America’s Absurd Logic

He meant for us to be encouraged. It was toward the end of an evening conversation in a neighborhood church where pastors and police leadership had gathered to talk about the recently-resurfaced challenge of police and community relations. The leader (let the reader understand) was talking about stop and frisk, the tactic employed by officers who profile potential mischief-makers. After explaining the advances in technology and data collection that allow officers to better distinguish criminals from citizens, the leader, in his would-be encouraging words, explained that the biggest challenge was educating the targets of these profiling stops. Once they knew how to respond to being profiled and the motives behind these stops he felt certain that any confusion would be cleared up. The officers wouldn’t feel misunderstood about their tactics and the profiled citizens would behave appropriately after being stopped for fitting the data spit out by this ever-improving technology.

Photo credit: Michael Fleshman (cc)
Photo credit: Michael Fleshman (cc)

As I listened to him talk – to his words and the optimism with which he said them – I thought about the poster than hangs in the lobby of the neighborhood field house where our church meets on Sundays. It’s an older poster that shows Michael Jordan in his car after being pulled over by a police officer. I can’t recall the text precisely, but the gist is that even Jordan, one of the most powerful people on the planet, needs to think about how he behaves – how he can make the officer comfortable – when he is pulled over. The poster’s tone is similar to the leader’s: No need to worry; just do what you’re told and things will be ok. Eventually.

The poster and the police leadership are mute to the fact that stop and frisk is directed almost totally at African Americans. A report released by the ACLU earlier this year showed that in Chicago, “African-Americans were subjected to 182,048 stops, 72 percent of all stops, yet constituted 32 percent of the city’s population.” I say that this racial disparity is left unsaid yet this impolite fact is just barely concealed. There’s a reason it’s Michael Jordan on that poster and not one of his white superstar contemporaries. There’s a reason I was one of the few white faces in the church listening to the leadership talk about data and tactics.

The obscene sense of inevitability behind racial disparity and its accompanying profiling felt especially heavy as the leadership spoke. The pull is strong toward accepting the logic behind the data and technology that spotlights black men while simultaneously making my white body almost invisible. (I was once pulled over for driving noticeably over the speed limit. After being given a warning by the officer and let go, my black friend shouted from the back seat: Are you kidding me?! Until that moment he’d been unaware that “giving a warning” was an option for police officers.) But though the logic may be rational, it isn’t true. There is too much evil it cannot account for, beginning, for example, with the very intentional way our government created the so-called ghettos that are now so heavily policed and profiled.

The obscenity feels heavier when I think about my two sons, beautiful boys whose blood points to ancestors from Africa, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Lessons, like this video, about what to do when stopped by the police will not be curiosities to them but essential curriculum. The logic articulated by the police leadership in that church is the same that so many citizens around the country accept as a benign necessity. Yet this logic, despite its cloak of legitimate data, is built on centuries of deception and destruction. Agreeing to the pragmatism of stop and frisk is necessarily agreeing to the warped assumptions that make such tactics desirable.

You may choose to accept this country’s logic, but as the father to these particular sons it will never be an option for me.

The challenge isn’t to replace the police’s tactics with better ones. After all, this is why the leadership sounded optimistic that night. They were doing better, even acknowledging past mistakes. Yet the logic remained the same and so the tactics differ only by degree. No, the challenge is deeper than tactics. The challenge is truth. And we will get to the truth only when we make plain the utter absurdity that is this nation’s logic.

A Litany of Lament for Charleston

I was encouraged, yesterday afternoon, scrolling through social media and reading about how different churches intentionally made space to lament the fallen in Charleston and to call out the specific sins of racism that cannot be separated from these murders. Our church was on our annual retreat and so had the gift of extra time to listen to one another, to pray, and to slowly participate in one of the most painful and meaningful experiences of the Lord’s Supper I’ve ever experienced. Yesterday we used a litany of lament that was pulled from a few different places. I’m sharing it here, especially for those who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to participate in corporate lament yesterday.

Photo Credit: Stephen Melkisethian
Photo Credit: Stephen Melkisethian
A Lament After Charleston By Mark Charles (Navajo)

Today I lament, I mourn over the life of each and every person that was violently taken in Charleston South Carolina: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor.

I lament that a 5-year-old child was robbed of her innocence and forced to “play” dead in order to survive. I lament that today, the confederate flag is still flying in the Capitol of South Carolina.

I lament the roots of dehumanization that exist within the founding documents of the United States of America; in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our Supreme Court case precedents.

I lament that our nation continues to celebrate its racist foundations with holidays like Columbus Day, sports mascots like the Washington Redsk*ns and the putting of faces like Andrew Jackson on our currency.

I lament the deaths of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and countless others. I lament the words of our political candidates who promise to lead America back to its former “greatness”, ignorant of the fact that much of America’s “greatness” was built on the exploitation and dehumanization of its people of color.

Charleston South Carolina one individual committed a single evil and heinous act of violence, while minority communities throughout the country are bracing themselves because the horrors of the past 500 years are continuing into their lifetime.

I lament with every person and community, throughout the history of this nation, who, due to the color of their skin, had to endure marginalization, silence, discrimination, beatings, lynching, cultural genocide, boarding schools, internment camps, mass incarceration, broken treaties, stolen lands, murder, slavery and discovery.

Today I lament that the United States of America does not share a common memory and therefore is incapable of experiencing true community.

Confession of Sin from the Covenant Book of Worship

We are sorry, God; hear our repentance for our wayward handling of life. We have squandered time, hoarded money, avoided challenges, and used others. We have borne waiting grievously, illness stubbornly, trials reluctantly, and responsibility half-heartedly. We have doubted your care, mistrusted your providence, distorted your power, and ignored your love. We have neglected our discipleship, injured our relationships, sabotaged our fellowship, and underrated your forgiveness. Forgive us now, we pray, and let us try again, sensitive to your Spirit and committed to your will. Amen.

A CALL TO WORSHIP FOR THE TRAGEDY IN CHARLESTON BY ONE CHURCH LITURGY*

[Leader] We stand before you today, oh Lord Hearts broken, eyes weeping, heads spinning Our African American brothers and sisters were murdered They gathered and prayed and then were no more The prayer soaked walls of the church are spattered with blood The enemy at the table turned on them in violence While they were turning to you in prayer

[All] We stand with our sisters We stand with our brothers We stand with their families We stand with Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor We stand to bear their burden in Jesus’ name

[Leader] We cry out to you, oh Lord Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, heads spinning The violence in our streets has come into your house The racism in our cities and our churches has crept into your sanctuary The brokenness in our lives has broken into your temple The dividing wall of hostility has crushed our brothers and sisters We cry out to you, May your Kingdom come, may it be on earth as it is in heaven

[All] We cry out for our sisters We cry out for our brothers We cry out for their families We cry out for peace in Jesus’ name

[Leader] We pray to you today, oh Lord Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, souls stirring We pray for our enemies, we pray for those who persecute us We pray to the God of all Comfort to comfort our brothers and sisters in their mourning, to comfort us in our mourning We pray that you would bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes We pray that you would give them the oil of joy instead of mourning We pray that you would give them a garment of praise in place of a spirit of despair

[All] We pray for our sisters We pray for our brothers We pray for their families We pray for their comfort in Jesus’ name

[Leader] We declare together, oh Lord With hearts breaking, eyes weeping and souls stirring We will continue to stand and cry and weep with our brothers and sisters We will continue to make a place of peace for even the enemies at our table We will continue to open our doors and our hearts to those who enter them We will continue to seek to forgive as we have been forgiven We will continue to love in Jesus’ name because you taught us that love conquers all

[All] We declare our love for you, our Sisters We declare our love for you, our Brothers We declare our love for you, their families We declare our love as one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism We declare they do not grieve alone today

Psalm 77 

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.

I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
12 I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

13 Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
14 You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

16 The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
17 The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
19 Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

20 You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

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*The version here has been edited by me to be more specific to the actual event in Charleston. See another version here, edited by Kathy Khang and Misuzu Miyashita.

Worship after Charleston

Leadership Journal has published the responses of five pastors from around the country as we prepare for worship on Sunday after the massacre in Charleston. The first comes from a colleague in Chicago:

Not unlike our church, the people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston meet every Wednesday for Bible study. And like us, everyone is welcome to attend. This Wednesday night a man sat among those desiring to study the word and draw closer to God and one another. He sat for an hour, filled with hate, before he began to open fire, killing nine people. A witness heard him saying that he had come to kill black people.

As a black man, I’m left wondering, Where can we go, is there no safe place?

I hope you’ll read them all.

What should married people know about the experience of singleness?

If you have an answer to this question please leave it on the blog. I’m away from social media during Lent so any comments left there will be sadly unread. Thanks! 

During Lent we are preaching through a series called Undivided in which we’re looking at some of the things that separate Christians. As an intentionally multi-ethnic church we spend plenty of time exploring how the gospel addresses divisions brought about by race, ethnicity, culture and the like. But it’s good for us to remember that there are more subtle sources of division that we experience, whether or not we even notice them most of the time.

Image by Esther Gallentine for New Community.
Image by Esther Gallentine for New Community.

Last week I preached about the ways single people and married people can experience divisions between these two hard-to-summarize relational statuses. This coming Sunday our church will hear from a panel of married and single people who will share their experiences as it relates to divisions and unity in this area.

As I told our church last Sunday, because Maggie and I were married relatively young, I don’t have any real memory of singleness, especially as experienced by many in our church. So, what should I know? Or better: If you, as a single person, were sitting on this panel on Sunday, what question would you hope to be asked? (I’m interested too in questions married people would like to be asked, it’s just that I feel slightly less ignorant about that experience.)

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.

Dear White People: Repent!

On Facebook & Twitter I recently made the following statement: “To my white brothers & sisters: our participation in the ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ movement begins with our repentance & confession.” A friend read this and asked if I could suggest any resources for repentance. I’ll suggest one such resources at the end of this post, but I want to start by filling in my original statement just a bit.

During the past few weeks I’ve wondered about how white people can participate in protests, marches, and movements for justice on behalf of black and brown people. This is worth thinking carefully about since the white protestors, like myself, are complicit in and beneficiaries of the very systems responsible for the injustices targeted by the protests. A white person presents at least two challenges in these settings: his presence is a reminder of the privilege and prejudice that makes the protest necessary and his formation within a white supremacist system makes his participation in a movement to dismantle such a system… complicated.

Despite these very significant challenges, there are good reasons for white people to join the struggle for justice for black and brown people. James Baldwin saw this in the early 1960’s:

White people cannot, in generality, be taken as models of how t live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks- the total liberation , in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.

Black Lives Matter Protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)
Black Lives Matter Protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)

Here’s what I take from Baldwin about white protestors participating in BlackLivesMatter: We must begin by acknowledging our own profound need, by the way our privilege and unacknowledged power has corrupted our hearts. We come to this justice movement not as innocent bystanders or righteous saviors. We come as desperately needy persons, not to assuage our guilt but to confess our sin and need. For many of us, the act of protesting is a quite literal repentance- we are turning away from our sins of commission and especially our sins of omission and we are turning back to our Savior and the priorities of his Kingdom.

In my original statement I wrote that a white person’s participation in the movement begins with repentance. And while it does, repentance must also be ongoing. In our discipleship to Jesus we are regularly being shown new (to us) habits and assumptions that require our turning away. This will be especially true for those of us whose society has affirmed our assumptions, desires, and fears. As we continue to follow Jesus it becomes clear that the affirmation we received as members of a dominant culture is no longer so quick in coming. The ethic and assumptions of the Kingdom of Heaven are often greatly at odds with those of our country and its privileged citizens.

Though it is ongoing, this repentance will also be specific. White Christians who are becoming aware of the destructiveness of whiteness as a social construct can feel ashamed of being a white person. This person wants to apologize in general terms for being white. But such general shame and vague repentance isn’t helpful. After all, no one chooses their race or ethnicity. Neither do we choose the history and social realities associated with them. And while the social construct of whiteness continues to wreak havoc in America, there is nothing inherently wrong with a person’s white skin.

So our ongoing repentance must avoid vague generalities. We must instead repent like Zacchaeus who, when made aware of his sin by his proximity to Jesus, repented of particular sins: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” The history of race in America – a history so many white people are ignorant of – provides many specific reasons to repent: economies and institutions built on slavery; discriminatory housing policies; stolen wealth and land; education inequities; mass incarceration; cultural stereotypes promoted by the media. These are barely the tip of the iceberg and the connections to these large themes and one’s own complicit privilege are not immediately obvious to many white people. But follow Jesus long enough with an eye to reality and the connections will come and along with them the need for particular repentance.

Black Lives Matter protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)
Black Lives Matter protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)

To be fair, many white people have been Christians for a long time and are as blind to the need to repent as are many of their non-Christian peers. Without going too deeply into it here I attribute this blindness to church structures that are more determined by our country’s racialized assumptions than by any Biblical ecclesiology. In too many cases our churches exacerbate our privilege and prejudice rather than calling them out and calling us to repentance. Segregated white churches eliminate the possibility of reconciliation across cultural divides, one of the bitter fruits being white people who never submit relationally to people of color whose experiences and perspectives would provide new rationale for specific moments of repentance.

Intrinsic to Christian faith is dependance on God’s grace and mercy. Confession, repentance, and forgiveness are not exceptional or occasional practices for Christians; these are the very basic practices of our faith. I point this out to say that, in theological theory at least, white people ought to welcome the opportunity for ongoing repentances as a normal and natural characteristic of their faith development. I don’t mean that it’s easy, but no one who reads the Gospels closely expects discipleship to be easy. Good, but never easy.

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As for resources for repentance, I think the Psalms are always the starting point. In recent weeks our church has turned to those psalms that were written during times of exile. These often speak to both the need for deliverance and the need for forgiveness.

Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. [Psalm 79]

Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud. [Psalm 123]

The beginning of Nehemiah also is a great example of a man with cultural privilege repenting of a previous generation’s sins. This is tough for people who know too little of our history and value too much our individuality, but Nehemiah shows us why such wide repentance is necessary and good.

Couldn’t join the #BlackLivesMatter protest? Support those who did!

Warning: shameless financial request ahead…

I’ve been so encouraged by the online support to my blog posts and social media updates about our church’s engagement with the justice issues raised by the recent non-indictments in Ferguson and New York. Of course there have been a handful of dissenters – “stick to talking about god instead of race relations” – but these have been a drop in the bucket compared with the positive and thoughtful comments. Thank you!

Pastor Michael Neal and his wife Dee of Glorious Light Church in Bronzeville. (Photo by Esther Kang.)

One thing I’ve picked up on from some comments is that many of you want to support things like Sunday’s #BlackLivesMatter protest but you don’t attend a church or live in a community where this is possible. Some of you may even feel a bit guilty because it doesn’t seem like there is more that you can do besides showing your support on social media. To those of you in that camp I have one suggestions and two requests.

First, though places like the south side of Chicago get much of the attention when it comes to issues of injustice it’s safe to assume that these same issues are at play wherever you live. They may not be as obvious or destructive, but there are undoubtedly ways in which injustice is at work in your zip code. And there are certainly people around you who care about these things. Find them and jump into whatever small efforts are already in place. Don’t become so distracted with what’s happening over there that you miss the opportunity right where you are.

Now to the requests. Pray for us. That’s the first thing.  It’s easy to think about justice issues through partisan lenses, but our church is very aware of the spiritual nature of this fight. We have to think theologically about the issues, Christologically about the solutions, and, in all things, act with courage and humility. See why we need your prayers?

Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church in Bronzeville. (Photo by Esther Kang.)

Here’s the second request: Would you consider a financial gift to one of the churches in our Bronzeville community? One of the churches that has been involved in this work of justice faithfully? One the churches with the courage to protest on Sunday and the focus to continue once many others have moved on? Urban ministry is wonderful work and also very hard. Many of the financial resources that are available elsewhere are scarce in our neighborhoods, though we celebrate the many ways God provides for us.

There are many churches I could point you to who would benefit from your generosity; I’m choosing these three because they are located in Bronzeville. Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church was the first pastor to welcome me to Bronzeville years ago. He has opened many doors of opportunity to our church as we seek to serve and love our neighbors. His church is often at the lead of community development and I’m honored to be a part of several initiatives that have been started by Pastor Harris. Pastor Michael Neal of Glorious Light Church has become a close friend. He opened his church’s space to us earlier this year for a justice conference we hosted. Our churches also worship together every six months. Pastor Neal has initiated a literacy program in the neighborhood among many other initiatives focused on education and health. Both of these pastors and their churches are faithfully proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel of Jesus in our little corner of Chicago. I’m very happy to urge your financial support of their ministries.

The third church? You can probably guess that our young congregation, New Community Covenant Church, would also welcome your generosity. We’re still at the early stages of this journey to justice, but in our less-than-five years we’ve taken some important steps, especially in the area of racial reconciliation. We will continue to give ourselves to loving our neighbors and building a diverse community that can only be understood through the lens of the gospel.

Would you consider a financial gift to one or more of these churches? Give to Bright Star Church here. Give to Glorious Light Church here. Give to New Community Covenant Church here. I’m spending today with representatives from these churches and other organizations as we continue our long-term work on trauma prevention and intervention in our neighborhood. Long after the media attention has moved on, we’ll continue to be praying and working for God’s kingdom to come in Bronzeville as it is in heaven.

Standing with Bronzeville clergy and leaders at the front of the protest on Sunday. (Photo by Esther Kang.)

Regardless of how you do it, please know how valuable your support and encouragement are to those of us in the thick of this work. Thank you!