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.

Preaching While White on MLK Sunday

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here. It was obviously written for MLK Sunday, but I think the content remains relevant.

A few years ago a friend invited me to preach at his mostly white suburban church the Sunday before MLK Day. I happened to have a couple of friends who attended this white pastor’s church – an Asian American woman and an African American man – who would have been excellent preachers for that Sunday. I also asked my friend if he wouldn’t prefer a mutual friend of ours, an African American woman who is the best preacher I know. No, he replied. My people need to hear about racial justice from a white man.

I’m guessing that a lot of mostly white churches will have guest preachers in their pulpits tomorrow. Most of these will be back men and women who will preach godly sermons that will convict and encourage the congregations to pursue the biblical mandate to seek justice and mercy. But I keep thinking about my friend’s decision to invite a white preacher into the pulpit on MLK Sunday.

My friend’s decision, if I’m remembering right, was motivated by a sense that white people are more likely to hear challenging things about race from other white people than they are from people of color. And because he was self-aware enough to know his own limitations and knowledge, he wanted another white pastor to preach the gospel of the kingdom on that particular Sunday.

His instincts, I’m hate to admit, were good. Over the years my colleagues and mentors of color have pushed me to speak to other white people about race and racism. They’ve experienced enough cold shoulders and turned backs to know that, for many white people, it’s just not possible to hear the truth from a person of color. And as long as this ugly dynamic persists, I’m personally committed to showing up in those white spaces when given the opportunity. Perhaps I might do a bit of the spade work that will allow those same colleagues and mentors to be heard and believed some day in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

But as I was working on my book and thinking about these things through the lens of discipleship, I thought about another expression of my pastor friend’s pulpit supply wisdom. When it comes to race and racism, white people have been formed to locate the center of those conversations among people of color, especially black people. Over this country’s history, the reality of racism and racial injustice has been couched as the “Negro problem,” the “race problem,” or the “problem of race relations.” For white people, the problem is over there and we expect to hear about from people who come from over there.

You can hear hints of this assumption in the recent interview Joe Biden did with the editors of the New York Times. He was asked, “How specifically should the country confront its history of slavery, discrimination and plunder of black America?” After responding that those who are acting oppresively must pay if their actions are criminal, Biden went on to describe a reason some families of color might be struggling today.

And the people who don’t show up on the nights when there’s a parent-teacher meeting are not people who in fact don’t care, but folks from poor backgrounds. They don’t show up because they’re embarrassed. They’re embarrassed the teacher’s going to say — and it’s hard to say, “Well, I can’t read,” or “I don’t …”

In the former vice-president’s imagination, the focus of addressing the impact of racism is on the families who’ve experienced racism. This tends to be how white people perceive the so-called race problem: It’s theirs. And we can be sympathetic or callous but most of the time we’re not going to see it as ours.

So it’s reasonable for a church that has few people of color in attendance or leadership to welcome a preacher of color to the pulpit once a year, on the Sunday we’ve set aside to acknowledge the existence of a reality we will spend the rest of the year ignoring.

And this is why, in hindsight, I think my friend’s invitation was brilliant. By inviting a white man into the pulpit on MLK Day Sunday, he was messing with our assumptions about the gravity of race and racism. He was, subtly perhaps, helping his white congregation understand their own complicities and responsibilities. He was lining up with what Frederick Douglass said so many years ago, “The true problem is a national problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.” Or, in the case of the church, whether we have enough faithfulness to live up to kingdom of God.

So, if you’re in a position to invite some guest preachers next year, maybe mix it up. Have a thoughtful white preacher step up on MLK Sunday. And then invite your colleagues of color to guest preach on some other Sunday, on any text or topic they want. Help your people see that our responsibility is greater than we’ve typically imagined and that our sisters and brothers of color have expertise and experience much broader than we’ve been led to believe.

Scapegoating the Racists

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

My family moved to southern California the summer before my freshmen year of high school. That was the summer the Lakers lost to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. I think that loss was totally incidental to my decision to become an LA Clippers fan because the Clippers were so much worse than the Lakers. Sure, the Lakers may have lost to the Bulls but at least they got to the finals. Or made the playoffs. Or had a winning season. Oh man, the Clippers were horrible.

(Why did I choose the Clippers when most of my new friends were Lakers fans. I’ve no idea, though it probably reveals something about a contrarian personality that persists to this day.)

We all knew the Clippers were bad – it was so gratifying, and surprising any time they won – but most of us casual fans didn’t know about the particular badness of their owner, Donald Sterling. I had pretty much forgotten about my days as a Clippers fan until Sterling fell into the news a couple of years ago, his racism on public display thanks to recorded voicemails courtesy of his mistress. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with – walking with black people.”

Apparently Sterling’s racism was an open secret and eventually he was forced to sell the team. (The Clippers are now consistently decent. I was a couple of decades early.) All of this came back in vivid detail as I listened to ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast about the Sterling saga. It’s a really interesting look at the backstory that led to Sterling and his wife owning the team, the shady ways they build their fortune, and the racism that shaped how Sterling thought about his players, the black players particularly.

One of the things that caught my ear was how the host described the racist things Sterling was recorded saying. I’m not sure it was quite hyperbole – it was, after all, terrible stuff – but I got this sense that she wanted all of us to understand that she understood just how terrible it was. In a later episode one of the players who was on the team when Sterling’s racism broke into the open talks about his confusion about everyone’s reaction. He says something to the effect of: Everybody knew this guy. Why are you acting shocked now? Just because it’s public? It was an interesting contrast with the host’s disdain.

I thought about the collective reaction to Sterling back when the story broke. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.

Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?

All of this is a long way of getting at a tendency those of us who pursue racial justice should aim to avoid, especially those of us who are white and Christian. Scapegoating the obvious racist feels good for how I’m distanced from racism, but it does very little beyond feed my self-righteousness. The good work comes when I wonder about the similarities between Sterling and myself. Where is the propensity toward (racist) sin shared between us? Where might his public shame provoke personal repentance and confession?

Self-righteous scapegoating feels really nice for a few minutes, but it does nothing to address the racial injustices that persist long after Sterling was forced to sell his team. For that, we need a bit more honesty and humility.

Remembering a [Christian] Woman We Should Have Never Forgotten

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

I recently reviewed a new book about Ida B. Wells for The Englewood Review of Books. The book, Passionate for Justice: Remembering a Woman We Should Have Never Forgotten, was co-written by a retired white pastor and an African American professor. It was that subtitle that caught my eye. Wells has become a hero of mine; I included her in the acknowledgments at the end of my book. I’ve read much of what she wrote and I love driving visitors by her house, just a couple of miles from where our church meets for worship. The more I’ve learned about this journalist and activist who was also a Christian, the more puzzling it’s been that more people aren’t familiar with her. So you can imagine why this book grabbed by eye.

Here’s my confession, something I didn’t mention in the review: I was kinda disappointed by the book. I remember doing research in the University of Chicago Library which holds the Ida B. Wells papers and coming across an entry in her journal. She was 19 or 20 years old and had just returned from a New Years Eve service at her church. In this entry she describes her desire to grow in her faith in the coming year, to live out her beliefs with greater intention. Something about her words really impacted me. The incredible work that Wells had done as one of the very few people speaking out against lynching had been driven, I realized, in large part by her Christian faith.

A few years ago I heard a black pastor lament that one of the tragedies of race is how it keeps us from entering the experiences that human beings ought to share naturally with one another. I’ve thought about her observation a lot and I think it gets to my disappointment with Passionate for Justice. I wanted a book that introduced or reintroduced Wells to American Christians – especially the non-black Christians who have likely never heard of her – as a Christian.

Of course, this book wasn’t written with this in mind, so I’ve no reason to be let down. But still, it’s reminded me that there are far too many Christians who don’t know about Wells as someone whose faith is worthy of esteem and imitation. When I was a student at Wheaton College Graduate School one of my professors, in passing, mentioned the importance of reading Christian biography. The stories of the faithful saints who went before us can help us find our own way along the narrow way of Jesus. But race has kept a bunch of us of us from knowing many of these saints and their stories.

So, if you don’t already, get to know Saint Ida B. Wells. A Sword Among Lions and To Tell the Truth Freely are both good biographies. This is a good collection of some of her journalism and advocacy and it includes Frederick Douglass’ fantastic introductions.

Will there be racists in heaven?

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

A few weeks ago a friend retweeted a well-known bishop who is vocal in his opposition to racism who had declared something along the lines of: I’d rather not go to heaven if I’ve got to be there with white evangelicals. To this my friend added, “I hope to have a good conversation with the bishop about this a few thousand years from now.” To his witty response, I commented,

Reminds me of a large group conversation I was in yesterday…

Person: “Will there be racists in heaven?”

Me under my breath: “I sure as heck hope so or I’m in a world of hurt.”

I’m still thinking about this short exchange. I think my friend’s response was right: I expect many of us will be surprised about who we’re spending eternity with. And I think mine was too: If sin of any kind – including racist ones – is going to keep someone from heaven than I’m out.

And yet. I think there’s more to wonder about here.

During the same meeting I mentioned in my Twitter comment we found ourselves discussing which Christian doctrines are worth going to the mat for and which fall into an agree-to-disagree category. Or, to use the language of the bishop’s provocative tweet, which Christian beliefs can be considered central-enough to salvation that they might impact a person’s salvation? In our meeting the example of racism was brought up. Might one’s posture toward racism be an example of something that, however odious and deadly, might be considered a non-essential to Christian orthodoxy?

You can imagine that there were some differing opinions on this question. Those of us for whom racism remains largely in the abstract – a sin to resist and repent of – were willing to consider it a matter of great importance, but perhaps not raised to the level of orthodoxy. (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine for some of us white Christians this open-heartedness has to do with those family members we love who remain happily ensconced in their racism. It’s tough for us to talk about the theological significance of one’s beliefs about race when the people we’re talking about are grandma and grandpa.)

And then there were those whose experience with race and racism is absolutely real. They experience in their bodies the desecration of the imago Dei and there is nothing secondary or peripheral about it.

In her important new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, writes plainly about the heretical nature of racism and white supremacy.

Racism is an interlocking system of oppresion that is designed to promote and maintain White supremacy, the notion that White people – including their bodies, aesthetics, beliefs, values, customs, and culture – are inherently superior to all other races and therefore should wield dominion over the rest of creation, including other people groups, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.

Racism, Walk-Barnes points out repeatedly, is not a matter of private prejudice or relational separateness; it is a matrix of beliefs and behaviors which systematically elevate some at the expense of another person’s suffering. Viewed – experienced – thusly, it’s hard to make a case that racism is anything other than a central concern of Jesus’ gospel. And so it must be for all of his followers too.

Juneteenth

In 1905 African Americans in Richmond celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the end of slavery.

I wrote the following for our church newsletter in anticipation of our Juneteenth Worship Service this coming Sunday. I offer it here for those who aren’t familiar with this important tradition with the hope that others will see the many theological implications of this commemoration of freedom.

On June 19th, 1865, the Union commander of the Department of Texas arrived in Galveston, Texas and went to a prominent home at the center of the city. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued more than two years earlier, but slaveholders in Texas had kept the news from the women, men, and children they enslaved. From the balcony the commander read out General Orders Number Three.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

Having been declared legally free years earlier, Texas’ African Americans now learned of their freedom. June 19th immediately became a day to commemorate freedom, and in the ensuing years Juneteenth became an essential holiday for a people whose freedom within a racist nation could never be taken for granted.

In a chapter about Juneteenth, historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner writes about the importance of Juneteenth to formerly enslaved people’s memory.

The powerfully subversive collective memory that former slaves and their descendants preserved found its way into public space almost every year, a reminder to the nation that African Americans, while sharing a common history with white southerners, did not bow to the icons of Confederate bellicosity or deny that freedom was immensely preferable to bondage.

The free women and men who left behind enslavers and captivity made their way in a nation that rarely recognized their freedom. They were met instead with a narrative that sanitized those who had kidnapped, exploited, and tortured them. They were told that their lives were better during slavery. They walked beneath hastily erected monuments to heroes of the Confederacy.

Within this white supremacist culture, Black people’s decision to publicly commemorate Juneteenth with parades, speeches, and special church services was a conscious act of resistance, a choice to develop a “powerfully subversive collective memory.” This memory would cut through racist retellings of history. It would tell the truth about African American dignity and freedom. It would put the dominant culture of white supremacy on notice- though it had grown powerful through theft and exploitation, it’s deceptive rationale had been exposed.

Celebrating Juneteenth was not only a bold declaration of freedom for the captives, its existence was a word of righteous judgment against white supremacy and all those who buttressed it’s malicious narrative and benefited from its deadly plunder.

Young Leaders: Here Are 10 Ways to “Lead Up” for Reconciliation and Racial Justice

My most recent article for Missio Alliance has been posted.

The concept of leading up within organizations is common. Leading up, when done well, benefits the entire congregation, as the insights and innovations of youth are brought into conversation with the foresight and wisdom of older generations of godly leadership.
This dynamic is important when it comes to racial reconciliation and justice, particularly among majority-white churches. Given the inertia of racial privilege and the insulating impact of racial segregation, these churches benefit from the idealistic voices of younger leaders. If these women and men can leverage their influence up the leadership ranks with wisdom and humility, the entire church stands to grow in racial reconciliation and justice.

Read the rest on the Missio Alliance site.