“There is no more important calling for the church in our time than claiming the self-identification of the God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

A fundamental problem is that it is not at all clear exactly who God is. We have not become a secular society so much as we have become a generically religious one. Undifferentiated spiritual objects, therapies, and programs are widely marketed. Popular religion in America tends to be an amalgam of whatever presents itself. Discerning observers have noted that these new forms of spirituality are typically American; highly individualistic, self-referential, and self-indulgent, they are only feebly related to the history or tradition of any of the great world faiths. There is no more important calling for the church in our time than claiming the self-identification of the God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

– Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. She’s not so much lamenting these shifts in our society as she is the inability (or unwillingness) of the churches to maintain our particularly Christ-centered distinctions.

He Remembers Emmett Till

“What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.”

14EmmettTillBefore_(2534273093)14-year-old Emmet Till was lynched in 1955 down in Mississippi. His funeral – open-casket at the demand of his mother, Mammie Till Bradley, and attended by thousands – was held at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, just a couple of miles from where I sit on Chicago’s South Side.

Conceptionally I understand the likelihood that at some point I’ve crossed paths with someone who remembers that funeral, someone for whom Till’s name means more than a history lesson about America’s obsession with policing young black men’s bodies. It’s been a mere 63 years. I’ve been inside the church. But still, it seems a very long time ago.

Or it did. On Saturday my friend Mr. Young, a lifetime resident of the neighborhood, remarked almost casually that he’d been at Emmet Till’s funeral. He was eleven and his grandmother insisted on bringing him, wanting to instill a deadly important lesson about white people’s capacity for violence. It’s a lesson, he confessed, to which he never paid much attention. But he was there. He processed passed the casket of a child just a few years his elder, beaten beyond recognition. He saw people much older fall out in that church, the grief too heavy a load, at least for the moment.

I’m not sure what to take from this. I read enough history to know that historians lament the average American’s disinterest in the past. Maybe that’s true. But Mr. Young’s testimony is about more than remembering what shouldn’t be forgotten; I think it’s about how close these things are, about how incredibly quickly we relegate flesh and blood to memory’s sterile shelf.

In 1965 James Baldwin wrote an essay, “The American Dream and the American Negro”, in which he explored the country’s fraught relationship to its history. “The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors, through 400 years and at least three wars. Why is my freedom, my citizenship, in question now? What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.” Maybe that’s what I felt listening to Mr. Young’s firsthand account of the Till funeral. We’re so accustomed to historical obfuscation that when someone says something plainly – I was there – it’s a revelation.

Baldwin goes on: “When I was brought up I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and that neither had I. I was a savage about whom the least said the better, who had been saved by Europe and who had been brought to America. Of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. These were the only books there were. Everyone else seemed to agree.” Baldwin’s reflection on his own childhood in Harlem is one he applies more broadly to each of this nation’s citizens, that what passes for our history is actually a collection of history-obscuring myths. The fog of memory leaves poor white people consoled that “at least they are not black” and young black people, as Baldwin remembers himself, thinking that you “belonged where white people put you.”

I wonder whether we leave these malicious myths unchecked because they seem so distant, built deeply into the foundation upon which too many of our assumptions are built. But Mr. Young remembers walking into Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in the fall of 1955 to memorize his contemporary. And, to take another example in my community, Michelle Duster, Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter, is raising money for a statue to commemorate the woman who is the singular figure in the anti-lynching campaign. The threads are everywhere, ready to  traced backward to people and events whose influence remains brilliantly latent, available to dissipate myth and fog. Our historical amnesia might be intentional but it isn’t inevitable.

 

Educating or Exploiting?

Thinking with Marylinne Robinson about how America educates its children.

What are we doing hereA couple of weeks ago, over a late lunch of wings and fries, a member of our church pointed out to me that the community colleges that offer vocational training – food service, auto mechanics, etc. – are mostly located in our city’s black and brown neighborhoods. My friend, an African American man, noticed this as he was looking for a school to take paralegal classes; he found that they were all located miles away from his family’s home on the South Side.

I thought about this while reading “An American Scholar Now”, an essay in Marilynne Robinson’s new book, What Are We Doing Here? She writes, “The argument against our way of educating is that it does not produce workers who are equipped to compete in the globalized economy, the economy of the future.” The essay is a reflection on the turn away from liberal arts education toward something more pragmatic and technical. She goes on,

This has to be as blunt a statement as could be made about the urgency, currently felt in some regions and credulously received and echoed everywhere, that we should put our young to this use, to promote competitive adequacy at a national level, to whose profit or benefit we are never told. There is not suggestion that the gifts they might bring to the world as individuals stimulated by broad access to knowledge have place or value in this future world, only that we should provide in place of education what would better be called training.

There’s so much in these few sentences. For one, Robinson points to how some vague national competition shapes how we imagine educating our children. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in rooms with committed teachers and principals listening to a bureaucrat drone on about the fact that these days our kids aren’t just competing with children in another city but with students across the world. (For some reason China is usually emblematic in these pep talks, evoked with a sense of impending dread.) It’s not that education itself is valuable or that educators have a role in helping students discover “the gifts they might bring to the world.” No, the metaphor is almost always competitive- education as a means to an end where some win and others loose.

Robinson is thinking about higher education but, from my vantage point, the same assumptions have overtaken our public education system. And this is where my friend’s lunchtime observation is more acute. In the same way that, in Robinson’s terminology, training rather than education is more accessible in black and brown neighborhoods, so this pragmatic and competitive approach is more likely to be foisted upon lower income communities than their wealthier equivalents. While private schools and affluent suburban public schools tout small class sizes and low student-to-teacher ratios, our public schools are evaluated by whether they maximize efficiency through standardized testing and highly disciplined classrooms that can be managed with the bare minimum of adult instruction. Students who might otherwise be suspended are kept in school so that the precious federal dollars which are tied to attendance will keep flowing.

I suppose none of this is surprising. Elsewhere in her essay Robinson writes that in America, “The Citizen has become the Taxpayer.” She’s thinking about how we consider our responsibilities toward one another, but the images can extend to how we think about our children. Are they future citizens, capable of contributing their gifts to a world that wants and needs them, or simply tax payers into a system built to maximize efficiency and productivity? Are they people or resources? The answers should matter to all of us, but as my friend points out, they will carry far more significance to the children whose communities have generally been viewed as resources to exploit rather than people to cultivate.

Do Not Conform

A sermon from Romans 12:1-2

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. [Romans 12:1-2]

One of my favorite novels is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In it we meet the aging Rev. John Ames as he writes to young son in a small Iowa town in the 1950s. Rev. Ames loves the small town & its people. He is 3rd generation preacher; his father was pacifist but we learn that his grandfather moved from Maine to the Iowa frontier before Civil War to join abolitionist fight against slavery. Gilead, like other towns throughout Iowa and Kansas, was founded in order to help enslaved people escape and to change the balance of power in the nation so that future states admitted to the Union would be free.

But by the time Ames writes to his son this history has long passed. The town settled into contented apathy, its roots in the great battle against slavery forgotten. Ames writes that his abolitionist grandfather, disappointed in what the town had become, left Gilead for the scenes of his former battles in Kansas.

He was terribly lonely, no doubt about it. I think that was a big part of his running off to Kansas. That and the fire at the Negro church. It wasn’t a big fire – someone heaped brush against the back wall and put a match to it, and someone else saw the smoke and put the fames out with a shovel. (The Negro church used to be where the soda fountain is now, though I hear that’s going out of business. That church sold up some years ago, and what was left of the congregation moved to Chicago. By then it was down to three or four families. The pastor came by with a sack of plants he’d dug up from around the front steps, mainly lilies. He thought I might want them, and they’re still there along the front of our church. I should tell the deacons where they came from, so they’ll know they have some significance and they’ll save them when the building comes down. I didn’t know the Negro pastor well myself, but he said his father knew my grandfather. He told me they were sorry to leave, because this town had once meant a great deal to them.)

The black pastor and and his congregation remembered the Gilead of the past. But now, during era of Jim Crow laws and lynchings, they know longer felt welcomed. Their church, the symbol of their faith and freedom, suffered an arsonists attack. They had to leave.

And what does Rev. Ames remember most about this moment? The flowers. In contrast to his grandfather, Ames has accepted the attitudes and assumptions of his day. It’s not that he’s a rabid racist; he seems to remember the black church fondly. Instead, like the rest of the town, he views the fire and the black community’s subsequent departure as a benign fact of history. By the time he writes to his son, not a single black person remains in Gilead and nothing about this troubles the abolitionist’s grandson.

Rev. Ames conformed to the forgetfulness of his town, to its tolerance of racial expulsion, to intentional cultural homogeneity at odds with its very founding. He willingly conformed, as a Christian and a pastor who deeply loves his Lord and his congregation.

Despite being a Christian his whole life and his decades as a pastor, I doubt Rev. Ames would be at all troubled by Paul’s warning: Do not conform to the pattern of this world. It’s unlikely that he would see his acceptance of the black community’s flight from the town he loved as having much to do with his own Christian discipleship. He did not recognize how he had conformed to the world because he did not see the ways his world opposed God’s will.

This fictional narrative provokes me to ask a question of myself: How have I conformed to the patterns of this world, patterns that are hostile to God’s good, pleasing, & perfect will?

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In Romans 1-11 Paul presents the gospel. In dense and majestic language, he shows how we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus, who fulfills Israel’s vocation to bless the world and stands in for the judgment of our sins. And then, in chapter 12, he makes a turn. “Therefore…” In other words, Paul will now show what we do in response to what God has accomplished, in response to the gospel.

And what do we do? We offer our bodies as worship. We don’t offer Sunday hymns, tithes, sermons, or ministries, though these matter! Our worship extends beyond Sundays because it’s our bodies we offer to God. It is our whole selves we give to God; living sacrifices, holy and pleasing. Our worship goes where we go. Our worship extends into the world. Christian worship cannot be constrained to a day or contained by a building.

Christian worship extends into the world but, as Paul goes on to say, it does not conform to its patterns. Paul has in mind the realm of sinful rebellion against God, and its consequences: injustice, death. This is the word Jesus has rescued us from: “[the Lord Jesus Christ…] gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” [Galatians 1:4]

But though we’ve been rescued from its demise and its judgment, we still live within the world, the present evil age. Though we’ve been transferred from sin and death to righteousness and life, “this transfer does not isolate us from the influence of the old realm.” (Douglass Moo) Until Jesus returns, there remains the temptation to become engrossed with the things of this world (1 Corinthians 7:31); to assume the patterns of this world are normal & miss how they contradict life in God’s Kingdom. This was John Ames’ mistake. The good pastor did not see how his town’s treatment of its black citizens was at odds with the Kingdom of God.

It is natural for me to conform to the patterns of this world. I am a white, Christian, man within a country that considers itself a Christian nation; within a country that has favored my gender and race since its inception. Not only is there little incentive for me not to conform to society, my privileged experience makes it hard to even see how my conformity has led me to oppose God’s will.

My tendency to conform is true even during a time when immigrants and refugees are slandered publicly, when the abusive power long suffered by women has been made visible, when lands sacred to Native Americans suffer government seizure and corporate pollution, and when African Americans are regularly reminded of their vulnerability to this nation’s violence – whether sitting in a Starbucks, standing in grandmother’s backyard, or playing in a public park. Paul commands me not to conform knowing that, in this present evil age, it is normal and natural to conform to perspectives & assumptions that oppose God’s will & injure my neighbor.

Rather than conforming, God calls us to transformation by the renewing our minds. The vision is big: Jesus renews our minds so that we can know God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.  As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, it is God’s desires that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our renewed minds allow us to imagine a way of life that conforms not to the patterns of this age, but to the patterns of God’s will, to the patterns of his kingdom. As N.T. Write says,

Christians are therefore in a position… of someone who needs to stop letting the world around dictate its own terms and conditions, and who instead must figure out how to think, speak and act as is appropriate not for the present age, but for the new age which is already breaking in.

Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection makes available to us a complete transformation; hearts of stone that soften to love what God loves; captive minds renewed to see God’s kingdom breaking into this rebellious world. In response to the in-breaking Kingdom of God, disciples of Jesus offer our entire selves in worship by conforming to God’s good, pleasing and perfect will… no matter the pressures and temptations of the present evil age.

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The early Christians sometimes paid a cost for their nonconformity. They were persecuted not for their private beliefs, but for their public worship; for how their renewed minds in Christ led to non-conformity in the world. We can expect this as well. As we discern God’s will, we will find ourselves on the receiving end of this world’s opposition to God’s will.

But more important than the potential cost, not conforming to this world allows for God’s will to be made visible in our lives. The good, pleasing, and perfect will of God, accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection, cannot be ignored in this world when God’s people refuse to conform to its patterns.

An epidemic in mid-2nd century killed between 1/4 – 1/3 of those in the Roman Empire. A hundred years later a 2nd epidemic ravaged the empire, killing up to 5,000 daily in Rome alone. Bodies piled up in homes, streets, & pagan temples. The sick were left behind. This was the pattern of the Roman world. In contrast, the Christians stayed behind, caring for the sick.

About this time Bishop Dionysius wrote,

Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.

The Emperor Julian, an opponent of Christianity, wrote: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

The Christians didn’t have to do this. They could have conformed to the pattern of the world. Instead, they looked to their Savior and his pattern; like him, they gave up their lives for their sick and dying neighbors.

Or consider the lot of women in the Roman world: Because of gender-based infanticide, far more boys than girls survived infancy. Girls given in marriage at 12 or younger. Abortion, a decision made by men, killed many women. The Christians, on the other hand, opposed infanticide and abortion; women married older with more choice; they opposed divorce, incest, infidelity, & polygamy (all which disproportionately harmed women); their widows were respected, cared for when necessary. It’s not surprising, then, that off the 33 people Paul greeted by name in Romans, 15 were women: Junia, the apostle; Phoebe, the deacon; Priscilla, the pastor & Paul’s longtime co-laborer in the gospel.

Or what about the early church’s response to their culture’s divisions. Within a cultural worldview that was permanently stratified by ethnicity, citizenship, and class, the church crossed all lines of division. Philip was sent to the Ethiopian eunuch; Peter to the Roman centurion. the diverse church in Antioch was led by multi-racial leaders. Within an empire that survived on divisions and exploitation, the Christians believed that within the Kingdom of God: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:28]

None of this was inevitable. The Roman Empire did not praise the Christians for not conforming. Living out their transformed lives was risky and intensely counter-cultural. At times it resulted in deadly persecution. But the gospel could not be ignored!

The Christians did not look to the way things were in the Roman Empire for how they should live. Rather, they looked to their Savior, and his kingdom. As they worshipped him, they were led to demonstrate his will, no matter the cost. They lived fully within the world, but as citizens of a different kingdom.

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In 1954, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from Romans 12:1-2. He said, 

And so although the Christian finds himself in the colony of time his ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. In other words, the Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is the Christian duty to revolt against it.

Our allegiance is to Jesus and to his Kingdom. Our allegiance must be active; it means resisting the sinful patterns, unjust institutions, and the harmful assumptions of this age. We must not be lulled into conforming complacency as was Rev. Ames.

What is the evidence of our true and proper worship? What is the evidence that we have offered our bodies as living sacrifices? What is the evidence that we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds? What is the evidence that we have not conformed to the pattern of this world? What is the evidence that God’s will – his good, pleasing and perfect will – is our heart’s greatest desire?

We can’t look to our buildings, budgets, attendance; neither can we appeal cultural relevancy or access to halls of power. After all, for not conforming the early Christians suffered isolation and persecution; for not conforming Paul was imprisoned, flogged, stoned, and shipwrecked; for not conforming Dr. King was threatened, beaten, jailed, and assassinated.

The world’s standards of success and acceptance cannot be what a citizen of the kingdom of heaven looks to. We look, instead, to our Savior and his kingdom. Is our true worship leading us to oppose the unjust and wicked patterns of this world, or have we conformed to them? Is our worship leading us to represent Jesus and his Kingdom in the midst of destructive and, at times, dehumanizing patterns? This is the evidence of our true & proper worship.

The patterns of our world has become especially evident recently. What most women have long known has become more visible: That institutional power is not equally shared between men and women; that, in fact, women often experience the worst of abusive and manipulative power. The racism that works its way through our institutions and societal assumptions has now metastasized into visible white nationalism and xenophobia.

In response to the destructive patterns of this evil age we sometimes hear that Christians should not be involved. These are political issues. But no! They are people issues! And we remain disengaged at the expense of our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. King pointed this out in his sermon: “The mere fact that slavery, segregation, war, and economic exploitation have been sanctioned by the church is a fit testimony to the fact that the church has too often conformed to the authority of the world rather than conforming to the authority of God.”

When we close our eyes to gender disparities and abusive power, we are conforming to the pattern of this world.  When we appeal to the racial homogeneity of our towns and suburbs as a rationale for not pursuing racial justice, we are conforming to the pattern of this world.

Too long have we affirmed women in church leadership theologically but not practically. Too long have we patted ourselves on the back for having racially diverse denominational leadership without asking how God is calling our church to cross lines of cultural segregation.

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Let me be conclude in a confessional manner: It is so easy for me to conform to the patterns of this world. My gender and race conspire to benefit me, to privilege my life at someone else’s expense. Conformity feels safer. Limiting my worship to some songs on Sundays feels safer. The call to worship with my body, as a living sacrifice, in this world is risky. The call to conform to God’s will rather than this world’s way is risky.

But in Jesus the early Christians found a pattern for sacrificial love that compelled them to give their lives for their sick and suffering neighbors. In Jesus they found a pattern for women’s dignity and leadership. In Jesus they found a pattern for crossing lines of ethnic division, class distinction, and religious taboos. They did not wait for the world to become more like God’s kingdom before proclaiming God’s kingdom in the world.

The early Christians lived non-conforming lives because they worshipped a non-conforming Savior. How could they conform themselves to the same world that their Savior had overcome? Why would we conform ourselves to the racial inequities that our Savior has overcome? Why would we conform ourselves to the gender disparities that our Savior has overcome? May we not forget that Jesus overcame the world so that we would not be conformed by the world!

God’s will is risky! It is not safe and it is not comfortable. The will of God led Jesus to leave the throne of heaven for earth; to exchange divine power for an infant’s weakness; to submit to life as a persecuted ethnic minority within a violent empire; to humble himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross!

There is nothing safe about the will of God, at least nothing that our world would recognize as safe. But the will of God is good, pleasing and perfect.  And for a people who have been rescued from death unto life, from conforming to transforming, for this people the will of God will be courageously expressed in our bodies offered as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

Photo credit: Tim Wilson.

Opposed, Cautious, and Irrelevant

What King taught me about how white people respond to racial justice.

15 or so years ago, while enrolled at a Christian graduate school, I went to an evening seminar in which the speaker, a well-known visiting professor from a prestigious university, was to present on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology. The turn-out from the largely white campus was small, especially given the topic and professor’s reputation, but what I most remember was how much of the presentation was dedicated to making the case for King’s Christianity. It was as though the professor knew that, before discussing King’s theology, he had to convince his mostly white, Christian audience that the most revered preacher America has ever produced was… a Christian.

I’ve thought a lot about that strange moment over the years and again on this 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 20 years, about theology, preaching, organizing, prayer, and more. But what I’ve most learned – what that 15-year-old memory reminds me of – is how white people, including Christians, generally respond to movements for racial justice.

I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise; most of what I’ve learned about white people, about myself, has been from black people. Ida B. Wells taught me about the violence that cannot be disentangled from whiteness. James Baldwin showed me the blinding nature of whiteness. Frederick Douglass helped me disentangle the slaveholding religion of white Christianity from the peaceable religion of Christ. Numerous mentors and friends have revealed to me with increasing clarity the meaning of whiteness and my mindless benefitting from or willful opposition to it. Black people, for whom understanding whiteness is of deadly concern, have always known more about white people than we have about ourselves. And King, in a myriad of ways, has shown me the defensive and violent response of most white people to expressions of racial justice. He most famously discussed this in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

Wether debating King’s movement strategy, American loyalty, or Christian faith, white Christians were quick to find ways to discredit the movement for racial justice and thus ignore or oppose it. In this regard, as that college seminar revealed, very little has changed in the 50 years since King’s murder.

Occasionally I’m asked about how white people respond to things I write and say publicly about racial justice. The assumption, correct much of the time, is that the responses can be harsh. In fact, I think very little about these responses anymore. Mostly this is because I know how much more opposition my friends of color, particularly women, face when they speak for racial justice. Any flak I take is small in comparison. But the other reason I’m not surprised about these typical and troublesome responses is that King prepared me. He taught me to understand how unrepentant whiteness responds when the possibility of genuine racial justice surfaces.

Let me be more honest: King taught me to anticipate my own backlash to racial justice. His words and actions, and the violence they provoked, help me to see the violence within myself. Under his influence, I’ve come to doubt my initial responses to calls for racial equity and repair. The privilege and blindness that comes with my race make my emotions and experiences untrustworthy guides in the journey toward justice. King taught me to submit my instincts to the wisdom of those friends who exist outside of whiteness’s blinding lies.

King taught me to understand and anticipate the tepid caution, dangerous opposition, and utter irrelevancy of most white responses to racial justice. This backlash has exerted only a tiny price from me but this week we remember that for many others the cost has been deadly.