Embracing the Other

My review of Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s recent book, Embracing the Other, has been posted at the Englewood Review of Books.

She borrows from the Asian concept of Chi to “imagine God [in a way] that captures energies of divine love that are the divine essence and permeate the community of creation.” The goal of this reimagining project is a way of pursuing justice for all that, unlike so many theological expressions, does not privilege some at the expense of others. While affirming the historic understanding of the triune God, Kim leans heavily into the Biblical narratives of the Holy Spirit, from the Old Testament ruach to the Pentecost experience of the early church. Spirit God, in Kim’s language, subverts the colonized and systematized structures that have kept Asian American women and others from full participation in the family of God.

You can read the entire thing on the Englewood site.

“…a black man in the White House and nearly one million black men and women in the Big House.”

Most Americans see inequality – and the racial habits that give it life – as aberrations, ways we fail to live up to the idea of America. But we’re wrong. Inequality and racial habits are part of the American Idea. They are not symptoms of bad, racist people who fail to live up to pristine ideals. We are, in the end, what we do. And this is the society we have all made. So much so that we have a black man in the White House and nearly one million black men and women in the Big House.

-From the first chapter of Eddie S. Glaude Jr’s new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. A church member told me about the book yesterday after our service and I picked it up this morning. Glaude has quickly sucked me in- he’s precise and truthful in a way that, as I’m reading, feels notable for how rare such clear writing about our current racial and political moment usually is.  Another quote to give you a sense of this:

Opportunity deserts are the racial underside of a society that has turned its back on poor people, especially poor black people. This indifference allows most white Americans to be willfully ignorant of what happens in such places and to ignore the history of racism in this country that has consigned so many black people to poverty with little to no chance of escaping it. Most white Americans never go there – literally or metaphorically – and have a hard time imagining that such places exist.

5 Favorite Books of 2015

I read thirty books this year– not nearly as many as some of you, but respectable for me. A few were assigned by editors for review and some of these were lost on me, but for the most part I’d recommend my entire list to you. Still, each year I’m in the habit of picking five that are especially worth your attention. Here are this year’s five, in the order I read them. I’d be interested to know what you read in 2015 that is worth recommending.

Spiritual Friendship; Wesley Hill (2014).

Spiritual Friendship by Wesley HillEarlier this year I preached a series about friendship. This was something I’d wanted to do for a while but, each time I tried to prepare, found I had little Biblical imagination for the topic. I knew it was an important theme throughout Scripture – “I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) – but couldn’t recall reading or hearing anything theological on the topic. Hill’s book was not the only book about friendship I read, but it might have been the first and it began to make connections for me that I may have otherwise missed.

Hill, a theologian, writes as a “celibate gay Christian” who, over time, has come to see his sexual orientation as a gift for the church. This book seems to prove the point. While Spiritual Friendship will be encouraging to anyone committed to the traditional Christian sexual ethic, the book pushes far beyond sexuality to hold friendship up as a relational category worthy of our best efforts and thoughtfulness. The book’s title points back to a 12th century book by Aelred of Rievaulx who was one of the first to reflect theologically on friendship as a distinctly Christian way of relating to others. (I highly recommend this small book to you as well. Despite it’s age, the dialogical style and a helpful introduction make it relatively accessible.) Reading these books was something of a revelation to me, like uncovering long-forgotten wisdom. Within Christian subcultures that can idolize marriage and biological families, Hill reminds us that Christians have a much broader definition of family. And within this generous definition there is a special place for those individuals who love one another as friends. “If blood is thicker than water,” writes Hill, “then Eucharistic blood is thickest of all.”

Men We Reaped; Jesmyn Ward (2014).

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn WardOne of the difficult and disorienting realities I notice in our city is that African American women and men are subject to violence in ways that are utterly foreign to most white people. There are the spectacularly tragic cases that make the news – Chicago police killed a college student and a 55-year-old woman the day after Christmas – and then there are the quieter, more common stories of friends and family members succumbing to violent ends.

Jesmyn Ward noticed this contagious violence when five young men – each from her small hometown in Mississippi – died within four years. These deaths included her brother’s, whose story weaves through her own as she traces their childhoods and adolescence through landscapes that are sometimes kind and often dangerously inhospitable. The book is a memoir, beautifully written, and so avoids sweeping conclusions about why Black and Brown people in this country are subject to such vague and persistent trauma. But Men We Reaped does better than give us statistics and explanations; here we have the beautiful and sad stories of three-dimensional people whose lives are no less meaningful for the wicked predictability of their untimely ends.

Between the World and Me; Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015).

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesI’ve talked more about this book than any other this year. Earlier I wrote about how Between the World and Me and me reminded me of how James Baldwin wrote about the impotence of white Christianity. Coates has written a memoir, his second, in the form of a letter to his son. The book is consciously post-Ferguson, made more poignant as we see video-recorded police brutality through Coates’ adolescent son.

As an atheist Coates does at least two things masterfully that Christians should notice. The first is the priority of flesh and blood in these pages.

But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

There is no easy theorizing or theologizing here; Coates is relentless in reminding the reader that the natural end of racist violence is the destruction of individual bodies. Though Christians would theoretically want to add to Coates’ description of the body, the reality is that we have often said less. In our priority of spirit and soul, we are guilty of a particularly racist gnosticism.

The second thing Coates does is to tell the truth about Black bodies and the suffering they endure as if there were no white people reading. I’m not sure the author would put it this way, but there seems to be a purposefulness about how direct and honest he is. There are no escape routes for the good white person, only complicity. (In a group conversation about the book, a young African American man admitted his discomfort about how plainly Coates writes in a book that will be read by so many white people. I understand this to be intentional on the author’s part- an intentional ignoring of the inescapable white gaze.) As a Christian I’m forced to ask why Coates’ atheism seems a more stable platform for truth-telling than so many forms of American Christianity. I happen to believe that Christianity contains within it the resources for such piercing and courageous truth, but rediscovering these resources will necessarily begin with repentance which, not coincidentally, would be one of the appropriate responses to this beautiful book.

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home; Pope Francis (2015).

Laudato Si- On Care for Our Common Home by Pope FrancisIn this short book Pope Francis has made unmistakable something that should never have been debatable in the first place: care for the natural environment is a moral act, one that Christians are meant to have a natural affinity for.

Laudato Si is a uniquely Christian take on our environmental crisis. As such Pope Francis highlights things like humanity’s commonalities, the impact of climate change on the poor, the non-utilitarian nature of people, a realistic assessment of technology’s ability to solve environmental destruction, and an appreciation for how creation reflects aspects of God’s character. The book is gracious and pastoral but its greatest strength is making plain the distinctively Christian contributions to the environmental movement. There was a well of course sense as I read the book along with some sadness that the thoughtfulness and compassion exhibited by the pope isn’t always what Christians are known for when it comes to caring for our common home.

Citizen: An American Lyric; Claudia Rankine (2014)

Citizen by Claudia RankineAs with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Claudia Rankine’s collection of poetry is intensely focuses on the particularities of Black and Brown bodies and experiences. The book’s heavy, glossy pages include occasional selections of art and various prose poems, many related to widely known moments of recent racial injustice. But the bulk of the book is given to stories, told to and arranged by the poet, of particular moment of racial dissonance and prejudice.

At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!

I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.

Aloud, you say.

What? he asks.

You didn’t mean to say that aloud.

Your transaction goes swiftly after that.

I don’t read enough poetry to say much more about this book other than that it completely pulled me in. The poetic prose, artwork, and singular moments created an atmosphere that, from a variety of angles, asked the questions implied by the title: Who is a citizen in this country? Who decides? Is citizenship in America a goal worth pursuing?

Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament Soong-Chan RahWe’re less than two weeks away from a new year and the current one feels like it has overstayed its welcome. Soong-Chan Rah subtitled his latest book: All Call for Justice in Troubled Times. And the times do seem troubled, don’t they? Of course, it’s doubtful that this year has been measurably more difficult than others, or that the times we live in are harder than any other point in history. But our access to instant updates about the latest global catastrophe along with technology that is pulling back some of the veil that has long obscured our society’s injustices can make these days feel especially raw, like a wound that never gets the chance to heal.

There are, of course, many Americans who’ve never been afforded the delusion that all is well in this country. For these citizens the stream of videos displaying police brutality, to take just one, unavoidable example, is not new information but confirmation writ large of an old and lived experience. And throughout Prophetic Lament Rah is viscerally aware of these experiences but he seems to be writing primarily to those who have been reading their news feeds with horror. Can this really be happening in our country? 

The rationale behind Rah’s chosen vehicle to address these previously unaware – blissfully unaware, dangerously unaware – Christians is not immediately obvious. Prophetic Lament is a commentary on the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Rather than reading as a typical commentary with foci on individual verses, original languages, and such, the book reads as an extended essay that swerves consciously between the experience of Israel’s exile and reflections on contemporary events, particularly issues of justice that have often escaped white churches.

(It’s important, I think, to again point out that Rah seems to be writing to a white Christian readership. “The American church avoids lament,” he writes and I have to believe he doesn’t mean the whole American church but a particular evangelical variety.)

Lament is the absolutely essential theme that runs throughout the book and the many facets of this spiritual/emotional practice/response are on beautiful and provocative display. Those of us who’ve been formed to varying degrees by expressions of Christianity that are triumphalist, individualistic, and consumeristic desperately need to learn the language of lament. Within my own church and community I find myself returning regularly to the lament psalms and prophets whose language and theology is indispensable in times of tragedy and entrenched wickedness.

Lamentations is a book that can and should speak into our current circumstances and, in Prophetic Lament, Rah has given us an accessible introduction for our troubled times.

Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys

Rescuing the Gospel from the CowboysI learned a lot while reading Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, but finding a succinct way to describe the book and what I learned is proving difficult. Though it wasn’t his first book, in some ways this one feels like the opening salvo from an author who had a lot more to say. Sadly, Richard Twiss died before this book was published. I suspect his legacy and teachings will be represented well by his friends, but many readers will finish this book with a peaked interest that cannot be met by the author. This is our loss, though from the little I know about Twiss – I heard him teach twice – I suspect he wouldn’t be too concerned.

In some ways Rescuing the Gospel reads like a summary of a lifetime of academic and personal research. The book is this and more. Readers like me, who have little background with Native American expressions of Christianity, need to be prepared to step into this world with little handholding. At times the book can feel a bit “inside baseball” but Twiss offers enough context to keep us novices from getting lost. At its heart this is a book about the myriad of ways Native American peoples have suffered the short-sighted and ethnocentric evangelism efforts of the dominant American culture. Twiss compellingly includes first-hand accounts along with his research to show how ugly these approaches can be.

These stories were entrusted to me to take care of as gifts. They are accounts of personal pain, oppression, faith and spiritual growth representing the parallel journeys of thousands of Native/Indigenous people in North American and around the world. Their pain is the direct result of the colonialism, paternalism, and ethnocentric theology…

In contrast to what can only be called colonialism, Twiss articulates a “Decolonizing Contextualization Movement.” It would be a mistake to understand this movement as simple window-dressing on the previous Christian mission strategies among Native Americans. Though this movement prioritizes tribal practices and customs like native dance and the pow wow, these are reflections of theological convictions, namely that God was at work among the indigenous people of North America long before anyone called it North America. For Twiss and others like him, the gospel requires a continuity with the past that honors culture and history.

There is, of course, a history of doing theology this way. The early Christians were fond of looking back at their favorite Greek philosophers for resonance with their Jewish savior. It is evidence of a Christianity that was captive to race and empire that kept (and still keeps!) missionaries from expecting similar resonance from Native American people. It is also evidence of the need for a profound and ongoing repentance that must exist within those of us in the dominant culture.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me | Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates has written a book that is beautiful, tender, and painful. Readers will wince for reasons that will depend on how they’ve experienced this country’s obsession with race. Between the World and Me ought to solidify Coates’ as our generation’s James Baldwin, something I’ve been saying for a couple of years though that comparison is way more credible coming from Toni Morrison. The book comes out tomorrow and there are already many thoughtful reviews; don’t be fooled by how many of them are glowing, bordering on fawning. Critical hyperbole aside, it’s simply a book that deserves many reflective readers.

One of the interesting things about Coates is his complete lack of religious faith. He was raised outside any faith tradition; Afrocentrism was the closest thing to religion given to him by his family. In this way he differs from Baldwin who grew up with a mean preacher as a father and who could engage with Christianity and its racist American expressions from firsthand experience, if from an agnostic’s distance. Because Coates writes comfortably within his atheistic vantage point there are natural points of reasonable confusion when he considers Christianity. Take, for example, his reaction in New York Magazine to the public offers of forgiveness offered by members of the murdered church members in Charleston to their loved ones’ killer. “Even the public forgiving, so soon after the slaughter, seemed unreal. ‘Is that real? Coates said, watching the service. ‘I question the realness of that.’”

Coates’ question about the authenticity of this forgiveness is understandable and he seems to wonder about it sympathetically. He’s not angry at these grieving families, just confused about their motives and intentions. In the same interview the author contrasts President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and its push toward grace with Coates’ own, less hopeful, outlook.

Coates’s writing takes an almost opposite position: that religion is blindness, and that if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.

James BaldwinHere Coates begins to sound very much like Baldwin, whose fatigue with American Christianity was on full display in his 1962 New Yorker article, “Letter from a Region of my Mind.”

Thus, in the realm of morals the role of Christianity has been, at best, ambivalent. Even leaving out of account the remarkable arrogance that assumed that the ways and morals of others were inferior to those of Christians, and that they therefore had every right, and could use any means, to change them, the collision between cultures—and the schizophrenia in the mind of Christendom—had rendered the domain of morals as chartless as the sea once was, and as treacherous as the sea still is. It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

The confusion and disinterest Coates’ shows toward religion generally and Christianity particularly can be chalked up to his distance from it, though I imagine he’s had more than enough exposure to America’s versions of Christianity. Baldwin is harder for Christians to explain away because his knowledge was personal. He wrote with an insider’s knowledge and what he’d seen wasn’t pretty.

There are many reasons to read Between the World and Me and probably even more to dig deeply into the Baldwin canon. But for Christians of all races these authors need to be listened to especially closely for the precise ways they reveal our deficiencies. What sort of deficiencies? Broadly speaking we might read these non-believing prophets for their ability to spot our hypocrisy. But we already expect this, don’t we? Perhaps more helpfully is how Baldwin and Coates reveal the weakness of our supposedly supernatural faith. Forgiveness and hope are central to Christian faith- there is no Christianity without divine forgiveness and eschatological hope. Yet for Coates, and undoubtedly many, many others, the beliefs that appear so radically central within Christianity have been displayed to those outside the Faith as little more than coping mechanisms, excuses to avoid dealing with the real world.

So which are they? Life-altering beliefs about the universe and its Lord or spiritual distractions to make a difficult life slightly more tolerable?

Christians, most of us anyway, want to believe the former but Coates and Baldwin won’t let us off so easily. I’m thankful for this. Their criticism is an invitation to a faith that is deeper and more true than what has often been expressed in this christianized and racialized country.

The Political Disciple

The Political Disciple | Vincent BacoteMy friend, Dr. Vincent Bacote, has written a book that ought to be of interest to a surprisingly wide selection of readers given it’s modest length- fewer than 100 very readable pages. Any book that discusses Christianity and politics is bound to raise questions so Dr. Bacote clarifies and limits his scope right from the beginning. “[T]he big question I am trying to answer is: Can there be Christian faithfulness in the public realm? If politics refers to our lives as citizens, then what does it mean to be Christian and a citizen of a county, state, country, or world?”

I say that The Political Disciple will be interesting to many readers – regardless of one’s interest in politics – because of how Dr. Bacote engages the topic. In large part this involves his own story of discipleship, including the questions many of us have asked about what aspects of so-called secular society, including but not limited to politics, are worthy of Christian engagement. By telling portions of his own particular story story Dr. Bacote invites us to consider our own interaction with the complexities of American citizenship. And while he’s quick to point to how ugly citizenship can be, giving a few pages to the sadness he felt at the not-guilty verdict at George Zimmerman’s trial, Dr. Bacote thinks American Christians have a long way to go in our thoughtful engagement with political life. “[W]e should at least begin with the commitment to be good citizens before resorting to revolution.”

Of course, what a particular Christian thinks being “good citizens” means will determine whether our non-Christian neighbors experience our citizenship as good or not. One such friend contacted me last week as he listened to a NPR story about conservative pastors running for political office as a response to the recent Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage. For this good friend, these pastors’ notion of being good citizens felt anything but good. Thankfully, Dr. Bacote ends the book with three areas of faithful citizenship that should resonate with Christians while remaining good for all of our neighbors. These areas are lament, tempered expectations, and humility that anticipates suffering.

You’ll need to read the book to see how he unpacks these three areas and I hope you will. American politics generally seems fractious and alienating and Christian involvement in politics often bears the same unimaginative characteristics. In contrast, the political vision in these pages is gracious, humble, and imaginative. Dr. Bacote had better watch out; if this vision catches on he might need to write a longer book.