A Sermon: Waking from the Dream

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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.

“So there is much to repent for.”

JET: What role do white Christians play in justice for African Americans?

Daniel HillPastor 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.

Between the World and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Absurd Logic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal Make My White Life Easier

There is a connection between two people who have recently dominated headlines and news feeds: Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. It’s not the false equivalency between a transgender person and Ms Dolezal’s wrong-headed idea that she, a white woman, can identify as African American. Rather, the similarity that interests me is how these two individuals and their decisions have become the stories that matter.

JennerIn Ms Jenner’s case the narrative has generally been one of bravery, honesty, and even heroism. In contrast, Ms Dolezal has been portrayed as the villain: deceitful, manipulative, and potentially mentally unstable. Whiteness is what connects these two as their stories are elevated and made important by a predominately white media. In Ms Jenner the media found a privileged person whose radical decisions demand nothing of the beneficiaries of white supremacy. And in Ms Dolezal the media have the convenient opposite- a white person whose sins seem so strange and obvious that the ensuing reprimands risk no actual association. This particular white person can be ridiculed endlessly, her story deemed worthy of repeated news cycles because there is no concern that whiteness itself will be taken to task.

DolezalAnd so, in recent weeks, these two white people have been made ubiquitous as their stories seemingly require the media’s full attention and analysis. Ms Jenner became our example of bravery, a move which allows us to ignore that in America courage is most evident and most often required among those without the so-called privilege of white skin. With Ms Jenner as our hero we don’t have to consider how our own implicit biases and oppressive power are the reasons so many must be courageous in ways that will never be noticed or legitimized by our media. And with Ms Dolezal as our scapegoat we are off the hook for our less obvious racial sins. In contrast to her strange deception, our homogenous neighborhoods, segregated churches, and polite prejudices seem hardly worth acknowledging, much less confessing.

I don’t mean to imply that the issues raised by these two women’s decisions aren’t worth considering. Their public decisions are important and deserve compassionate critique. I doubt, however, that they are the issues most deserving of our attention and whether the ways which our white media frames these issues are legitimate and just. But should we expect anything different? Our white-washed society has always made it clear whose stories are worth knowing and whose need not be told. By accepting that these two people represent the most important stories of the moment, my own white life is made simpler, easier. And once again, black and brown people are made invisible, their stories of heroism and suffering deemed unimportant by a society and its media that care only for its(white)self.

Authority or Power?

Ta-Nehisi Coates helpfully differentiates between power and authority.

African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity. The skepticism of Officer Darren Wilson’s account in the shooting of Michael Brown, for instance, emerges out of lack of police authority—which is to say it comes from a belief that the police are as likely to lie as any other citizen. When African American parents give their children “The Talk,” they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.

Those – like me – who aren’t regularly plundered by this country (see this video for examples of what plunder as cultural appropriations can look like) can follow Coates’ reasoning, but there are good reasons why we struggle to actually believe it.

But for most Americans, the police—and the criminal-justice system—are figures of authority. The badge does not merely represent rule via lethal force, but rule through consent and legitimacy rooted in nobility. This is why whenever a liberal politician offers even the mildest criticism of the police, they must add that “the majority of officers are good, noble people.” Taken at face value this is not much of a defense—like a restaurant claiming that on most nights, there really are no rats in the dining room. But interpreted less literally the line is not meant to defend police officers, but to communicate the message that the speaker is not questioning police authority, which is to say the authority of our justice system, which is to say—in a democracy—the authority of the people themselves.

I’ve felt this strongly over the past few months, the need to qualify any criticism about unjust policing. There is such a strong pull to limit an unjust situation to its primary actors – a rouge cop, for example – in order to preserve the authority of the overall system. Austin Channing has observed this tendency and points out the regular practice of “balancing” after any criticism of authority: it “becomes necessary to also admit that there are problems in the black community- black on black crime, fatherlessness, poverty, etc…” But she’s not having it:

It is not that I am unwilling to talk about these other devastations that plague some communities of color. In fact, I welcome conversation about these realities. But you should know in advance that I don’t relegate the conversation on race to shootings and incarceration rates. Racism is far too effective, conniving, and complete to define only these. So lets talk about poverty, but lets do so without forgetting about slavery, jim crow, redlining, white flight, contract sales, and the extraction of wealth from generations at the hands of government, courts, real estate agents and landlords.

This is our challenge. It’s nearly impossible, within a society where the majority experiences respectful authority and many others experience oppressive power, to respond to injustice in a manner that will seem balanced to everyone. Thankfully, balance is not the goal for Christians, including we who are cozy with corrupt authority. No, the goal is truth. And if Jesus is any sort of precedent, in our pursuit of truth we’ll reject false authority and find our place on the receiving end of corrupt power. We’ll be in very good company.