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.

Transgressing Whiteness

33897495274_9df3399f90_kAlmost daily I hear someone claim that the president has crossed a new line, that surely now his white Christian supporters will abandon him, or at least acknowledge (some of) his faults. It happened again yesterday after his press conference with Russia’s president. But this hoped-for line will never be crossed.

This president will never transgress the ideology most sacred to Trump’s white Christian supporters, their whiteness itself. We’ve watched him violate most of what politically-active white Christians have traditionally said is sacred about the USA: respect for the military, forms of sexual morality, even basic Christian doctrine. The president has repeatedly flaunted all of these and his supporters remain.

But this president will never transgress whiteness so he won’t lose the support of those Christians whose identity, it turns out, is primarily racial rather than ecclesial. Racist dog whistles, nostalgia for European culture, sympathy with white nationalists, violent responses to Latino/a migrants, slandering black nations… these aren’t embarrassments for Trump-ian Christians but assurances to their most deeply-held beliefs and fears. The sacred line that would need to be violated in order to lose these Christians is too deeply embedded within the president himself for him to ever cross. He shares this with his supporters… so he will never, ever lose them.

(I’m aware how deeply pessimistic, even cynical, this sounds. But the more precise we can be about the disease within much of white Christianity, the better we can address the sickness at its source. The treatment, I’m convinced, is a matter of discipleship, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Photo credit: Gray Salvation.

Come Get Your Boy

Ted Olsen has written incisively over at Christianity Today about how much – or, more accurately, what kind of – public criticism of the president Christians should engage in.

With the US midterm elections a few months away, this is not a call to political silence, to a privatized, “spiritual” faith. Rather, this is a call to speak politically as the Bible does. We should be on guard against talking about Trump more than Paul talked about Nero—especially if we’re talking about Jesus less than Paul talked about Jesus.

Given how much I’ve written about this president since the days of the campaign, Ted’s caution is directed at people like me. If I read him correctly he’s not asking the president’s critics to retreat into spiritual quietism, but to reflect on the proportionality of our criticism when compared with our proclamation that Jesus alone is Lord. This is important and I’ll be mulling it over for a the foreseeable future.

But – you just knew there’d be a but – the other thing the editorial makes me think about is the significance of where one’s criticism about the president is directed. Many of my politically liberal friends are regularly, and understandably, distraught over what this presidential administration says and does. A singular vision of what America was, or, at least, was moving toward, appears to be snatched away with every relentless news cycle. These friends rebuke the president persistently; their anger and disappointment pushes hard in the direction of one man and his many accomplices.

I sympathize but it’s hard for me to find the energy to join their cause because, I think, I’m unable to see this country as hopefully as they have. Chalk it up to a childhood overseas and a decade among friends who’ve never seen themselves as the objects of America’s affections, but the good old days don’t seem so good and the inevitability of a just future not so… inevitable. It’s not that this president is benignly tending to the institutions of our democracy, it’s just that the community to which I’m bound – made up of immigrants and the descendants of the enslaved – has long suffered the damage done by these same institutions.

Despite this patriotic ambivalence, I’ve hardly been quiet about this president. He’s an unrepentant racist and a sexual predator whose policies are wreaking havoc on vulnerable places and people.  But the direction of my criticism – and that of many other Christians – is only tangentially directed at the man himself. Ted’s editorial rightly asks us to notice how the early church mostly ignored the empire and its emperors. (My favorite example of this studied disinterest comes in Acts 12 when Herod basks in the blasphemous praise heaped upon him by the disingenuous crowds in Caesarea: “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.” And then, in the very next verse, in a sentence surely constructed to show just how inconsequential this puppet king was to the church’s Lord: “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.”) But there’s an important difference between the early church in the Roman Empire and American Christians today: There were no first century Christians wearing red Make Rome Great Again hats while claiming that God had raised Nero to the throne to restore church and state to their former glories.

When compared with their risen Lord, no emperor was worth that much of the early church’s time or energy. I’m not sure it’s all that different for us, which is what Ted is getting at. The difference, though, is that today there are many Christians, powerful ones, singing Nero’s praises, tossing our pearls before swine. And this does deserve sustained and vocal critique. It’s true that focusing too much on this president will diminish the church’s witness to our Lord. I’d add that too little criticism of the emperor-loving church in this moment will also gravely damage our ability to point to the Lord in whose presence all other lords must bow. Paul may not have said much about the emperor, but he was plenty vocal about allegiances and idolatries.

In the run-up to the election, back in December of 2015, comedian W. Kamau Bell directed a Facebook post to white people. He wrote, “Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, I don’t care if you had no plans to vote for Trump or anybody, if you are white, he is your problem above all else.” And then, in what I take to be an easily transferable appeal to the American church,  “Simply put, white people, come get your boy.” For American Christians who see the sinful damage actively inflicted by this president, our boy to get is the Christian gleefully cheering him on. To this Christian we say, Jesus is Lord, but also, Nero is not.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk.

The (Criminal) Body of Christ

This country’s president and his supporters regularly criminalize entire groups of people, most obviously the immigrants who’ve been called murderers and rapists but also those from so-called shithole countries and the people the administration has labeled animals by dent of their association – actual or perceived – with gang activity. The repercussions of this consistent dehumanizing rhetoric is daily becoming more evident; the stories of children torn from the arms of their families – parents fleeing genuine violence and seeking asylum – are gut-wrenching. But when people are no longer people, simply criminals whose offenses against this country must be punished, we, the citizens of this aggrieved and apparently besieged country, do not have to consider the nuances of the actual human experience. We don’t have to admit our complicity in the violence that has forced these families to make impossible decisions. We don’t have to grapple with the Christian responsibility to love neighbors and welcome immigrants.

37558660855_8041a2aa18_o

Remaking people into criminals allows us the deception that flesh and blood is no longer human. Our response to other image-bearers of the living God is to slander, cage, and expel them.

When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.

Paul writes that the church is the “body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” This body has a history of being criminalized. Jesus’ life ended as a criminal- arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. It is this identity that rationalized his crucifixon, that allowed the religious and political powers to wash their hands of any guilt. The Galilean heretic and zealot got what he deserved. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, notes that the Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for insurrections and rebels. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.” Criminals were crucified and the body into which we are incorporated hung on a cross, as a criminal.

Jesus also commanded his disciples to follow his example by taking up their own crosses as they followed him. We interpret his instructions to be about the sacrifices associated with discipleship, but we shouldn’t miss the meaning of the cross to those first disciples. To them it was a symbol not of spiritual self-denial but of societal criminality. Rebels, rabble-rousers, and young Galileans who fit the description were hung from roadside crosses by the hundreds, their expiring bodies a permanent mark of their non-human status within the empire. By instructing his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus was making them criminals in their society’s estimation. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her book about the crucifixion, a church that lives into its true identity is one which understands “itself as the community of the cross, the community that suffers-with (com-passion), the community that willingly bears the stigma of the passion in service to others.”

The church, as Christ’s body, is criminal in the eyes of empires and powers and its members willingly pick up the symbols of dehumanizing criminality in the pattern of our crucified Savior.

Today, though, it seems that American Christianity, at least of the privileged variety, avoids any association with the empire’s criminals in one of two ways. Some have associated so closely with partisan politics that they’ve come to see, through the empire’s eyes, criminals instead of people. And so we hear pastors and ministry leaders rationalize and spiritualize the administration’s violent policies. Others have created a moral high ground, a respectable and seemingly prophetic perch from which to lob sanctimonious pleas about justice without ever drawing near to those who are being oppressed. Identities are created by opposing the president and his supporters without incurring any actual risk. Racial privilege and class segregation keep these Christians safe from being joined together with those who’ve been criminalized.

What is needed in this time of pervasive dehumanization is for churches to reclaim our criminal status.  We must pick up our crosses – our border walls and jail cells – and follow the criminal messiah. We must trade our bland reputations for the fire of his gospel- freedom for captives announced by the crucified one. And we must associate intimately, to the point of being indistinguishable, with each person whose humanity has been made criminal.

“Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate.”

Black congregants — as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere — had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel. There was still some hope that this stemmed from an obliviousness rather than some deeper disconnect.

Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshipers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to N.F.L. players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Obama, claiming falsely he was not a United States citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were the compromised.

– “A Quiet Exodus: Why Blacks Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches” in The New York Times. I’m not sure we’ll ever know the extent of the negative impact this past election had on the lives of individual Christians. I’ve heard a lot of stories about disgruntled white progressive evangelicals who found themselves to be further out of step with the rest of their churches than they’d previously imagined. But this is the first story I’ve read about the particular spiritual damage inflicted by white churches on black Christians, people, it must be said, who genuinely wanted to find spiritual homes among white Christians.

As an aside, I spoke with the reporter, Campbell Robertson, months ago as he was working on this piece. He struck me then as a trustworthy narrator of this very particular experience of American Christianity and I think the article bears that out. It’s always refreshing to read good religious reporting.