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Singing in the Dark

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Johnny Dark

At some point each day, having listened to the same song most of the day, Johnny Dark takes out his phone, points it toward a mirror in his darkened home before hitting record, and begins to sing. When he’s finished he uploads the song to his YouTube channel where it joins a collection that has been building for years.

I learned about Johnny Dark from a recent episode of This American Life. It turns out that the man singing from the seclusion of his living room has been in show business most of his life, an old school entertainer turned stand-up comedian best known for appearing regularly with David Letterman on The Late Show.

Early during the show we learn that the videos Johnny Dark uploads to his channel don’t have that many views. As I write this, his most recent five videos have been watched 31, 60, 28, 20, and 18 times. Why would a man who has spent his life preforming for crowds dedicate time each day to learning, recording, and uploading a song that almost no one will ever watch?

When he is asked a similar question toward the end of the interview Johnny Dark’s answer comes quickly. “It was in my heart, just like my wife. When I met my wife I had no choice. I didn’t want to get married! But that’s what love is, love doesn’t give you a choice, I don’t think. And neither does show business.”

Resurrection and Return

A few years ago I stayed with a friend on the west coast. At the time, my friend and his family were hosting some of their long-time friends from Europe who had spent many years serving refugees and migrants. These were some of the kindest and more joyful people I’d ever met; their dedication to the people they served was inspiring. During my short visit we enjoyed good conversation and French wine that was far too complex (expensive) for my unrefined palate.

At some point during one of these conversations this couple asked about my own ministry and the characteristics of racial reconciliation and justice that shape it. After I’d candidly described how entrenched white supremacy is in the US American context, including in many of our churches, they asked me about hope. Given the long odds against seeing the diminishment much less the defeat of racism in our lifetimes, what sort of hope animates our commitments?

Why do we keep singing if no one is watching?

I answered honestly, that my Christian sense about any question of sustaining hope must be rooted in Christ’s resurrection and return. Hope is entirely a matter of faith- that the tomb is empty, a sign of what is to come when the will of God is known finally and completely on earth as it is in heaven.

But don’t you see evidence of change, of progress? my conversation partners wanted to know. Don’t these bring you hope? Of course there are always signs of life. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

But we don’t often interpret the signs of the times accurately, or we miss them entirely. If hope depends on our own experiences of any given day, or month, or… well, we can quickly imagine hope as an accessory worn by those privileged enough to have more good days than bad. Any hope that is more responsive to what I’m capable of experiencing than to the tether holding me between Christ’s resurrection and return is a hope too weak to sustain me in the face of this world’s cruelty.

My new European friends didn’t quite disagree with this, but it wasn’t what they were looking for either. I was tempted to say more, to share some of the ways I’d seen racial reconciliation take root in our church. But this wouldn’t have been true; every time I think I see a mustard seed take root another is snatched from the path. At some point I began to learn that the truly sustaining hope must remain beyond what my eyes could see and my senses interpret.

One Year Later

I’m thinking about the anchors the keep us true as more than a year has past since George Floyd was murdered. What is it about this instance of public brutality? I heard asked again and again over the past twelve months. What’s different this time? The questions were motivated by a visible phenomenon: white people speaking out and showing up for racial justice in numbers without precedent in this country. We’ve not seen this before, said friends who knew what they were talking about.

I wondered though, is it different? Today, white people’s support for Black Lives Matter has dropped across the board, efforts at police reform have largely stalled, and corporations continue to play both sides, sloganeering with justice language while hedging their bets with contributions to politicians who are bent on rolling back access to the ballot.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking with white pastors and ministry leaders who are trying to lead their people toward justice. In their congregations the action, if there is any, is generally limited to book discussions and the occasional sermon. And even these tiny steps, so small as to border on offensive given the fraught circumstances faced by those outside the privileged walls of whiteness, even these innocuous steps are often vociferously opposed. Pastors are slandered and maligned; some have been fired and others have resigned for the well-being of their families.

They want to lead their people through the narrow gate, but it can seem as though no one wants to follow.

Exile Songs

Psalm 137:4 asks, what is for me, one of the more haunting questions in Scripture. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” It’s a question on the edge of despair. How can we sing – fight, work, organize, worship; how can we continue – when nothing around us awakens our song? When nothing around us has changed? When the exile appears complete?

I hope this is the question many of us are asking. Rather than sliding apathetically backward into the status quo, I hope we are at least asking whether it’s even possible to sing in this strange land. Because if we’re willing to ask, we might be shown an example, if not given an answer, by those who long ago found their voices in exile.

The question of hope, of anchors, of exilic songs has for generations been wrestled to the ground by faithful Christian people – Black and Brown and Indigenous women and men. It was these sisters and brothers who came to mind when I recently read Katherine Sonderegger’s description of the suffering saints.

This is why believers who suffer, sometimes brutally, sometimes through a long, harrowing life, can nevertheless lift up their voices to God not only in lament but also and more in praise. It is not that these faithful ones… blind themselves with cheap consolation, nor sigh with only protest allowed a suffering and desolate life. No! These lives of special sanctity have been made “more than conquerors” by their encounter with Reality itself, with the Divine Nature that just is Dynamic Life. The veil of this mortal life has been lifted, the door opened into the heavenly realm, and Life burst forth.

Johnny Dark’s solitary concert in the dark is impressive, not for its consistency but for where it comes from: an identity so rooted in song that he cannot help but sing, to hell with the view count. How much more astonishing is the legacy of the persevering saints, the ones who sing songs of righteousness and justice in exile and who’ve passed down the lyrics and the melodies from generation to generation. They sing – we sing – because we’ve encountered Reality itself. “This,” Sonderegger goes on to write, is not explained in Holy Scripture, and we are not given a theory of God’s indwelling His creation. Rather, we are shown it. And this is ‘wonder.’”

Mustard seeds. Yeast. Treasures hidden in a field. Signs and wonders, hints and glimpses of that thread which holds us fast, taught between the resurrection and the return. This is what will keep our faces set toward justice when eyes and ears fail us. This electric tension, running backward and forward, stretching through ancestors and descendants in the faith, is what inspires our songs at the edge of Babylon’s dark waters.

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: Zain Ali.)

CRT: Enough Already!

I can predict when it will happen. During the past twelve months, I’ve been invited to more online Q & A sessions than I can remember with groups around the country who are reading Rediscipling the White Church. (Let me know if you’ve got a group reading the book and would like me to drop in!) I genuinely love these conversations and have learned a lot from these women and men who are committed to leading their churches and communities to racial solidarity. It’s super encouraging.

But at some point, usually after a few initial questions, someone is going to bring it up and I can feel it coming. “How do I respond to people who accuse me of promoting critical race theory?” Of course the bogeyman isn’t always critical race theory (CRT). Sometimes people are being called Marxists, liberals, or whatever label will neutralize their attempts to pursue justice.

Thankfully there are an increasing number of resources for people who want to catch-up with what CRT is actually about and how it has become such a scary thing to some people. (See this conversation between Korie Edwards and Nathan Cartagena, this article in Faithfully Magazine by Cartagena, or this in Christianity Today by D.A. Horton on a missiological perspective of CRT.)

But after being on the receiving end of so many questions about CRT – some asked in good faith, others with an agenda behind them – I’ve concluded that we’re in danger of becoming distracted from the good work of racial justice and reconciliation.

It would be one thing if white Christians had a history of active and courageous participation in justice. If, after generations of faithful work there was a concern about this new development of CRT which threatened to lure us away from allegiance to Jesus. But we don’t live in that alternative universe, do we?

In the world in which we all actually live, white Christians have a long history of finding any excuse to remain apathetic or oppositional to racial equality. Previous generations were frightened by the social gospel, communism, liberalism, etc. We always seem to find a reason to spend more time debating whether Christians can pursue racial justice than, you know, actually doing justice.

So, what do we do when people ask (or interrogate) us about CRT? I know many of you have found yourselves on the receiving end of these questions. Well, unless you’re a CRT scholar or have done a bunch of research, here’s my posture these days.

Ask yourself, is this a good-faith question? It’s possible that someone has heard about this scary CRT thing and wants to know what you think about it. You might share some of the articles or interviews above to show how thoughtful Christians have engaged with CRT in a non-anxious manner. In my experience, in this case it’s pretty easy to guide the conversation back to the biblical imperative to seek justice. But if the person has an ideological axe to grind, and unless the Holy Spirit makes it real clear that I need to stick it out, I’m going to politely step away.

Why? Well, in addition to the sorry record we white people have about excusing our apathy, there are plenty of other people who are actually open to productive conversations. They’re just typically not the noisy ones. They may not be up-to-date in their racial vocabularly and, if we’re being honest, their prejudice and racism may be just barely below the surface. And yet, they are open. They are willing to learn. They are willing to change their opinions and perspectives based on new information and new opportunities to experience something other than they have known.

I fear that by spending so much time debating with people who only want their own biases confirmed – you know, the people filling your inbox with Candace Owens tweets and videos – we end up overlooking the people near us in whom the Holy Spirit has been moving.

Does this mean we shouldn’t defend ourselves against those who attempt to derail, distract, and sometimes even defame us? That’s a question we each need to discern personally. I can only say that as a white man with an immense amount of cultural privilege, I do my best not to defend myself. In my experience, the trolls lose interest when they’re not being fed.

There’s another reason not to get sucked into these constantly shifting excuses-disguised-as-moral-concern. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus uses the imagery of trees which produce good or bad fruit as a way to warn his followers away from false prophets. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Mt. 7:18-20)

There are times for debates and arguements. But for the Christian, these times will be kept within their limits and won’t be allowed to distract us from who we are called to be, people who produce good fruit. Fruit which is, in John the Baptist’s words, “in keeping with repentance.” (Mt. 3:8) Because here’s the thing, accusations of being a CRT agitator or a Marxist sympathizer or a whatever whatever are only signficant if we aren’t producing fruit of righteousness and justice. And the more time we spend debating the partisan and racial ideologues, the less capacity we have to attend to the good work that God is doing all around us.

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: Monstera).

The God Who Sees

Here’s a lightly edited version of a recent sermon from Genesis 16.

There’s something powerful about being seen. This is especially true when you are used to not being seen; when you’ve been un-seen for so long that you are no longer surprised when people don’t see you. On Friday, our family joined some of you at the vigil for those murdered in Georgia last week. Because the event was led by Asian American women, each speaker intentionally spoke to the experiences shared by many, if not all, of these women. If was as if these leaders wanted to make it abundantly clear to their peers, you are seen. In all of the hidden and overlooked particularities of your specific lives, we see you. You are not invisible. There’s something powerful about being seen.

One of the many things I love about Jesus is the way he sees the women and men, girls and boys who others look past: the woman drawing water in the midday sun, the man suffering from leprosy, the woman anointing his feet, the children running to his side. Those who had been commodified, generalized, and invsibilized were, in the eyes of Jesus, rendered clearly in their full God-given humanity. Jesus sees and our Genesis passage reminds us that God has always seen. The enslaved Hagar escaped with her in-utero child into the desert. In Genesis 16, we find that her life changed when Hagar learned that God saw her.

It is a terrible thing to be systematically overlooked: to find your voice unrepresented, your body caricatured, your history erased, your agency stolen, your safety dispensed with. Every one of us has known at least occasional moments of invisibility. Others of you have lived lifetimes punching your way through the weighted veil held over your bodies by the hands of white supremacy and misogyny.

Hagar’s wilderness experience speaks a word into this reality. Enslaved, assaulted, marginalized, exploited, and erased, she flees into the desert, unsure of where she will go. And in this place of extreme desperation, she encounters God. She is seen by God, and her life and the lives of her descendants are forever changed. It is from Hagar’s wilderness encounter that I draw today’s big idea: Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees. Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees. How? How does the simple fact of God seeing us, especially those who’ve not been truly seen, sustain us? We’ll find that, first, knowing that God sees us allows us to tell the truth God reveals. Second, it allows us to we see what God sees. Third, knowing that God sees us allows us to take up the space God gives us.

We are sustained by telling the truth God reveals.

Hagar had been liked to about her life. She had been told in so many ways that she was unimportant, that her value was tied to what she could produce. These lies existed within a larger deceptive ecosystem. Listen to how Sarai describes her reality. The Lord has kept me from having children. Go sleep w/ my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. (16:2) Ignoring God’s promises about the family she would be blessed with, Sarai responds to her cultural expectations and mistreats Hagar. She responded to the lie that God was the source of her suffering. The fact that neither Sarai nor Abram even dignify Hagar with her name is yet another glimpse of the deceptive culture that Hagar had to navigate.

Cultures of deception and invisibility must rely on lies which are re-imagined as facts. Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, describes our own culture of deception and invisibility as the narrative of racial difference. Built on the lie of racial difference, this narrative places each of us in our arbitrary place on the racial hierarchy.

In 1875 the federal government passed the Page Act, the first restrictive immigration law. Dr. K. Ian Shin writes that it “was designed to prohibit immigrants deemed ‘undesirable’—defined as Chinese ‘coolie’ laborers and prostitutes—from entering the U.S.” About these immigrants from China, Dr. Melissa May Borja says, “They were seen as a racial threat to a pure white America. They were seen as an economic threat to free white labor. They were depicted as a disease threat—a lot of anti-Chinese rhetoric hinged on portraying Chinese people as filthy and disease-ridden. They were also seen as a religious and moral threat as heathens who threatened a Christian America… They were stereotyped as promiscuous, as prostitutes.”

The Page Act was the beginning of a long history in which Asian and Asian American women were overtly sexualized in this country. They became viewed alternatively as submissive objects on which warped desires were projected or as threats to the white American family. This deceiving narrative maps onto how Asian Americans have often been portrayed in this country, as either a model minority used to legitimize the racial status quo or as a “yellow peril” which is a threat to that same status quo. As with many other immigrants of color, the Asian American experience has been one in which people are used until they are no longer needed. It’s an experience with which Hagar was intimately acquainted.

Cultures of deception and invisibility are not logical, but they don’t require the truth to exact their exploitation. Seven years after the Page Act, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which banned all immigration from China. Consider, this was the same era as the Civil War during which the country went to war over whether people could be owned. It was during the same era when Jim Crow terror ran rampant through the nation. These racially discriminatory acts were approved by the same people who thought that African American people were biologically relegated to slavery, who imagined Black men as inherently violent, who subjected Black women to sexualized terror. Asian immigrants found out what Black people had long known, that a society built on white supremacy will lie about you, steal from you, and then eliminate you once you’re no longer deemed necessary.

This is the meaning of invisibility. It’s not just the state of being unseen. It’s that this status renders you profoundly vulnerable to the violent whims of white supremacy and misogyny.

Why did it take the massacre in Georgia to wake up so many non-Asian Americans to what Asian Americans have been saying for a long time? Too many of us had accepted the lies and in so doing had allowed people and their experiences to be rendered invisible.

But in the wilderness, Hagar learns to tell God’s truth. She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (16:13) She encounters the truth. No longer is her reality defined by Sarai and Abram. Her future has been ordered by God. Even the son she carries bears witness to the truth; Ismael means the Lord has heard your misery. She is seen by God and she becomes to only person in the Old Testament to name God: You are the God who sees me. When she first encounters God in the wilderness, she narrates her experience through Sarai’s gaze. After, she views herself and her experience through the presence of God-who-sees-me.

When we understand that God sees us, the truth opens before us. The real truth, about God and about those who’ve been rendered invisible. Since the massacre, many Asian Americans have proclaimed, “We will not be silent.” This is an invitation to all of us. To tell all of God’s revealed truth. That God sees. That you are seen. That nothing can hide us from the loving and liberating gaze of our Creator.

Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by telling the truth God reveals.

We are sustained by seeing what God sees.

“And he said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,’ she answered.” (16:8) Hagar has run into the wilderness, away from the deception and invisibility, but what now? She does not know where she will God. She cannot see a way ahead.

What is it that you see right now? Do you see the pandemic, racial injustice, the endless cycle of gun violence? What do you see in your own life?

In the wilderness, Hagar comes to see what God sees. She can return to Sarai and Abram, temporarily, because she understands that the place of bondage has been transformed into a story of generational blessing. The wilderness, for Hagar, is not a place of further deception and invisibility; it becomes the place of God’s surprising provision for a good future.

Let’s admit that this is a hard truth about the wilderness. Our circumstances do not change in the manner and timeliness that we envision for ourselves. I once heard Author Ta-Nehisi Coates describe the reality for most enslaved Black people in this country. He said that they could survey their circumstances, those of their ancestors, and those of their children and see no reason to believe that freedom would ever come. But, he said, these circumstances were not enough to keep these women and men from actively pursuing their own liberation.

When you see what God sees, how you engage with a society that lies about you changes. Having seen what God sees, Hagar can speak to those responsible for lying to her. You saw a slave, but God saw the mother of a nation. You saw a commodity, but God saw one who bears his image. You saw something to dispense with, but God saw someone to entrust his plan to. You saw someone without a name, but God saw someone worthy to name the Creator of all things.

Do you see what God sees? Can you testify to what your God-opening eyes have seen? *They saw a racialized stereotype, but God sees you in the hidden place and loved you to life. They saw a body on which to project their dehumanizing desires, but God sees the hopes, longings, and imagination that could only be carried within your particular heart. They saw you and labeled you with a continent – Asian, African, Latina, but God sees – even if you cannot remember them yourself – the beautiful and indescribably complex particularities of place and people which run through your veins. They saw you but only when they wanted to see you and only how they wanted to see you and given the violence with which they looked at you oftentimes invisibility has felt safer to you, but God sees you – all the time, everywhere, accurately, joyfully. *

The Psalmist’s confession is a testimony to the safety of being seen by the Creator: (139:11-12) If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by seeing what God sees.

We are sustained by taking up the space God gives us.

When we know that God sees us, we can tell the truth and see what God sees. But what is the impact? Watch what happens with Hagar. She goes back and, for the rest of the chapter, Sarai is not named. She becomes the only woman in Genesis to whom God promises descendants. So, what is happening. Having been seen by God, Hagar lives into her image of God-bearing nature and takes up the space God has given her. The injustice and suffering which had forced her withdrawal into invisibility is pushed back by her God’s gaze.

How do we, in this particular moment, as a multiracial congregation, take up the space God has given us? To begin with, we bring our full selves to our community. There was an urgent question the early church faced. Did Gentiles have to become culturally Jewish before becoming Christian. The answer, offered clearly and repeatedly, was no! The expectation was that new disciples of Jesus would bring with them all the particularities of their culture. Unfortunately, in many multiracial congregations we have overlooked this mandate. Functionally, we ask people to assimilate to cultural whiteness in order to belong. But this will kill our reconciling community. We need to bring your full self. And every time you do, you make room for someone else’s full self to be welcomed and expressed for the glory of God.

We also bring our full selves when we commit to making racial justice central to our Christian identity. This is not something we opt into or out of; this is central to our identity as the reconciled people of God. There are good reasons that some of us struggle with. Some grew up in homes where the immigrant memory was recent, and the expectation was to keep quiet and focused in order to attain the American Dream. Others of you are exhausted from the fight for racial justice, having placed your bodies on the line time and time again. You’ve shared your stories of trauma one too many times.

Yet the call to live as God’s beloved and reconciled people remains. For some of us, this means committing to speaking out and showing up in ways that tear through the deception and invisibility. For others, especially for some of the Black members of the community, this will mean trusting that others of us will show up and speak out so that you can prioritize rest and healing from the trauma this deceptive and plundering country has inflicted on you.

Finally, we take up the space God gives us by rooting ourselves in the awesome presence of the God-who-sees. I’m struck by the fact that, having met God in the wilderness, Hagar glories more in her encounter with God than in the promises God makes to her. I think this is because it is in worship that we learn to tell the truth and that we come to see what God sees. So, it is also in worship when we discover the space God has given us. A reconciling people who have been called into existence by the God-who-sees will always prioritize our regular, worshipful encounters with God. We know that there is no other way to be sustained in this lying and invisibilizing world.

Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by taking up the space God gives us.

Conclusion

Today is Palm Sunday. We remember Jesus’ surprising entry into Jerusalem, crowds lining the streets singing his praises, welcoming their Messiah. Here was the one who had seen the children, women, and men who had been overlooked. He heard their voices and their longings. With a look and a word, Jesus tore away the invisibility and the lies. In his sight, these precious image-bearers learned to tell God’s truth, to see what their God saw, and to inhabit the space God called them to.

And now, the One who had made his home among the marginal and overlooked people, was the center of attention. But do not be confused. When Jesus proved a disappointment and a threat, he too was rendered dispensable. He would be misrepresented and mocked, his name would be slandered, and his body slammed to the ground. Already he’d been written off for where he’d come from and criminalized for who he spent his time with. As we make our way through Holy Week, we remember that our Savior was eliminated like so many other unseen and vulnerable people before and after.

And so, we remember too that our hope in this life never comes from what this lying world says about us. Our hope comes from the simple fact that, in our wilderness moments of desperation, God saw us. They tried to lie on you, but God saw you. They tried to diminish you, but God saw you. They tried to extinguish you, but God saw you. They tried to contain and commodify you, but God saw you. They tried to refuse and reject you, but God saw you. From a lonely and forsaken cross, lifted high, the crucified God saw you. The God-who-sees you would not look away from you. Would not overlook you. Would not allow your one precious life to be rendered invisible in his sight.

We join our petition and our praise with the psalmist, “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, ‘He won’t call me to account’? But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless… You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.” (Psalm 10:12-14, 17-18)

Thanks be to God.

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)