En route, Chicago to Newark.
En route, Chicago to Newark.
1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of Godin order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” [Acts 6:1-4]
As the pastor of a multi-ethnic church, I’m regularly asked about the reasons our congregation regularly talks about race, racism, and reconciliation? I’ll do my best to answer this question today.
The Acts passage shows the early church facing some of its first divisions. At this time, it was common for converts to Christianity to be disowned by their families. The radical care shown by the early church that we read about in Acts was an expression of the church acting as a new family. This was especially important for widows who relied on family members for their wellbeing. Our passage reveals that a disparity was growing between the Hebraic Jewish widows and Hellenistic widows. The Hellenistic Jews had taken on much of the surrounding Greek culture while the Hebraic Jews had maintained much of the culture and tradition of their ancestors in Palestine. In Jerusalem, where our passage takes place, Hebraic Jews would have had a higher status than the Hellenistic Jews.
From our perspective maybe this division doesn’t seem so big. In a country like ours where a white officer can shoot a 12-year-old Black boy with impunity; in a country that singled out Chinese immigrants for legal exclusion; in a country that vilifies Latino women and men while depending on their labor; in this country a disparity based on culture between those with a common ethnic and religious background might not seem like a big deal. And maybe that’s true. We could find more obvious threats to the family of God later in the New Testament, but this is the first division faced by the church so it’s worth paying close attention to three things about how they faced potential divisions.
First, they expected justice. They expected equity within this new family that God was creating through Jesus. This might seem small, but do we expect justice in our churches? Don’t we expect that churches in wealthier communities will have budget surpluses while churches in poor communities struggle? Don’t we expect that predominately white churches will be ignorant of the struggles experienced by black, brown, and immigrant congregations? Don’t we accept as normal that those in our own church who have access to generational wealth and cultural acceptance will have greater wealth and health? But early church expected justice to be exhibited between its members. Which leads to the second thing we should notice.
They told the truth about injustice. When it was clear what was happening, people spoke up. They could tell the truth because they expected, within God’s family, that justice would be done.
And third, when injustice was revealed, they organized for justice. The injustice was identified and the church organized itself so that justice would be done. In this case, widows who had been abandoned by their families would be cared for with dignity regardless of their cultural background.
Hopefully all of this sounds very straightforward, simple: they expected justice, told the truth about injustice, and organized for justice when necessary. As the church grew and came to include not just Hellenistic Jews but actually Greeks, Romans, Africans, and Asians, this would only get more important. How is it that what seems like such a simple and effective strategy seems impossible for churches and Christians in America to grasp? Or, to put the question more positively: What allowed the early church pursue relational justice with such clarity and courage?
We could answer this from a variety of passages, but Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a helpful starting point.
16 If the part of the dough offered as first-fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! [Romans 11:16-24]
Gentiles Christians were wondering whether the Jews would have a place within Jesus’ kingdom. Paul begins with a sacrificial metaphor about first fruits- those Jews who have submitted to Jesus are proof that the way remains open to Israel. He then switches to an agricultural image of a cultivated olive branch being grafted into the root system of a wild olive tree. This was a common practice to increase the olive harvest; two distinct trees became one, but the grafted branch was dependent on the original roots.
Paul says a lot here, but one important thing for us is this: For Gentile Christians there must always be a visceral memory of our inclusion into God’s family through Jesus. The roots of this family are God’s election of Israel as his means of redeeming the world. Jesus stands in for Israel, receiving the consequences of her rebellion and fulfilling her vocation to bless the world, and through him makes possible Gentile inclusion into God’s family. To say it more simply: Unless you are a Jewish Christian, you were an outsider to God’s family who has been graciously and radically welcomed into the family by Jesus.
This is important because Paul explains and the church in Acts demonstrates that relational justice is not peripheral to the gospel, it’s not a distant implication of the gospel… relational justice & reconciliation are central to the gospel because they are evidence of what God has done through Jesus. Our being grafted into God’s family tree demonstrates the power of the gospel. The welcome we outsiders have received into the family of God is the immediate outworking of Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection. This reconciling gospel was at work among the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem as they pursued justice for their widows. This same reconciling gospel would be at work in the first multi-ethnic church in Antioch, a congregation made up of Jews, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Asians.
Throughout the NT we see the Gospel grafting outsiders into God’s family tree: the Gospel overcomes divisions between ethnicities, cultures, and classes. And when relational injustice appears it is confronted by appealing to the logic & power of this gospel, this gospel that has made outsiders and enemies into members of God’s family.
Of course you won’t find any mention of the gospel overcoming racial divides. Race, as we think of it, hadn’t been invented when the NT was written. Tragically, race as a social construct, was birthed from heretical Christian theology. This theology replaced the Jewish roots of God’s family tree with European whiteness. There are theological terms for this heresy, but what matters for us is that when the powerful European church traded God’s specific redemptive movement through Israel for a racial construct that was built on privilege and oppression, the gospel itself was undermined.
With whiteness replacing Israel as the roots of God’s family tree, not only were racial divides impossible to overcome, they were actually created. And the cultural, class, and ethnic diversity that proved the gospel in the early church also became unbridgeable chasms. And from this heretical foundation was built an entire social science that categorized and divided people based on imposed racial categories, categories that were compared to whiteness to determine how entire cultures and ethnicities would be treated. No longer was it God’s grace that opened the door to God’s family, a family that expected relational justice within its diversity as evidence of the gospel. Now it was whiteness with its languages, cultures, social norms, and warped theologies that became the doorway to Christianity.
The ugly consequences of this heresy are all around us, from politicians who can, in one speech, proclaim their Christian credentials while articulating xenophobic and nationalistic policies to public schools that can safely be ignored and dismantled by the powers that be because the black & brown students they represent were never supposed to attain the American Dream in the first place. But most tragically is the way this heresy has immobilized so many churches from expressing the full power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For this reason we must regularly and intentionally make plain the beautiful truth that generations of warped theology and blind practice have obscured. We must wake from the dream that is in fact a nightmare; we must wake to the gospel with all of its implications.
This means that those of us who find our socially constructed race affirmed and normalized by a society built on white supremacy must come to church and hear the call to repentance. We must come to rejoice in our complete unworthiness and in God’s complete grace, that he would graft us into his family.
This means that those of us who find ourselves dehumanized and illigetamized on a daily basis must come to church and hear the old story about how, in Christ, there is no hierarchy, there is no privilege, there is no prejudice; we must hear how, in Christ, the beauty of our God-given humanity as expressed in the particularities of our bodies, languages, cultures, histories, and struggles is a reason to celebrate and take pride.
This means that those of us who have been made invisible by a black & white society must come to church and find the space to remember what has been forgotten, reclaim what has been stolen, and restore the memory of God’s presence to previous generations whose culture was tied not to deceitful racial constructs, but to the creation itself- to geographies and landscapes that bear witness to the Creator.
This is why racial righteousness & reconciliation are so important to us. One the one hand, a diverse and flourishing community that is rooted in the One who grafts us into God’s family, is repentance and resistance to the heresy that has wreaked so much havoc. And on the other hand, a reconciled community bears powerful witness to our segregated and devastated city that the living God will make all things well. More simply put, we care about racial righteousness and reconciliation because we are captivated by the gospel that has made strangers and aliens into family and friends.
I read thirty books this year– not nearly as many as some of you, but respectable for me. A few were assigned by editors for review and some of these were lost on me, but for the most part I’d recommend my entire list to you. Still, each year I’m in the habit of picking five that are especially worth your attention. Here are this year’s five, in the order I read them. I’d be interested to know what you read in 2015 that is worth recommending.
Spiritual Friendship; Wesley Hill (2014).
Earlier this year I preached a series about friendship. This was something I’d wanted to do for a while but, each time I tried to prepare, found I had little Biblical imagination for the topic. I knew it was an important theme throughout Scripture – “I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) – but couldn’t recall reading or hearing anything theological on the topic. Hill’s book was not the only book about friendship I read, but it might have been the first and it began to make connections for me that I may have otherwise missed.
Hill, a theologian, writes as a “celibate gay Christian” who, over time, has come to see his sexual orientation as a gift for the church. This book seems to prove the point. While Spiritual Friendship will be encouraging to anyone committed to the traditional Christian sexual ethic, the book pushes far beyond sexuality to hold friendship up as a relational category worthy of our best efforts and thoughtfulness. The book’s title points back to a 12th century book by Aelred of Rievaulx who was one of the first to reflect theologically on friendship as a distinctly Christian way of relating to others. (I highly recommend this small book to you as well. Despite it’s age, the dialogical style and a helpful introduction make it relatively accessible.) Reading these books was something of a revelation to me, like uncovering long-forgotten wisdom. Within Christian subcultures that can idolize marriage and biological families, Hill reminds us that Christians have a much broader definition of family. And within this generous definition there is a special place for those individuals who love one another as friends. “If blood is thicker than water,” writes Hill, “then Eucharistic blood is thickest of all.”
Men We Reaped; Jesmyn Ward (2014).
One of the difficult and disorienting realities I notice in our city is that African American women and men are subject to violence in ways that are utterly foreign to most white people. There are the spectacularly tragic cases that make the news – Chicago police killed a college student and a 55-year-old woman the day after Christmas – and then there are the quieter, more common stories of friends and family members succumbing to violent ends.
Jesmyn Ward noticed this contagious violence when five young men – each from her small hometown in Mississippi – died within four years. These deaths included her brother’s, whose story weaves through her own as she traces their childhoods and adolescence through landscapes that are sometimes kind and often dangerously inhospitable. The book is a memoir, beautifully written, and so avoids sweeping conclusions about why Black and Brown people in this country are subject to such vague and persistent trauma. But Men We Reaped does better than give us statistics and explanations; here we have the beautiful and sad stories of three-dimensional people whose lives are no less meaningful for the wicked predictability of their untimely ends.
Between the World and Me; Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015).
I’ve talked more about this book than any other this year. Earlier I wrote about how Between the World and Me and me reminded me of how James Baldwin wrote about the impotence of white Christianity. Coates has written a memoir, his second, in the form of a letter to his son. The book is consciously post-Ferguson, made more poignant as we see video-recorded police brutality through Coates’ adolescent son.
As an atheist Coates does at least two things masterfully that Christians should notice. The first is the priority of flesh and blood in these pages.
But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
There is no easy theorizing or theologizing here; Coates is relentless in reminding the reader that the natural end of racist violence is the destruction of individual bodies. Though Christians would theoretically want to add to Coates’ description of the body, the reality is that we have often said less. In our priority of spirit and soul, we are guilty of a particularly racist gnosticism.
The second thing Coates does is to tell the truth about Black bodies and the suffering they endure as if there were no white people reading. I’m not sure the author would put it this way, but there seems to be a purposefulness about how direct and honest he is. There are no escape routes for the good white person, only complicity. (In a group conversation about the book, a young African American man admitted his discomfort about how plainly Coates writes in a book that will be read by so many white people. I understand this to be intentional on the author’s part- an intentional ignoring of the inescapable white gaze.) As a Christian I’m forced to ask why Coates’ atheism seems a more stable platform for truth-telling than so many forms of American Christianity. I happen to believe that Christianity contains within it the resources for such piercing and courageous truth, but rediscovering these resources will necessarily begin with repentance which, not coincidentally, would be one of the appropriate responses to this beautiful book.
Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home; Pope Francis (2015).
In this short book Pope Francis has made unmistakable something that should never have been debatable in the first place: care for the natural environment is a moral act, one that Christians are meant to have a natural affinity for.
Laudato Si is a uniquely Christian take on our environmental crisis. As such Pope Francis highlights things like humanity’s commonalities, the impact of climate change on the poor, the non-utilitarian nature of people, a realistic assessment of technology’s ability to solve environmental destruction, and an appreciation for how creation reflects aspects of God’s character. The book is gracious and pastoral but its greatest strength is making plain the distinctively Christian contributions to the environmental movement. There was a well of course sense as I read the book along with some sadness that the thoughtfulness and compassion exhibited by the pope isn’t always what Christians are known for when it comes to caring for our common home.
Citizen: An American Lyric; Claudia Rankine (2014)
As with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Claudia Rankine’s collection of poetry is intensely focuses on the particularities of Black and Brown bodies and experiences. The book’s heavy, glossy pages include occasional selections of art and various prose poems, many related to widely known moments of recent racial injustice. But the bulk of the book is given to stories, told to and arranged by the poet, of particular moment of racial dissonance and prejudice.
At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that.
I don’t read enough poetry to say much more about this book other than that it completely pulled me in. The poetic prose, artwork, and singular moments created an atmosphere that, from a variety of angles, asked the questions implied by the title: Who is a citizen in this country? Who decides? Is citizenship in America a goal worth pursuing?
We’re less than two weeks away from a new year and the current one feels like it has overstayed its welcome. Soong-Chan Rah subtitled his latest book: All Call for Justice in Troubled Times. And the times do seem troubled, don’t they? Of course, it’s doubtful that this year has been measurably more difficult than others, or that the times we live in are harder than any other point in history. But our access to instant updates about the latest global catastrophe along with technology that is pulling back some of the veil that has long obscured our society’s injustices can make these days feel especially raw, like a wound that never gets the chance to heal.
There are, of course, many Americans who’ve never been afforded the delusion that all is well in this country. For these citizens the stream of videos displaying police brutality, to take just one, unavoidable example, is not new information but confirmation writ large of an old and lived experience. And throughout Prophetic Lament Rah is viscerally aware of these experiences but he seems to be writing primarily to those who have been reading their news feeds with horror. Can this really be happening in our country?
The rationale behind Rah’s chosen vehicle to address these previously unaware – blissfully unaware, dangerously unaware – Christians is not immediately obvious. Prophetic Lament is a commentary on the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Rather than reading as a typical commentary with foci on individual verses, original languages, and such, the book reads as an extended essay that swerves consciously between the experience of Israel’s exile and reflections on contemporary events, particularly issues of justice that have often escaped white churches.
(It’s important, I think, to again point out that Rah seems to be writing to a white Christian readership. “The American church avoids lament,” he writes and I have to believe he doesn’t mean the whole American church but a particular evangelical variety.)
Lament is the absolutely essential theme that runs throughout the book and the many facets of this spiritual/emotional practice/response are on beautiful and provocative display. Those of us who’ve been formed to varying degrees by expressions of Christianity that are triumphalist, individualistic, and consumeristic desperately need to learn the language of lament. Within my own church and community I find myself returning regularly to the lament psalms and prophets whose language and theology is indispensable in times of tragedy and entrenched wickedness.
Lamentations is a book that can and should speak into our current circumstances and, in Prophetic Lament, Rah has given us an accessible introduction for our troubled times.
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
those who, because they have everything,
look down on others,
those who have no need even of God –
for them there will be no Christmas.
Only the poor,
those who need someone to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
That someone is God,
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.
– Óscar Romero; December 24, 1978
Originally posted in our church newsletter.
The exodus is a major theme in the Bible. The story of how God rescued his people from captivity and brought them into the Promised Land is one that many of us know well. The exodus gave language to European immigrants who left behind religious persecution for the promise of a new land and it formed the imaginations of enslaved Africans who prayed and planned for their escape:
I’ll meet you in the morning
when you reach the promised land
on the other side of the Jordan
for I’m bound for the promised land.
As important as the exodus is for those of us who know God’s salvation, there is another dominant biblical theme that we tend to forget: exile. Yet despite our neglect of this part of the biblical story, it’s huge throughout the Old Testament. Many psalms and much of the prophetic literature was written in an exilic context as God’s people suffered under one empire and then another.
Maybe we focus more on exodus than exile because the latter doesn’t fit the expectation of much of American Christianity. After all, the exodus brings with it promises of security and prosperity while the experience of exile is ambiguous and sorrowful. Yet as I look around I have to wonder whether out situation is closer to exile than exodus. Without downplaying God’s powerful salvation in our lives and his sustaining presence in our communities, don’t we have to admit that the world we inhabit is a long way from the Promised Land?
Theologian Raymond Rivera says that once we acknowledge our exilic status we are free to think creatively about “doing ministry in a situation of captivity.” Rather than thinking that we’ve settled into the land of God’s promise – or even that it’s around the corner, attainable by a bit more hard work or strategic ministry – we instead accept the foreign land to which we’ve been led by God. From this vantage point we begin to ask different questions about community, friendship, work, family, and church. We worship and work for the good of this foreign land without looking to it for approval or permission.
At times this means taking public stands in protest and prayer against the injustice of this land’s powers. Pastor Michelle demonstrated this powerfully on Monday at the prayer vigil when she publicly lamented over Chicago and its racist policies. Other times it means finding common ground with those who don’t share our Faith but whose work reflects the kingdom of God. And all of the time it means building structures and nourishing communities that contribute to human flourishing and Christian witness in the midst of exile.
In 2016 we will build structures and ministries that will help us be more deeply rooted in Bronzeville. The bitter fruit produced by this foreign land has been especially visible lately, yet we’ve not been called to flee for some promised land of our own making. No, we hear the prophet’s word to the Babylonian exiles to “plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (Jeremiah 29:5) In this place of exile we are called to put down deep and sustaining roots that God might produce in us “fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)
As we approach the second Sunday in Advent we are reminded that, although we’ve experienced the promise of God’s salvation, the eternal Promised Land awaits our Savior’s return. Until then, we are a people in exile. But we have not been left alone. And, thanks be to the God who was born into our exile, we’ve not been left without hope.
JET: What role do white Christians play in justice for African Americans?
Pastor Daniel: That’s a question that I regularly ask my African American friends, co-workers and mentors. And it’s a question that we as white Christians should pay close attention to when answers are proposed. One thing I do feel clearly convicted of is the need for white Christians to actively and collectively repent for our complicity in the creation of our racist landscape. While I’m grateful for the exceptions that have stood in solidarity with the oppressed, the overwhelming history of our country reveals a picture of white Christians standing on the wrong side of justice, and often serving as the ones to perpetuate injustice. So there is much to repent for.
–Daniel Hill is a friend and pastor here in Chicago. He participated in the prayer vigil on Monday and his prayer of repentance on behalf of white people caught the attention of CNN and Jet magazine. If you read the entire interview you’ll know why Daniel has become a good friend and trusted guide in matters of reconciliation and the multi-ethnic church. I’m sad for the ugly response by some to his honesty but I’m incredibly grateful that so many are benefitting from his witness.