation and as the eyes or our hearts are enlightened we see and worship our powerful Savior and we also discover that his power is available to us. To put it differently, when we see Jesus in his power we discover the resources of heaven that are available in our struggle against the injustices of earth.

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So to the question, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? the first answer is that we focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. When the power of God is our focus all of the corrupt powers slide into their rightful place. We don’t ignore them, we don’t downplay them, but we allow them to take their rightful place beneath the feet of Jesus who will make all things right.

The second answer to that question comes on the heels of the first: We discover and utilize heaven’s resources against earth’s unjust powers. We could spend the rest of the year looking into the resources of heaven. I have time for just four.

The first resource is reconciled community. Drawing from 2 Corinthians we say that our church identity is a reconciled and reconciling people. Through Jesus God has reconciled us to himself and to one another. This would have been one of the radical implications of the Gospel to the church in Ephesus and it is no less radical today.

Reconciled community begins to deconstruct the racism we are all regularly exposed to. Social scientists call this implicit racial bias. That is, we are formed culturally to associate certain positive and negative characteristic to people based on things like skin color. But within a diverse church community, these implicit biases are not only challenged, they are slowly replaced by other, more generous and loving biases.

Reconciled community also requires that we stay. One of the defining legacies of Chicago is white flight and reconciled Community is the opposite of white flight; it requires that we stay, that we remain present. We don’t walk away from people who are different. We remain with the knowledge that we are family.

A second resource of heave that is available in our struggle against injustices is our secured identities. In Christ Jesus we have identities as God’s children that are secure and eternal. We don’t have to defend ourselves or prove ourselves. We can live with confidence from our place as beloved and empowered children of God. But there is more.

When our identities are securely in Jesus, we find that our ethnic & cultural identities are affirmed. Deep within Christian belief is that God loves us as we are. We are not required to become something different in order to be accepted. The church has gotten this wrong at times, requiring that individuals learn a new language or dress in a different cultural style. But these are aberrations of the Gospel. Our country slices and dices, marginalizes and sidelines based on skin color, accent, grammar, traditions, the shape of a person’s eyes, nose, and even height! But not within the Kingdom! This community is meant to be the place where every one of us experiences the radical hospitality and acceptance of Jesus.

Having secured identities in Christ also means that we can be protected from the co-option and coercion of the corrupt powers. In his book Liberty to the Captives Raymond Rivera points out that in different seasons the church will cooperate with or resist the powers. In one sense it is easier to resist than cooperate, but when we are clear on where our authority and identity comes from we can also cooperate without being co-opted.

The third resource of heaven is courageous truth. Jesus said of himself in John 14:6, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. We are followers of the Truth so we aren’t afraid to tell the truth. A great example of this is found in that same speech Rev. Dr. King gave against the Vietnam War. He knew this speech would make powerful enemies. Yet he had to tell the truth.

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

As King demonstrated, followers of Jesus deal in the currency of the truth, regardless of its consequences. This means that we tell the truth about injustice We resist the tendency to soft-pedal. When media attempts to redirect our attention by talking about black-on-black crime or “thug” culture or the so-called crisis of fatherlessness, we call bull-sh*t. And we tell the truth.

We also tell the truth about Jesus .To those who think Jesus is only concerned with our souls after we die, we tell the truth about the Kingdom of justice and mercy and peace that Jesus came to proclaim and inaugurate. And to those who think that Jesus is one interesting morality teacher among others, we tell the truth about the Son of God who chose the cross to put to death the sin and rebellion within our hearts and who resurrected victoriously over evil and death.

Finally, in our struggle with the injustices of earth endless grace is another of heaven’s resources available to us. Fundamental to Christianity is the belief that salvation comes through God’s grace alone. Late in this letter to Ephesus Paul writes, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  But too often we treat grace as Christianity 101. In fact, grace is the air we breathe. It is the sustaining reality of our relationship with God and our status as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is the grace of God that allows us to pursue God’s justice in an unjust world. How?

God’s endless grace allows repentance and forgiveness to be normal for us. So much justice work is built on getting it right: saying the right things; knowing the right things; doing the right things; identifying the right strategies. But you will not always get it right! And if you’re counting on always getting it right it’s only a matter of time until you get it very wrong. What then? But if grace is our starting point than our goal isn’t to get it right, it’s to quickly confess when we get it wrong: when we wound, ignore, flake out. And when grace is our starting point, when we know how dependent we are on God’s mercy and grace, we can also quickly forgive when others confess their sin against us.

Endless grace also reminds us that we bear witness to Jesus regardless of the circumstances. This is and important reminder that we are not called to change the world. I’ve met many people who in their youth wanted to change the world. But things didn’t change as quickly as they hoped or in the ways they expected and so the walked away. They traded in their dream for justice for the so-called American dream of comfort and complacency.

In one of his speeches King said that, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” This is God’s grace, that his work is constant and gentle and eternal. And it is God who does this work with we as his representatives. Despite the heaviness of our world, God’s grace means there can be a lightness about our work.

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I began by acknowledging my anger. I end by confessing my hope. My fiver year-old and five month-old sons, beautiful boys with complexions darker than mine, are growing up among you. They are growing up among a people who are learning to be captivated firstly by God’s beautiful and transformative power. They are growing up among a reconciled community; among women and men who know and love who they are; among people who will tell them the truth about this world’s injustices and the truth about this world’s Savior; among a people who will speak to them words of grace, who show them how to live this way of grace.

I remain angry. But not only angry. God, through his Old Testament prophet Zechariah, called his people, prisoners of hope. In this world of injustice, may it be true that we are prisoners of hope whose eyes have been opened to see the authority and power and resources of heaven that are at our disposal in our struggle against injustice.

Self-Care Isn’t Enough

In the small part of the world I inhabit it’s rare that a week goes by during which I don’t talk with someone about self-care. The church I serve has more than its fair share of teachers, social-workers, therapists, and grad students. These are people who are moved by their neighbors’ pain and have given much of their lives to work of mercy and justice. The work they’ve chosen is demanding and the obstacles they face are entrenched and seemingly endless. I ask them, Are you taking care of yourself? Are you getting rest? We talk, in other words, about self-care and whether or not they are prioritizing it in the midst of difficult vocations.

But it’s not enough.

Which isn’t to say that self-care isn’t important. It is. The concept reminds the individual that her life matters- all of it, not just the bits that are affirmed for their efficiency or productivity. Self-care is also empowering as the individual claims the responsibility and right of ensuring that she is not marginalized, taken advantage of, or made invisible. There continue to be many places where self-care is a radical act, where a person’s value and agency are not foregone conclusions.

Self CareThe way we talk about self-care is  a relatively recent development, a fact that hints at why I don’t think the concept can bear the weight we’ve placed upon it. As best I can tell, prior to the late 1980’s, when the literature uses “self-care” it is describing populations of people who weren’t considered capable of caring for themselves. From a cursory search, it seems that people talked about self-care as something to be taught to less-capable others- children, the poor, and the mentally handicapped to give a few examples I found. The care in these examples related to the basic functions of life and was a obviously different from the way we think about self-care today.

Beginning in the 1990’s – again, as best I can tell – the meaning began to shift to include medical concepts and was then applied to those working in the social services. This is the beginning of how we think about self-care today, where an individual takes responsibility and control of his own mental and emotional health.

One of my favorite people to follow on Twitter is author Anne Lamott and a regular theme for her is self-care. Because she’s Anne Lamott it’s radical self-care. Here’s one from this past September: “Maybe I have 20 years left. I plan to love God, help His or Her children, radical self-care; try to save the earth: march, & register voters.”

Lamott, I think, captures how we feel about self-care, that it is necessary for sustaining our call to good work and that it is a responsibility we alone can bear. But is self-care as important as we’ve made it to be? And are we capable enough to take responsibility for our own mental and emotional health?

Sabbath, in contrast to self-care, has a much longer history, though it’s one even Christians forget. (I won’t pretend to speak for Jewish people here, whose relation to the Sabbath is much longer and more intentional than it is for Christians.) Within an individual-centered society it’s probably not surprising that caring for one’s self eclipses the practice of a corporate pace of rest and care. Yet it’s actually for the ways that Sabbath challenges our individualism that I think it offers a more life-giving, humanizing path for us, especially those called to the helping professions.

To begin with, Sabbath is grounded in the physicality of specific practices. There is nothing theoretical about sabbath-keeping; it happens when we stop our work and, as Eugene Peterson has written, start our play. For most of us, Sabbath will be marked weekly by ceasing our productivity and joining with others in our congregation as we worship and serve one another. It will be normal for us to rest and feast with the knowledge that others are doing – or not doing – the same thing. In the Sabbath we have a day, a full twenty-four hours, that is God’s gift to us. We are not meant to grasp for moments to care for ourselves. No, each week is meant to begin with a day during which, through specific practices and routines, we experience God’s care for us. In his essential book about the Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel repeatedly points out the way this day functions as God’s gift to us: “The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.” Our abstaining and feasting practices, experienced weekly, are the doorway to this palace in time where are free from time’s tyranny.

I hinted at it in the preceding paragraph, but another attribute favoring the Sabbath deserves to be called out: Sabbath is for the community and with the community. Of course, as is hopefully already clear, the day benefits the individual but, unlike self-care whose very name limits it to the individual, Sabbath is meant for the good of a people. This is more important than might be immediately obvious. After all, one of the attractions of self-care is that I get to decide what will be refreshing for me. Nothing wrong with that; I do it all the time when the kids are in bed and Maggie is at work when I sit contentedly in a quiet home with a book or a movie. But if I’m relying solely on myself for the care of myself I’m guaranteed to let myself down. I will too regularly choose to overwork or I will choose entertainment that sounds appealing but leaves me emotionally fatigued rather than rejuvenated.

But because Sabbath is practiced with a community, my rest will be characterized by acts and habits that I wouldn’t choose for myself but which, over the centuries, have proven rejuvenating for our humanity. Self-care involves choosing something that, though I may overlook or neglect it, will feel good to me. Sabbath, in contrast, involves submitting to a day with others that many times I don’t think will feel good to me. I couldn’t tell you how many times I, a pastor, have been told by someone after a worship service, I didn’t want to come today but I’m sure glad I did. That’s Sabbath. We choose to trust that this very old way of being together is the best thing possible for us, and for me.

Sabbath is harder than self-care, mostly, in my experience, because its practice requires my submission to God’s idea of what is best for me. But it’s harder in the way we need it to be. After all, there are good reasons and hard experiences that make it necessary that we are cared for. We need something with a bit more backbone, a bit more history, and much more fruitfulness over the generations if we mean to continue our work with joy. I’m not strong enough to care for me. Thankfully, there is One who is, and the Sabbath is where I’m reminded of this simple and necessary truth every single week.

“…the invisible nimbus of utter gratuity.”

I may be speaking of something that escapes exact definition here, but it seems to me that the special delight experienced in the encounter with beauty is an immediate sense of the utterly unnecessary thereness, so to speak, of a thing, the simple gratuity with which it shows itself, or (better) gives itself. Apart from this, even the most perfectly executed work of art would be only a display of artisanal proficiency or of pure technique, exciting our admiration but not that strange rapture that marks the most intense of aesthetic experiences. What transforms the merely accomplished into the revelatory is the invisible nimbus of utter gratuity. Rather than commanding our attention with the force of necessity, or oppressing us with with the triteness of something inevitable, or recommending itself to us by its utility or its purposiveness, the beautiful presents itself to us as an entirely unwarranted, unnecessary, and yet marvelously fitting gift.

David Bentely Hart, The Experience of God.

The goodness of beauty lies in its unnecessariness. Now there’s a lovely and deep though worth considering.