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Leaving the White Church for What?

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Last week I listened to a powerful episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Pass the Mic, hosted by Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns. In it, Tisby describes his many years deep within some of white evangelicalism’s premier institutions. After experiencing countless instances of racist complicity and enabling, the 2016 presidential election became a breaking point and he began de-tangling himself from these institutions. Pointing to an influential article in The New York Times about the “quiet exodus” of people of color from evangelical churches, Tisby and Burns are narrating their own journeys publicly, choosing to not go quietly. “To #LeaveLOUD is to tell our stories, to name things for what they are, to take back the dignity we’ve lost while being in institutions that don’t value the fullness of the image of God within us, and to go where we are celebrated and not just tolerated. ” (In the most recent episode, Burns shares his own story. I’m about a third of the way through and it’s just as impactful as Tisby’s.)

The story of Black Christians leaving – or being forced to leave – white Christian spaces is as old as this country. The first African American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded after Rev. Richard Allen and others were forcibly separated from the white members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. By publicly sharing their stories, Burns and Tisby are joining a long list of Christian witnesses who have testified against the moral corruption and racist complicity that is entrenched in so many of our white Christian institutions.

In an article about this series of podcasts, Kristin Du Mez, scholar and author of the compelling book Jesus and John Wayne, notes the similarities between the exodus of Christians of color from evangelical institutions and others who have left these spaces. She writes, “This evangelical exodus is not new, and it is not only caused by a seemingly insurmountable racial divide. A growing “exvangelical” movement has sought to draw attention to their own departures in recent years.”

Interestingly, the examples of the evangelical exodus which Du Mez goes on to cite are all, as best I can tell, white. Tisby’s experience of the racism prevalent in these institutions and churches becomes a point of departure for a host of other reasons for leaving. Du Mez wants us to see a commonality shared by those who are leaving, whether people of color or white, which is that they tend to depart quietly without making much noise about why they felt they had to leave. This is what makes the #LeaveLOUD project important. By telling their stories, Tisby, Burns, and others are opening space for truth, a prerequisite for healing and justice.

But I’m interested in a significant difference between what The Witness is doing and the trends Du Mez observes. The white people leaving white evangelicalism often find themselves with no idea about where they are going. Theirs is an exodus into a void. Whiteness, including its Christian forms, acts as a totalizng lens through which the world is seen and, importantly, erased.

One way to observe how this crisis plays out is to watch the decisions left to the departing white Christian. Sometimes they walk away from their faith entirely, not even attempting to replace their previous experience. But other times they move to a different Christian tradition or find their home with others who are deconstructing where they’ve been. What remains the same with each of these choices is the pervasive frame of whiteness. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a white Christian on this exodus who chooses to worship with, for example, a nearby Black congregation. A problematic expression of Christianity has been upended for these white women and men but they’ve left the foundation of whiteness undisturbed.

Compare this with the exodus of people of color from white and multiracial churches. Obviously, not all of these people take the same journey or land in the same kinds of places. People are complicated and our journeys are unpredictable. However, unlike their disheartened white counterparts, many of these women and men can imagine an alternative to white Christianity. Some of them return to the churches of their youth. Others foster new expressions of the faith, drawing from the faithfulness and wisdom of generations of Christians who have stood against the racism and supremacy long fostered by white churches. This exodus, from what I can tell, is pushed by a sacred history and pulled by a vision purposefully devoid of whiteness.

I want #LeaveLOUD to be a lesson for the (white) exvangelical movement. And I’m sure there are enough similarities between their stories and the tender ones being shared by Tisby, Burns, and so many others. But to learn those lessons and to join that particular exodus, it’s not just a toxic form of Christianity that needs to be renounced. It’s whiteness too.

(Photo credit: Nikko Tan.)

Worship → Justice → Worship

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Last week I shared ten characteristics of biblical justice. (If you’re interested, I expanded the the list into an article for Missio Alliance.) Of those ten, I’ve found myself regularly returning to this one over the past year: justice begins in worship. Today I want to tell you why I think this one keeps surfacing for me and why I hope those of us who are waking up to injustice will lean into worship.

When it comes to justice, my most significant formation has come through relationships with Black women and men and their churches. What I’ve noticed is that, for many of these Christians, the pursuit of justice is theologically and experientially tied to worship. I mention this for two reasons: 1) the connection wasn’t always intuitive to me and 2) there are plenty of Christians for whom it is and theirs are the voices we need to pay closest attention to.

Now, about that connection. God does not simply command his people to seek justice, though he does. God is just. “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts.” (Isaiah 5:16) To really understand justice, according to Scripture, we need to know God. And one of the primary ways we know God, not simply know about God, is through worship.

Animated by the Holy Spirit, we proclaim our singular allegiance to the Lord Jesus. We adore him above each of our desires and longings. We join our voices and lives with God’s people and testify to the One through whom all that was created derives its being.

In worship, we encounter that righteous God. This is the God who cares that the scales of justice are balanced, that land is honored with rest, that animals – domesticated and wild – are respected, that workers are dignified, and that vulnerable outsiders are protected.

The friends and churches who have formed my perspective know how to worship. Proclaimed allegiance and sung affection are priorities. This wouldn’t surprise many white Christians, but here’s what might. I’ve stood with many of those same friends in the middle of protests, marches, and die-ins as we agitate for justice. I’ve been invited to their tables as we plan, strategize, and fund raise for justice for our communities. Worship and justice, in these space, are a seamless garment.

And here we need to ask the obvious question. If our worship does not lead to justice, who exactly are we worshiping? Surely we have remade the God who severely condemns injustice into a benign deity who affirms ill-gotten wealth, privilege built on oppression, and the stolen land we delusionally claim to own.

Many of us remember God’s command to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) We might forget, though, that this is a command to worship, a contrast to the people’s empty festivals, assemblies, and offerings. God wasn’t asking his people to stop worshiping in order to do justice. He was exposing their actions for what they were, an idolatrous form of worship which led to injustice. Like many of us, it seems Israel had remade God into their own self-serving image. As a result, justice was neglected. Worship too.

There’s something else though, something that, for the Christian, makes the relationship between worship and justice wonderfully and permanently tangled. As Vince Bantu writes in Gospel Haymanot, “God’s desire for our liberation is so that we may worship Christ alone.” Justice points beyond itself, to its source. Worship leads us to pursue justice, yes. But also, justice fulfilled leads to worship.

Frankly, I’m nervous that as some Christians are waking from their privileged slumber, they will overlook the importance of worship. Because their previous forms of worship ignored God’s true nature, they will assume that justice is separate from allegiance and adoration. They will construct methods and strategies that pay only the faintest lip service to the righteousness and justice of their God.

I understand this misguided tendency. It’s hard to pursue what you’ve never seen. But just because you can’t imagine this beautiful tangle of worship and justice doesn’t mean that a whole host of Christians haven’t been living it for generations. For many of us, the journey to justice needs to begin with finding some guides and friends who know the way. Thankfully, there are many who know this truth in their bones, that justice begins and ends with worship.

(Photo credit: Luis Quintero)

Ten Characteristics of Biblical Justice

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week I spoke (online) at a church in California. They had assigned me the topic of biblical justice which ended up being a good excuse to think about what we might actually mean by that phrase.

Often, in my observation, there’s a certain kind of Christian who talks about biblical justice so as to assure other (nervous) Christians that they’re not dabbling in social justice. (Why that certain kind of Christian is nervous about social justice is a newsletter for another day.)

But despite this strange use of the word “biblical” to limit what is meant by justice, I am a Christian and one those for-real-for-real Bible-believing ones at that, so it seems reasonable that there could be some constructive ways of thinking about how the Bible helps us imagine justice. I ended up sharing ten characteristics of biblical justice with the California church, and I’m going to share them again here in a condensed form. Mostly I’m interested in what you think I missed. What’s another characteristic that should be on the list?

OK, without further ado, here’s my list along with a scripture or two for each.

1. Justice is God’s idea. (Deuteronomy 16:20) Justice might be new for some, but it’s been God’s idea since the beginning.

2. Justice is affirmed by Jesus. (Luke 4:18-19) For lot’s of good reasons, most of the Bible’s direct language about justice is found in the Old Testament. It doesn’t take long, though, to see how Jesus affirms his Father’s expectations that his people will seek justice.

3. Justice begins in worship. (Isaiah 5:16) Christians who’ve only recently woken up to the biblical concern for justice can easily miss the connection with worship. Don’t be that person.

4. Justice demonstrates God’s sovereignty. (Deuteronomy 4:40) God desires that all of the creation would flourish under a people living justly. When we live that way, we are demonstrating God’s caring sovereignty over the world.

5. Justice is social. (Exodus 23:6; Leviticus 25:1-5) That Leviticus passage is one of my favorites in the Bible. No, really! Here we see that God’s understanding of justice is one that includes all of the social fabric of the creation. Individuals matter but, biblically speaking, you can’t engage the individual outside of their social situation.

6. Justice prioritizes the truth. (Exodus 23:1-3; John 14:6) Christians will refuse to prioritize the comfort over the truth. (Which ends up being a lot harder than it sounds.)

7. Justice prioritizes the oppressed. (Exodus 20:9-10) I’m always amazed that the sabbath commandment includes “your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” Those who were most vulnerable to exploitation were given the same weekly gift of non-productive rest. Could our own society be any more different?

8. Justice humbles the powerful. (Matthew 23:23-24) This privileged white man has way too many stories to illustrate this one.

9. Justice is a normal part of the gospel-anchored life. (Matthew 19:8-10) Zacchaeus is so instructive: confession and repentance lead him to do justice. Justice is not occasional for the Christian, but wrapped up in the normal stuff of the gospel on which we depend daily.

10. Justice leads to reconciliation. (Romans 3:25-26; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19) What does justice have to do with reconciliation/forgiveness? is a question I’ve been asked way too many times. Those of us who are rooted in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus understand the importance of justice being satisfied for genuine reconciliation to be accomplished.

All right, that’s my very incomplete list. I’m curious to know what you’d add.

Unexceptional in Exile

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

One of the things about being in a wilderness or exile situation is that you really want to believe you’re not. Maybe this is what made the recently liberated Hebrew people susceptible to misremembering their years in Egypt. It could also be what made those same people, generations later, prone to believe the lies peddled by the false prophets: It’s not so bad actually. You’ll be heading home soon.

Last week I finished Margaret Regan’s beautiful and sad Detained and Deported in which she narrates the stories of migrants and immigrants caught up in this country’s ferocious immigration policies. She writes about the privately owned detention centers whose profits depend on how full they can keep their beds. We’re confronted with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the infamous law man who was convicted by the Justice Department for “racial profiling, targeting, and discrimination” and who was promptly pardoned by President Trump before he could even be sentenced. Then there are the small Arizona towns which depend on the economic engine that is the local detention center; locking up immigrants is one of the more stable forms of employment in many of these towns. She also reminds us about the destabilizing impact of our trade agreements.

Orbelín, thirty-seven, also had been pushed out of his home – Chiapas, Veracruz’s neighbor to the southeast – but not by anything so brutal as the drug wars. It was economics that took his livelihood away. He had worked in maïz, cultivating corn in the fields around the capital city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, but the cheap Iowa corn flowing into Mexico post-NAFTA undercut the price of his Chiapan corn. Once the trade agreement was in place, Mexico went from a corn-producing to a corn-importing nation. Orbelín was one of the casualties.

The power of Regan’s book isn’t in the information she conveys. I knew at least something about the broad strokes of how we treat immigrants and migrants in this country. The gut punch is having it all put together in a coherent narrative. These are not isolated policies haphazardly strung together by a few xenophobic politicians. The stories Regan tells are not the exceptions; taken together, they are the rule.

Despite how severely we treat those who are desperately trying to cross our border – destroying water that is left in the desert for them, separating parents from their children, building political campaigns around the fear of immigrants – many of us won’t see this exile for what it is. In our imaginations, it continues to be a God-blessed, manifestly destined, and divinely exceptional place.

This instinct is what made the exilic prophets’ task so difficult. No one wanted to hear that things were worse than they’d willed themselves into believing. After all, what, would that admission say about themselves? Ourselves?

“You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.” (Hosea 10:13)

But this is what coming to grips with wilderness and exile requires. Not only do we open our eyes to the harshness of our situation, we have to tell the truth about how we’ve made it so.

(Photo credit: Peg Hunter.)

Manifest Destiny and Black Faith

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Not long ago I noticed how often over the past few years I’ve been returning to the biblical themes of wilderness and exile. There’s a lot to say about these themes and I hope to explore some of them in this newsletter, but for now I’ll just say how much more sense our circumstances make when interpreted through the lenses of wilderness and exile.

It seems to me that the only reason this way of seeing isn’t intuitive to some of us has to do with how we’ve imagined ourselves in – or on our way to – the promised land.

In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglas makes the case that this country’s sense of manifest destiny has its origins in the mythology of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, an exceptionalism that came to be imagined as racial whiteness tied to Christian belief. To access America’s promises, one had to acquiesce to the myth and, if possible, become white.

To be white, then, is to be the object of God’s delight, in no small part because whiteness expresses the will of God. Douglas mentions Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton who, in a speech in 1864, claimed, “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish.”

To summarize, racial whiteness came to symbolize God’s divine sanction to subdue the earth. Manifest destiny was evidence that this people – white people – were God’s people and that this land was the land of his promise.

Few of us today hold to this warped theology but I’m not sure we’ve adequately reckoned with how significantly our imaginations have been shaped by it. That is, many of us, on a level we’re mostly unaware of, assume something of the promised land in how we interpret our daily frustrations and longings. So we overlook the injustices and inconsistencies that might betray our actual location, something more akin to wilderness or exile. We satisfy ourselves with a narrative which legitimizes unearned privileges and rationalizes someone else’s suffering. We act as though a bit more work and/or prayer will finally pry open the door to the promises of the American Dream.

Well, some of us are prone to this sort of misinterpretation. Douglas writes about an alternative.

Black faith was forged in the midst of the perverse and tragic paradoxes of black life. It is a faith, therefore, that does not ignore the unthinkable and irrational terror of black living. It takes it seriously. It does not belittle or romanticize the pains and sufferings of black bodies. It does not revel in illusions and false hope. Neither does it allow black bodies to give into the hardship and to be overcome with despair. Indeed, the faith born in slavery provided a weapon to resit and to fight against the religiously legitimated tyranny of America’s Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism.

I don’t think it’s hard to agree that the Christian life, in general, is less like the promised land than it is wilderness and exile. It’s something else entirely though, for those steeped in racialized, divinely articulated exceptionalism, to imagine our way to the sort of resiliency and hope Douglas describes. For this, we need the example and tutelage of those who never believed the myth, who’ve always been clear about the true nature of our collective circumstances.