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


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.)

Know Your Divisions


Yesterday afternoon I was talking with a couple of friends who both serve churches in small Midwestern towns. They are thoughtful and humble leaders in their communities and I learn something every time we catch up. This conversation turned to divisions- the ones within congregations and the larger cultural ones which isolate Christians from one another. I can’t say we figured anything out – we’re working on it! – but I found myself encouraged just to hear other clergy, in contexts quite different from my own, wondering about similar difficult things.

These days it’s rare to go very long without hearing about divisions. They come in some predictable flavors: political, regional, cultural, and so one. Some of us have experienced these divides in our own families; we’ve been pushed apart by ugly partisanship. For my part, not surprisingly, I’m interested in how racism and white supremacy have long divided American Christians.

As I listen to these conversations and commentaries, I’ve come to think that there are different types of divisions. They are not all cut from the same cloth. When we lump them together though, we end up engaging these distinct forms with the same tools. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but here are the three types of divisions I’ve observed along with the different tools we might consider engaging them with.

Let’s call the first type of division the good faith disagreement. This one shows up between Christians who’ve come to their convictions through biblical and theological reflection, rooted in particular traditions. Take for example the Christian who hears in Scripture an emphasis on individual responsibility, repentance, and salvation. In discussion with a different Christian who prioritizes biblical themes of community and solidarity, we could reasonably expect some strong disagreement. While that disagreement could lead to division, it certainly doesn’t have to. Picking up the tool of humble discussion could lead both of our hypothetical Christians to read the Bible more holistically. (Full disclosure: I’m the second person – “The Bible is written to a community!” – who’s been helped over the years by conversations with friends who remind me not to lose sight of the unique value of each individual.)

I think the second type of division results from a lack of spiritual formation. In our conversation yesterday, I shared that I get discouraged when Christians don’t seem interested in God’s gift of reconciliation across cultural hostilities and divisions. Many of us simply don’t want it. And while there might be lots of reasons for this lack of desire, one of them is certainly the lack of spiritual formation.

I’m convinced that many Christians, white Christians especially, have been discipled in congregations where there was no expectation at all for reconciliation. There was nothing strange or troubling about cultural and ideological homogeneity. These Christians bring this lack of formation with them to the difficult conversations of our day. And we can look for this lack of formation if we’re paying attention. Take, for example, the debates about immigration reform. I’ve observed the work of friends at World Relief for close to fifteen years and I’ve seen how much of the push-back they receive comes from Christians who aren’t familiar with how God commanded his people to treat the stranger and the foreigner.

Once we notice this formation gap, we can engage this type of division more intentionally. If the first type invites discussion, this second kind requires discipleship. To stick with immigration as our example, we could invite the Christian friend who is unfamiliar with the relevant biblical passages to study some of those with us. We could ask them to read a book like Welcoming the Stranger, Christians at the Border, or Detained and Deported. The key is to remember that this person hasn’t had the opportunity to understand how Scripture speaks to certain difficult issues, much less how Christians over the generations have wrestled with these things. If a lack of spiritual formation led to the division, then discipleship is the way to engage it.

The last type of division, I’ll call it entrenched ideology, is the most difficult one for me. Unlike the previous type, this person knows the Bible (and maybe a bunch of theology), but their commitments are ideological. Their allegiance to a partisan clique outweighs any commitment to the Christians outside of it. They are aware that many of their Christian kin do not share their privilege or perspective, yet their adherence to ideological orthodoxy keeps them from expressing curiosity or care for those sisters and brothers.

In here recent book about climate change, Saving Us, Katharine Hayhoe writes about the different kinds of people who aren’t actively working to cool our warming planet. Most of these, Hayhoe believes, can be convinced to join the fight by finding places where our values overlap. But there is one group, the Dismissives, whose arguments she thinks can safely be ignored. She writes, “For a Dismissive, disagreeing with the science of climate change is one of their strongest frames. It’s so integral to who they are that it renders them literally incapable of considering something they think would threaten their identity.”

It’s the identity part that makes this type of division so difficult. And while I can’t quite write this group off, I agree with Dr. Hayhoe that it requires a pretty direct response: evangelism. I don’t mean to say that these Christian ideologues aren’t actually Christian, but at some point we have to take seriously the allegiances they so publicly display. We have to believe them when they reveal the sources of their identities. When we engage this type of division, perhaps we ought to do so as evangelists, alerting our interlocutors to the good news of the God who gives each of us a new identity… and a new family.

Those are the three common divisions I’ve been noticing: good faith disagreement, lack of spiritual formation, and entrenched ideology. Discussion, discipleship, and evangelism are some of the tools that might allow us to engage more effectively. What about you? What are the types of division you’ve experienced? Have you found helpful ways to engage with those on the other side of the divide?

(Photo: Markus Spiske)

Deliver Me From Fear of Their Fear

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“I’ve made the decision that I would rather be on the journey with others, problematic as they may be, than be utterly alone yet content in my righteousness.” I saw myself when I read this sentence in Justin Phillip’s new book, Know Your Place. Maybe I should say that I saw in Phillip’s commitment one of the pervasive tensions I experience in the ministry of reconciliation. It has felt especially taut lately.

I spent a long weekend this summer as the speaker at a Christian camp here in the Midwest. I knew little ahead of time about those who attend this camp though I assumed, given the context, that for many of these women and men racial reconciliation and justice might be more of an abstraction than a regular experience. I wanted to encourage the campers to see Christian unity across cultural and racial lines of division as a gift God intends for all of us, no matter how diverse or homogeneous our settings.

While there were some that weekend who seemed encouraged by this theme and others who, despite their wariness about my motives, enthusiastically engaged with me between sessions, my impression was that many of those in attendance were disappointed by my choice of topic. That might be putting it mildly.

In hindsight I can see some of my missteps that weekend. I had assumed, for example, a generally positive disposition toward the church’s identity as a reconciling people even if the more specific edges of that mission might be debated or even resisted. And I missed the extent to which current cultural arguments about Critical Race Theory have made their way into local congregations. For some at this camp, any mention of justice or race provoked concerns about creeping partisan ideologies. I should have done my research!

In spite these blunders, my time with these three hundred white Christians was a blunt reminder about the deeply held and, from my vantage point, unhelpful assumptions many white Christians have about racial justice and reconciliation. Thought I might have mitigated it slightly, it’s not as though the push-back I experienced would have been eliminated if I had simply chosen my words more carefully or piled up more biblical references. I’ve learned this lesson from Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil who, as she has written about, discovered that no amount of good exegesis or phenomenal preaching will move those who are content with the racial status quo. Rather than holding to the possibility of a counter-cultural witness to the gospel via a more racially reconciled church, these suggestions appear as a threat requiring a forceful defense.

About halfway through the long weekend, I was reporting by phone to my wife about some of the more animated feedback I’d received. “I guess you won’t be going back there,” she chuckled. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of a return invitation, the truth is that I would return. Though they might squirm at the characterization, I saw myself in my weekend detractors. It was easy to imagine how, given different circumstances, I might express the same suspicious and instincts.

On the trip home I found myself, like Phillips, wanting the possibility of companionship with these men and women more than the isolation that comes with caressing my own self righteousness. But this desire quickly gets complicated when I read something like this in Zadie Smith’s collection of essays written in the early days of the pandemic.

Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike! Later, in his cotton fields, he had them whipped and then made them go back to work and thought, They can’t possible feel as we do. You can whip them and they go back to work. And having thus placed them in a category similar to the one in which we place animals, he experienced the same fear and contempt we have for animals. Animals being both subject to man and a threat to him simultaneously.

Using the language of contagion we’ve grown accustomed to as of late, Smith describes racism as a virus which infects white people with a sense of superiority while causing others to appear unlike us, animal-like and threatening. And it’s here, when the evil we’re up against is articulated so plainly, that the tension snaps. After all, what does it mean to journey with those who not only deny this candid history and our active role in it, but who will deny the harm inflicted on our sisters and brothers by this history and its tentacle-like reach into the present?

I too want to choose companionship with “problematic” people over smug righteousness. (Of course, many of these same people view me as the problematic one.) I wonder though, can such a thing be done without agreeing to the lies – about history, ourselves, and those we’ve imagined as unlike ourselves – which scaffold white assumptions and imaginations? Is there any scenario in which I could show up at that weekend camp, having better prepared myself, with a message of reconciliation and justice and told these Christian sisters and brothers the whole truth? Without their retreat to defensiveness? Without my retreat to deception? I’m confessing to you that I’m having a hard time imagining such a scenario. The tension stretches past the point my imagination can bear.

I recently finished a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings. In one essay she reflects on the fear she felt while visiting Koinonia Farm, an interracial community in Georgia which suffered regular attacks during that Jim Crow era. One night a car she and another member of the community were sitting in while on sentry duty was shot at. About this racist violence and the fear it inspired, Day shared her simple prayer. “Deliver me from fear of their fear,” I prayed as I listened, using the words of St. Peter which had been part of the Epistle of last Sunday’s Mass, thinking of the hysterical fear of guilty whites, fear of the past, of the future.”

Day was writing at a time when white southerners were violently acting on their fears of racial integration and equality. We don’t have to compare our day to hers in order to apply her prayer to our own experiences. Today white fear is expressed with claims of reverse racism, beliefs that critical race theory is more threatening than white supremacy, and appeals to a nostalgic national memory. In any case, I’ve come to believe that behind much of antagonism expressed by my would-be companions lies this old fear.

This week a friend reminded me of a passage about white fear in Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again, a book-length reflection on how James Baldwin remains essential to understanding our racialized society. Glaude writes,

In critical moments of transition, when it seems as if old ways of living and established norms are fading, deep-seated fears emerge over loss of standing and privilege… In these moments, the country reaches the edge of fundamental transformation and pulls back out of a fear that a genuine democracy will mean white people will have to lose something- that they will have to give up their particular material and symbolic standing in the country. That fear, Baldwin understood, is at the heart of the moral psychology of the nation and of the white people who have it by the throat. That fear, not the demand for freedom, arrests significant change and organizes American life.

Would my white sisters and brothers, the ones who are suspicious of and at times antagonistic toward attempts at racial justice, admit to this fear? Would they agree that the heat produced by many of the partisan and ideological battles reveal what is actually at stake? That the fight is less about school board policies, federal legislation, and which party is in power today and more about an existential sense of loss?

I don’t know, but I’m curious. Can we imagine spaces where we’re invited to speak to the experience of loss? To trace the line between grief and fear? If these hidden emotions could be spoken, might the space grow to include empathy for those who’ve known far more loss and fear in this country? Or curiosity for how those neighbors have held back despair so that resistance and hope might take root?

Deliver me from fear of their fear. As of today, it’s the best I can do with the tension. I’m a Christian which means that the option to lie to white people, even a little, isn’t available to me. For those who share this faith, it also means that when the invitations to difficult conversations are extended – from a camp, a church, the Thanksgiving holiday with extended family – we will accept them with a stubborn hope that from this unresolved tension comes the occasional step toward the truth.

(Photo credit: Pexels.)

Do You Know Your Trees?


I finished reading a new book about trees on a day this week when the news around the world was once again overwhelming and terrible. In Afghanistan people were trying to escape with a desperation I can barely imagine much less, if I’m honest, consider for more than a few minutes at a time. Then it got worse: a suicide bomber. And here I was reading about trees.

Over the course of the summer, as our congregation has been able to gather together again, I’ve been listening to how we’re talking about the true and terrible reports being dispatched from all corners. It seems we have all been overpowered by the consistency of upheaval and heartbreak. There have been wildfires and earthquakes, a high-rise collapse, an insurrection to begin the year. Our emotions slide to despair as our attention lurches from one breaking tragedy to the next.

Maybe this is why I picked up Peter Wohlleben’s The Heartbeat of Trees. In it, the German forester describes a long relationship with trees. He is a careful observer and an earnest evangelist for the endless benefits experienced by those spending time beneath and among trees wherever they can be found. More to the point, Wohlleben is enraptured by the forests in his small corner of Germany. He knows these trees- the traits of soil and climate which make his forest unique, the history of logging and conservation which has shaped the forests into what they are today, the ways his neighbors appreciate – or don’t – the groves and stands which can only hint at the ancient forests which were once common in that region.

Which isn’t to say that the author isn’t concerned with the plight of trees around the world. There are chapters about climate change and some specific challenges facing forests around the world. He writes, though, rooted in his particular place among his unique trees. And this is what I noticed during a week which seemed to bring only more bad news.

The solution to our overwhelmed situation is not to turn away from the heartbreak over there but, rather, to turn toward our lives and all of the ways we are interdependent with other life, right here, wherever your here is. This ends up being simpler said than done. It can seem easier these days to catalogue a list of calamities across the globe than to see the smaller, quieter moments that make our own communities what they are.

I think, for example, about different responses to public instances of racial injustice in recent years. There are some who, learning about patterns of racial trauma and abuse by those in power, freeze in response. Their eyes have opened to widespread truths which they had previously overlooked and now they cannot not see them. As their eyes adjust to these harsh truths, they are beginning to understand that racism expresses itself not solely – or even primarily – in individual experiences but through long-standing patterns of oppression and marginalization. However, because these newly aware have not been supporting racial justice in their own neighborhoods, because they’ve ignored the local expressions of injustice and justice, what they feel is mostly a creeping despair.

On the other hand, we can imagine a person who, like Wohlleben and the trees he knows so well, has come to see her place carefully. She understands its history of racial malice, how forces of segregation and prejudice shaped what it is today; she knows the names and stories of the women and men of previous generations who labored for justice. This person isn’t ignorant of the repeated expressions of systemic racism which sometimes break into our national headlines. Like the rest of us, she grieves and is enraged. But unlike others, her connection and commitment to her place mean that her exposure to these headlines leads to discernment rather than despair. These sort of people can see the commonalities and differences between her community and others. They can show you where the momentum toward justice is that others miss. And, frankly, these are the people who are so deeply enmeshed in communities seeking peace and doing justice that the capacity to be overwhelmed in that vague, throw-up-your-hands, what-can-I-do sort of way is greatly diminished.

Finishing The Heartbeat of Trees didn’t so much make me want to learn more about German forests as it kindled my interest in the trees shading our Chicago neighborhood this hot and muggy August. I suspect this was the author’s goal. If more of us began to see the trees and vanishing forests around us, we might be less overcome by headlines about wildfires, drought, and climate change and more inclined to live gently in our own communities in ways that would address these global realities. Might the same be true about many of the other overwhelming realities we’re facing these days?

(Photo credit: Mali Maeder.)

“…a reproach before God and the world.”

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There is a strange warning being passed around these days and I expect, with Independence Day coming up, its urgency will be heightened. It comes in different shades, but essentially we are being alerted to a frightening new development which seeks to retell this country’s origin story. If you have even a passing awareness of the back-and-forth about, for example, Critical Race Theory or The 1619 Project produced by the Times you know what I’m referring to. It’s not that most of the critics of CRT or Nicole Hannah-Jones’ work are engaging with particular nuances about the way U.S. American history is being reexamined. Rather, at their most flustered, they have labeled these efforts as un-American and, in some circles, anti-Christian.

However, as we approach July 4th it’s a good time to remember that criticizing the story this country tells about itself has a long history and is, in fact, a deeply Christian instinct.

One of the most obvious example comes in the form of Frederick Douglass’ famous speech on July 5, 1852 to a gathering of abolitionists in Rochester, New York. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is the question Douglass put to his audience that day. By questioning the fundamental meaning of the day the nation celebrated its independence, Douglass was forcing his listeners to imagine a different – and truer – story.

Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.

For Douglass, to not confront a national myth which erased the suffering of so many people, which narrated the privileged as God’s innocent chosen ones, would be deceptive and un-Christian. It would represent a failure of discipleship.

America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery, the great sin and shame of America!

Again, Douglass understands it to be his Christian responsibility to compel those who prefer their comfortable myth to open their eyes to a shameful reality. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting.”

There is, of course, room for disagreement and debate as we discuss the complexities of this country’s history. But the wholesale rejection of attempts to tell a truer story, a story which does not center those of us who’ve benefitted from the lies we’ve told but on those who’ve long endured under them, well, this is an un-Christian instinct and one that disciples of Jesus, like Douglass and so many others, must firmly reject.

Using fearmongering and shaming tactics to reinforce a false narrative is to live coherently, if wickedly, from this very narrative. People who have lied about their own goodness and innocence for so long, at the expense of so many, are today repeating what they have always done. Douglass reminds us that despite this long trajectory of deceit, it is possible to stand before the beneficiaries of a warped mythology and speak the plain truth. In fact, our allegiance to Jesus, if not this country, demands it.

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