A Discipleship of Resistance

What an 82-year-old letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer can teach us about Christian faithfulness under a President Trump.

First, a caveat: It is pointless to compare our next president to any specific political strongman or tyrant of the past, including the most infamous one who will make an appearance below. Such blunt comparisons ignore important distinctions and claim a vantage point available only to our grandchildren. Even so, and despite our tendency to make false equivalencies, history remains our best teacher and so it’s worth revisiting the past with care and nuance.

And another: Those for whom our president-elect is a literal answer to prayer will probably find what follows to be misguided or, more likely, incomprehensible. I’m resigned to this but will still aim for as much coherence as possible.

Finally: I genuinely want to be wrong about the president-elect. I pray and hope that everything I’ve assumed about his presidency and its devastating impact on people I love will be totally wrong. Nothing would make me happier. But until then…

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In 1934 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving as a pastor to two German-speaking congregations in London. Hitler’s rise to power was almost complete: the first concentration camp in Dachau had opened the previous year and in 1935 he would announce himself the Führer of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer watched the rapid changes in his country first from New York where he studied at Union Seminary and worshipped at Abyssinian Baptist Church under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell and later from a poor section of Berlin as he taught confirmation classes to rowdy and easily distracted boys. Now, from London, the 28-year-old reflected on how quickly everything was changing and how blind most of the German church was to the encroaching evil.

In April he replied to a letter from Erwin Sutz, a Swiss friend from his days at Union. With the previously-stated caveats in mind, I think Bonhoeffer can provoke our imaginations as we face our own uncertain days.

London, April 28, 1934

My dear Sutz,

I have just destroyed the remains of a letter to you that I started more than four weeks ago and never finished. I hope this one will not meet the same fate!

What is going on in the church in Germany you probably know as well as I do. Nat. Socialism has brought about the end of the church in Germany and has pursued it single-mindedly. We can be grateful to them, in the way the Jews had to be grateful to Sennacherib. For me there can be no doubt that this is clearly the reality that we face. Naive, starry-eyed idealists like Niemöller still think they are the real Nat. Socialists —and perhaps it’s a benevolent Providence that keeps them under the spell of this delusion. Maybe it is even in the interest of the Church Struggle, for anyone who is still at all interested in this struggle.

The German church had, mostly, succumbed to the promises of National Socialism which included abandoning their Jewish neighbors to the new regime. A month after Bonhoeffer wrote to Sutz the Reich Church would add the swastika to its official crest. Some Christian leaders, like Martin Niemöller, thought the church could still be rescued if enough resisters joined the Nazi Party and changed it from within. Bonhoeffer knew such efforts were futile, that the struggle for the German church had been lost and could only be seriously engaged by “starry-eyed idealists” who hadn’t come to grips with the extent of its apostasy.

In the days since our presidential election there has been much handwringing about the overwhelming percentage of white Christians (Evangelicals especially, but not only) who voted for the now president-elect. They voted for him despite the sustained witness by African American and Latino Christians about his bigotry and fear-mongering. They voted for him despite his disdain for women. They voted for him despite the threat to religious freedom that begins with barely-veiled Islamophobia. And they voted for him despite his claiming Christian faith while disdaining the Biblical requirements of confession and forgiveness, a reworking of the faith that, at a very basic level, cannot seriously be considered orthodox Christianity.

bonhoeffer-and-sutz
Erwin Sutz and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Cuba for Christmas, 1930.

Bonhoeffer was sympathetic to those who fought for the soul of the German Church but could muster none of their energy. The day for that struggle had passed and he would direct his efforts elsewhere. Has that day arrived for us? The structures of white American Christianity have consistently made known their ignorance of and antipathy toward those Christians who exist outside the confines of whiteness. The recent election is only the latest evidence in a long and devastating case against white Christianity, a version of the faith that consistently chooses racial exclusivity over Christian solidarity. (The question of what exactly constitutes white Christianity deserves a full answer, but it would have to include the thorough disregard for the plainly stated concerns of black and brown believers, a disregard that has been undeniable these past months.)

The struggle now, for many of us, lies elsewhere.

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For some time it hasn’t even been about what it appears to be about; the lines have been drawn somewhere else entirely. 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.

Bonhoeffer was looking ahead to life as a confessional Christian under the German regime. He predicted, rightly, that the initial struggle against nationalistic and racial ideologies would fade into a second, less popular, struggle. This one would be different from the first in at least two ways. First, the fight wouldn’t be for the German Church – that one had already been lost – but for faithful discipleship to Jesus despite the church’s failure. This would be a kind of discipleship in exile and it would later be enfleshed for Bonhoeffer in an alternative seminary at Finkenwalde focused on study, spiritual formation, and the common life. And second, Bonhoeffer assumed that in the second struggle many of his former co-belligerents would disappear into the new normal. Once the Nazi Party had completed its takeover and once the German Church fell in line, those who had initially resisted would find it harder to continue their struggle. The threat of marginalization, not to mention the persecution that was still a few years away, would be enough to silence many of Hitler’s Christian opponents. From London, peering into the murky days ahead, Bonhoeffer anticipated these lonely days of the second struggle.

In these post-election days, as much of white Christianity has made plain (again) its allegiance to racial ideology, the struggle is also shifting. The scenario is different by many degrees than the one faced by Bonhoeffer and other confessional Christians. For example, America has always known expressions of Christianity that have existed in faithful distinction and, at times, opposition to white Christianity. Many of my elders have long heritages in black churches and, while they are disappointed by the man the country elected for its next president, they are not especially surprised . They’ve long taken this country at its word – a word that cannot be understood apart from the white supremacist assumptions surrounding it. They face this moment as they have many other moments, as self-consciously Christian people who will continue a path of discipleship to Jesus which puts them at odds with this nation’s motives and ends.

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Ludwig Müller, Bishop of the Third Reich, 1934.

Despite differences such as this, we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s prescience and prepare ourselves for a second struggle. This will be discipleship struggle. As much of white Christianity moves on – mostly in celebration, some in resignation – we will need to prepare for a robust discipleship that forms us as members of Christ’s diverse and suffering Body. None of us are immune to this country’s idols and so this discipleship will prioritize repentance and forgiveness. We see how fear is stoked and monetized and so this discipleship will prioritize awe-inspiring worship, Fear-of-the-Lord worship. Those of us who grew up within the confines of white Christianity will submit ourselves to churches and leaders whose existence threatens the very assumptions of our old congregations. And the list goes on…

This will also be a discipleship that is aware of its resistance to much (most? all? time will tell.) of the new president’s agenda and underlying assumptions. There is, of course, nothing unique about Christian discipleship that intentionally resists corrupt and destructive authorities, but it’s a tradition that some of us have forgotten. We’ll need to remember. More complicated is how a discipleship of resistance will place Christians at odds with those white forms of Christianity that are even now moving ahead with business as usual, some with a conviction of God’s divine intervention and others with the temporary and small sadness that comes when one’s political party loses. Over time it will become clear that these forms of Christianity have very little to say to those engaged in a discipleship of resistance. This is cause for much grief, ongoing lament, and fervent prayer but maybe not much more.

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I believe that all of Christendom should be praying with us for the coming of resistance “to the point of shedding blood” and for the finding of people who can suffer it through. 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.

Later, Bonhoeffer would join those who believed Hitler had to be opposed with violence. But here, when he writes about a blood-shedding resistance, he has in mind the suffering that lies ahead for those who resist the Nazi Party. For the young theologian, Christian resistance to oppressive and violent forces was a question of faith. Who, he seems to ask, would he choose to believe in this moment when all appeared lost? When demonic ideologies had won the day, would the church have eyes of faith to see an alternative ending? Would they have the courage to pray and act with faith?

Here the historical gap lessens. We don’t need to predict any particular suffering to take seriously the challenge of faith. The temptation to despair is strong. Equally strong is the temptation to take matters into our own hands, to find places and people where our control can be exerted. And then there will be the lasting temptation to acquiesce, to content ourselves with the glittering things this nation offers in exchange for our willingness to agree with the deception, to turn away from the destruction.

Our suffering, if it comes, will begin with our choice to place our bodies in front of the deception and destruction. It will come with our choice to tell the truth, occasionally with our mouths but mostly with lives that testify to our crucified Savior. It will come with our embodied solidarity with those whose bodies and histories mark them for harassment and trouble in the days ahead.

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You know, it is my belief—perhaps it will amaze you—that it is the Sermon on the Mount that has the deciding word on this whole affair… Please write and tell me sometime how you preach about the Sermon on the Mount. I’m currently trying to do so, to keep it infinitely plain and simple, but it always comes back to keeping the commandments and not trying to evade them. Following Christ—what that really is, I’d like to know—it is not exhausted by our concept of faith.

Bonhoeffer’s posture toward National Socialism and the church’s tepid response to Hitler was deeply rooted in the Bible. He regularly returned to the  Sermon on the Mount and his question to Sutz about how to preach this passage was probably very sincere. For all of Jesus’ impossible teaching in these famous verses, Bonhoeffer finds the primary question to be whether or not a Christian will obey Jesus. Such costly obedience cannot be evaded by claims of faith, by sincere-sounding appeals to the priority of right belief over Christ-like action. In 1937 Bonhoeffer would publish Discipleship, a book in which he would explore the Sermon on the Mount in depth and differentiate between costly discipleship and cheap grace. In this letter, as he thinks about returning to Germany with its many threats, Bonhoeffer reminds his friend that appealing to Christian faith cannot replace righteous action. The former, detached from the latter, cannot in any real way be considered discipleship to Jesus.

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Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde.

We need to hear this unequivocal call to discipleship today. We have in this country a dominant form of Christianity that claims right belief and sincere faith and which has repeatedly and systematically ignored the appeals from other Christians for righteous action. It is appropriate to make this plain, with sadness. It is appropriate, in spite of the inevitable sharp and sarcastic responses, to reveal the pledge to cultural whiteness over ecclesiastical reconciliation. And it is crucial that we examine ourselves with the expectation that we too have made similar compromises. That is, this moment calls for direct appeals to costly discipleship in the way of Jesus and, precisely because it is Jesus’ way, the appeal will always begin with my own sinful heart.

From his London parish in 1934 Bonhoeffer could not fully imagine the years ahead, including his eventual imprisonment and execution by his government. But he saw enough to move forward with joyful courage. May God grant us similar companions, joyful in disposition and courageous in action, for the days ahead, whatever they may hold.

Chief Wahoo and Repentance

An offensive mascot demands more than critique.

Chief Wahoo, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians, is a racist depiction of Native Americans that never should have been used by the baseball team and certainly can’t be justified in 2016. There’s nothing complicated about this. The decision to keep the mascot (and, I would argue, the team’s name) is indefensible and made even more obviously offensive by the current desecration of Native American land in North Dakota.

During the World Series my social media feeds have been full of commentary in this vein. Well and good. But some of this critique has veered into familiar territory, where the critique itself absolves the critic. I’ve seen this critique expressed with sentiments by sports fans along the lines of, I could never be a fan of Cleveland because of their mascot.  I get the instinct – especially by a white person – to distance oneself from such blatant racism, but this move only gives the critic the appearance of purity. It’s a good thing to point out Chief Wahoo’s offensiveness, particularly to those who’ve somehow missed this painfully obvious fact. But this can’t be where we stop.

Consider the other team in the World Series. The owners of the Chicago Cubs support the Republican nominee for president and have contributed to his campaign. The team’s recent success is bound to expedite the gentrification that radiates from Wrigley Field, displacing those who can’t afford rising rents and property taxes. In a relatively direct way, a fan who buys tickets or merchandise is connected to a presidential candidate whose racism and sexism has been well-documented and to a neighborhood dynamic that impacts poor and working class people.

None of this is to say that people – and I’m thinking about Christians particularly – can’t root for the Cubs. (White Sox fans will debate this point.) It is, however, to question what we identify ourselves with – or distance ourselves from – as evidence that we are with it, that we’re not like those culturally insensitive, backward, racist people. Not being an Indians fan doesn’t place me above those who are. In fact, focusing only on a racially offensive mascot (politician, celebrity, pastor, etc.) can end up distracting me from the more subtle but no less destructive racial injustices associated with my own team (neighborhood, school, organization, etc.).

Granted, if I lived in Cleveland it’d be hard to get excited about their baseball team as long as they keep the name and that terrible mascot. But as a Christian, the injustice associated with that particular team deserves more than critique, it also requires personal reflection about how the logic that makes sense of Chief Wahoo has lodged itself within my own heart and mind as well.

OK, back to the game. And despite my south side pride… Go Cubs, Go!

 

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.

Plundered Bodies

Ida B. Wells and the Incarnation as Theological Exemplar and Rationale for Racial Justice

The following is a paper I wrote for a recent theology class. The themes in the paper are resonant to much of what I post about here, so it’s possible a few readers may be interested in what I explored in these pages. I welcome your feedback and suggestions; these are themes I expect to return to regularly.

At 2:30 A.M. On March 9, 1892, three Black men were dragged from their jail cells in Memphis, Tennessee by “seventy five men wearing Black masks.”[i] Tommie Moss, Will Steward, and Calvin McDowell, targeted for their resistance to mob violence against Moss’ grocery store, struggled against the vigilantes as they were led to the railroad. Along they way they were shot and mutilated before arriving at the scene of their lynching, an event that one newspaper described as having been “done decently and in order… with due regard to the fact people were asleep.”[ii]

Ida B. Wells was the publisher of Free Speech, a Memphis newspaper that focused on Black life in the city. She was away when her friend Tommie Moss was lynched. After an initial response in her paper in which she urged her peers to “leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property,[iii] she followed up with an even more direct editorial on May 24th.  “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape White women. If Southern White men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”[iv] Wells was correct that public sentiment toward the lynching of Black bodies would eventually shift, though at this point she couldn’t have imagined how long it would take or what a pivotal role she would play. She also didn’t foresee that this editorial, with her indictment of White fear, would provoke serious enough threats in Memphis that she would need to flee for the relative safety of Chicago where she would commence her anti-lynching campaign in earnest.

Any reckoning of Wells’ life and impact must consider many things: her gender and race; her move from Memphis to Chicago at a time when many African Americans were doing the same; her varied and influential roles as a publisher, editor, writer, and activist; and her relationships – sometimes friendly, often not – with influential leaders in the civil rights and suffragist movements. But Wells was also a self-consciously Christian person and it is this aspect of her life in which this paper is most interested. Despite regular, sometimes life-threatening, opposition exacerbated by her race and gender, Wells was singularly focused on raising the public’s awareness about the tragic injustice of lynching. What role did her Christian faith play in her courageous activism? Continue reading “Plundered Bodies”

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.