Living Justly Amidst Moral Complexity

I’ve started a personal newsletter which, so far, I’ve been posting weekly. I’ve not yet figured out its connection to this blog, but something I wrote for it seems to fit here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

I’m reading Andrew Delbanco’s fascinating The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. In it he shows how central the nation’s debate about slavery was to its understanding of its identity. In the introduction he writes,

It is too simple to tell this tale as a fable of good versus evil, not because of any ambiguity about the evil of slavery itself but because – given the facts of antebellum politics, the compulsion of economic interests, and the constitutional protections slaveholders enjoyed – it was far from clear how the evil could be destroyed. “Humanity cries out against this vast enormity,” Herman Melville wrote in 1849, “but not one man knows a prudent remedy. By “prudent” he meant some way of destroying slavery without destroying the union itself. Nor was this a matter of two competing goods: abolition on the one hand versus union on the other. There was reason to believe that destroying the union would actually strengthen slavery rather than weaken it. If the constitutional guarantee of the right of slave masters to recover their runaway slaves were to collapse, an outraged South might go its own way, emboldened to build a slave-based empire beyond the limits of the United States.

Delbanco’s point about the complicated factors facing abolitionists has me thinking about the responsibilities facing those who oppose today’s injustices. Do we too often frame these fights simplistically, as though they are matters of easily chosen right and wrong? Imagine, for example, being an abolitionist or free Black person in the decades before the Civil War. What if your efforts led to greater power for the slave states and, thus, more enslaved people overall? What is your responsibility amidst such awful ambiguity?

I wonder, though, if the real moral complexities identified by Delbanco are experienced differently by Christians. People like Frederick Douglass, to take just one example, never wavered about the imperative to reject slavery no matter the political costs. For him, as David Blight shows in his recent biography, his reading of Scripture and personal experience of the wickedness of slavery, made him impatient with those who allowed murky political possibilities to slow down the work of liberating actual people. Might one of the things that sets Christians apart in the battle for justice be that we move forward in the face of the many unknowns, convinced that we’ll never know enough and assured that the righteous God goes before us?

Review of Whole and Reconciled

I recently reviewed Al Tizon’s new book, Whole and Reconciled for Missio Alliance.

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One of the defining and disappointing characteristics of western Christianity has been our instinct to bifurcate the church’s mission. Consider, for example, the countless ways we find to debate whether evangelism or justice should be our priority. Is it the church’s primary mission to address the material sources of a person’s present suffering or the spiritual nature of their future? These either-or debates often happen within privileged confines among those with the ability to theorize about these things. It’s probably not surprising that communities relegated to the margins have often held together the same attributes of Christian identity that others of us have torn apart. I’m thinking of the many African American congregations in my neighborhood whose services end with an old-school altar call and whose bulletins are filled with opportunities for their members to seek justice throughout the week.


In Whole and Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World, Al Tizon applauds those who have attempted to bridge theological bifurcations such as this by encouraging, in the language of the Lausanne Movement, “the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” By emphasizing whole—or, in other contexts, holistic—these theologians and practitioners are advancing a version of mission that cares about word and deed, evangelism and justice. Importantly, the church beyond the west is included in this vision. Rather than the old assumptions about western missionaries being sent to the majority world, mission is now from everywhere and to everywhere.


Whole and Reconciled is a paradigm-shifting book with the potential to enlarge how our churches envision and participate in God’s mission. Here are four ways Tizon succeeds in challenging us to think bigger about everything, beginning with reconciliation.

Read the rest over at Missio Alliance.

“There is no good news in religion for those who have not turned or cannot turn. “

The first element of this [Christian] uniqueness is that the Christian faith glorifies as Son of God a man who was degraded and dehumanized by his fellow human beings as much as it is possible to be, by decree of both church and state, and that he died in a way designed to subject him to utmost contempt and finally to erase him from human memory.

The second unique feature of the Christian gospel… is its central message of the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5; 5:6). In this, the biblical story differs radically from any other religious, philosophical, or ethical system ever known. Every other system, including rabbinic Judaism and some varieties of gnostic teaching from within Christianity itself, assumes some sort of distinction between godly and ungodly, righteous and unrighteous, spiritual and unspiritual. In its radical form, the Christian gospel declares, “It is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one; / no one understands, no one seeks for God”… and “there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10-11, 22-23)…

The only provision in religion for the ungodly is to turn to religion. There is no good news in religion for those who have not turned or cannot turn. A crucial aspect of the radical newness of the Christian gospel is the word it speaks precisely to those “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.
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This comes from the first couple of paragraphs of the last chapter in Rutledge’s exquisite book about the crucifixion and the many atonement motifs the church has imagined in order to attempt to understand the scope of what God accomplished on that cross. These two paragraphs are representative of something the former pastor does so well: while diving deep into the theology she never loses the plot; the particular distinctiveness of the Christian story runs from beginning to end of her study.

There were countless moments of new or fresh insight in the months I spent with this book but there were at least as many times when I thought, “Yes! Exactly. This is why I’m a Christian.” Time and again Rutledge turns her attention to the worst of our sinful human instincts and shows how the crucifixion is more than enough to withstand them. Situated within an apocalyptic war between God and the forces of evil, Jesus’ faithfulness unto death is the decisive word that God’s cosmic salvation has won the ages.

The Color of Life

I recently reviewed Cara Meredith’s new book, The Color of Life, for The Englewood Review of Books.

On October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi for his final year of college. What should have been a straightforward process involving applications and recommendations was anything but easy. Riots broke out on campus two nights before the arrival of the 29-year-old incoming senior. The possibility of the first African American student at Ole Miss was significant enough to draw concerted opposition from the governor of Mississippi and intervention by Robert Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General. Reflecting later, Meredith, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, remembered his time at the university as a war, one which he won by forcing the federal government to intervene to defend his civil rights. This was a war against white supremacy and Meredith was willing to lead the charge, no matter how violent the response.

It is impossible not to think about Meredith regularly while reading The Color of Life and not only because the author regularly weaves his story through her narrative. Cara Meredith is the daughter-in-law of the civil rights icon, married to his son James. Also, she is white.

Read the rest of the review at Englewood.

“…the thought of the church participating and even sanctioning it pushes me right over the edge.”

The realization of creation’s inclusion in God’s reconciliation project should disturb us, for we have done great violence to the earth and its inhabitants. By assaulting creation we have assaulted ourselves and thwarted God’s will for the world. Based on a fault theology of dominion, the church has helped to perpetuate the idea that the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants are primarily “natural resources” to satisfy humanity’s needs and fancies without caution or compassion. misinterpreting dominion as domination, broken humanity has cleared forests, blown off mountaintops, dumped waste in oceans, hunted animals for sport, created factory farms, and experimented cruelly on monkeys and rats. Such violent crimes against creation describe not just the distant past but the tragic present… I find humanity’s assault upon the earth and its fellow creatures nearly unbearable; the thought of the church participating and even sanctioning it pushes me right over the edge.

– Al Tizon in Whole and Reconciled. I won’t say much about this book now as I’m writing a review to be posted elsewhere, but Al’s wisdom is what the church urgently needs today. I was so impressed by how broad and holistic he could be – this passage comes in a section about reconciling with creation – while always remaining specific and applicable. I hope a whole bunch of American Christians and their pastors read this book carefully.

Five Favorite Books of 2018

Once again it’s been tough to narrow down the books I read and enjoyed this year to just five. And as much as I recommend the books below, the entire exercise is pretty subjective; there are some terrific books that I’m passing over here. For example, He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman is every bit as beautiful as his last book and, similarly, reads somewhere between memoir and meditation on mystery, desire, and faith. I started the year with Ron Chernow’s thick biography on Ulysses S. Grant. Maybe it’s because I keep returning to this era of American history – I’m currently in the new Frederick Douglass biography – but I found the story of this famous general and, in Chernow’s estimation, misunderstood president to be totally fascinating. The section about reconstruction after the Civil War was especially interesting and, inevitably, maddening. Marylinne Robinson’s new collection of essays is excellent and I finally finished Augustine’s City of God, a book I probably should have begun again as soon as I finished. My friend José Humphreys’ new book, Seeing Jesus in East Harlem, is many things – memoir; theological reflection on geography, race, culture, church, and more; the church-planting guide we need – but it is first of all beautiful and eye-opening.  Anyway, you get the idea: the books below are great and there are a bunch of others that could have joined them on my little list.

What I read this year was significantly impacted by the book I’m writing. The first four books on this list are ones I’ve engaged with in one chapter or another, but their appeal should be much larger than my relatively narrow focus on race and discipleship. My manuscript is due early next year and I’m looking forward to picking up some of the books that have had to sit on the shelves this year.

As always, I’d love to know what good stuff you read this year.


 

Raising White Kids: Bring Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey (2018).

Raising White Kids

I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. While I really appreciated Jennifer Harvey’s previous book, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, I wasn’t sure what to anticipate from a book that focuses so narrowly on white children. After having highlighted passages on just about every page, I’m now ready to force this book upon every unsuspecting parent of white children I come across! There a few things that make this book so engaging and Harvey such a trustworthy guide. First, her starting point is a commitment to racial justice – and raising white children with this commitment – rather than vague appeals to appreciating cultural diversity. The difference this makes is hard to overstate. Second, though her concern in this pages is for white children along with their parents and guardians, Harvey is herself situated among a racially diverse community. Her voice, in other words, is shaped and tempered by the wisdom that can only come from being in a genuine relationships with people of color. It’s not hard to find white authors who approach topics like this one with the tone-deafness and blind spots that betray the racial homogeneity of their own experiences. Thankfully the reader will find none of this in Raising White Kids. Finally, Harvey never oversimplifies. She allows what must be complicated and even incomplete to remain so. Her goal when it comes to raising racially conscious white children has more to do with character than a long list of specific competencies.

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter (2011).

The History of White People

It took me some time to make my way through historian Nell Irvin Painter’s study on the development of white people as a recognizable category of people. In part this had to do with how totally comprehensive she is but I was also slowed down by the regular realizations of just how strange the very fact of white people is. If there’s one thing that comes up over and over again in Painter’s many short chapters, it’s that there was never anything inevitable about racial whiteness; the construct itself represents this devious mix of malicious intentionality and the strange accidents of history. Most interesting to me were Painter’s portrayals of the key figures who advanced the development of whiteness or who embodied these developments in some way. People like Emerson and Teddy Roosevelt join other lesser-known figures to help us see the very human side of something that has become so systemic that it takes a book like this one to remind us of how absurd the entire thing is.

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown (2018).

I'm Still Here

I realize the first three titles in this list have some variety of “white” in their title, but such has been the nature of my reading this year. And yes, I’ve already written about my friend Austin’s book, but I couldn’t help by mention it again. For a book that I read in one sitting  – both times I read it – I’m Still Here covers a lot of ground. It’s a testament to Austin’s wisdom that she includes so much depth in a succinct space. One of the themes she covers with insight is the experience of black people and other people of color in organizations that are white. Those of us who are white and lead organizations of any kind can benefit greatly from how these experiences are narrated with tenderness and nuance. Sure, sometimes its large and visible moments which force a largely white organization to confront the assumptions and biases its hidden from itself. But, as Austin shows, just as often its moments that seem much smaller from the organization’s vantage point but which, of course, wreak havoc in the life of the person of color who must bear the weight of the racism.

I’ll say one last thing about this book. Earlier this year I helped with a weekend racial reconciliation journey through the American South. During our final debrief, one of the participants, an older woman who’d grown up in a institutionally segregated southern town, pulled out Austin’s book. As she described how important I’m Still Here has been to her I couldn’t help but thank God for what a gift Austin has given to so many of us.

Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community by Simon Chan (2006).

Liturgical Theology

When I began writing a chapter about liturgy for my book I reached out on social media for suggestions and this was one of the recommendations that came back. (Each time I’m tempted to quit social media I’ll have an exchange like that one!) I ended up drawing pretty heavily on Chan’s work, in part because I came to this chapter aware of my own limited knowledge about how the church has thought about the Sunday liturgy, but also for how he frames the liturgy within a very robust ecclesiology. In the first chapter, “The Ontology of the Church,” Chan asks this framing question: “Is the church to be seen as an instrument to accomplish God’s purpose in creation, or is the church the expression of God’s ultimate purpose itself?”  For the author the answer is the latter which to many Christians may not seem all that significant, but it’s a game-changer in terms of how we think about the purpose of the church. The implications for liturgy – for how the church worships – are many, but it was this unexpected starting point that hooked me from the beginning.

Black Elk The Life of an American Visionary by Joe Jackson (2016).

Black Elk

Over the past few years, under the direction of a friend who is Oglala Lakota, I’ve been reading Native American authors and trying to slowly fill in the massive gaps in my knowledge about the history – and ongoing presence – of the many people and nations who inhabited North America long before my ancestors arrived here. This summer, on our drive home from Washington State, our family spent an afternoon at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. It ended up being a pretty powerful experience for me: listening to the Native ranger talk about the battle interspersed with his own more current experiences, walking through the quite hills past markers of fallen soldiers, trying to remember my little knowledge about what happened before and after this one particular moment.

Black Elk participated in that battle and earlier during the summer I’d picked up some paperbacks that narrate his reflections and experiences. This biography fills in a of the backstory to this particular healer and holy man whose life has to be read to be believed. Black Elk traveled the world, fought alongside his people, experienced immeasurable loss all while bearing the burden of a spiritual vision that pointed toward a day of peace for all people. It was a remarkable life and many more should know about this fascinating and important man.

Children, Discipleship, and the Painful Way of Jesus

Is it a lost cause?This morning I wrapped up a draft chapter about children’s ministry for the book on discipleship and race I’m working on. I began my ministry serving children, but that’s been quite a few years ago so it was good to spend a couple of weeks reading and thinking deeply about the church’s kids. There were a number of books and articles that were helpful to me – Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids is a treasure and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and David Bjorlin have written a great book about incorporating children in worship – but a theme in Marva Dawn’s Is It a Lost Cause? is probably what will stick with me the most.

Dawn writes repeatedly about the ways American culture forms us to avoid pain. She says that “one of the glaring characteristics of contemporary U.S. culture is the insistence that life be comfortable, easy, entirely without any kind of suffering.” Though she doesn’t make this connection, it seems to me that this tendency is especially pronounced within white churches whose experiences of racial privilege become conflated with our discipleship to Jesus.

The expectation that we must avoid pain is, as Dawn points out, totally incompatible with Jesus’ own experience. “Jesus himself suffered in every way imaginable – not only the pain and shame of the cross, but also homelessness, foreign oppression, the need to escape terror and live as a refugee. He lived as one who had no place to lay his head.” And then, of course, there was the crucifixion.

What Dawn is pointing out – and what I hope to contextualize to the goal of discipling white children away from racism – is how our discipleship to Jesus will inevitably lead us through pain. We must invite our children and their parents to come to see their pain – to really see it – as an opportunity to meet the crucified Savior more intimately and to then follow him more closely on the way to redemption.