Diplomacy Doesn’t Work

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

During our ministry staff devotions this week we ended up talking about what our Christian responsibility is to those in positions of power whose attitudes and beliefs about racial justice (among other areas) are damaging to people. These powerful individuals could be a parent, a boss, or someone whose own access to racial privilege grants them a measure of power.

It’s not a theoretical question. I’ve had lots of conversations in recent months with people who’ve been wrestling with exactly this. How do I respond when I see, overhear, or experience a racially damaging perspective or action? After this initial question comes the follow-ups: Who might be impacted if I don’t respond? How will my silence be interpreted? What will be the personal cost if I speak up?

One of the ways I think many of us respond to these sorts of scenarios is by being diplomatic. Our strategy is to determine which sort of response will be most effective in getting the powerful offender to change. So, when that racist thing is said or done, we start asking how questions: How can I get this person to see what they’ve done? How can I gain this person’s trust so that I can say the difficult thing? How can I bring up this racist encounter without alienating them?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very good diplomat. I’m unable to keep anyone at the table and I certainly can’t know, on any given day, what is just the right way to point out that instance of racism.

In the end, much of our attempted diplomacy ends up being little more than negotiating around the edges of an inferno. Or some polite conversation amidst unmitigated theft and plunder.

I’ve come to believe that Christians oftentimes take the diplomatic approach in order to avoid telling the truth. By focusing on the how we overlook the what. What damage has been caused by this person’s words or actions? What lie has been advanced? What truth needs to be articulated? As followers of the embodiment of truth, our loyalties are to the Truth, even when it’s impossible to speak that truth diplomatically.

During our staff conversation I said something I’d not quite verbalized before: I think the Holy Spirit is the diplomat. We are called to speak the truth in love. It’s not our responsibility to determine whether the truth will be received or not; this is something that God alone can do.

So let’s not confuse our timidity with an effective diplomatic strategy. Let’s pray for courage and commit ourselves to speaking the truth all the time. (Try this, for example: The president is not investigating election fraud; he’s attempting to disenfranchise voters of color.) And then let’s trust that the Holy Spirit is more than capable to make even the most powerfully heard-hearted person tender to the truth.

(A postscript: None of this is easy, especially for those of you who will experience painful repercussions for speaking truthfully. Here we need two things. First, wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. Wisdom, unlike our attempts at diplomacy, never tells half-truths. And thankfully, the Spirit wants to give us wisdom. Second, for those with some racial privilege, the constant reminder that whatever blow-back we experience from telling the truth about racism pales when compared to, you know, experiencing it.)

Hoping in Herod: An Election Day Lament

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

But the word of God continued to spread and flourish. (Acts 12:21-24)

This quick narrative is among my favorites in the Bible. King Herod has come down to Caesarea and a group of his subjects who’d previously been a nuisance to him now sought an audience to flatter his fragile ego. “They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’“

The timing of this little story is important. Acts is a book all about the spread of the early church and, until this point, very little has been said about Herod or any other governing authority. But then, in chapter twelve, Herod begins to persecute the church, including imprisoning the apostle Peter. Peter is freed from his chains by an angel, but the point has been made: the young church can no longer escape the attention of political power.

It’s interesting, then, that a few verses later Luke sets up the scene in Caesarea. Having flexed on the church, Herod now basks in the blasphemous praises of his subjects before suffering a dramatic and ignoble death. Herod, it turns out, despite his fawning crowds, is not all that impressive.

And then, revealing why he included this strange occurrence at all, Luke adds that God’s word continued to flourish. Neither Herod’s persecution in life nor his humiliation in death were enough to stop the Christians from announcing the arrival of God’s reign.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about the grief of the past few years. We’ve had our own Herod on the throne, a fragile and corrupt man whose need for the crowd’s adoration has proven insatiable.

But this is not the source of my grief. After all, we’ve known plenty of Herod’s kind of ruler in our history and there will certainly be more to come. No, the grief is provoked by the fawning crowd, singing the praises of a violent and deceptive man prone to dehumanizing those over whom he exerts his fickle power. This assembly is filled with my fellow Christians, heirs of the word of God which extends the divine welcome not because of this world’s kings but despite them.

I’ve spent some time with Dr. King’s reflections over the past few weeks and I hear this grief in him too: the lament over the silence of his supposed friends, the white Christians who continually urged him to slow down, the many Christians whose faith seemed to make them more violently opposed to their neighbor’s flourishing.

I’m not sure King ever got over that grief. I’m not sure we should either. God’s vision for his people is beautiful: reconciled to one another, bound together in our baptismal waters, a witness to Herod that his oppressive reign will not last. How can we help but to lament when we don’t find our sisters and brothers offering comfort and hope in Herod’s destructive wake but standing with the crowd, urging him on?

God’s love extends to the crowd; about this I have no doubt. I’m no more worthy of the love of God; about this, too, I’m sure. In fact, it’s this shared experience of God’s love which has made these years so hard. The gospel of Jesus’ kingdom is going to spread and flourish regardless of the outcome of this election, but too many of my own kin have pinned their hopes to Herod.

There will be a lot of reactions to the election today. For Christians though, our witness compromised by another arrogant and manipulative ruler, lament will mark our response no matter who wins.

Local Countercultures of Reconciliation and Justice

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

I’ve recently been listening to “Motive”, a podcast produced by our local NPR station about the rise of of neo-Nazi skinheads in Chicago and beyond in the 1980’s. It’s pretty troubling stuff, as you can imagine, and it’s hard not to make connections to the white nationalists of our own day.

Christian Picciolini was in the thick of this racist movement before he got out and he’s the primary narrator throughout the podcast. A lot of what he describes is interesting (and, again, troubling) but I found his descriptions of how young people were recruited into the skinheads to be especially eye-opening. For the most part, people don’t accidentally become neo-Nazis. Christian describes a process through which likely recruits are identified, their fears played up, and then an offer of camaraderie and protection is extended. It’s all very intentional.

I spend a fair bit of time trying to convince white people that white supremacy is bigger and more subtle than the story being told on “Motive.” I describe it as our societal operating system, humming along in the background to encourage the ugly outcomes of our racial hierarchy. I want people to stop reducing white supremacy to burning crosses, hooded marchers, and… neo-Nazis.

Clearly we still need to be concerned about these sorts of overt and violent racists; they hadn’t gone away in the 1980’s and they’re still around today. But I still think our focus should mostly be on the operating system. Those young people who were attracted by an ideology of hate existed within a larger society that tolerated that ideology and, in some cases, fostered it. The podcast describes one of the south side Chicago neighborhoods where many recruits came from as one of the last holdouts against white flight. The local school boundaries were gerrymandered to keep the schools mostly white. Were the elected officials and community leaders who made these decisions hoping their children would become neo-Nazis? I doubt it. But they certainly contributed to a culture which made such a drastic choice a little more possible.

There are two things this podcast has me thinking about. First, where are the cultures we foster in our churches leading? Will the young people in our churches be any less likely than their peers to agree to the racial status quo in this country? The data aren’t encouraging.

Second, does the intention of our churches to disciple people into the just and reconciling kingdom of God match the purpose of those who are intentionally recruiting people into hateful ideologies? I worry that it doesn’t. Too often it feels like our goal is to make nicer American citizens instead of disciples who’ve counted the cost of our faithfulness to Jesus.

We’re living through fraught days; white supremacy is an insatiable and violent idol. We need many more local congregations who are nurturing countercultures which point to God’s justice. It won’t just happen though. We need to be intentional.

The Truth of the Protest

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

Why is it that you can know how terribly something will turn out and still be devastated when it does? This is what I was wondering on Wednesday afternoon after the grand jury declined to indict anyone for Breonna Taylor’s killing. When I read about the protest planned for that evening by Saint Sabina Catholic Church, I knew that’s where I had to be.

I’ve been to a lot of protests over the years and have helped organize a few. I knew how the space would feel: a mix of sadness and anger layered over a deep resolve to hold back the despair.

When I walked up to the church I saw that we’d be a relatively small group. Father Mike caught my eye and kind of smiled. And then, after reminding all of us why we had gathered, he and some of the church’s youth led us a couple of blocks to a large intersection where we proceeded to inconvenience traffic for the next thirty minutes. “Your commute is delayed, but Breonna Tayor is dead,” someone shouted.

As with many protests, our small group chanted, lamented, prayed, and kept silent vigil. But the thing I started thinking about on the drive home, the thing I keep coming back to is the way the truth was spoken so plainly at that intersection. There were no debates about the legality of what the police officers did that night in Louisville. There were no questions about whether Breonna or her boyfriend somehow deserved to have their front door knocked down. There was just truth: This is wrong. It has always been wrong. It has gone on so long. How much longer Lord?

There was more truth proclaimed in thirty minutes from that intersection than has ever been spoken from many pulpits and platforms.

There were a few of us pastors in the crowd that evening and I wish, in these days especially, that more pastors would show up to a protest. But what we really need is for more truth-telling protest to show up in our pulpits.

What do you do when the horribly unjust thing that you knew would happen happens? You join a protest, letting your small voice join a chorus of others who’ve determined, despite everything, to keep telling the truth.

Can white Jesus be saved?

First posted to my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week, in my little corner of the Internet, some people were wringing their hands about white Jesus. As statues and monuments to the Confederacy are being torn down, some people have begun to wonder whether it’s time to remove representations of Jesus which portray him as white.

To these suggestions, others countered with the fact that Jesus has often been portrayed with the cultural and ethnic distinctions of the person artistically representing him. A good case can be made that these diverse representation actually point to one of the unique claims made by Christians, that God became one of us. The miracle of the incarnation comes into view each time Jesus is represented in a culturally accessible manner.

I think too of Lamin Sanneh’s work on the translated nature of Christianity into particular cultures. “[With] the shift into native languages, the logic of religious conversion assumed an internal dynamic, with a sharp turn away from external direction and control. Indigenizing the faith meant decolonizing its theology, and membership of the fellowship implied spiritual home rule.”

Christianity, Sanneh asserts, is a religion which expects itself to be translated into the cultural vernacular. The linguistically and culturally diverse pilgrims of Acts 2 didn’t have to get help to understand the disciples’ message; the Holy Spirit translated it.

In other words, there are traits inherent to Christian faith which provide a certain logic for culturally diverse portrayals of Jesus. So, what’s the problem with white Jesus?

The problem is theological. White Jesus is not an expression of cultural or ethnic uniqueness. Rather, he represents the move away from the Jewish particularities of Jesus to a racial construction in which, in Willie Jennings’ words, “the body of the European would be the compass marking divine election.” It’s not that white Jesus represents the incarnation to a particular group of people; he claims a universal power to represent God to all people. White Jesus is not one cultural expression of the gospel’s ability to translate itself into many cultures; he represents the erasure of those cultures.

So, should white Jesus come down? Well, how about this question: Can white Jesus be displayed in a manner that doesn’t reveal what his racialized nature was meant to communicate? In other words, can white Jesus take his place as yet one expression among others of the incarnation of the Son of God? Or is there something inherently anti-Christ (anti-incarnation, anti-contextualized translation of the gospel) about this image’s whiteness?

For me, the answers are no, no, and yes. How about you?