Some wonderful, imaginative stuff here from two of my favorite church-focused theologians.
Institutional neglect of racism and injustice is the exercise of power, the kind of power that refuses to notice and refuses to act.
Protest of moral and historic force begins with people facing extreme vulnerability. For those who have been silenced, rising to the act of speaking is a perilously high climb indeed. For them, protest is not an expression of fear and doubt, but an overcoming of fear and doubt. And when it comes from those at the bottom, it can often be a profound proposition about how to make the world better for all. That’s the difference between the mob whipped into a frenzy by a demagogue and the protesters demanding that institutions address harmful conditions that negate their very existence. One excludes, the other raises up.
– Jeff Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright.
I took a few seminary classes this year which explains some of what’s on my 2016 reading list. None of those made my top-5 list, but a few could have: Kelly Brown Douglas’ The Black Christ and Sexuality and the Church were great introductions to womanist theology, Frederick Douglass’ Narrative proved immensely relevant during the election, and The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, edited by Ida B. Wells in 1893, was a fascinating look at a specific Chicago moment. Some of my reading in the latter half of the year was directed at trying to understand the president-elect’s appeal – Carol Anderson’s White Rage and the fascinating Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance – and some was geared toward trying to form my imagination outside of this pressing political moment. All in all, it’s been a great book year and there are some I’m gladly reading into 2017: Augustine’s City of God and Teju Cole’s collection of essays, Known and Strange Things among a few others on the night stand.
Here are five of my favorites from 2016 that I’d happily recommend to just about anyone.
The South Side by Natalie Moore (2016)
Natalie Moore is a terrific Chicago reporter with the NPR station who has now written one of the definitive accounts of the city’s south side. I’d recently finished the massive and essential Black Metropolis when I picked up The South Side and it was great to read Moore as she interacted with Drake and Catyon’s work from the 1940’s while exploring more recent dynamics in our section of the city. While Black Metropolis is a bit of a slog – fascinating stuff but, still, pretty thick with detail – Moore’s narrative moves quickly and will engage even those barely familiar with Chicago and its complexities. She does this by telling her own story in the city as an entry into the wider forces which shape neighborhoods and communities.
Moore loves Chicago like so many of its long-time residents do: she isn’t blind to the massive inequities that plague many residents but neither does she overlook what makes the city so great, so inhabitable. She covers violence, education, housing, gentrification, and more with a gaze that is equal parts reporter’s objectivity and best-friend’s pride.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson (2016)
I might have read this book regardless of the political moment, but the presidential election sent me scrambling for it. Carol Anderson is a professor at Emory University and, although her subject isn’t Donald Trump explicitly, her look at previous moments in American history places the now president-elect in a particularly context. Anderson’s thesis is as simple as it is disturbing: “The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement.” Not that this rage is especially visible: “It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively.” This subtle racism was one of the more frustrating parts of my conversations with Trump supporters this fall. Barring smoking gun evidence, most of these folks simply couldn’t see how race played a role in Trump’s ascendancy or, for that matter, the anxiety he produced in so many people for whom America has never been so great.
But this is the great strength of White Rage. By reviewing previous moments of white backlash to black advancement, Anderson helps us see the predictable pattern we’re now experiencing. She takes us through reconstruction, the Great Migration, desegregation, Civil Rights legislation, and the nation’s first black president and shows that, in each of these instances of significant black achievement, there have always been systematic and racially-oppressive responses.
A quick personal addition: Anderson’s book helped me see more clearly than before the gigantic gap between those who can acknowledge this history and those for whom it is tantamount to treason. Time and again this year I’ve experienced blank stares and utter confusion from those whose love for country won’t allow the truth of it to change their minds. White Rage helped me understand this dynamic though no book, I’m afraid, exists to tell us how to transcend it.
James Baldwin’s Collected Essays (1998).
This one is kind of a cheat since it’s a collection of all of Baldwin’s non-fiction and I could have picked dozens almost at random for this list. There’s just so much good, beautiful, prescient writing in these essays. I’m not sure Baldwin was ever forgotten, but he has seemed incredibly relevant during these past few years of protest and unrest; he’s ripe for rediscovery.
Baldwin is always eye-opening; he makes places visible and people knowable. He does this in his travel essays and in his reflections about childhood in Harlem. He’s great on religion, especially the Christianity of his youth but also on Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as well as King and the other preachers of the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s his insight into race – there in most essays, but never excessively so – which regularly grabbed me by the throat. He shows the reader around the experiences of many black people, dignifying the struggles and victories without ever succumbing to hagiography. And then he writes about white people and whiteness and white supremacy and I find that he understands these things far better than most white people do, myself included. This isn’t especially surprising because my majority culture self doesn’t have to think about whiteness. Baldwin, however, does more than understand- he rips the veil off, exposing the rotten assumptions that pass for normal and neutral in this country. And he does this while showing incredibly sympathy and understanding for white people. I’ve already returned to these essays and expect to frequently in the coming years.
I stumbled onto this book in a short Christianity Today review and I’m so glad I did. Our church has some sermons about sabbath coming up and now, in addition to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic Jewish mediation on Sabbath, I have a German/Christian/Philosophic perspective to draw from. Writing during the years following World War II, Pieper was concerned with the growing honor given to productivity and efficiency which he saw as undermining the kind of culture for which humans were created. Culture, he believed, requires capacity for leisure which in turn requires divine worship.
The tendency to reduce people to their work (“What do you do?” is a first question we ask new acquaintances) is at least as common now as it was when Pieper wrote. If anything the problem is more acute today when we describe people as resources, objects to be used. He acknowledges that leisure – or Sabbath – will seem to us “morally speaking, unseemly: another word for laziness, idleness and sloth.” Given the pride most Christians take in breaking the fourth commandment, I think he’s right about this. This little book shows how wrongheaded we are about this and why the good life God intends for us is one that includes and prioritizes leisure.
A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki (2008)
I was first told about this book while helping with a workshop about racial injustice for cross-cultural missionaries this summer. We had been discussing the tendency to reduce conversations about race to a black and white binary when A Different Mirror was suggested as a kind of antidote. Ronald Takaki, a professor of Ethnic Studies, tells America’s story through the experiences of a variety of different communities. Here we read how Native Americans, Irish immigrants, Chinese laborers, resident Mexicans, and enslaved Africans came to make their homes in this country.
There’s no way for a multi-cultural history to be comprehensive, but Takaki provides a good, engaging overview. He includes the individual stories and voices which make good history come alive. Importantly, there is a lot of significant American history in these chapters that many of are only kind of aware of, if at all. These tend to be the stories and communities that only got passing mention in most of our history classes and textbooks. Anyone who wants a fuller view of this country’s past will do well to add this history to the one we already know.
What Saint Augustine teaches us about the key to Christian resistance.
I’ve been insistent – to a tiresome degree I’m sure – that American Christians are to resist the destructive and divisive ideology of our incoming president. It’s been heartening to hear others make this case from their own vantage points. Yet, because of my Christian orientation, I’m convinced that there’s a profoundly unglamorous posture that must characterize any Christian resistance to our next president. I was reminded of this as I’ve begun reading St. Augustine’s City of God.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote his massive book during the years of Rome’s slow demise before the relentless barbarian invaders. He wrote at a unique religious moment: Christianity had been acceptable for a few generations but the old, pagan, practices were still recalled and occasionally practiced within the empire. All of this led to accusations that Rome’s weakened state could be traced to the spurned pagan gods. Perhaps, the understandably anxious logic went, Christianity was at fault for the incessant attacks and porous borders.
Augustine’s massive book was, in large part, a response to the crumbling empire and the critics it fostered. Early on, as he defends Christianity, he acknowledges a reasonable question about the suffering of believers.
What, then, have the Christians suffered in that calamitous period, which would not profit every one who duly and faithfully considered the following circumstances?
Augustine admits that any observer would notice that Christians were not exempt from the suffering provoked by the invasions. It seemed that their faith in Christ hadn’t kept them from suffering alongside their fellow, pagan, citizens. He then responds with a theological rationale that I think should be held high by those of us who see opportunities for resistance and, possibly, suffering in the days ahead.
First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters; for although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills. For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh. Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account… So that, although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment. Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners. (Book 1, chapter 9.)
When reflecting on the sufferings experienced by Christians, Augustine says, basically, of course we suffer because we also sin. God’s judgment on sin, as advanced through “such terrible disasters” as the empire was currently undergoing, was bound to be felt by Christians along with their neighbors. Though he is quick to show the difference between the sins of Christians and those of the pagans – faith in Christ secures the faithful’s eternal security – he also shows that, by our very nature, Christians can expect to experience the same suffering as our neighbors. It’s the reason for our suffering that is important to Augustine: “they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills.” This sobering knowledge, that our sin demands judgment, is what makes the Christian respond to suffering and calamity with humility, knowing that we have no high moral ground from which to judge.
This humility, born from a scathing appraisal of our sinfulness and complicity in the world’s suffering, is what must distinguish Christian resistance in the coming days. Our opposition to rhetoric and policies which damage and destroy will be flavored with a chastened view of our limited capacity along with a tangible sense of personal lament for how we’ve benefitted from and contributed to the world that gave rise to the president-elect.
None of this means we won’t resist when we see our neighbors threatened. Humility requires a quiet spirit but it can coexist nicely with loud resistance when necessary. In his own way, long-winded and brilliant, this is what Augustine was doing in his own anxious days as the established order came crumbling down. We’ll need to do the same in the days ahead: resist with courage, with one repentant eye always on our own sin and another on the redemptive move of God who alone is this world’s judge and savior.
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. [Matthew 1:18-25]
Much of our lives involves finding a way out of trouble. Some of our troubles are self-inflicted, resulting from selfish decisions, besetting sin, or addictions revisited. Other trouble afflicts us simply because our circumstances, by our place within a world wracked by evil and injustice. This is the sort of trouble Joseph finds himself in when Mary, his fiancé, is found to be pregnant.
Joseph is caught between two competing instincts. Matthew tells us that he was faithful to the law, and so he would have been required to divorce Mary. But we also learn that he is a good man with sincere feelings of compassion and love for Mary: “He didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace.” Like us, Joseph needed a way out of trouble. And he finds a good enough way in his decision to divorce her quietly. In a small ceremony, with two or three witnesses, Joseph could fulfill the requirements of the law while still looking out for Mary’s wellbeing. It remained a heartbreaking situation, but the way out of trouble that Joseph settled on was good enough.
But then God intervened and suddenly Joseph’s good enough way out was no longer good enough. Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him that the Holy Spirit is behind Mary’s pregnancy and immediately his view of the situation and its associated trouble changes. Previously, he had two inputs into his impossible situation: following the law and caring for Mary. But now the angel opens up his vision and he sees beyond his immediate circumstances. He learns that the child Mary carries is a miracle of God and that he has been called by God to care for this child and his fiancé.
Everything changes. What had seemed like a good way out of his trouble now pales in comparison to the options that open up before him. Of course he won’t divorce Mary quietly. Of course he will take Mary as his wife and this child as his son. Why? Because when God opens our troubled eyes to his presence we see options where there had only been dead ends; we see open doors where there had only been brick walls; we see ways out of trouble that are genuinely good rather than just the best bad choice.
Now, we might think that the way out that God provides will be the easiest, the most painless option. But look at what happens to Joseph. After the vision, he takes Mary home to be his wife. So, in the eyes of his small community, Joseph is either a law-breaker because he didn’t divorce his adulterous fiancé, or Joseph himself is the father of Mary’s out-of-wedlock child. Either way, Joseph’s reputation is shot. He has brought shame onto himself and his family. This is now how he will now be defined in the eyes of his family and neighbors.
And then, one chapter later, after Jesus is born, Joseph is forced to lead his young, vulnerable family as refugees into Egypt. King Herod has heard about the baby king born in Bethlehem and he orders him killed. Joseph goes from being a laborer in a small, quiet town – minding his own business and trying to live a life pleasing to God – to a man on the run, pursued by the most powerful, violent tyrant in the region, living as a refugee in another country.
It’s true that God will always provide a way out of our trouble. And his way out will always be better than ours, will always open our eyes to miraculous possibilities beyond our imaginations. But we must not confuse God’s way out for the easy way out, the painless way out, the cheap way out. In a world that shames young, single mothers, God’s way out will at times seem shameful. In a world that fosters violence and upheaval in one nation and then slams shuts the doors to refugees in other nations, God’s way out will at times seem impossible.
What is it that keeps Joseph and Mary faithful to God’s way out of their trouble? Why, given the shame and violence that has come their way, do they not settle for their own good enough way out?
When the angel came to Joseph, he told him that the unborn child would be named Jesus, a very common Jewish name with an uncommon meaning: God saves. He will save his people from their sins. And then Matthew adds an editorial detail: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means “God with us”).”
God saves. God with us.
Mary and Joseph are the first to experience the shock of God’s rescue. Through the birth of their son they discovered that God’s plan – a plan the prophets had been pointing to for centuries, a plan so unexpected that no one was looking for it – they discovered that God’s plan was for God to save his people through coming to be with his people.
God saves. God with us. Jesus.
It’s when we believe that God has come to be with us, to live with us, to suffer with us, to die for us – it’s then that see that God’s way out, despite the cost, is the way of salvation. Jesus’ story did not end with the shame of Bethlehem. His story did not end with the terror of Egypt. His story did not even end with the suffering and abandoned death on a Roman cross. Through all of this, God’s way out was being accomplished. His way out of sin; his way out of rebellion; his way out of injustice; his way out of evil and death. God’s way out was accomplished through Jesus, and Joseph had just enough faith to see it on that night in Bethlehem. Just enough faith to set aside his good-enough way out of trouble and choose God’s way out.
May we do the same. We’ve schemed and planned and strategized our way out of trouble- out of sin, out of pain, out of debt, out of relational dysfunction. We’ve settled for the good-enough way out of trouble. It’s time to follow Joseph’s example. Set down your good-enough plans for a way out of your troubles. Ask the God who saves, the God who is with you, to open your eyes to his way out. It will not be the easiest way. It will not be a painless way. But along this way you will be joined by Immanuel – God with you – who will lead you his salvation.
A daydream I indulge in regularly these days.
Person of Color/Christian, didn’t vote for Trump: Some of the things the president-elect and some of his supporters have said make me concerned for my community.
White Person/Christian, voted for Trump: Oh wow! It makes me sad to hear that. I don’t really get why you feel that way, but I trust you and love you and believe you. What would you like me to understand to better stand with you and support you?
I’ve not seen it yet, but it’s the season for Christmas miracles, right?