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In Defense of the Multiracial Church. Sort of.

This post first appeared in my newsletter. You can subscribe here.

It was so good talking with Jemar Tisby, author of the essential The Color of Compromise, last week. We covered a lot of ground in an hour but I was especially interested in asking Jemar about how he thinks about multiracial churches. I’d picked up on a certain uneasiness about these kinds of churches while listening to the podcast he co-hosts and was curious to hear more.

As a historian, Jemar began by reflecting on the origins of black churches in the U.S.A. He said, “There would be no black church without racism in the white church.” This is the necessary starting point for any conversation about multiracial churches as it acknowledges the origins of the racial segregation we take for granted in our congregations. Our racial divisions are not a result of personal or cultural preference as so many would like to believe – We listen quietly to the preacher, they talk back. We like hymns, they like praise bands. Rather, as Jemar points out, our segregation originates and is sustained by white racism.

So even today, when most white people would repudiate the former racism found in our churches, because we’ve not honestly assessed its subtler forms today, there remains an essential place for churches of color, especially black churches. Listening to Jemar talk about this reminded me of an article Pastor Charlie Dates wrote a few years ago in which he too made the case for the urgent relevance of predominately black congregations. Of this tradition he wrote, “The witness of black preaching is that our submission to the authority of Scripture demands that we engage societal injustice. The black church has not historically engaged in social justice in lieu of the gospel. It does so because of the gospel.”

Sadly, our white churches have generally not seen the gospel in this way. We have seen a choice between the gospel and justice, a choice which black churches have historically rejected as theologically warped and pastorally harmful. And yet too many multiracial churches have not disturbed these dangerous assumptions. In our conversation, Jemar made the painful observation that, “even in a multiracial environment the culture is going to tend toward white, toward what is most comfortable for white people.” Thoughtful students of these churches like Korie Edwards, Chanequa Walker-Barnes, and Jennifer Harvey have all made similar points about the tendencies toward whiteness within many multiracial churches.

Not all of these churches default to white comfort. For example, I have friends who pastor incredibly diverse churches whose ethos is multicultural and whose priority is justice for the marginalized grounded in the gospel. It’s just that these churches have few, if any, white people. But for those of us whose diverse churches include white people, the question is uncomfortably relevant: Is the multiracial church a genuine expression of the gospel, or do we succumb to racial injustices and hierarchies that continue to plague white churches?

Rediscipling the White Church is available today and in it I try to take seriously the legitimate criticisms leveled at multiracial churches by focusing on the deforming discipleship of white churches. If, as Jemar and other argue, many multiracial churches default to cultural whiteness, then it’s possible that those churches could benefit from considering how we’ve watered down the New Testament’s radical vision of reconciliation for something more palatable to the dominant culture.

Now, to be honest, the multiracial church is not the main character in Rediscipling; the title makes that plain. But here’s my confession: Despite all of its real failures and many important critiques, I remain deeply committed to the multiracial church. I believe that it is a reflection of the reconciliation accomplished by Jesus. I believe that it retains the potential to bear powerful witness in a world of hostility, injustice, and segregation.

I don’t argue that all white churches should become racially and ethnically diverse in Rediscipling. There are many reasons for this: I wanted to push against the tendency to add racial diversity to whiteness and call it reconciliation; I didn’t want to let those pastors and churches off the hook who don’t believe there is enough diversity in their context to pursue reconciliation. But, while I didn’t say this in the book, I believe that if white churches take seriously the call to disciple their people toward solidarity with the diverse body of Christ, at least some of those churches will make the slow, intentional, and sacrificial move toward becoming multiracial.

I suppose, on the release day about a book so focused on white Christians and their churches, I want to plant my personal stake in the ground. For all of its flaws, my commitment to the multiracial church remains unwavering. May we take our place alongside the black congregations esteemed by Jemar and Pastor Charlie in expressing the justice of our Savior.

Whose liberation?

I first published this in my weekly newsletter. You can subscribe here.

This week saw a weird development in our collective stay-at-home reality. The president, encouraged I assume by conservative media, has begun calling for states to be liberated from the lock-downs that are in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

LIBERATE MINNESOTA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020

How many of those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis, etc., are as committed now to liberating Virginia, Minnesota, California, etc?— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) April 17, 2020

I’ll leave the debates about when we can safely loosen our new quarantined lifestyles to the experts; it’s the language of liberation that caught my attention.

If the recent protest in Michigan is indicative, it would seem that those who most want to be liberated right now are white supporters of the president. At the same time, it’s obvious to anyone paying even a little bit of attention that those most at risk from the virus are people of color, especially Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino/as. The impact of poverty on underlying health conditions along with the inability to shelter in place have made certain communities of people way more susceptible than others.

So the call for liberation is also – intentionally or not – a call for more sickness and death.

The ugly irony here is that the people calling for liberation are co-opting language and imagery from those who are suffering the worst of this virus. The African American communities who are being devastated are heirs to a long tradition composed of those who called, worked, and died for their own freedom. By appropriating the language of liberation in this moment, the president and his supporters are aligning themselves with the same stream of racial oppression that led to the fight for liberation in the first place.

Resisting the demand for liberation in previous generations led to Black suffering and death. Co-opting it today will lead to the same.

Favor in the Wilderness

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”

This is what the Lord says:

“The people who survive the sword
    will find favor in the wilderness;
    I will come to give rest to Israel.”

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again,
    and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
    and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards
    on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
    and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out
    on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.’”

– Jeremiah 31:1-6

My family lived in Southern California during my high school years and one spring break we drove a couple of hours east, into the Mojave Desert. What we found was not a dry and desolate place, but a landscape with patches of green, soft blue skies, and bursts of wildflowers in every direction. After the winter rains, the desert wilderness was full of life.

The people God sent Jeremiah to found themselves in a wilderness. The Kingdom of Israel had splintered in two, and the Northern Kingdom had been carried into exile. Judah, in the south, was left uncertain and afraid about its future. Violent empires rose around them, threatening their existence. Exile seemed inevitable. And into this moment in time, God had his prophet Jeremiah remind his people of his past favor to instill hope in his future provision. There would be life and favor in the wilderness.

There are many ways to describe this collective moment in which we find ourselves. But maybe you’ll agree with me that, among its other characteristics, these weeks have been a wilderness. Not only is the pandemic ravaging our world, once again it is those furthest from our society’s power who suffer the most. Asian Americans have been scapegoated. Immigrants are expected to continue working so that the rest of us can shelter in place. Indigenous communities are suffering disproportionately from the virus. Here in Chicago, while making up only 29% of our city’s population, African Americans represent 70% of those who’ve died from COVID-19. This is a wilderness; a terrible and terrifying wilderness. It can feel God-forsaken.

Is it? The answer from Jeremiah to God’s splintered people was, No. In this wilderness you are not forsaken. Even here, even now, a there is a future worth living toward. On this Easter morning, on the other side of the crucifixion, I want to remind us that the same is true today. No wilderness can overpower our hope if it is established in Christ’s resurrection.

If we’re to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s two declarations in this passage. We need to hear his declaration about our past and his declaration about our future.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. These verses dance between the past and future. God says, “I have,” and “I will.”

[31:2] This is what the Lord says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.” The sword recalls Israel’s flight from Egyptian captivity and Pharaoh’s army. After being saved by God through the parted sea, the people stood before the vast wilderness. From the frying pan into the fire.

We know this feeling today. If we make it through this catastrophic moment, then what? What about our job, our educational goals, our retirement? God’s answer to his people then, and to us today, is: There is favor in the wilderness.

The Hebrew word for favor is not about God being nice to us or giving us the things we think we need. Favor can be seen in that well-known blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. 24 “The Lord bless you and keep you;25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” God’s favor has to do with his presence, with his relational nature. The people had been freed from slavery into favor.

And rest too, according to Jeremiah. Enslaved people are not granted the daily and weekly rest for which our image-bearing humanity is made. And so to be granted rest, even in the wilderness, is a sign of God’s intentions. It’s a vision of flourishing humanity, no matter the circumstances.

God is reminding his people of the favor and rest he showed them in the wilderness. Their current events had made them forgetful. Where is God now? Why has God allowed this to happen to us? What future can we possibly imagine for ourselves?

Of course, we get this tendency. The more overwhelming our circumstances, the more forgetful we become. We want to get back to the way things were. But in their wilderness moment, God doesn’t have Jeremiah remind them of their normal days, or even their great days. Instead of pointing back to the days of King David or Solomon, God brings their memories to the wilderness: Pharaoh’s sword, the terror of the escape, the gaping wilderness before them.

Could it be that in our own wilderness moment God might ask us to remember our wildernesses of the past? That time you were sick, heartbroken, homeless, jobless, friendless, abandoned, alone. When we remember the wildernesses of the past, we also start to remember what God did.

And when we remember what God did, we start to remember who God is. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. [31:3] God is a verb and a noun: loved with love. God is love itself. His unfailing kindness is a covenant love; a never-quitting, unstoppable love. There is no human equivalent. This is why we remember those previous wilderness times.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. I showed you favor. I gave you rest. I loved you with an everlasting, unstoppable love.

Today we remember that when Christ took our sin to the cross, we could finally be at rest. Self-righteousness died. Striving for perfection died. Pleasing others, earning merit… all of our toiling died.

Today we remember Christ’s everlasting love. He loved us when we opposed, misunderstood, abandoned, betrayed, convicted, mocked, and crucified him. And on that Sunday morning his love sent the authorities scurrying and the demons fleeing; it sent Mary rejoicing and his disciples running with expectation.

On that first Easter morning, God’s everlasting, never-quitting love took back what the death had stolen. His love tore through dividing walls and ripped through curtains of separation. His love was an earthquake- raising the dead to life, loosing chains of oppression, shaking foundations of power.

The power that raised Jesus from the dead is a power that makes this everlasting love a reality to behold. If we are paying attention, we will fall to our knees before this resurrected love. We will stammer and quake before it. Our knees will knock and mouths hang open. There is nothing tame or safe about the love of God. A love that led through a bloody cross is nothing to be trifled with.

But it is eternal evidence that you are loved with an everlasting love. This love has raised you from death into life. This love is transforming you from the inside out. This love has brought near the kingdom of God, pushing back the shadows of our rebellious world.

It’s a strange request to make on Easter, even stranger during a pandemic but would you remember a previous wilderness? Remember God’s loving-kindness. His rest. His favor in the wilderness. Don’t let today’s wilderness make you forget about God’s yesterday favor in the wilderness.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we also need to hear God’s declaration about our future. Our Passage begins: “At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.” [31:1] These are a splintered people and this is a promise of reunion.

God reminded his people of their past; now he points ahead. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. [31:4] But what, precisely, does this mean? Well, God provides three characteristics of the future promised to his people.

God’s future will be joyful.  Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. [31:4b] This is a spontaneous joy. It’s not the pre-planned excitement of a birthday party or a holiday. There is simply joy in the air.

God’s future will be marked by justice. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. [31:5] Samaria was, at that time, occupied. So this is a picture of reunion, but not only that. The people tending the land will also enjoy its fruit. No sharecropping here. No enslaved people toiling for someone else’s benefit. No undocumented immigrants forced to work for subsistence wages. Those who steward the land will enjoy its fruit. There will be no lack in God’s future.

And God’s future will be full of worship. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God. [ 31:6] Like Samaria, Ephraim was occupied territory. So this too is a vision of reunion, but it’s not a return to normal. Worship is not coerced in God’s future. It does not compete with idols or ideologies. It does not turn a blind eye to injustice. The worship in Jeremiah’s vision is whole-hearted. It is the purpose of a people reunited.

Now, an obvious question for a people in the wilderness who are hearing God’s vision for the future might be: Do we have to wait for these things? Are we to sit around until this future arrives? The answer is provided a few chapters earlier, in Jeremiah 28, when God invites his people to begin living into this future now. For a people in the wilderness, God provides a vision of joy, justice, and worship. It’s a vision that can be lived into in the wilderness.

This is a challenge for us. In the wilderness we want to return to normal. But God is calling us forward into something new. A lot of us can’t wait to get back to normal. But I’ve seen your normal – and mine – and I don’t think it something we should settle for.

On this Easter morning, we might also remember that Jesus didn’t come to return us to normal. Jesus didn’t battle the devil in the wilderness to bring us back to normal. He didn’t confront the religious and political powers to bring us back to normal. He didn’t drive out demons, heal blind eyes and diseased bodies to bring us back to normal. Jesus didn’t raise little girls and old friends from the dead, he didn’t give himself over for betrayal, abandonment, arrest, beating, mocking, and crucifixion to bring us back to normal. He certainly didn’t storm the gates of hell or ascend to the heights of heaven or raise with nailed scared hands and a sword pierced side or trample the head of sin, death, and the devil so that you could get back to normal!

Israel needed to hear God’s declaration about the future while they were in the wilderness, not so they could dream about the good old days but so that they could build for God’s new day. Please don’t settle for normal when God has done something new. As N.T. Write puts it, “Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.” (Surprised by Hope, 67)

The resurrection is a future word bursting into our today wilderness. Behold, I am making all things new! A word of joy, justice, and wholehearted worship. The opportunity of this wilderness season isn’t about your old normal; it’s about the new creation accomplished by the resurrection of the Son of God.

Can I suggest that your desires for normal are not strong enough? They are faint shadows of the desires you were made for. You were made for joy. You were made for justice. You were made for worship. Let those small desires open you to the real thing: new creation streaming into this sick and weary world; breaking into our sadness and grief; redeeming our losses.

When we hear God’s declaration about our future, we understand that nothing in this wilderness can overpower our hope.

In the wilderness, God speaks to his people’s past and to their future. Remember your previous wildernesses. Did I not give you rest? Did I not love you with an everlasting love? Did I not show you loving-kindness that could not be overpowered by anything in the wilderness? I will build you up again. You will dance with joy. You will plant with justice. You will gather in worship. Reoriented by these divine declarations, the people’s hope is restored. For it becomes clear that with God, there is favor in the wilderness.

I know some of us are tired, sick, and despairing. Does the message of Easter ring hollow in the wilderness? Then let the let the despised and rejected one draw near. Let the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief draw near. Let the despised one; the one who bore our infirmities and carried our diseases; the stricken, afflicted, wounded, and crushed one draw near to you today.  He knows the wilderness. He has suffered the wilderness. And he will walk through this wilderness with you.

Turn your face to the one whose countenance is always upon you. Look to him today. He has won your future. His new creation, one day to be fully realized, is even now growing in the wilderness.  

24 “The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” [Numbers 6:24-26]

Accepting the Unacceptable

I first published this in my weekly newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Earlier this week I joined a conference call for the purpose of holding vigil and praying for a man who was lying, near death, in an ICU in the Chicago suburbs. Each of us on the call had gotten to know this man within the confines of a maximum-security prison; he was a student in a graduate-level degree program preparing incarcerated men for ministry. Now, having contracted COVID-19, he was facing death alone; the virus and his incarcerated status kept his community at a distance.

At the time I’m writing this the man is still alive. Pray for him, please.

In addition to the grief I felt on that call I also felt anger. After all, it’s been known that this virus would be especially devastating to those confined to prisons. Social distancing and additional anti-bacterial cleaning are not options in these places. We knew, in other words, that barring a change in policy, many incarcerated people would become sick and die.

In a way, our willingness to allow these men and women to risk death is emblematic of our criminal justice system. As authors like Michelle Alexander and Dominique Gilliard have shown, this is a system that disproportionately prosecutes, imprisons, and surveils people of color, and especially African American and Latino men. We know this – and if we don’t, it’s a purposeful ignorance – and we accept it as a reasonable cost paid for a certain way of life.

I recently heard someone say that a time of trial, of the sort we’re in the middle of now, reveals what we’d previously worked to hide. Perhaps another way of saying this is that we can no longer hide the inhumanity to which we’d grown accustomed. I pray my incarcerated brother lives. I pray that the many others who have become sick get well. But can we also pray that the cruelties we’ve accepted would, in these pressing days, become unacceptable to us?

Preaching grace and justice (at the same time) to whole people

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week a few video clips from some amazing preachers made their way across my social media feeds. The first was from Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign who, despite vehemently opposing this presidential administration, made it clear that he doesn’t hate the president. He mourns for him. Drawing from Psalm 139, Rev. Barber pointed out,

Whatever one human does is possible for another one to do. Y’all better hear me tonight. But for the grace of God you can become your enemy… So Lord I need you to do something: search me Lord. Search me. Don’t ever dislike somebody so much that you don’t realize that some of what you see them doing lies in you too. But for the grace of God.

He’s drawing deeply from the gospel here to make the point that there are none who are righteous, not a single one. We are each of us profoundly dependent on the grace that has been won for us through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The second clip is also from Rev. Barber. A couple of days later he spoke at an MLK event in Tennessee. There, in front of the governor, he made plain the hypocrisy of those who celebrate Dr. King while advancing policies that undercut his agenda of justice and equality.

Politicians can’t say they love Dr. King and how he stood for love and unity but then you deny and refuse to support his agenda, right governor? I mean, since you came, right congressman? Let me show you want I mean: Dr. King would not have been for a wall.

If you are a preacher of the gospel and you are asking your people to tithe but are not fighting for them to have a living wage you are lying!

You love Dr. King? Since 2001 the Tennessee state government has passed multiple voter ID requirements… under the lie of voter fraud. What you should be passing in Tennessee is early voting and same day registration and more access to the ballot. The courts have said voter ID is a form of systemic and surgical racism. Nobody talked about voter fraud until black people and brown people started voting in mass.

Here’s what strikes me when these two sermonic moments are held together: Rev. Barber has absolutely no problem moving between the gospel foundation of grace and the biblical mandate to pursue justice. On the one hand, he refuses to hate or dehumanize those whom he sees as a genuine threat to the well-being of poor people because he knows his own sinful tendencies. And on the other, he is willing to publicly call out the state’s elected officials to their faces for the way they have oppressed those they represent.

It’s been my experiences that this ability – holding together grace and justice – is almost entirely lacking in white pulpits. It’s either one or the other. A preacher will mostly proclaim justice or grace. Those who preach one over the other may very well believe in the theological importance of both, but they choose which is most important and relegate the other to an occasional sermon or an optional Sunday School class.

In his important book, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Randy Woodley points out the dualism that underlies much of western society. It’s this tendency that separates people from land and, more subtly, people from ourselves as minds are elevated above bodies.

One of the ways this dualism gets brought into white pulpits is seen when we preachers bifurcate grace from justice. We tend to preach to people’s minds, believing that grasping theological concepts like justification by grace through faith is what preaching is for. We forget that those in the pews are fully embodied people for whom tangible and visceral experiences of injustice are equal concerns and threats to their humanity. Even when a white preacher is convinced of the vital importance of both grace and justice, she will likely struggle to hold them together, choosing to focus on one or the other. At least that’s been my own personal experience.

But, as Rev. Barber makes plain, the grace and justice which are held perfectly together by Jesus can also be held together in our preaching. And that brings me to the final clip. My friend, the Rev. Charlie Dates, also for MLK Day, preached down in Arkansas. And like Rev. Barber, Charlie directly addressed the elected officials in the room about the systemic injustices that remain in both Arkansas and Chicago. But then, at his close, Charlie looked over the gathered crowd and said, “But I’d be half a preacher if I stopped there.” And for the final minutes of his sermon, having just boldly identified and denounced injustice, Charlie proclaimed the beautiful gospel of grace. Please watch the entire thing.

We need more preaching of this kind these days. More sermons like those that can be heard from Rev. Barber and Rev. Dates and so many other African American clergy on a weekly basis. We need to hear these sorts of sermons not only from black pastors but from the rest of us too. The place to begin, though, is not to copy any other preacher’s style, but to notice the holistic, non-dualistic view of people that under-girds such powerful preaching. And that, I think, is something we can all learn from these black preachers, whether or not we’ll ever step foot in a pulpit ourselves.