The Church as Witness and Protest: A Call to a Faithful Response to Charlottesville

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In middle school during black history month we would watch these videos called Eyes On the Prize and  make posters lauding black achievement.  There were posters about George Washington Carver and his varied uses of the peanut.  Alongside Carver, one might find Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad or Frederick Douglas and poignant question: What to a slave is the fourth of July? 

But it is the videos that I remember. They mostly consisted of interviews interspersed with footage that told the story of events like the Montgomery bus boycott or the integration of the lunch counters throughout the United States. Many (but not all) of the leaders of were Christian laity and pastors.  But strangely enough many (but not all) of their opponents also professed the Christian faith. This was my picture of the church, a body in violent and bloody disagreement with itself. But I was hopeful because a knew what side God was on. I knew that he loved his beleaguered people of God drawn from every nation.

But it was hard to erase the images of the dogs and the Billy clubs and the water hoses.

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Anyone who has watched the news over the last few weeks in which White Supremacists marched in the largest number that we have seen in living memory cannot help but wonder what is happening to our country.  better yet we wonder what the church can do in a time when hatred is on the rise and the civil discourse seems to be falling away? How do we respond?

I want to posit Romans 12 as the beginning of an answer to this question. I want to argue that Paul calls the church in his age and in every age to be an alternative society whose holiness and mutual dependence on one another testifies to a different way of being human.  What then is the role of the church in the present moment? The role of the church is to be what God calls us to be: the one people of God saved by the blood of Jesus, who empowered by the Spirit, bear witness to his present and coming kingdom.

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Sit Down, Be Humble: On Speaking about “The Church”

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When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)

There is a cottage industry that exists online and in print that offers both a critique and prescription for renewal of “the church.” Part of this is understandable given that many studies have pointed out the increase in the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation.  By far, it seems, that Evangelicals or post-evangelicals write about this phenomenon most often. Every few days, I am treated with yet another book or blog about the impending apocalypse of Christianity in the West.  These writings, especially by post-evangelicals, usually begin by castigating the church for its silence on issues of race and social justice. Another common criticism is that the church is inauthentic. For them church is less real than the fellowship they experience at dinners with their secular friends who seem more compassionate and honest than their small group.

For many of these people, this was a lived experience.  They grew up in very strict Evangelical circles that preached a small version of Christianity that had little time for what the bible had to say about the poor and the marginalized.  I get it. NPR (it seems) cares more about the refugees than the church.

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Mixed-Race Kids, the Church, and the Blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim

 

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Genesis has long been at the center of Jewish and Christian reflection on what it means to be the people of God.  In the Christian tradition, much has been written about God’s declaration that he made man and woman in his image such that all people deserve to be treated with the dignity.  The Apostle Paul, in his letters to Rome and Galatia, forever solidified the importance of the Abrahamic narrative to Christian self-understanding. The story of Joseph, with its stirring saga of family betrayal and God’s faithfulness, has been fodder for many Sunday school lessons and countless sermons.

But attention wanes, and by the time we get to the end of Genesis, which recounts the blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim we are no longer concerned with the Patriarchs and their progeny.  We are ready for the Exodus. This is a mistake. I want to suggest that the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh vies for the title of the most neglected story in Genesis and that it has a word to speak to us today because it reveals God’s longing for a multi-colored kingdom.

So now a little bible study. In Gen 48, we encounter Jacob as an old man near death. Joseph, upon hearing that his father has taken ill, rushes to see him bringing along his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. These sons are important because they are of mixed race.  Their mother is Egyptian (Gen 41:50–51), and their father is clearly an Israelite.  When Jacob sees these mixed-race boys, he says:

God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples [עמים] (Gen 48:3–4).

The word for peoples can be misleading. Depending on the context, the word that Jacob uses [עמים] can refer to ethnic groups. A clearer translation of Gen 48:4 for modern ears might read, “I  am going to make you a community of ethnicities or ethnic groups.” Therefore, when Jacob sees Joseph’s half-African sons, he sees their ethnicity as a manifestation of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  These half-African sons, for Jacob, show that God always had in mind the creation of a multi-ethnic family.

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Black Christians and Frodo’s Wound

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‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.’ ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

In the Lord of the Rings four races that have historic reasons to distrust one another must band together to defeat an enemy that threatens to destroy them all.  At the center of this gathering of misfits stands a people (the hobbits) that are perceived as weak and simple. Despite their outward appearance, these small folk are of sturdier stuff than their stature might suggest.  The grand plan for the salvation of the world at the core of the novel is not the acquisition of power, but its rejection. This sacrifice of power is possible because of the shared love for one another that the four peoples discover on mission together.

It is clear, then, that the Lord of Rings posits racial reconciliation, rooted in common mission, coupled with the rejection of power as the hope of the world.  If this is true, then with all due respect to authorial intent, the hobbits are black people.

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Graduation: Black PhDs and the Title that Endures

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I ain’t in the clan, but I brought my hood with me – Kanye West

It’s beautiful to change; it’s beautiful to grow into my name – Taelor Gray

Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine – Book of Common Prayer Benediction (paraphrase of Eph 3:20–21)

There were times when I thought that I would not make it from one end of the PhD process to the other.  The work was too hard. I was far from home, and everything about Scotland was alien to me. There were no black people and very few clergy in the New Testament program.  But there I was a former pastor lost in a sea of folks who seemed to be professional academics. I felt every bit the outsider. It didn’t help that my work got sent to the drawing board so many times that I thought that I might as well transform myself into a stick man and climb into the board.  “This is fine work, but I think it can be better consider revising the following… (rinse and repeat for 3 ½ years).” Even when you are utterly wrong, the British are unfailingly polite.

So how did I survive? I prayed very hard. I fasted a lot. I had the unwavering support of my wife and my children. But that is a story I will tell another time. Today, as I get ready for my defense tomorrow, my mind drifts towards a particular vision that has returned to me consistently.

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The Slave, the Foreigner, and the Compassion of Israel

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In the providence of God, he allowed his people to experience an extended period of slavery. This slavery was no passing trial to be endured and forgotten. It marked them and undergirded their ethical reasoning. God called upon his people to remember:

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exod 23:9)

Thus the instinct of Israel, born of the experience, was compassion. Compassion on those who had nothing to appeal to other than Israel’s good will. The foreigners who resided in Israel would not have shared Israel’s religion or many of their values. Foreigners were in Israel, but not of them, a people apart. Nonetheless, God called upon the Israelites to show them the compassion that Israel had longed for in Egypt.

During Israel’s long period of slavery, I am sure that some Egyptians may have been personally opposed to Israelite slavery. Maybe in polite company, they lamented the excessive abuses meted out on those poor foreigners. But we lack a record of an Egyptian abolitionist society. It was much easier for Egyptians to focus on worshipping their gods and raising their families. After all, those pyramids weren’t going to build themselves. God, however, called his people to a higher standard. He told them to have compassion and to remember the whip and the chain.

Judaism and later Christianity, then, is not the religion of the powerful (like the poor the powerful are welcome at the foot of the cross). It is the religion that tells the broken and the weak that they too are children of God.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1Cor1:26–29)

Therefore, the church is made up of those who have known suffering and our ethics are forever marked by that truth.

But what of the Christian who is not bound by the Law? Should the compassion of the Israelites inform public policy in a country that formally is neither Christian nor Jewish? One response might be let the nihilist vote on the basis of his nihilism and let the Christian contend for her beliefs in the public square. But the answer requires more reflection.

The Christian has always believed that humans, despite our brokenness, bear the image of God. At times (not always) when we contend for Christian convictions in the public square the truth that God has implanted within all people comes to the fore. People, who do not share our worldview, say,“Yes, those Christians have some funny ideas, but on this they are correct.” The Christian, then, who argues for a compassion first attitude towards the foreigner is actually saying that people can be more than their basic instinct for self-preservation. Skeptics, who heed this call, might even begin to ask why this Christian was able to find this compassion within herself so quickly when for me it was a battle? What is this gospel that they believe that calls me to be the person that I somehow know that I was created to be? What is broken in me that my first response was hate or fear? Stated differently, Christian values proclaimed winsomely in the public square can be a preparation for and a partial embodiment of the gospel

But the inverse is also true. If the Christian forever stands on the side of power, if our first instinct is always fear,  then how can we proclaim with integrity the good news of the one who did not save himself, but gave himself for the sins of the world? The words of the angels are still relevant: Do not be afraid.

The question of danger cannot be a part of the Christian calculus because we believe that Jesus has overcome death.  Instead of danger, we see the refugee as God’s gift to us, a new arena opened for evangelism and mercy. What the tyrant of Syria (or anywhere else) meant for evil God can use for good. So for the Christian whose sole unqualified allegiance is to the Messiah, whose heart beats for the evangelization of the nations, how do we do anything but open wide our hearts and say come?

The New Testament and Public Criticism of Politicians

 

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In the wake of the recent election, I have seen many Christians quote the biblical command to respect authority and pray for the leaders that God has placed over us. Two texts have been prominent in this admonition: Romans 13:1–3 and 1 Timothy 2:1–2. They read:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval (Romans 13:1–3)

 

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (1Timothy 2:1–2)

Quoting these texts is fine, and as the word of God, they are to be commended to the conscience of every Christian. However, to pretend that the bible says that the full extent of the Christian’s duty is prayer and submission would be a robust and dangerous misreading of the entire biblical witness.

There is an equally strong tradition in the New Testament of vocal and sustained critique of those in power. Consider John’s description of the Roman Empire in Revelation:

And on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” (Revelation 17:5)

He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury (Rev 18:2–3).

John was anything but quiet and submissive. He used vivid language to condemn the way of life he discerned therein. In particular, John found the immorality of the wealthy with its inevitable impact on the weak to be problematic. I fail to see how Revelation’s witness of public protest isn’t as important as 1 Tim 2 and Rom 13.

But John was not the only one who had some harsh words for leadership. So did Jesus:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. (Luke 13:31–32)

In the time of Jesus, foxes where known to display two qualities: crafty deceitfulness (black folk might call it being shady) and insignificance. Therefore we have Jesus himself publicly calling out the established authority for his immoral behavior. John the Baptist landed himself in prison for the same thing (Matt 14:1–3).

I could go on, but the point should be clear enough. Yes, Christians should pray for and respect those in authority. Nonetheless, when those in authority act in a manner that falls short of God’s will for the world, it is our duty to call that leadership to account. It is biblical. For the Christian, who has had harsh words for our President Elect, we have had them precisely because his words have made some wonder whether he will treat all people with the dignity they deserve. So yes we will pray for him. And If he shows repentance for his former actions, and charts a new path forward, we will commend him for his just deeds. If he does not mark out a path towards unity, we will do our duty as Christians in the public square.

Longer Still (Post Election Reflections of a Black Man amongst the Evangelicals)

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The Scriptures that contain the stories of Israel, the Messiah Jesus, and the early church have long shaped how I viewed the world. It was the bible that affirmed black personhood in the face of an Alabama that did so much to stamp it out. It was Jesus who taught me to love the poor and oppressed. It was Jesus who told me that his coming was good news for people like me, people easier to ignore than to love. The Bible lifted up the vision of a great society consisting of every tribe, tongue, and nation. And I believed every word of it. I have dedicated my life to seeing that vision become a reality.

I thought that my bible loving Evangelical Christians would look into the bible and see the same vision (and be willing to give everything to see it happen in their lifetime). I thought that maybe they just didn’t know how black folks suffered. I thought that if I told them they would listen. I thought maybe that nobody commended Revelation 7:9 to them as the hope for the church and the world. I argued with my black friends who said that white Christians did not care about black people. I said that they were woke Evangelicals who wept and marched alongside us when Tamir Rice was taken from us. I presented the multi-ethnic church as the hope for the world.

Then Donald Trump happened. Let me be clear, I am not saying that everyone who voted for Trump was motivated by racism. That would be silly. I know Christians for whom the pro-life cause was so important that all other issues could be pushed aside in order to secure Supreme Court Justices. I disagree, but I understand. I also understand that some believed that Hillary Clinton was so corrupt that voting for her was unthinkable.

But can we at least admit that the health and well being of people of color did not seem factor into the calculus of the scores of Evangelicals who swept Trump into the White House. For most black folk, there was never a robust embrace of Hillary (I did not support her). Instead we feared Trump because we found his statements about Women, Blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims deeply disturbing. This was not the result of media spin. We heard it and we were afraid. We were afraid because every time he spoke about black people, he displayed at best a deep and abiding misunderstanding of the black experience. We were afraid because we thought that his election would mean that our call for better treatment at the hands of some (not all) police would go unheard. We were afraid that the racial animosity that undergirded some (not all) elements of his campaign would rise. We were worried because we thought that when the chips were down the whole church would support us. Now we are afraid that we are alone. I hope that those fears prove to be unfounded.  We shall see.

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The Gospel, Black Spaceships, and Kanye West

 

 

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I’ve been working this grave shift and I ain’t made it, I wish I could I buy me a spaceship and fly past the sky – Kanye West (slightly edited)

Spaceships don’t come equipped with rearview mirrors; they dip as quick as they can – Andre3000

And the word became flesh and lived amongst us – John 1:14

 

When Kanye West’s The College Dropout debuted in 2004, I was in the middle of seminary; and I was not, myself,  a college dropout. I had graduated with a bachelor’s degree some two years earlier. Nonetheless, as much as the musings of an emerging rap star can speak to the experiences, hopes, and dreams of a future pastor, Kanye tapped into something that I felt very deeply. I listened to this record repeatedly (and no my favorite song was not Jesus Walks).

At the time, I could not put my finger on what I liked about early Kanye (pre Yeezus). Now I see that I was drawn to how he described his struggle to escape his circumstances through music. This narrative comes out most clearly in the song spaceships where Kanye tells the story of working a dead end job at the mall all the while making beats in the hope that his music will be the spaceship that takes him from where he is to where he feels he ought to be.

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Freedom!

 

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion – Psalm 88:19

Today,  I woke up and said my prayers. It was a daily office type of morning. I left it to my wife to get the kids ready for school. I granted myself that privilege.

Last night, in the moments before I went to bed, another video made its way onto my timeline. A hashtag followed in quick succession, and our long national nightmare began a cycle that we know quite well. But last evening, I couldn’t afford to research or to detective my way through yet another tragedy. Tuesday would be a full day. I had lectures to prepare and a dissertation to finish. So while a family mourned, and black people in the United States were again left to wonder about their place in this country, I went to sleep. Then I woke up and prayed the morning office as I do on most days. I wish I could say that I prayed for my country.  I didn’t. I read the prescribed prayers and biblical texts as called for in the Book of Common Prayer. I sat in silence hoping to hear from God. Nothing came, and so I began my day.

I am not sure that people realize how difficult it can be for African Americans to go to work on days like this. We are forced to smile and to do our jobs when so much history weighs down upon us. But we press on because life demands it of us.

So I began my work. I revised a lecture on Joshua and Judges. I posted a few Anglican articles to Facebook. I tried to focus. Then the sadness, the inevitable sadness hit. So I stopped working for a while and began to write my way towards hope.

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