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Compassion Isn’t Enough

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In an article published twenty-two years ago, theologian James Cone reflected on the often ignored relationship between white supremacy and the “exploitation of animals and the ravaging of nature.” Why has the connection between environmental destruction and racism been overlooked? Towards the end of the article Cone offers one suggestion. He writes, “To be sure, a few concerned white theologians have written about their opposition to white racism but not because race critique was essential to their theological identity. It is usually just a gesture of support for people of color when solidarity across differences is in vogue. As soon as it is not longer socially and intellectually acceptable to talk about race, white theologians revert back to their silence.”

While Cone’s insight about environmental racism are worth reflection, I want to draw our attention to his critique about the shallowness of much white anti-racist solidarity. Cone differentiates between being generally supportive of solidarity and understanding such solidarity as essential to one’s theological identity. His focus is on theologians but I think the lesson can be applied more broadly to include each of us.

Perhaps we can think of the “gesture of support” expressed by white people in response to racism as compassion. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with compassion. We could make the case that the Good Samaritan was moved to intervene on behalf of the battered traveler – despite the many reasons he shouldn’t have – because of compassion. And nobody would say we need less compassion in our world today. But I think the point that Cone is making is that compassion is not enough. And it’s especially not enough when it comes to a white supremacist status quo because the time will come – it always comes in this country – when showing compassion toward the racialized and marginalized “other” is no longer, as Cone writes, in vogue. For example, we’ve watched over the past two years how compassion for Black lives has been warped into a threat against white people. To suggest that a gesture of support is enough is to entirely misread our country’s baseline which bends toward racial antagonism, not compassionate solidarity.

The alternative, according to Cone, is to make solidarity across the racial hierarchy “essential to one’s theological identity.” I take his meaning to be that white theologians must make sacrificial solidarity of the kind which disrupts the status quo central to their theology. Now, some will hear in this a suggestion to reduce theology to an ideological or partisan agenda but any such interpretation misses two important truths. The first, which I mentioned above, is that the existing conditions for many people in this country are not the same as those experienced by most white people. To ignore the persistent and systemic nature of racism and white supremacy is to massively downplay the sin which so offends God and which his Son gave his life to defeat. Those who only offer the occasional “gesture of support for people of color” betray a too-small understanding of sin and its impact in our world. It follows that their view of Christ as Savior and the salvation he accomplishes is also too small.

The second truth which gets missed by those afraid to make racial justice central to their theology is the basic Christian understanding of the imago Dei. Christians of most varieties have long believed that to be created in the image of God is to be made for four flourishing relationships: with God, one another, ourselves, and the creation itself. Race interrupts each of these God-ordained relationships: it claims the divine authority to name and ascribe value; it pits communities against one another; it distorts how we see ourselves through lenses of self-hatred and superiority; and, race severs us from creation, imposing a social construct as the most important source of our formation. By reducing our engagement with race and racism to a theological sub-discipline or to a couple of Sundays during Black History Month, we are missing the truth of what race acutally is and what it does to desecrate the imago Dei in each of us.

To my white readers I ask, is solidarity with your kin of color primarily an act of compassion or are your commitments deeper? Making sacrificial solidarity essential to your discipleship will not water down our theology. Instead, we’ll discover just how much we’ve been missing.

Insurrection, Idolatry, and an Invitation to Risky Discipleship

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In the days following the January 6 insurrection, a lot of us tried to make sense of the violence and chaos we watched unfold on live TV from the US Capitol. For as unpredictable as were the days following the election, the scenes of an enraged mob attacking police officers, chanting for the Vice President’s death, and waving symbols of national and religious allegiance defied even the most pessimistic expectations. In the months since, we’ve learned more about the motivations which drove the seditionists and which animate ongoing attempts to disenfranchise voters around the country. And, if we’re paying attention, Christians – and pastors who lead white Christians especially – ought to be rattled by what we’re figuring out.

So, who participated in or supported last year’s insurrection? In a thoroughly researched article for The Atlantic Barton Gellman investigates a number of possible motivating factors. But only “one meaningful correlation emerged. Other things being equal, insurgents were much more likely to come from a county where the white share of the population was in decline. For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent. This was a strong link, and it held up in every state.” Additional research drew out another disturbing nuance. “Respondents who believed in the Great Replacement theory, regardless of their views on anything else, were nearly four times as likely as those who did not to support the violent removal of the president.” This theory, popular in the right wing media, states that the day is rapidly approaching when white people will not only no longer represent an overall majority in the country, but “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.”

In other words, those most supportive of the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government are white people from regions experiencing demographic change who believe they are losing their rights to people of color.

Animating this resentment has been the former president’s lying insistence that he won the election. In reporting done by National Public Radio, Dr. Carol Anderson connects Trump’s “big lie” with his birtherism conspiracy theories during the Obama presidency. According to Anderson, “This is about, ‘My nation is about the real Americans. And all of those folks aren’t real Americans.’ It is so vile. It is so racist. And it works. That’s the thing, it works.” When she says that the tactics work, Anderson is thinking not simply about the insurrection but about the successful attempts by many state legislatures during the last year to make voting more difficult for their citizens. We have, says Anderson, “these legislatures write these laws figuring out not only how to stop Black people, brown people, indigenous people from voting, but also how to lower the guardrails of democracy that prevented Trump from being able to overturn the results in these states.”

According to the Times, the “Capitol riot continues in statehouses across the country, in a bloodless, legalized form that no police officer can arrest and that no prosecutor can try in court.” Almost three dozen voting laws, many in battleground states, which “empower state legislatures to sabotage their own elections and overturn the will of their voters,” have been passed in recent months. As should be clear by now, these laws will disproportionately impact citizens of color.

So the January 6th insurrection and the systematic attempts to disenfranchise voters are motivated by racial resentment and the desire to consolidate white power. But why should Christians be especially concerned? Shouldn’t we interpret these events through a civic lens?

This is undoubtedly a civic crisis, but recent research by scholars like Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead show how Christianity has been utilized by those who want to remake the country, often through authoritarian tactics, as a haven for white power. In a new article Perry writes that “Christian nationalist ideology — particularly when it is held by white Americans — is fundamentally anti-democratic because its goal isn’t ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ Its goal is power.” Whitehead and Perry’s research shows that white Americans who support Christian nationalist ideology also favor making voting more difficult. Those surveyed were asked whether they’d support “a policy requiring persons to pass a basic civics test in order to vote or a law that would disenfranchise certain criminal offenders for life.” Such policies hearken back to Jim Crow laws which kept Black citizens from voting. “Why? Almost certainly because these arrangements currently give white, rural, conservative Americans an electoral advantage even when they are numerical minorities. Again, the goal is power, not fairness or democracy.”

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The research into Christian nationalism is nuanced and shows, in some cases, that the more people participate in the historic practices of Christianity the less likely they are to affirm Christian nationalism. However, this leaves many more nominal Christians susceptible to this undemocratic and racialized ideology. The result is not simply the stomach-turning use of Christian symbols and language at the Capitol insurrection, but also the more subtle ways that white Christians support efforts to disenfranchise their fellow citizens.

And this is where we need to be precise. Many of the people these white Christians want to disenfranchise are their Christian sisters and brothers. Not that their efforts are more tolerable when they impact those who don’t share our faith; Jesus’ teaching on neighbor-love doesn’t allow for that ugly distinction. But the racialized grasp for power is made more evident when we can see that those affected are fellow members of the Body of Christ. Christian nationalists are not acting from their identity as members of Christ’s Body but from imaginations infected by racial resentment and visions of white, nationalistic power.

In the coming months and years we’ll hear a lot about the fight for voting rights. The events of January 6 will be debated and different meanings – traitorous insurrection or patriotic intervention – will be ascribed to them. What will typically be missed, though, is that many white Christians can hold the beliefs common to Christian nationalism, can nurse feelings of racial resentment and utter disregard for neighbors and Christian siblings of color, and simultaneously and happily participate in the ministries of their local congregations. They’ll be able to sing the hymns, amen the sermons, serve in the soup kitchen, and chaperone the youth retreat without their anti-Christian inclinations being disturbed in the least. And this is because their pastors and ministry leaders are interpreting these events in only the most surface of ways- as civic debates about which good people can hold different opinions. They will miss the truer story, which is that the Christians in their spiritual care are captive to racist and nationalistic ideologies that actively harm neighbor and kin.

However, for those willing to dig into deeper truths, a risky opportunity opens up. We have, in the next couple of years, a chance to invite people to renounce their idols and ideologies. This is not a call to partisanship. No, this invitation is better and way harder. With the psalmist we’ll ask, “How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” (Psalm 4:2) There is no gloating in this question, no shaming. Broken-heartedness and confession must characterize any attempt to lead people into the truth of the gospel and solidarity with the Body. We’ll remember that January 6 commemorates not only an insurrection but the miracle of Epiphany, yet more evidence of God’s unexpected grace displayed in the most unlikely ways.

The specific nature of this discipleship will necessarily look different in each congregation and community. We can trust the Holy Spirit for the contextual wisdom which will produce fruit of repentance. Still, for those willing to risk the invitation, here are a few suggestions. First, the work begins with clarity in our own minds about its specifically Christian nature. While others try to frame the struggle for civil rights in strictly political terms, we will remember the flesh and blood humanity whose well-being is threatened both by the lawlessness of January 6 and the unjust laws marching though legislatures throughout the country. The challenge is one of discipleship so it’s our responsibility to take it on. Second, we’ll count the cost before moving forward. Christian nationalism is powerful and its forming impact has been incredibly thorough. If my own experience is at all representative, we need to be prepared to be written off as misguided, partisan, and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Jesus prepared us for this sort of thing so we don’t need to be afraid when the slander begins. Finally, we’ll be sober about how long this will take. The idols which have recently been unmasked are not new. We won’t preach this false worship away with a single sermon. A book club won’t be enough to rescue people from their warped allegiances. We’ll need all of the Spirit’s gifts and power and each of the pastoral and congregational resources discerned by the church over many generations. Thankfully these gifts and resources exist and are ready for us to apply them to this particular idolatry.

In his article, Gellman writes about January 6 that “the chaos wrought on that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the insurrection takes on the aspect of rehearsal.” The events of a year ago will not remain in the past; they are a glimpse into a reality many of us had missed but which will continue to exert great and terrible damage. The devastation will be inflicted not only on our democracy but upon our Christian sisters and brothers as well. Are we prepared to stand in the way? To disciple people away from the idolatry of Christian nationalism and into real solidarity with the Body of Christ?

May God give us the wisdom to understand our times and the courage to respond with the love of Christ no matter the cost.

(Photo credits: Uncivil Religion and Wikimedia Commons.)

My Year With Books

How long is a year? A few days ago our oldest son counted off the few remaining days until the beginning of a new year and that remaining time seemed both impossibly short and interminably long. We sat around the dinner table that same evening wondering about whether our boys might begin the semester online rather than returning to their classrooms. Should our church take a break from in-person worship for a couple of Sundays, returning to the less-than-ideal days of virtual church? This year has seemed very long.

This summer, just before the boys made their return to school after the long disruption, I picked up two books which had been written during the pandemic. Zadie Smith’s Intimations and Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie both take some aspects of our shared sorrow as their backgrounds. For Adichie the pain is especially pronounced; her beloved father died at a moment of global lock-down. Her searing and specific reflections of those days were a reminder of how these pandemic days have left their mark on each of us, even if the impact is not proportionately felt. Mostly these authors left me in awe that from the eye of the storm they were already making some kind of tentative meaning of it.

Making meaning of these past two years has been a pervasive temptation for me. I want to stand in front of our congregation and say something insightful, something which helps us to pull back the veil of chaos and reveal something we can make sense of. The temptation is to say more than is possible to say and to say it far to quickly. It wasn’t intentional, but thankfully I read a number of books that chastened this instinct: Soul Care in African American Practice, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Planting a Church Without Losing Your Soul, and A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves. In their own ways, each of these was a warning against prescriptive language. No matter how much I might want to be useful, the Christian instinct in these sorts of days is simpler; we are asked to describe to God and one another our daily experience of trouble and joy and to trust that God is present to each no matter how small or spectacular.

Two of these sorts of anchoring books were especially helpful. St. John Chrysostom wrote the sermons found in On Wealth and Poverty sometime in the late fourth century from his position in Constantinople. Each of the sermons takes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as its text to show the dangers of wealth to his congregation. For example, “As for you, my beloved, if you sit at table, remember that from the table you must go to prayer. Fill your belly so moderately that you may not become too heavy to bend your knees and call upon your God.” The latter sermons were delivered after an earthquake hit the city, leaving the people fearful and questioning God’s intentions. While the archbishop is much quicker to explain God’s motives behind the disaster than I could ever be, his love for his people, particularly the vulnerable, in the middle of such a painful time is obvious. He asks, “When the earthquake came, I reflected with myself and said, where is theft? Where is greed? Where is tyranny? Where is arrogance? Where is domination? Where is oppression? Where is the plundering of the poor? Where is the arrogance of the rich? Where is the domination of the powerful? Where is intimidation? Where is fear?”

About a thousand years latter St. John of the Cross wrote The Dark Night of the Soul. In it he reflected on the seasons of spiritual distance many Christians feel between ourselves and God. Framing these experiences as a divinely ordained part of the process of spiritual maturation, St. John suggests that there isn’t much to do during these times other than to accept the desolation as part of a good God’s plan to make us less dependent on our own experiences and more at rest in the simple reality of God’s presence with us.

Both of these St. Johns ask us to believe in the goodness of God under great duress. Poverty, earthquakes, the dark night, and the the like become fertile ground for a faith stripped of its unnecessary supports. There has been a lot of talk about deconstructing faith this year and I’m not the person to add much to that conversation. I am, however, convinced that too many of our Christian traditions have forgotten the hard-won wisdom of previous generations. We’ve failed to tell our younger people that following Jesus will always involve wilderness and exile. The stripping power of revelation – whether of my own heart or of a people who’ve lost their way – is always painful even as it is always necessary. God will not leave us comfortable in our hypocrisy. What if we told younger Christians to expect these seasons of revelation, to welcome them even? Might we remember that discomfort and desolation are often a sign of God’s loving activity in our lives?

I was thinking about these things in July when I had the good fortune to spend a week in East Harlem. One day, a few months earlier, I’d been sitting at my desk and slowly became aware of how tired and lonely I was. After so many months of relative isolation, it dawned on this introvert how starved I was for friendships unmitigated by a screen. So, with my wife’s encouragement and the church’s support, I spent a week in one of my favorite cities. Each day my plans were limited to one long, lingering meal with a different friend. Most mornings I spent some time working on a project related to the dark night before heading out to good food with some wonderful people. The city felt strangely normal; this was during the window between vaccinations and the next viral wave. When I walked into the gargantuan Strand Bookstore it was shocking to see so many people browsing the stacks. I collected my books, including Against Everything by Mark Grief, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, and Stephen King’s On Writing, and walked over to Union Square. Sitting there, surrounded by the regulars and the tourists in the company of my little stack of books, was about as normal as I’d felt for a while.

Spending time with The Dark Night and On Wealth and Poverty was important during a year when, in some corners at least, the pastoral vocation took a beating. For example, Christianity Today produced a podcast about the spectacular collapse of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and listening to how its pastor grasped for power felt representative of a lot of the church hurt I’ve watched people suffer in recent years. A collection of sermons by Rev. Gardner C. Taylor was a quiet reminder of the slow and patient work which characterizes good pastoral work. (It’s my practice, on the Saturday nights before preaching, to read one sermon by another preacher. In addition to Taylor, I’ve let the sermons of Fleming Rutledge and Martin Luther King put me to sleep.) In different ways a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings, Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson, and Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Jack, did the same. Books like these help me imagine being an open-handed pastor who rejects our culture’s values of manipulations and control for something more attuned to God and to life. “The pastor,” writes Peterson in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, “is God’s spy searching out ways of grace.” May God give us more of these sorts of women and men to shepherd his church.

There was another group of books, this one having nothing to do with church, which also nourished my pastoral imagination. I’m spending time with different nature writers for – hopefully! – an upcoming project and I regularly find the themes and metaphors in these books for gentle and brave ministry practices. Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm is one of those writers. A World on the Wing, We Are Each Other’s Harvest, Saving Us, and The Heartbeat of Trees provided glimpses into worlds of trees, Black farmers, climate, and forests and each, in their distinct ways, show the interconnectedness of all living things. In the way of fiction, I loved The Overstory by Richard Powers, a book that completely sucked me in and inspired a day trip to the giant redwoods during a recent trip to northern California. It also pointed me to Finding the Mother Tree, the book I’m ending this very long year with. In Belonging: A Culture of Place bell hooks does similar biological work but with people, testifying to the deeply human need to be related kindly to a place and the many forms of life it sustains. This is a book I’ll return to as I continue working out my own thinking about how we’re meant to care for God’s creation even as it cares for us.

It’s a difficult thing, isn’t it, stepping into a new year facing the same terrible memories of the previous two years? Most of the people I talk with these days are holding fatigue and frustration just below the surface. Simply trying to keep up with the latest protocols feels like an impossible task with monumental consequences. Spending time with these books during this awfully long year has been the dose of perspective I needed. Whether through the lenses of saints long departed, nature bearing up under so much human neglect, or stories – imagined and true – of ordinary people navigating strange and desperate circumstances, these books have helped me to see a bit further down the road than I’d have been able to otherwise. And that’s the gift of reading, right?

Here’s the list of everything I read in 2021.

Having Better Conversations About Race

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The best book about racial justice I’ve read this year isn’t about racial justice at all; it’s about climate change. More precisely, Saving Us is about how to talk about climate change with people who aren’t all that interested in talking about climate change.

Some of us are looking forward to visiting family and friends next week, maybe for the first time in a long time. As is often the case when people who don’t regularly see each other gather around a table piled high with food and drink, it’s likely that some interesting conversations may present themselves. In fact, one of the requests I most often hear made of white people by our friends of color is that we would show up to these tables ready for challenging conversations. After all, it’s one thing to speak up for racial justice when surrounded by like-minded friends but the real test of our solidarity shows up around Thanksgiving tables and Christmas trees.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a leading atmospheric scientist and the Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. She’s also a Christian. In Saving Us she points out that “climate change used to be a respectably bipartisan issue.” It’s only been within the past ten years that polarization has set the tone for how we talk – or don’t – about climate change. This observation reminded me of some recent conversations with pastors. Many of these clergy feel as though the ground has shifted beneath their feet and that the biblical themes of unity and justice they could previously preach and teach about are now fraught with partisan tension. This isn’t to say that churches, white churches especially, have a good track record when it comes to these subjects, just that those who have been willing to engage are finding their task increasingly difficult.

Hayhoe wants us to look more closely at this polarization. While some paint the so-called climate deniers with a broad brush, she sees a more nuanced spectrum from the most concerned about climate change to the least. All of these groups, she points out, can be engaged with. For each there are effective ways to begin the conversation about what we can do about a changing climate. It’s only at the the farthest end of the spectrum that we find those who are totally dismissive of climate change. “A Dismissive is someone who will discount any and every thing that might show climate change is real, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious, and we need to act now. In pursuit of that goal, they will dismiss hundreds of scientific experts, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies, tens of thousands of pages of scientific reports, and two hundred years of science itself.” And while the Dismissives “dominate the comment section of online articles and the op-ed pages of the local newspaper,” they only make up 7% of the population. Hayhoe’s advice? Ignore the seven-percenters; they are purposefully antagonistic and derive core parts of their identity from their denials.

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The good news is that this leaves 93% of people available to talk with about climate change. That’s a lot of people! The connections for those of us pursuing racial justice are obvious. I sometimes get asked about how to engage with people who deny the existence of racism or who become hostile when the topic is raised. My advice: don’t waste your time trying to reach that person. Partly this has to do with how Dismissives are unlikely to change their minds, but mostly I’m thinking about the many people who are open. By refusing to get sucked into endless debates with a small percentage of people we can pay attention to all of the people who, while not actively advocating for justice, are at least open to learning and growing.

And how do we engage with all of those people? This is where Hayhoe is especially brilliant. Most of the book is packed with ideas and anecdotes about having good conversations about the polarizing topic of climate change. She begins by suggesting that difficult conversations should start with the values we share in common. These values might include the places we live, the things we love to do, the people we love, and what we believe. Take that last one for example. “If Christians truly believe,” writes Hayhoe, “we’ve been given responsibility – “dominion” – over every living thing on this planet, as it says at the very beginning of Genesis, then we won’t only objectively care about climate change. We will be at the front of the line demanding action because it’s our God-given responsibility to do so. Failing to care about climate change is a failure to love. What is more Christian than to be good stewards of the planet and love our global neighbor as ourselves?” Rather than starting with data and facts, the key is to move from “who we are to why we care.”

So, why do you care about racial justice? For some of us the answer is obvious- our lives are visibly devastated by racism and white supremacy. For others of us though, the answer is less blatant. If you are white, how do you talk about why justice and reconciliation matters to you? How do talk about justice so that it intersects with the values of your conversation partner?

If we’re not thoughtful about these shared values, our conversations can quickly tip toward fear and guilt. When our conversation partners begin to feel either of these emotions, they begin to suspect that we simply want to win a debate or are trying to prove our moral superiority. Whatever the response, the conversation is stopped cold in its tracks. Now people feel like they have to defend themselves, oftentimes by attacking your motives.

To avoid these common conversational pitfalls, Hayhoe makes three suggestions. First, we need to understand the reality we’re describing. It’s important to be able to describe why climate change – or systemic racism – should be deeply worrying to everyone. For example, what will you say when your uncle, wiping the crumbs from his lips after dinner on Thursday, opines that the verdict from Kenosha yesterday had nothing to do with race? Second, while accurate information is important, we also need to be ready to talk about how we can make a positive impact. We are wired for solutions and forward movement. Be ready to articulate to your conversation partners why we need their participation in the struggle against injustice. Finally, to counteract guilt and fear, we need to be able to offer a redemptive pathway forward. Here Hayhoe sounds a bit like a preacher. “So how do we move beyond fear or shame? By acting from love.” It is our love for those whose minds we hope to change which allows us to share a hopeful vision which includes them. And once a person can imagine themselves in that hopeful future – a future where the climate has stabilized, where justice rolls down – they might be willing to take steps toward that future.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of all this book has to offer those who regularly find themselves in difficult conversations. To those of us tempted to opt out, to surround ourselves with people who already agree with us about racial justice (or climate change), Saving Us is challenge and a roadmap. Don’t bail now! The stakes are too high. There are creative and productive ways to have these conversations. This is especially true for those of us who are white. Remember please, our friends and colleagues of color don’t have the option to step away from this stuff. Refusing to walk away can be an act of loving solidarity. And as long as we’re going to have them, lets learn to have these difficult conversations really well.

(Photo credit: cottonbro.)

Can You Lead Where You’ve Not Been? I Sure Hope So!

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I often find myself in conversations with ministry leaders who want to lead their (generally) white congregations toward greater solidarity with the wider Body of Christ. They’ve come to see how their non-engagement on issues of racial justice has been a tacit approval of the status quo and they’re ready to move in a different direction.

These leaders have already answered the why question about the Christian responsibility to pursue reconciliation and justice; now they’re asking how. How do we disciple people toward Christian solidarity? How do we address the partisan, ideological, and racial formation that has so thoroughly impacted us? How do we simultaneously engage the convinced and the skeptical, the justice warriors and the CRT-phobics?

These questions are so important, even if the answers will be highly contextual. How we answer the how questions should vary depending on the particularities of our communities and congregations. Accepting this, it’s still a struggle for many of us to imagine the answers to our questions. I think I know why.

My dad was a pilot-mechanic. Before ever getting into his small Cessna airplane he would always thoroughly check to make sure everything was as it should be. After every few hundred hours of service, he would take the airplane apart, examining closely every piece of the airframe and engine to be sure they were functioning properly. Finding any part slightly worn, my dad would promptly service it. He wanted to have complete confidence in his aircraft before taking to the skies.

In rather dramatic contrast to my dad’s meticulous precision, those of us engaged in the work of rediscipling white Christians are putting the plane together mid-flight. We don’t have the ability to get everything right and screwed down tight before taking off; we’ve been in the air for quite some time already!

And not only are we building as we fly, to set aside the metaphor for now, we’re building something we’ve not experienced ourselves. Leaders are often told not to lead people where they have not gone themselves. But in a way, this is what we’ve been forced to do. Because the places of congregational worship and theological education did not prepare us to disciple people away from worldly patterns of racism and supremacy, we find ourselves inviting people to follow us into a pretty dense fog.

This, I think, is why we struggle to answer our questions about how to move forward. We’re doing our best to imagine something we haven’t seen. We’ve not been discipled in these areas ourselves, even as we are convinced that discipleship is the essential way to reconciliation and justice.

Let me suggest two potentially helpful responses to the sobering situation we find ourselves in. First, simply noticing what we’re up against and what we lack to do this work is important. There are good reasons we get confused and turned around. Second, just because we’ve never seen this sort of discipleship before doesn’t mean it hasn’t existed for a very long time. It’s just existed beyond the interest of most white Christians. For myself, the majority of my imagination for this work has come from spending time in African American ministry contexts. This is where I’ve seen women and men spiritually formed to resist racial injustice – systemically and personally – as followers of Jesus. Granted, the application of what we learn in these communities will have to be thought through carefully as we bring these lessons to bear in majority white spaces. Thankfully, though, the Holy Spirit seems more than willing to animate what has been life giving in what part of the Body in a different part.

I’m curious about what you think. Does my analysis of what we’re up against – building as we fly, a tremendous lack of imagination – ring true? And what about the helpfulness of these two responses, understanding why this work is so difficult and learning from those who’ve been at it far longer than many of us have? Are there others you’d suggest to us?

(Photo credit: Alexandr Podvalny.)