Uncommon Sense

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Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Thankful Poor”

Here is Jerry Falwell Jr. answering a question about whether it’s hypocritical for evangelical leaders like himself to “support a leader who has advocated violence and who has committed adultery and lies often.”

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

Thankfully there have been plenty of evangelical leaders who have pointed out the silliness of Falwell’s reasoning and shallowness of this expression of a two kingdoms theology. I’m more interested in how those of us who rightly decry this blatantly deficient vision of Christianity succumb to less obvious versions of it ourselves.

Falwell believes that America’s wealth is responsible for accomplishing more good around the globe “than any other country in history.” Setting aside the question of how such a thing could be measured or, more significantly, the exports of suffering and destruction for which we are also responsible, his claim reveals an understanding of the wealthy rather different than the one Jesus repeatedly taught. In Falwell’s theology, the wealthy are important for what their wealth does, including how it meets the needs of the poor. Jesus, of course, warns of the hazards of wealth as a massive – thought not impassable  – barrier to the kingdom of heaven. The problem with wealth is what ultimate good works to keeps us from.

On the other hand, the poor are merely an afterthought to Falwell, dispensable for what they cannot do.  In contrast to the rich whose money makes things happen, those who suffer poverty can be set aside exactly because their impoverishment weakens their ability to accomplish anything of “real volume.”

Falwell says that his hierarchy of the wealthy over the poor is merely common sense and I can’t disagree with him. In fact, though we may be subtler about it, I have to wonder if the vast majority of American Christians don’t also trade Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty for something closer to Falwell’s logic. We measure our ministries by the metrics of the marketplace. Our well-known leaders and their churches are not poor, not even by vocation.  Middle-class Christians are quick to give to those suffering poverty but we’d be hard-pressed to find any of those same people submitting to the spiritual authority or ministry priorities of their less-resourced kin.

It’s not hard to point out the absurdity of Falwell’s justification for supporting the president. But what about when the absurdity fades into something more like our own, acceptable, version of common sense? It seems likely that many more of us may be further from Jesus’ uncommon kingdom than we’d want to admit.

Photo by Plum leaves.

 

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.

For White Christians Who Keep Supporting the President Despite Most Other Christians Asking Them to Reconsider

It’s election time again and during the two years since the last one I’ve thought about you a lot. Your enthusiastic support for the president sent a shiver through the American church which many of us are still trying to make sense of.

It’s not that we’re surprised that so many white people voted for the president. As we listened to his dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants, heard his plans to ban people from Muslim-majority countries, and remembered his racist language and actions towards African Americans, it was clear that a segment of white America would be attracted to this man. No, what was – and remains – so disturbing was your support. It seems that every poll since the last election shows white Christians among the president’s most fervent defenders.

Here’s the thing: I’m not interested in telling you how to vote. The amount of variables in any local election are significant and require great discernment from any Christian voter. What is interesting to me is your ongoing ignorance of why so many other Christians – Christians whose racial identities are different from yours but whose faith has been placed in the same God – are disturbed and even frightened by how you continue to support this president.

Does this distinction makes sense to you? It’s not your preferred political party that is the issue. It’s your disinterest toward your family in Christ that troubles so many of us. Over the past two years I’ve listened as you have described your attraction to this president. Yet not once have I seen the cares and concerns expressed by Christians of color be met in any way other than dismissively or defensively. I’m still waiting for the Trump-supporting white Christian who will show genuine interest and concern for those people of color who she is related to in Christ, and whose lives have been made less safe by this president.

I’ve heard some of you, in response to what I’ve said so far, complain that I’m picking on white Christians. Given the nature of cultural differences, you’ve told me, the ignorance across racial differences goes both ways in our churches. But this is plainly wrong. Our family members in Christ who exist outside the boundaries of racial whiteness don’t have the privilege of remaining ignorant about us white people. It might surprise you to know that many, many Christians of color can describe precisely – even sympathetically – why you voted for this president. That they know more about us than we do about them is a simple function of a society which contains a racial majority.

But what is normal within our racialized society should be alien to our churches. We who have been grafted into the family of God have no rationale for maintaining our ignorance about our fellow family members. When, for example, black Christians describe the fears raised when the president wants innocent black men sentenced to death, it must be the response of the entire church to attend closely to these fears, to make them our own. Or when the president releases a patently racist ad directed, once again, at Latino/a immigrants, all of our churches must feel the attack and sit with one another in solidarity and lament. Our churches, as witness-bearers to our reconciling Savior, are meant to stand together in response to every injustice that affects any of us.

I’ve spent the last couple of years looking for any example of this sort of solidarity without any luck. So what would you have us do? We, your fellow Christians, who are asking not for your vote but for your compassion?

It’s an honest question. As best I can tell, you would prefer to support an administration that actively harms members of the Body of Christ without believing those members when they describe the harm they’ve experienced. To say it slightly differently: You have made yourselves the authority about the lived realities of Christians of color in order to disregard their own descriptions of their realities.

I once heard a Native American Christian describe his many years of being ignored and disbelieved by white Christians. Despite his best, thoughtful attempts, the majority of white Christians simply wouldn’t take seriously his painful experience of the country. He finally came to see white Christians as the weaker sibling described by Paul in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians. He decided he had to change his expectations about them, imagining white Christians as immature children rather than emotionally mature and compassionate adults.

I realize how that characterization stings. I feel it too. But you’ll understand, I hope, how many of us are grasping at explanations for why you remain content in your detachment and disinterest from the rest of your Christian family.

What do I want for you? I’ve asked myself this a lot over these two years. I’m still working it out, but here’s what I’ve got for now: I want my fellow white Christians to take our allegiance to the Kingdom of God more seriously than our American citizenship. Which is to say, I want white Christians to love and believe the rest of our Christian family.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Photo credit: Jake Guild.

Litany for the 2016 Election… and today.

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I wrote the following litany for the Sunday after the 2016 presidential election. I’m posting it now because the prayers seem as relevant today as they were then.

Leader: Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. [i]

People: Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation. [ii]

Leader: We gather in sadness and grief. We come with anger and cynicism. We will not hide our fear or cover up our anxiety.

People: Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked. [iii]

Leader: A president has been elected whose actions have abused and whose words have slandered and dehumanized.

People: Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation.

Leader: A president has been elected who instills worry and doubt in our children; who has promised to police our neighborhoods with increased militarization and racially-discriminatory tactics; who has legitimized the sexual and emotional abuse experienced by many women; whose policies oppose those struggling on the margins.

People: Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked.

Leader: A president has been elected for whom money is god, for whom celebrity is currency, and for whom laws are manipulated for personal gain.

People: Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says: “There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square. [iv]

Leader: Our churches are divided. We proclaim the same Lord Jesus, yet our political loyalties are easily predicted by race. We lament the divisions and the compromised witness to the gospel. We lament the blind eyes and deaf ears of so many who would not hear the concerns from their family in Christ; who would not believe the testimonies of those who feared the presidential nominee’s ascent for how he threatened the safety and flourishing of families and neighbors.

People: You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? [v]

Leader: Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be. [vi]

People: Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? [vii]

Leader: Teach us to love one another, our neighbors, and those who appear to be our enemies. Give us your vision for the abundant life promised by our Savior even here, in this place of grief. Show us through the power of your Spirit when to resist and when to create, when to tear down and when to build up. Remind us of the saints who lived faithfully before us, often in the face of terrible persecution and suffering. Grant us their courage and joy.

People: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? [viii]

Leader: We pray for everyone who is most at risk in this political moment. For immigrants and Muslims; for those at risk of state-sanctioned violence; for the impoverished; for the vulnerable and despairing; for refugees who flee war; for the segregated, disenfranchised, and gentrified; for all of our children; and for ourselves, we pray.

People: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?

Leader: The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him. [ix]

All: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. [x]


[i] Psalm 58:1-2
[ii] Psalm 43:1
[iii] Psalm 43:1
[iv] Amos 5:16
[v] Psalm 43:2
[vi] Psalm 58:3-5
[vii] Psalm 44:23-24
[viii] Psalm 43:5
[ix] Psalm 37:39-40
[x] Psalm 43:5

Litany for the 2016 Election by New Community Covenant Church (Bronzeville) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Gentrified Church-planting

After an ad for a new church on the west side of Chicago popped up in my Instagram feed the other day, I posted this:

A handful of folks took issue with my snark; some suggested that I could be misreading the ad, misrepresenting the church’s intentions, or that I could reach out the church as a bridge builder. These suggestions all came from white people.

I understand these suggestions and I should probably tone down the sarcasm. But what I think these well-intentioned friends might be missing is the context wherein a white, suburban church starts a new church in an urban neighborhood which has been predominately black for many years. This is a neighborhood that saw white flight and institutional disinvestment when African Americans began moving in. For many years it was host to a high-concentration of public housing before those complexes where destroyed to make room for mixed-income housing which precipitated massive development, gentrification, and skyrocketing housing prices.

Over the generations, this neighborhood has been anchored by black churches – “gospel-centered, bible-believing” – churches. Yet now, as long-time residents are being pushed out, this suburban church enters the neighborhood.

I have no reason to doubt this church’s motives. I’m sure their pastors and leaders are capable and godly people – I really mean this! – who are willing to sacrifice much for this new ministry. But regardless of intentions, this common move for white churches to begin ministries in gentrifying neighborhoods, and to then describe themselves in a way that sounds as though the gospel has not been faithfully proclaimed and embodied for generations, this is what is frustrating to me. And, I think, sort of demeaning to those Christians who ministered faithfully long before we white folks would have ever considered coming to that particular neighborhood.

I’m not saying anything new here; Christena Cleveland and Soong-Chan Rah have both said similar things more precisely before. And yes, I suppose I could be more of a bridge-builder in these situations. It’s just that it happens so regularly in a city like ours that it’s hard to muster up the energy for yet another awkward conversation.