The Suffering Struggle

White Christianity cannot be redeemed. It must be renounced, again.

Last December I wrote about a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent to his friend Erwin Sutz in 1934 as the German church was succumbing to National Socialism and Hitler’s regime. In it, Bonhoeffer considered the struggle for the church against the forces of nationalism and ethnic purity.

And while I’m working with the church opposition with all my might, it’s perfectly clear to me that this opposition is only a very temporary transitional phase on the way to an opposition of a very different kind, and that very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.

I’ve thought a lot about these sentences over the past year, about how Bonhoeffer remains prescient for this decisive moment faced by white Christians in this country. We too have entered a “second struggle” for our Christian witness and it must look different than the initial resistance to White Christianity’s support for Donald Trump and his policies. Before we can imagine the second struggle, I should explain what I mean by White Christianity.

In the appendix to the biography Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845 he described the differences between White Christianity – what he called “slaveholding religion” – and the “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ.” Because he loved the latter, Douglass hated “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” He went on:

Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping with a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.

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Frederick Douglass

Douglass reminds us that the instinct by white Christians to ignore and distrust those who share their faith but not their race – a dynamic hideously displayed during last year’s presidential election – has a long and contemptible history.

We shouldn’t imagine White Christianity simply as every congregation comprised of white people; it is, rather, heir to the slaveholding religion Douglass so accurately described. The attributes of that deviant Christianity have been passed down through generations: White Christianity chooses its gate-keeping sins while, in practice, tolerating the destruction of People of Color and their communities; it is expert about intricate nuances of particular theologies while remaining ignorant of the lived realities of Christian neighbors who cannot or will not assimilate to whiteness; it organizes itself powerfully around partisan issues while ignoring its ongoing complicity in the oppression of its neighbors, including those who confess Christ from outside the bounds of whiteness. White Christianity is grotesquely displayed when its adherents trust their preferred media more than the testimonies of racially diverse saints. White Christianity is the legitimate decedent of Douglass’ slaveholding religion precisely because it finds its ultimate authority and identity in whiteness rather than Christianity.

This malicious distortion of Christian faith centers on, in theologian Kelly Brown Douglas’ words, “the White Christ” who, “allowed for (1) the justification of slavery, (2) Christians to be slaves, and (3) the compatibility of Christianity with the extreme cruelty of slavery.” In truth, this anti-Christ has never been unveiled and rejected by the recipients of that old slaveholding religion and so his blinding influence continues unabated with disastrous effect.

That white Christians continues to support a president who is claimed by white nationalists, supremacists, and nazis should be all the evidence anyone needs that White Christianity places racial solidarity far above ecclesial unity. Time and again its spokesmen excuse the president’s sinful rhetoric and oppressive policies while simultaneously discounting the fears and suffering of other Christians: Native Americans whose lands continue to be stolen, who are killed by police as often as are African Americans; immigrants from the Middle East, Mexico and Central America who are profiled for harassment and deportation in ever more frightening ways; black communities targeted for unaccountable and militarized policing, disenfranchised from voting yet again; Americans of Asian descent whose cultural and ethnic particularities are rendered invisible to a gaze that sees only perpetual foreignness. White Christianity is willfully blind to those who suffer under the president about whom they believe, as one of its leaders has said, that “God’s hand intervened… to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.”

But the vulgarities of this past year could obscure something important about White Christianity which is that it is possible to forcefully oppose this presidency and its increasingly visible instances of white supremacy and still fit comfortably within its boundaries. There are forms of White Christianity which protest the most obvious expressions of racism while quietly benefitting from the racial hierarchy. It’s possible, likely even, that one can fiercely resist this presidential administration – self-consciously as a Christian – while tacitly contributing to public school segregation, community displacement, income inequality, and a skyrocketing racial wealth gap- each a symptom of a racial caste system that, regardless of one’s enlightened politics, advances the aims of this nation’s ancient slaveholding religion. By some measures progressive white denominations are even more segregated than the Evangelical ones most associated with our racist president. As an inoculation, liberal Christianity is far too weak for this hereditary sickness.

White Christianity cannot be contained by denominations or ideologies; it is rampant wherever majorities of white Christians of all theological persuasions and partisan perspectives are found.

White Christianity, then, is any expression of Christianity which, in practice, places fidelity to the aims and assumptions of whiteness above solidarity to the Body of Christ. And because whiteness disguises itself as the country’s neutral foundation, to renounce White Christianity white congregations must explicitly proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that whiteness is not. And, because white supremacy is woven into this nation’s systems and psychology, white Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling by disavowing our illegitimate inheritance of power, wealth, and – by every possible metric – supremacy.

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Bonhoeffer wrote his letter to Sutz believing the struggle for the German church had been lost. It wasn’t that the church was no longer worth fighting for; neither did he walk away from his faith as some American Christians have been tempted to do this year. If anything, the coming years would show how far the young theologian was willing to go to prepare the church for a future devoted to Jesus alone as Lord, a seemingly impossible task that was fueled by his restless faith. But the German church was lost to Bonhoeffer and he would no longer fight to save it. The swastika would soon be added to the German church’s symbols and the aryan paragraph barred any Jewish person from a position of authority in the churches. Church leaders were lining up in support of the Nazi regime and its charismatic leader. There was, in Bonhoeffer’s view, nothing within those corrupted ecclesiastical paradigms worth contending for. In hindsight the decision seems obvious but to most of his contemporaries there was nothing predetermined about Bonhoeffer’s trajectory. In the slow boil to crisis, his response was the exception.

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Ida B. Wells

A similarly pivotal moment has arrived for white Christians. In the past it was possible – if not truthful – for many of us to gloss over our tendencies toward nationalism, the inaccuracies we embrace about this country’s history of racial inequity and white supremacy, our partisan priorities that always held racist underpinnings, the schools we founded to separate our children from public (integrated) ones, and the missionary priorities which sent people around the world while ignoring – or, as Douglass’ contemporary Ida B. Wells pointed out, lynching – our African American neighbors. But this president has made it impossible to excuse these actions as having been acceptable within their times. Because those times are now our times and it is clear that the underlying ideology of supremacy and racial hierarchy remains as deeply entrenched now as it was then.

The struggle for White Christianity must be abandoned. The president has embraced white nationalism as his god and White Christianity has supported him at every step and tweet. As long at its countless representatives will not renounce their primary racial allegiance there is no reason to expend time or energy within its sanctuaries, seminaries, conferences, publishing houses, or anywhere else its presence overwhelms all others.

This doesn’t mean that White Christianity can be ignored. When compared with Frederick Douglass’ “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ,” this deviant form of the faith has amassed immeasurable wealth and cultural power. Black churches, for example, have long known that interacting with White Christianity and its representatives is an inevitable part of existence in this country. Especially for those of us who are white, interacting skillfully with white Christian culture and institutions is perhaps one of the roles we play for our sisters and brothers who’ve long suffered its malevolence. A friend of mine, a white pastor, says he continues to show up in these spaces not with any hope of rescuing White Christianity but to do his best to mitigate the damage it inflicts on those he serves. This, I think, is exactly the right posture. We struggle not to save White Christianity but to blunt its violence.

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If, as Bonhoeffer did with the German church, we concede the irreparable status of White Christianity – something many American Christians did a long time ago – where then is our second struggle? For Bonhoeffer, this struggle would be characterized by suffering.

Simply suffering is what it will be about, not parries, blows, or thrusts such as may still be allowed and possible in the preliminary battles; the real struggle that perhaps lies ahead must be one of simply suffering through in faith. Then, perhaps then God will acknowledge his church again with his word, but until then a great deal must be believed, and prayed, and suffered.

Suffering, through unblinking obedience to the commands of Christ as found in the Sermon on the Mount, is what Bonhoeffer anticipated after the struggle for the German church was abandoned. If we are willing to consider it, this form of suffering – induced by discipleship to the crucified Jesus – may provide a lens through which to reckon our coming struggle. I can’t pretend to know how this second, suffering struggle will be experienced by those who accept its invitation, but I can imagine some possibilities.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A person who awakens to her place within White Christianity must choose between regressing to its destructive lie or stating her opposition. The latter is surprisingly difficult. This past year I’ve watched many white pastors and Christian leaders voice their opposition to the racism latent within their churches and organizations only to withdraw to vague spiritual truisms upon being reprimanded by this president’s Christian supporters. I’m sympathetic to their decision, yet we need to be clear about their decisions: They have placed the comfort of their fellow white Christians over the well-being of the Body of Christ. I’ve been there and can testify that this is one of White Christianity’s powers, the pressure to grant racial whiteness superiority over shared eucharistic fellowship across race and ethnicity. I’ve retreated more often that I care to admit.

But the decision to publicly renounce White Christianity is necessary because one’s silence will always be interpreted as acceptance. This moment, and the long and peculiar history behind it, has left us no neutral ground. If white Christians are going to reject White Christianity for the good of the Body of Christ, it will come with the instinctive cost exacted by a defensive dominant system. The betrayal will provoke varying levels of opposition, suffering even. It won’t be the severity of suffering we have inflicted on others of course. I imagine, instead, Jesus’ sobering promise to his followers in Luke 12 that discipleship to him will lead to painful divisions, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” We shouldn’t search out such painful divisions but they will become increasingly inevitable in spite of our attempts to live peaceful lives. After all, the peace pursued by the political and cultural allies of White Christianity is one that exacts a wicked cost upon the psyches and flesh of Christians of color. Those who reject this false peace will themselves be rejected.

The second struggle will be one in which white Christians who have been discipled into a racialized stupor come to identify with the suffering Christ and their suffering ecclesial family. Theologian James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, points out that many American Christians, accustomed to suffering this nation’s scorn, have always known that “white Christianity was fraudulent.”

I and other blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus. Nothing their theologians and preachers could say would convince us otherwise. We wondered how whites could lie with their hypocrisy – such a blatant contradiction of the man from Nazareth. (I am still wondering about that!) White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as part of its religion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both on the outside of Christian identity.

Like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells before him, Cone argues that because White Christianity worships the “White Christ” it cannot be identified with the historic, suffering Jesus. The indictment cuts through religious conservatives and liberals alike. Any expression of the faith that places race above fellowship with Christ’s Body must be abandoned by those who willfully enter this second, suffering struggle. The white Christians who do so are not making a unique or prophetic claim; we are very simply aligning with sisters and brothers who’ve always understood the heretical nature of White Christianity.

“Whites today,” writes Cone, “cannot separate themselves from the culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront their history and expose the sin of white supremacy.” This is where our struggle lies, along the repenting road where we finally confess our ancestral sin. Here we find a company of saints who’ve never been deluded by White Christianity’s strange promise that faith can be built on plunder and exploitation. Within this company we encounter the crucified Christ.

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Francis Grimke
Rev. Francis J. Grimke

Claiming, as I’ve done, that white Christians must choose between White Christianity or the Body of Christ is not unique. Neither is it especially insightful. As long as there has been a United States there have been those like Wells and Douglass who have made this case courageously. The Reverend Francis J. Grimke is another. In 1898, as lynching and Jim Crow laws terrorized African American citizens in the south, he preached a sermon from his Washington D.C. pulpit, “The Negro Will Never Acquiesce As Long As He Lives.” In it he lamented that, despite these well-known acts of terrorism, in white churches “the pulpits of the land are silent on these great wrongs.” He went on:

This is the charge which I make against the Anglo American pulpit today; its silence has been interpreted as an approval of these horrible outrages. Bad men have been encouraged to continue in their acts of lawlessness and brutality. As long as the pulpits are silent on these wrongs it is in vain to expect the people to do any better than they are doing.

Despite the plain truth spoken by countless women and men like Rev. Grimke, White Christianity has hurtled forward, unabated in its perverse disregard for most of the church. When given the choice to renounce racial idolatry for genuine fellowship, white Christians have almost always chosen the former. But now, in the form of our demagogue-like president and the white supremacy churned up in his wake, we are being offered the choice again.  Yet despite the bleak light of the moment, the likelihood of some kind of suffering will compel most of us to return to our blindness. Some will find theologically twisted ways to acquiesce to – if not support – the political forces exacerbating and exploiting racial segregation and oppression. Others of us will find comfort in our loud ideological opposition to the president and his policies while continuing to benefit from the status quo.

If there is anything at all distinct about my argument it is simply this: White Christianity cannot be redeemed. It must be renounced. This is the painful but necessary aim of the struggle for those who, having been stirred from slumber, refuse to close their eyes. I fear this suffering struggle, fraught with tender divisions and uncertain futures, will prove to be a bridge too far and that, as Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend, “very few of those involved in this preliminary skirmish are going to be there for that second struggle.”

Even so, the choice remains and despite our long history of selfish and destructive decisions, our responses have not been determined for us. The suffering Christ and his prevailing church remain open to all who disavow false gods, including the racial idols and ideologies that have poisoned our hearts for as long as we’ve imagined ourselves to be white.

Header image: Sunday School in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1946.

When God Lingers

A sermon for the third Sunday in Advent.

Then the Lord replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. [Habakkuk 2:2-3]

Habakkuk, a prophet in Judah, begins his book by complaining to God about the violence and injustice that was rampant among his fellow-Israelites. God replies that he will raise up the nation of Babylon to punish Judah’s unfaithfulness. This is not quite the response that Habakkuk was looking for; it seems far too harsh, one form of injustice in place of another: “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? “(2:13)

I think we can relate to Habakkuk’s complaint. We too grieve over the violence and injustice around us. With him we can say that in our nation “there is strife, and conflict abounds.” (1:3) But we can also relate to his reaction to God’s plan: Wait, you’re going to use Babylon? That’s not what I had in mind! If I’d had known that was going to be your plan, I’d have never brought this up in the first place!

Like Habakkuk, we want God to act. We need him to intervene in our troubled lives. But we also presume to know how God should act. Our ideas for how God should rescue us usually involve a miraculous intervention from heaven, a divine mediation where the break with violence and injustice is absolute. We want the before and after shot, the dramatically told testimony of the ugly we were trapped in before and the beauty of our lives now.

But then God speaks up: “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.  I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” (1:5-6) We’re looking for legions of heavenly angels to rescue us and God counters with… Babylon.

Habakkuk will eventually come to embrace God’s unexpected plan: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” (3:2) The prophet comes to see that God’s merciful rescue will advance even through Babylonian captivity. And so despite the knowledge that conquest and occupation are around the corner, Habakkuk chooses to welcome God’s sovereign response to injustice and violence.  The reason his response to God’s Babylon-plan changes is what I want us to see on this third Sunday in Advent. What changed between Habakkuk’s first and second response to God’s Babylon-plan?

God says to his prophet: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” The revelation God speaks of is this: Though Babylon will conquer God’s wayward and sinful people; the Babylonians too sit under God’s judgment. Habakkuk learns that the foreign nation’s victory over Israel will be temporary, as violent victories always are. Though God will use Babylon’s power to chasten his people, his judgment will extend to them as well. Their destruction of both human and animal life as well as their desecration of the land will all come back to haunt them.

And through it all, God assures Habakkuk, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (2:14) The revelation that changes Habakkuk’s perspective is that there is no sin, injustice, or violence that is so great as to obscure the glory of the Lord. Whatever Babylon-shadow seems to be creeping over Judah, God’s glory – the brilliance of his perfect character – will not be overcome. And so, by implication, Judah’s future does not lay in Babylon’s hands, but the Lord’s. And despite what they see around them, there is a good future for God’s faithful people, a future that gives them meaning and purpose as they await their liberation. So rather than resisting God’s response to his people’s sins, Habakkuk can sing: “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” (3:19)

Even now, surrounded by Judah’s wickedness and with Babylon’s violence knocking on the door, Habakkuk can sing of God’s strength and faithfulness. His hope has been reestablished; he is rooted in the unchanging God whose glory is beyond the reach of any conquering empire. He will wait on the Lord.

Generations later, a young woman would find herself at the fulfillment of Habakkuk’s faithful waiting. After Mary learns that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High, she responded in a joyful song about the God who keeps his promises.

The Mighty One has done great things for me—  holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:49-55)

God had kept his promises to Mary’s ancestors, ancestors like Habakkuk. The revelation that the prophet could only hint at was now fully expressed in Jesus. The glory of the Lord that Habakkuk so longed for would be born in a Bethlehem barn.  God’s answer to the treachery, conflict, injustice, and violence of our hearts and our world would be found in Judah’s unlikely descendent. And one day Habakkuk’s hope and Mary’s son would stand before his countrymen and in the words of Isaiah, another prophet of exile, would proclaim:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Luke 4:18-19] 

Peter wrote to the early church about the return of Mary’s son in a way that reminds us of God’s words to Habakkuk. These Christians found themselves, like Habakkuk, wondering about their future. Wondering when God would act with finality at the ultimate revelation, the return of their King Jesus.

 With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. (2 Peter 3:8-10) 

“Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” While we await the final revelation – the day of the Lord that will hearken the renewal of all things – while we wait we remember that though he may linger, God never delays. We remember that though God is patient, he is not slow.

In one week we will celebrate the fulfillment of God’s revelation to Habakkuk, Mary’s son born into circumstances that the prophet would have recognized from his own time: oppressive rulers, dominating empires, wickedness disguised as piety. This Advent, as we have fasted and prayed, we have remembered that we are a waiting people. We have experienced, I hope, the joy of knowing that our Lord’s glory cannot be overwhelmed by abusive men, deceptive presidents, or racist politicians. Neither can the glory of the Lord be obscured by our own wandering hearts; our sins, rebellions, and addictions pale when confronted with God’s all-encompassing glory, as waters cover the sea.

Even in seasons of wilderness we will find, like so many who’ve gone before us, that the Sovereign Lord is our strength; he makes our feet like the feet of a deer, he enables us to tread on the heights. The end of our waiting is our Lord’s return, so we wait with joy. And we are sustained in our waiting by the glory of the Lord, so we wait with joy.

So often it feels to me that God is delayed, that something has slowed him down. Sickness steals those we love. Inertia exerts its pull on our visions and dreams. Relationships spin wildly out of control.  We need to hear again and again what Habakkuk first heard so long ago: Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.

Babylon will lose. Sickness will die. Sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will see visions, old men will dream dreams. And the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

So wait on the Lord. Wait in the depression. Wait in the sickness. Wait in the unemployment. Though God may linger, he will not delay! Wait through the political turmoil. Wait through the racial inequity. Wait through the crass consumption that defines our days. Though God may linger, he will not delay!

Wait on the Lord. But let our waiting be courageous. The Psalmist exhorts us to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.” [Psalm 27:14] As God lingers, as he is patient with his rebellious people, we wait with courage.

Our waiting is not passive and it is not weak. Waiting for the on-time God looks like resistance to Babylon’s violence and lies. Waiting for the on-time God looks like solidarity with those who’ve been exploited by Babylon’s arrogance and greed. Waiting for the lingering-but-not-delayed-God looks like spending our lives on behalf of abused land and divested communities.

Wait for the Lord, but do not be passive. Wait for the Lord, but do not retreat. Wait for the Lord, but do not despair. Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. Though God lingers in patience he will never delay.

Photo credit: Eden Brackstone.

Daylight in Darkness

A sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.

11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. [Romans 13:11-14]


Our Advent readings remind us that for ancient Israel, God was the world’s judge:

“He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. [Isaiah 2:3-4]

There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David. [Psalm 122:5]

When they sinned against God, they knew God was their judge. And when they were sinned against, they knew God was their judge. For the Israelites, God was the one who righteously judged their sins of idolatry and injustice, and he was also the one to whom they appealed for judgment against their enemies.

Of course, thinking of God as a judge is not limited to the Israelites. To claim that there is a creator god is to acknowledge that there is a cosmic judge. All that has been created by the creator derives its function and purpose from that creator. The creation looks to the creator for the way of life that leads to flourishing, but we humans consistently look away from the creator and to ourselves. We develop our own ways of living, patterns that ignore our creator, exploit the creation, and take advantage of our neighbors. Sin has corrupted our hearts, turned us away from God and twisted us into ourselves.  We image-bearers of God deserve his correction, instruction, and, ultimately, his judgment.

Like the Israelites, the early church understood that God’s judgment was real. They also believed that it had been expressed perfectly on the cross. It was there that God himself stood in for the judgment our sins deserved while allowing the injustice of this world to come crashing down onto his own body.

There can be a perception among some Christians that the God we see in the Old Testament is the God of judgment while the God revealed by Jesus in the New Testament is the God of grace and mercy. But this is to miss the severity of the cross. Here we see the extent to which God is a judge- that personal sin and societal oppression must be dealt with justly, even if it costs God’s own life.

This advent seasons reminds us that we await the world’s righteous judge. But what about now, while we wait? Those early Roman Christians who looked to the cross for the summation of God’s judgment might have wondered how were they to live in a world that thought the cross was foolish at best, offensive at worst. What did it mean that their neighbors looked at the cross of Jesus and saw one criminal among three receiving his deserved judgment while the church looked at the same cross and saw God’s justice accomplished? What did it mean that God’s justice had been accomplished on the cross – that justification was available to all through Christ’s atoning death – but that evil and sin still exerted their destructive influence?

What does the despair in Syria mean on this side of the cross? What do the three police-involved shootings in our city this week mean on this side of the cross? What does our besetting sin, our silent addition, our culturally-acceptable idolatry mean on this side of the cross?

These were their questions and, if we’re awake, they’re similar to ours.  What does the despair in Syria mean on this side of the cross? What do the three police-involved shootings in our city this week mean on this side of the cross? What does our besetting sin, our silent addition, our culturally-acceptable idolatry mean on this side of the cross?  How are we to live on this side of God’s cruciform judgment when there remains so much evil – out there, and in here – that demands God’s justice?

These are questions asked by in-between people, by people who live after the justification of Christ’s cross but before the final judgment of Christ’s return, by people who live between the angels announcing the empty grave and the creation announcing its creator’s return, by people who live in darkness by the promise of daylight. And it’s to these kinds of in-between people who Paul instructs in these verses in Romans 13. There are three things for us in-between, waiting for the righteous judge, kind of people to notice.

Understand the present time

This seems obvious- of course we understand the present time. But, as Paul points out, we’re prone to slumber. So what might it mean to understand the present time? On one level it simply means that we are aware and awake to our circumstances. We push against the societal default of “this is just how things are.”

And Paul has another level of understanding the present moment in mind. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. [13:12] He uses the metaphor of night throughout these verses- that the time before Christ’s return is like the last hours of the night before day breaks. It’s dark and seems as though the darkness will last indefinitely.

Understanding the present time requires faith that the night will end, that the impenetrable shadows will fade, and that the daylight will come. This means that we look at our present circumstances through eyes of faith, through eyes that understand that the darkness – in light of God’s eternity – is fleeting and mortal. It’s as though Paul is saying that in the midst of the deepest night, Christians have been given night-vision. It’s our super-power.

Does this mean we’re immune to suffering and tragedies? Does this mean that we answer every grief and lament with a spiritual cliché? No! Remember, understanding our present time includes being unflinchingly awake to the harsh realities of our circumstances and the pain of this world. But along with this, Christians also see the daylight infiltrating the darkness. How? We view each of our moments and this word’s events through the cross – through the moment of greatest despair and suffering, the moment of greatest injustice and inhumanity, the moment of greatest doubt and cynicisms – and we see through this crucifixion moment to the crucified Savior ruling in glory from heaven, we see through this moment to our salvation and reconciliation, we see through this moment to “a living hope… into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” [1 Peter 1:3-4]

But Paul doesn’t stop with understanding, his focus moves to action. Living before our just God in the midst of unjust times requires more than our understanding- we’re expected to live differently.

Put aside deeds of darkness

There is a way of living that makes sense in the darkness. Verse 13 fills this in: carousing, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and debauchery. Paul isn’t providing an extensive list; it’s an imaginative scene of those who use the cover of night to indulge their self-centered desires. We don’t need to linger on each of these deeds of darkness, but it’s worth asking how we succumb to these or similar sinful acts. The self-centered nature of our self-gratifying sins can be justified if night is all there is, all there will ever be. But those of us who look for daylight will understand that our lives point to a God whose generosity is the opposite of these deeds of darkness. He is sacrificial, gracious, merciful, and just and our lives – even in the darkest night – are meant to illuminate his extravagant generosity.

We who have experienced the blazing light of God’s grace can never succumb to the old, self-centered logic of the darkness.

This personal holiness is serious business for Paul. In 13:14 he writes, “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” Darkness tempts us to believe that private actions are without consequences. But again, for those shaped by God’s judgment on the cross at Calvary, there can be no equivocation about this. The cross is God’s forever evidence that our humanity matters – that all of who we are, what we think, what we love, what we do – that all of this matters enough for God to offer himself in our place of judgment. This is how highly our Creator esteems us- that a judgment that should have overcome us was instead taken onto himself.  We who have experienced the blazing light of God’s grace can never succumb to the old, self-centered logic of the darkness.

And then the nighttime metaphor sputters out and Paul includes two additional deeds of darkness: dissension and jealousy. While the others have more to do with self-centered actions, here Paul reminds the community that our life together is evidence of the coming daylight. We cannot accept the petty divisions that are normal elsewhere. In place of dissension, we are to pursue reconciliation that honors our distinctions. In place of jealously we exhibit kindness and sympathy- we think the best of one another. We mourn with one another when things are bad and we rejoice together when things are good.

We understand the present moment through eyes of faith. We set aside the old sinful logic of the night. And finally…

Put on armor of light

In a nighttime world that groans under the weight of evil and injustice, within bodies that still desire sin and minds that bend toward idolatry…we need armor as we wait for our righteous Savior’s return. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that we need this spiritual armor to defend ourselves from the devil’s schemes and from the spiritual forces of evil. We need armor that protects against despair; against hatred; against envy. We need an armor strong enough to defend us from attacks against our humanity, our race, our accent, our gender, our names. We need an armor that insulates us from these times of sarcasm, cynicisms, and deception. We need an armor that is spacious enough for our hope, for our courage, for our divinely-inspired dreams and vision. We need an armor that is not overcome by the darkness, that stands firm in the darkness, that moves forward with each of our halting steps of faith through the darkness. We need, as Paul puts it, an armor made of light.

What does this look like? Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. [13:14] This is our armor of light! It is Christ Jesus himself. We clothe ourselves, we cover ourselves, we armor ourselves with the one of whom John wrote, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:5]. The one whom the psalmist describes as wrapping “himself in light as like a garment” is our armor. [Psalm 104:2] You see, it’s not simply that we see through the present darkness through night vision goggles of faith… it’s that we are covered with light itself, a light that could not be overcome even by the darkness of the grave!

And this Light, is also this world’s judge, our judge.

On that day evil itself will be put on trial, sin will sentenced to its mortal end, and death will stand condemned.

The one who accomplished God’s perfect judgment on the cross for our salvation, will one day return in glory to judge the world for its liberation. On that day, all that has been hidden in darkness will be revealed; each instance of injustice and idolatry that was rationalized in the night, will be exposed in the unrelenting brightness of day; each sin – the private ones we held close and the structural ones we barely notice anymore – will be leached of the power we granted them. On that day evil itself will be put on trial, sin will sentenced to its mortal end, death will stand condemned, and our ancient enemy will be cast down to hell. Our Lord’s righteous judgment will be proclaimed and accomplished.

This judge is also the light who covers us now, between the times, through the night. So we look forward to the return of our righteous Lord who is also our judge because even now his judgment has been applied to our sin for our salvation; even now he fights for us, prays for us, and prepares the future for us. Even now, his Holy Spirit advocates for us.

Daylight in darkness.

This life can seem like a perpetual night. The darkness seems to cover everything. But our hope is with the one who has overcome the night and who will bring about a new, righteous day when all is made new.

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. [Isaiah 2:4]

But the promise is greater than this. Our well-placed hope is not just for one day, when our judge returns.

Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. [Isaiah 2:5]

What darkness are you facing? What sin seems too great? What injustice too overwhelming? Your righteous judge will come. And until he does, until the world is set free from the endless night, you have been armored in the light that has overcome the darkness. So step bravely into the darkness. Sing into the darkness. Dance into the darkness. The daylight follows you into the darkness.

Be Alert! (Or, Get Woke. Stay Woke.)

A Sermon from Mark 13:1-37 after the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

What is this passage about? Some think it’s about Jesus’ return. This is a hugely important theme throughout the New Testament and fundamental for our faith. But I understand this passage as having something more immediate in mind. Jesus tells his disciples to flee the Jerusalem from the coming destruction. He tells them that this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. It sounds like Jesus has a particular, not-so-distant event in mind. This means the event this passage describes is a long way in the past. Yet we will find that the instructions Jesus gave his disciples about a specific time of traumatic suffering are relevant to us, especially in the midst of this season of very public trauma that we’re now experiencing.

Look Teacher!

The passage begins with the disciples pointing out the magnificent temple. Not long before, Jesus had forcibly cleared the temple. At his trial he will be accused of threatening to the destroy this temple made with human hands. When Jesus looks at the Temple he sees that the time has come for God to fulfill Israel’s vocation. He sees that his time has come, when his body will be the sacrifice; when he will be the bridge between heaven and earth. He sees the continuity of God’s promises through Israel to bless the world, a promise that God keeps through his crucified and resurrected body. But what do the disciples see when they look at the temple?

The disciples are impressed. Herod the Great began work on this building and it was the largest structure for hundreds of miles. Many considered it the most beautiful building in the world. The stones admired by the disciples were huge. The largest that has been found weighs roughly 600 tons. It makes sense for the disciples to focus on the temple. Except that Jesus has been telling them that when they arrive in Jerusalem he will be arrested and executed. Since they’ve been in Jerusalem the tension has been thick with attacks from the civil and religious authorities. The earlier events in the temple should have been enough to terrify the disciples, as Jesus confronted the powerful leaders.

But here there are, following their teacher who has repeatedly claimed to represent a new kingdom, surrounded by religious pilgrims – many of them zealots ready to go at it with the Romans at the drop of a hat, standing in the center of religious and political powers… and they’re talking about the size of the temple stones! They are completely distracted. But it’s worse than that. Herod’s temple is having its intended effect on the disciples.

The puppet king who was kept in place by Israel’s oppressor, who killed his Jewish subjects and defiled their religion, who sold their fields to foreign landowners making them tenant farmers, who used brutal and terrorizing tactics to keep people in line… this king built a huge temple – one of the wonders of the world – as an intentional tactic to keep his people distracted and occupied. And it worked. The disciples, despite everything Jesus taught them, fell for it.

What massive stones! What magnificent buildings! Do we do this?   What a great home! What a highly rated school district! What a well-paying job! What a status-creating grad school! What a beautiful downtown! What amazing high rise development! What fantastic cultural festivals! What a beautiful pair of shoes! What a perfectly designed car! What an amazing, binge-watch worthy show!

The Temple was beautiful and impressive. It makes sense that the disciples would notice it. And it makes perfect, logical sense that we give our time, energy, affections, and allegiances to the the things we do. But the disciples weren’t simply looking at the temple; they were distracted by it. And their distraction was by design. But Jesus has spent too much time with these disciples to let this slide.

Watch out that no one deceives you.

In this passage Jesus looks ahead 40 years to the fall of Jerusalem. During a time of great turmoil in the Roman Empire, Titus marched into Jerusalem to put down a rebellion. He burned the Temple, destroyed the city, and crucified thousands. If the language Jesus uses to describe this future event sounds hyperbolic, consider that secular historians of the time described parents resorting to cannibalizing their own children. Jesus tries to show the disciples that the thing that has grabbed their attention will not last. And if they’re not careful, they will be so distracted by Herod’s Temple that they will completely miss the coming destruction. It’s as though Jesus were saying, Your oppressors are using this Temple to distract you until they can destroy you.

On Tuesday, Alton Sterling was murdered by police officers in Baton Rouge. On Wednesday Philando Castile was murdered by police in Minneapolis. I won’t rehearse the demonic details of their deaths. If you don’t know already, it’s on you to go home and learn. But the truth is that many of you are very familiar with these stories and you don’t need me to rehearse the trauma again.

(Before we go on, let me mention two things parenthetically. First: we had time of lament on sharing on Thursday. If you were unable to attend, please reach out if you need to talk. Second: on Thursday night Dallas police officers Brent Thompson, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens were murdered during a protest. We have current and former officers in our church so this evil hit close to home for us. It is not hard for us to clearly state how horrible these murders were and to affirm the immensely challenging job our law enforcement officers have. This is basic for us. What gets more complicated is when our society equates the the murders of Sterling and Castile with the murders of these officers. They are both unequivocally wrong, but they are different. In this country and this city, the lives of police officers are highly valued. This is true whether or not the officers have integrity or are corrupt. There is not question about whether the lives of the Dallas officers matter? We know they do and they should. The murders of Sterling and Castile – and Sandra Bland, Laquan MacDonald, etc. – are categorically different for the simple reason that Black lives have not mattered to the perspective and practice of this country’s powers and authorities. So we will grieve the murders in Dallas, but we will also think and talk about them very differently than we do the endless stream of those Black and Brown women and men whose lives have been stolen by this country.)

Jesus turned his disciples’ gaze away from the Temple and toward the coming destruction.  Isn’t it likely that today Jesus would force our eyes off of all the glittering objects and desires placed in front of us by our society and turn our attention to these young men and their families? Can’t we safely assume that, like with the disciples, he would command us to: watch out! Be on your guard! Be alert! Keep watch!

Yesterday, Michelle Alexander wrote, I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. There’s always something each of us would rather be doing. The disciples would have rather marveled at the magnificent Temple, with it’s promise of glory and power. They’d have rather this than take seriously the way of discipleship as described by Jesus- a way that requires them to leave behind every empty but soothing promise made by those in power; a way that required them to give up their ambition for power; a way that was ambivalent about the Empire’s currency; a way that prioritized the marginalized and dispossessed; a way that will find the center of the universe not in the temple, not in Rome, but at the cross on Calvary.

Watch out that no one deceives you. How have we have been deceived? In the same way the disciples were susceptible to Herod’s lies, we struggle to see the way of Jesus within a nation whose self-described reason for existence is built on half-truths and offensive lies. And so, rather than giving ourselves to God’s work of shalom and justice, we are captivated by the shiny objects and glittering promises made by this nation and its many spokespeople.

Jesus told his disciples that a day would come that would be dreadful for pregnant women and nursing mothers. But in this country this has always been that day for Black women and mothers. Diamond Reynolds, recording her beloved’s death while comforting her 4-year-old daughter is only the latest, heart-rending evidence of this dreadful state of affairs.

But how long until we forget? How long until massive stones and magnificent buildings distract us, woo our attention away? How long until the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are crowded from our minds by the characters and storylines from Game of Thrones? How long until the conviction and commitment we felt this week are replaced with the energy required by the side hustle we need to pay for our addiction to consumer capitalism? We forget, because like the disciples, we succumb to Herod’s distractions.

We forget that our police forces descend from enforcers of the fugitive slave act. We forget that our prisons are traded on the stock market; their value rise as they find more reasons to plunder Black and Brown bodies, to warehouse men and women more cheaply. We forget that our cities are intentionally segregated; Black and Brown neighborhoods and schools are systematically defunded and isolated. We forget that our assimilation process forces immigrants to shed their history, the specifics of ethnicity; we will allow you honorary whiteness of a certain degree as long as you join agree to the anti-black racism that is this country’s currency. We forget that women of color are daily made to choose between the priorities of your people and your gender. We forget that white people who choose to tell the simple truths about this place are easily sidelined, made into a predictable punchline for this nation’s crude humor.

And let me says this gently but directly: None of us is immune to these deceptive ways. Watch out that no one deceives you. Jesus warned all of his disciples- some who had known the privileges of the empire and others who had known only its oppressions. Jesus seemed to think that all of them – perhaps for different reasons – were vulnerable to believing the empire’s lies; to become so infatuated with Herod’s temple that they missed the mustards seeds of God’s coming kingdom.

Harriet Tubman lamented that she could have freed more enslaved people had they only recognized their slavery. Despite their shared passion to end lynching, W. E. B. Dubois often ignored the work of his female counterpart, Ida B. Wells, writing her out of the founding of the NAACP. Watch out that no one deceives you! In his latest book, Ta-Nehesi Coates writes about white people as the dreamers, as those who have succumbed to this country’s racialized hallucination. But the fact that Jesus makes so emphatically clear is that the principalities and powers of this world will use the tools of this world to distract everyone of us from the truth.

Again, let me be gentle but direct: The fact that your race, ethnicity, or gender marks you for marginalization by our world does not mean you are not also susceptible to this country’s lies. The disciples were so enamored with the gold and brass of the temple that they forgot that it was their own oppression that made for it! For some of us – white people especially, Asian Americans at times – the deception will feel like freedom, like possibility, like blissful ignorance. For others of us, the deception will register as pronounced insecurity, anxiety, and self-hatred. The deception is spread like pollen in this country’s air, so that when you breath in the toxins you are made to think that something is wrong with you, rather than the one who is purposefully poisoning your lungs.

And our faith will make all of this seem harder at times. There is a belief that is common to hear from some Christian leaders and preachers, that our faith in Jesus will keep us from this deceptive world’s destruction. But such a belief would surely surprise the Jesus who said On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them, and, Everyone will hate you because of me.

Within these hard words are two incredibly important assumptions. First: Christians who represent Jesus and the ethics of his kingdom will necessarily find themselves opposed by a world that does not recognize our King or his justice agenda. This means that during weeks like this one, Christians should expect to suffer more than others because our allegiance to Jesus requires that we stand against state-sponsored violence and terror. And second: Christians will recognize this world’s lies and identify with those who suffer from them.This means that Christians should be the wokest people in this country. This means that we don’t debate blue lives VS black lives because blue is a job and black is an image-bearing, immortal, beloved by the Creator woman or man. This means that we know the issue isn’t so-called black on black crime, the issue is government policies of segregation, isolation, and enforced poverty; we know the issue isn’t an epidemic of fatherlessness, but a decision by our country and city to lock up our Black men at rates much higher than any demographic.

Our discipleship to Jesus make us more sensitive to this world’s deceptive violence and thus more susceptible to it.

At that time people will see the Son of Man.

This world’s impressive and imposing temples will do everything possible to capture our attention and affections. They will seek to distract us even as they work to destroy us. Into this reality Jesus commands us to be alert! To watch! He clarifies our gaze so that we see through the deceptive promises and to their destructive intentions.

But Jesus does not leave us here, staring at the source of our calamity and suffering. And even today, as we lament and grieve, as we get in touch with the trauma that has been once again inflicted upon us, even now we need our eyes to see beyond the source of our pain to the source of our salvation, our liberation, our restoration, and healing.

24 “But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

To describe the painful days ahead, Jesus borrows language from the prophet Isaiah who used these sentences to prophesy the fall of Babylon, the empire which Israel was then in captivity to. In these verses Jesus takes nothing away from the actual suffering of his followers. He does not spiritualize it. Instead, he paints a picture where he, the Son of Man is coming to his throne. The crucified, supposedly-failed Messiah, now coming in great power and glory, attended to by angels and the saints, the entire universe at his command. It is as though Jesus were saying: This temple will fall, but I will still reign. Rome, like Babylon before it, will fall, but I will still reign.

I struggled to know how to end this sermon after the week we just had. What room is there for hope in the midst of such trauma? And then I thought of the saints who came before us. The suffering saints of generations past knew this traumatic reality. In the face of suffering and oppression they turned their gaze not to glittering temples but to the glorious Son of Man.

They could look to their Savior who came to his eternal glory and power by way of suffering and death and know that Rome would pass away, Babylon would pass away, America would pass away, but that Jesus and his Word would never pass away. In their suffering they could proclaim that their weeping would last but for a night and that their eternal joy would come in the everlasting morning. In their pain they could know that their suffering would not be in vain.

Do not misunderstand. By looking to the Son of Man in glory, we are not resigned to this evil world. No! By looking forward to God’s future and eternal justice our eyes re opened to his in-breaking Kingdom. By placing our faith in the one who conquered sin, death, and evil we were more alert not less. By being freed from the fear of death, we are more courageous; we tell the truth more clearly; we resist evil with more commitment; we build reconciled and just community we greater passion.

So with their eyes fixed on the glorious Son of Man, they sang: I have trials here below but I’m bound for Canaan land. They could stand in the pain, not deceived by this world and they sang: If you get there before I do; Babylon’s falling to rise no more; Tell all my friends I’m coming too. They could resist the impressive temples and their subtle oppressions and they sang: One of these mornings bright and fair; I want to cross over to see my Lord; Going to take my wings and fly the air; I want to cross over to see my Lord. They could look to the Son of Man in power and glory and see clearly the world around them, taking their stand against deception and injustice, and they sang: Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved; when my burden’s heavy, I shall not be moved; if my friends forsake me, I shall not be moved; don’t let the world deceive you, I shall not be moved.

May their alert minds, hopeful hearts, and strong voices then, be joined by ours now.

Ordination Testimony

This summer I’ll be ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church. On Friday I gave the following testimony about my call to ministry to a regional gathering of Covenant pastors.

The best thing about the call to vocational ministry is also what makes this call so hard. In Ephesians 4:11 Paul writes, “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” It’s not the work of ministry that is the best and the hardest part of the call- it’s the One who calls who makes it so personally, comprehensively complex. Christ himself.

The idea of vocational ministry in a general sense was always an appealing possibility. There are pastors and missionaries in previous generations of my extended family. My parents experienced their own, individual calls to missionary service when they were teenagers. Our family life in Venezuela and Ecuador was good and reinforced for me the significance of lives dedicated to equipping to church for works of service.

It was only when I began wrestling with the particular call to plant a multi-ethnic church that I began to understand just how hard this call can be. Again, I don’t mean the different tasks and rhythms of planting and pastoring; rather it’s the One who calls – Christ himself – who has made it hard. As we began planning this new church in 2008, I had no idea that I would eventually be its pastor. As a relatively well-read person, I just knew that a multi-ethnic church planted in predominately Black neighborhood would require a Black pastor. But as the day to launch weekly services approached, and as we exhausted our list of candidates, our sending church decided that if God wasn’t going to provide the ideal church planter, then I would have to do.

As I took my first wobbly steps into this call I began to experience something disturbing: For the first time in my life, my white male-ness was not an asset. Week after week I wondered – with varying degrees of despair – why God hadn’t called a woman or man of color to serve and lead this church. Surely this diverse congregation would benefit far more from a pastor who was from the neighborhood, someone who instinctively knew the joy and pain of being Black or Brown within the context of our racially segregated city.

I’ll never forget sitting in my spiritual director’s office as I expressed my growing conviction that I was the wrong person for this call. This older, African American woman listened as I described my worry, the near-constant sense of being out of place, of wondering whether I’d ever be seen and accepted. She listened and then, when I finally stopped talking, she smiled and said, “This is good. You’re describing how I feel much of the time as a Black woman in a white world.”

I’m sure it sounds ridiculously remedial to you, but it was as though the heavens parted when she said this to me. I realized that my race and gender had conditioned me to expect God’s faithfulness to feel a certain way- like acceptance and affirmation. Yet, as my spiritual director was pointing out, because it is Christ who was calling me, my expectations would need to change dramatically. The call to ministry – if it is modeled after Jesus – must require me to be emptied of power and privilege; it must come to embrace my weakness and foolishness as the locations of God’s display of faithfulness and salvation.

In 1978 Zenos Hawkinson preached a sermon to a people he feared had forgotten God’s faithfulness to them during their times of weakness and need. He said,

If you have come out of the pilgrim tradition of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the promised Land, and have used that magnificent opportunity only to become a Philistine, then take heed. Do you live comfortably behind high walls and bronzed gates, and worship regularly at the altar of Baal? Are you pleased with the prospects of Social Security and a special pension plan, or the apparent security of America’s nuclear deterrent and the overwhelming power of its society and technology? If that provides comfort, then live in fear and trembling, because it will all be taken away from you as surely as the security of our forebears. I proclaim it.

He’s preaching to me. This Philistine culture has formed me to desire its high walls and bronzed gates, to worship at its altars of safe privilege and divisive power. But Christ himself is calling me to something different- to the way of weakness and foolishness.

This is so hard. But it has also been so very good. My wife and I find ourselves woven into a community of people who we never could have hoped to know and love outside of our diverse congregation. Our two sons – both adopted, neither of them white – are growing up in a community that reflects the gifts of their ethnicities. I know friendship with neighborhood colleagues whose acceptance and loyalty still surprises me. And best of all, every impossibly hard thing about this call has always been surpassed by the impossibly good Gospel of Jesus.

“Let there be a moratorium on such preaching!”

Legalists and antinomians are equally guilty of hermeneutical gerrymandering to annex New Testament texts to foreign modes of ethical discourse. Christian preachers, at least since the time of Clement of Alexandria, have preached hundreds of thousands of disastrous sermons that say, in effect, ‘Now the text says x, but of course it couldn’t really mean that, so we must see the underlying principle to which it points, which is y.’ Let there be a moratorium on such preaching! The New Testament’s ethical imperatives are either normative at the level of their own claim, or they are invalid.”

– Richard B. Hays in his classic The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

A Sermon: Take Up Your Lynching Tree and Follow Me.

A lightly edited version of yesterday’s sermon from Mark 8:27-9:1 at New Community.

Our passage begins: “Jesus & his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” This geographical context is important. Mark wants us to remember that Jesus is first recognized as Messiah near Caesarea Philippi, that he Jesus first predicts his execution near Caesarea Philippi, and that Jesus first explains the costly nature discipleship near Caesarea Philippi. To understand why the location of these first-time events matters, consider this photo of Pastor Michelle from this winter. Without the context, you see someone praying publicly, but not much more. But when you know that she’s at Chicago Police Department headquarters less than a week after the video footage was released of Laquan McDonald’s murder by an office footage… well, then you see much more in this photo. Caesarea Philippi is the context that let’s us see the snapshots in our passage with greater clarity.

Philip, one of Herod the Great’s sons, was allowed to rule this region by the Roman Caesar and so he built the city of Caesarea Philippi in honor of the Caesar. Unlike Galilee where Jesus and his disciples came from, this region was home to many Gentiles and was symbolic of Rome’s occupying power. In fact, the entire region was dedicated to Caesar’s lordship.

With this in mind, we begin to see why Jesus chose this region for these first-time events. With the huge expectations for the coming Jewish Messiah, it made sense for Jesus to elicit Peter’s confession away from the hype and tensions. Similarly, with the prediction of his death it was better to be out of their earshot when Jesus told his disciples about the religious leaders’ complicity in his eventual suffering and execution. Caesarea Philippi served practical purposes for these first-time events, but when it came to his teaching on costly discipleship, the region provided a symbolic backdrop for his disciples and, if we’re paying attention, for us.

The disciples who followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi were mostly young Jewish men from Galilee. These men shared at least two relevant things in common. First, there were perceived as a threat by the occupying Romans. Insurrectionists and rebels came from Galilee and the region’s strong accent made it hard to blend in. These disciples had likely been stereotyped and harassed by the authorities since their teenage years. Second, these young men had experienced very real and deadly oppression. The most grotesque example of this came in 6 AD when 2,000 Galileans were crucified by the Romans four miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. Jesus and these other young men would have grown up with this and other examples of what would happen to them if they stepped out of line.

Being a young, Jewish man from Galilee meant much more than being perceived as a threat & experiencing oppression, but it didn’t mean less than these things. It is these young men who followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus then says to them: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Their families have been taxed into poverty by the Romans. Their friends have been murdered violently by the Romans. They themselves have been harassed by the Romans… and Jesus brought them to the center of regional Roman power to tell them that following Jesus meant carrying a Roman cross. These were men who knew that their accents and zip codes make them targets for state-sanctioned prejudice… and Jesus brought them to symbolic center of that state tell them that following Jesus meant taking up a cross.

Do you see how hard and confusing this would be for disciples to hear? But it’s even deeper! When Jesus talked about taking up a cross, he wasn’t speaking abstractly. The cross didn’t hold any spiritual significance for the disciples. Jesus had just told he’d be executed, but hasn’t said anything about crucifixion. For the disciples, a cross was just a cross: a crude, Roman method of execution, something that had been used to murder their friends and family members.

But the cross was more than an execution method, it was an intentional form of terrorism. When Romans hung a young Galilean Jew from a cross their first goal wasn’t execution- there were faster ways to kill a rebellious Jew. No, the goal of hanging a suffering, dying, humiliated peasant from a tree was to terrorize everyone who knew him or her. New Testament scholar Paula Fredrickson writes, “The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”

With the cross, the Romans’ goal was to remind the occupied Jews of their subservient status. Their goal was to protect the privileged status of Romans. Their goal was to keep the Galileans from even trying to resist or rebel. A cross was an obscene political gesture, an unmistakable reminder of whose lives did and didn’t matter. When Jesus told his disciples that following him meant taking up their cross, they would have heard: take up your instrument of state-sanctioned terror and follow me. What would you have thought if you were one of Jesus’ disciples in that moment? What would you have felt?

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877-1950, 3,959 black people were lynched. EJI calls these “racial terror lynchings” because, like crucifixion, the goal was to terrorize. During slavery, women and men of African descent experienced unimaginable cruelty, but generally they were not killed by their so-called owners. They were simply too valuable. Slavery represented a 3.5-billion-dollar economy, more than all manufacturing & railroads combined. Our nation’s prosperity was literally being built on their backs. It was only after emancipation was declared that the lynching of black bodies began in earnest. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes,

White supremacists felt insulted by the suggestion that whites and blacks might work together as equals. Whether in churches, colleges, universities, or in the political and social life of the nation, southern whites, who were not going to allow their ex-slaves to associate with them as equals, felt that if lynching were the only way to keep ex-slaves subservient, then it was necessary.

If we ever think about lynching, we probably imagine white mobs surrounding black bodies. But in fact, anyone who didn’t conform to the standard of whiteness was vulnerable: About 600 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were lynched in the southwest during this same time period for a variety of reasons, including speaking Spanish too loudly and, in the case of women victims, refusing sexual advances of white men. In October, 1871, 18 Chinese men and boys were lynched by a mob of 500 white Los Angeles residents.

For most white people during this period, lynching was necessary tool to maintain order. Cole Blease was a senator and governor from South Carolina who wrote that lynching was a “divine right of the Caucasian race to dispose of the offending blackamoor without the benefit of a jury.” Newspapers printed announcements about upcoming lynchings; up to 20,000 spectators would show up for these terrorist events. Postcards were made: white men standing proudly next to the corpse; white mothers prodding their children into the photo.

Considering similarities between crucifixion and the lynching tree helps us feel some of the horror the disciples must have felt as Jesus’ call to follow him by taking up their crosses. Cone writes,

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists- the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.

To be clear: I’m not using the lynching tree as a sermon illustration. I’m not using it as an object lesson to help us mentally grasp the horrors of the cross. The lynching tree is the cross. I’m saying that being lynched was the equivalent of being crucified. I’m saying that if Jesus was talking to a group of American disciples in the 1920’s, he very well may have said to them: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their lynching tree and follow me.”

This is an incredibly hard word – a seemingly impossible word – and we can’t water it down by spiritualizing what was, in fact, an act of dehumanizing terror. Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe. And though we’ve been focusing on the young Galileans who personally experienced Roman terror, we must see that following Jesus is demanding for everyone.

In 8:34 Mark tell us that just before his teaching on costly discipleship, Jesus “called the crowd to him along with his disciples…” The crowd in Caesarea Philippi included representatives of Rome, those whose ethnicity and privilege allowed them to benefit from the Galileans’ oppression. Jesus does not choose a different discipleship metaphor for them. There is not one way of discipleship for the oppressed and another for the oppressor. The cross is also for the powerful and the privileged. The women and men who profited from Rome’s campaigns of terror are now called to take up that very symbol of terror.

To these privileged women and men, citizens of an empire that had conquered the world, Jesus asks a rhetorical question: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” [8:36-37] The word Jesus uses for soul can also be translated as life. Jesus is implying that those who’ve succeeded because of another’s oppression have in fact lost comprehensively; their lives are bankrupt and they have no trustworthy hope. Their power and privilege have blinded them and they are in a desperate situation. They have satisfied themselves with the fruit of others’ oppression; they have become accustomed to cruelty and blind to their prejudice. They cannot even see their sin because everything around them normalizes their injustice and idolatry.

Jesus’ costly call to discipleship includes these men and women. The land owner, the business person, the government official, and the tax collector is each called to take up this symbol of terror. No longer can they claim ignorance. No longer can they keep a respectable distance. No longer can they explain their privilege aside from those they have oppressed. No longer can they let themselves off the hook with the hollow claim: “But I haven’t personally crucified anyone.”

No. If they desire the salvation Jesus offers they must swim against every expectation the Empire has for its favorite citizens. They must offer themselves to the cross. They must offer themselves to the lynching tree. Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe.

In 8:29 Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” The disciples still had a very small vision for what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. The same is often true for us. They had a specific political agenda for Jesus, we have specific spiritual agendas for him. They limited him to specific political and religious agendas. We limit what we expect from Jesus to our hearts and our hopes.

But our agendas are too small because Jesus came to save the world from all that terrorizes it. Which means that those who follow Jesus must follow him to the cross, to the lynching tree, and into the contemporary terrors of today. He calls us to take up the sources of our oppression, to take up the tools we’ve used to oppressed others. Reflecting on his opposition to the Vietnam War, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “When I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. It is not something that you merely put your hands on. It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”

Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe, but if Jesus is in fact the Son of God who rescues the world, than following Jesus will also be far better than we’ve come to expect.

Once we grasp the great cost of following Jesus, it can be hard to see how such discipleship can be good. To understand why these same horrified disciples came to embrace the cross and called others to do the same, we must consider the one who issued such a costly call. Because the life of faith to which we’re called isn’t a call to an ideology, a political theory, or to a particular theology. We are called to and by a person. We are called to and by Jesus.

We are called to and by the one who held the power of the universe gave it up, the one with the privilege of deity who gave it up. He took on humanity’s flesh, but not a generic, color-blind flesh. He took on terrorized flesh. He took on oppressed flesh. He took on occupied flesh. He took on accented flesh. He took on abandoned flesh. He took on ridiculed flesh. He took on ethnically invisible flesh.

In the eyes of the Romans, Jesus was no different than his Galilean disciples. In their eyes he was a statistic and a suspect; a coward and a criminal. At best he was a backward peasant who needed to be kept in his place; at worst he was a thug who would only respond to the empire’s violence. He is the one who calls his disciples to the cross; to the lynching tree. And though they don’t yet see it, he called them to this terrorizing symbol aware that he must go there first.

What does it mean that Jesus willingly allowed Rome’s apparatus of terror to crush him? It means that the Father allowed the evil that had long terrorized humanity to crush his son instead. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” On the cross, Jesus absorbed our sin & our suffering; our prejudice & our pain; our complicity and our devastation by this world’s terror. As Cone writes, “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned the cross into a sign of liberation and new life. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.”

The only reason that taking up our cross can be good is because Jesus took up the cross first, and in doing so he robbed it of its power to terrorize his followers. This is why Jesus can call us to simultaneously take up our cross and follow him. It should be impossible to go anywhere with a cross. You don’t take up a lynching tree and move ahead! The cross, the lynching tree, and every other form of terrorizing evil are meant to destroy us and instill fear in others. Coming into contact with the cross is supposed to kill you. Coming into contact with the lynching tree is meant to terrify you and everyone you love. And yet because Jesus has already allowed evil to exhaust itself on his body, these evils have lost their ultimate power over us. Like Paul proclaims in Colossians 2:15, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

In other words, because Jesus was crucified, the cross has no power to terrorize his followers. Because he was hung from a tree, the lynching tree has no power to terrorize his followers. This doesn’t mean this world’s powers and authorities aren’t up to their old tricks, it just means that Jesus has already exposed their impotence.

Jesus has picked up the cross. Jesus has hung from the lynching tree. Jesus has been stopped and frisked. Jesus has been locked up and forgotten. Jesus has experienced educational malpractice by an underfunded school system. Jesus has known the terror of drone warfare. Jesus has felt the fear of a vulnerable body. Jesus has been demonized because of his accented English and immigrant roots.

By calling his disciples to pick up the cross, Jesus has placed himself within every terrorizing tactic this world and its evil prince will ever use against you. And though he was crushed, he rose; though he was pierced, he rose; though he was battered and bruised, still he rose. And because our faith is in this Jesus, because we follow this Jesus, we too will face this world’s terrors and live.