Singing in the Dark

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Johnny Dark

At some point each day, having listened to the same song most of the day, Johnny Dark takes out his phone, points it toward a mirror in his darkened home before hitting record, and begins to sing. When he’s finished he uploads the song to his YouTube channel where it joins a collection that has been building for years.

I learned about Johnny Dark from a recent episode of This American Life. It turns out that the man singing from the seclusion of his living room has been in show business most of his life, an old school entertainer turned stand-up comedian best known for appearing regularly with David Letterman on The Late Show.

Early during the show we learn that the videos Johnny Dark uploads to his channel don’t have that many views. As I write this, his most recent five videos have been watched 31, 60, 28, 20, and 18 times. Why would a man who has spent his life preforming for crowds dedicate time each day to learning, recording, and uploading a song that almost no one will ever watch?

When he is asked a similar question toward the end of the interview Johnny Dark’s answer comes quickly. “It was in my heart, just like my wife. When I met my wife I had no choice. I didn’t want to get married! But that’s what love is, love doesn’t give you a choice, I don’t think. And neither does show business.”

Resurrection and Return

A few years ago I stayed with a friend on the west coast. At the time, my friend and his family were hosting some of their long-time friends from Europe who had spent many years serving refugees and migrants. These were some of the kindest and more joyful people I’d ever met; their dedication to the people they served was inspiring. During my short visit we enjoyed good conversation and French wine that was far too complex (expensive) for my unrefined palate.

At some point during one of these conversations this couple asked about my own ministry and the characteristics of racial reconciliation and justice that shape it. After I’d candidly described how entrenched white supremacy is in the US American context, including in many of our churches, they asked me about hope. Given the long odds against seeing the diminishment much less the defeat of racism in our lifetimes, what sort of hope animates our commitments?

Why do we keep singing if no one is watching?

I answered honestly, that my Christian sense about any question of sustaining hope must be rooted in Christ’s resurrection and return. Hope is entirely a matter of faith- that the tomb is empty, a sign of what is to come when the will of God is known finally and completely on earth as it is in heaven.

But don’t you see evidence of change, of progress? my conversation partners wanted to know. Don’t these bring you hope? Of course there are always signs of life. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

But we don’t often interpret the signs of the times accurately, or we miss them entirely. If hope depends on our own experiences of any given day, or month, or… well, we can quickly imagine hope as an accessory worn by those privileged enough to have more good days than bad. Any hope that is more responsive to what I’m capable of experiencing than to the tether holding me between Christ’s resurrection and return is a hope too weak to sustain me in the face of this world’s cruelty.

My new European friends didn’t quite disagree with this, but it wasn’t what they were looking for either. I was tempted to say more, to share some of the ways I’d seen racial reconciliation take root in our church. But this wouldn’t have been true; every time I think I see a mustard seed take root another is snatched from the path. At some point I began to learn that the truly sustaining hope must remain beyond what my eyes could see and my senses interpret.

One Year Later

I’m thinking about the anchors the keep us true as more than a year has past since George Floyd was murdered. What is it about this instance of public brutality? I heard asked again and again over the past twelve months. What’s different this time? The questions were motivated by a visible phenomenon: white people speaking out and showing up for racial justice in numbers without precedent in this country. We’ve not seen this before, said friends who knew what they were talking about.

I wondered though, is it different? Today, white people’s support for Black Lives Matter has dropped across the board, efforts at police reform have largely stalled, and corporations continue to play both sides, sloganeering with justice language while hedging their bets with contributions to politicians who are bent on rolling back access to the ballot.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking with white pastors and ministry leaders who are trying to lead their people toward justice. In their congregations the action, if there is any, is generally limited to book discussions and the occasional sermon. And even these tiny steps, so small as to border on offensive given the fraught circumstances faced by those outside the privileged walls of whiteness, even these innocuous steps are often vociferously opposed. Pastors are slandered and maligned; some have been fired and others have resigned for the well-being of their families.

They want to lead their people through the narrow gate, but it can seem as though no one wants to follow.

Exile Songs

Psalm 137:4 asks, what is for me, one of the more haunting questions in Scripture. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” It’s a question on the edge of despair. How can we sing – fight, work, organize, worship; how can we continue – when nothing around us awakens our song? When nothing around us has changed? When the exile appears complete?

I hope this is the question many of us are asking. Rather than sliding apathetically backward into the status quo, I hope we are at least asking whether it’s even possible to sing in this strange land. Because if we’re willing to ask, we might be shown an example, if not given an answer, by those who long ago found their voices in exile.

The question of hope, of anchors, of exilic songs has for generations been wrestled to the ground by faithful Christian people – Black and Brown and Indigenous women and men. It was these sisters and brothers who came to mind when I recently read Katherine Sonderegger’s description of the suffering saints.

This is why believers who suffer, sometimes brutally, sometimes through a long, harrowing life, can nevertheless lift up their voices to God not only in lament but also and more in praise. It is not that these faithful ones… blind themselves with cheap consolation, nor sigh with only protest allowed a suffering and desolate life. No! These lives of special sanctity have been made “more than conquerors” by their encounter with Reality itself, with the Divine Nature that just is Dynamic Life. The veil of this mortal life has been lifted, the door opened into the heavenly realm, and Life burst forth.

Johnny Dark’s solitary concert in the dark is impressive, not for its consistency but for where it comes from: an identity so rooted in song that he cannot help but sing, to hell with the view count. How much more astonishing is the legacy of the persevering saints, the ones who sing songs of righteousness and justice in exile and who’ve passed down the lyrics and the melodies from generation to generation. They sing – we sing – because we’ve encountered Reality itself. “This,” Sonderegger goes on to write, is not explained in Holy Scripture, and we are not given a theory of God’s indwelling His creation. Rather, we are shown it. And this is ‘wonder.’”

Mustard seeds. Yeast. Treasures hidden in a field. Signs and wonders, hints and glimpses of that thread which holds us fast, taught between the resurrection and the return. This is what will keep our faces set toward justice when eyes and ears fail us. This electric tension, running backward and forward, stretching through ancestors and descendants in the faith, is what inspires our songs at the edge of Babylon’s dark waters.

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: Zain Ali.)

CRT: Enough Already!

I can predict when it will happen. During the past twelve months, I’ve been invited to more online Q & A sessions than I can remember with groups around the country who are reading Rediscipling the White Church. (Let me know if you’ve got a group reading the book and would like me to drop in!) I genuinely love these conversations and have learned a lot from these women and men who are committed to leading their churches and communities to racial solidarity. It’s super encouraging.

But at some point, usually after a few initial questions, someone is going to bring it up and I can feel it coming. “How do I respond to people who accuse me of promoting critical race theory?” Of course the bogeyman isn’t always critical race theory (CRT). Sometimes people are being called Marxists, liberals, or whatever label will neutralize their attempts to pursue justice.

Thankfully there are an increasing number of resources for people who want to catch-up with what CRT is actually about and how it has become such a scary thing to some people. (See this conversation between Korie Edwards and Nathan Cartagena, this article in Faithfully Magazine by Cartagena, or this in Christianity Today by D.A. Horton on a missiological perspective of CRT.)

But after being on the receiving end of so many questions about CRT – some asked in good faith, others with an agenda behind them – I’ve concluded that we’re in danger of becoming distracted from the good work of racial justice and reconciliation.

It would be one thing if white Christians had a history of active and courageous participation in justice. If, after generations of faithful work there was a concern about this new development of CRT which threatened to lure us away from allegiance to Jesus. But we don’t live in that alternative universe, do we?

In the world in which we all actually live, white Christians have a long history of finding any excuse to remain apathetic or oppositional to racial equality. Previous generations were frightened by the social gospel, communism, liberalism, etc. We always seem to find a reason to spend more time debating whether Christians can pursue racial justice than, you know, actually doing justice.

So, what do we do when people ask (or interrogate) us about CRT? I know many of you have found yourselves on the receiving end of these questions. Well, unless you’re a CRT scholar or have done a bunch of research, here’s my posture these days.

Ask yourself, is this a good-faith question? It’s possible that someone has heard about this scary CRT thing and wants to know what you think about it. You might share some of the articles or interviews above to show how thoughtful Christians have engaged with CRT in a non-anxious manner. In my experience, in this case it’s pretty easy to guide the conversation back to the biblical imperative to seek justice. But if the person has an ideological axe to grind, and unless the Holy Spirit makes it real clear that I need to stick it out, I’m going to politely step away.

Why? Well, in addition to the sorry record we white people have about excusing our apathy, there are plenty of other people who are actually open to productive conversations. They’re just typically not the noisy ones. They may not be up-to-date in their racial vocabularly and, if we’re being honest, their prejudice and racism may be just barely below the surface. And yet, they are open. They are willing to learn. They are willing to change their opinions and perspectives based on new information and new opportunities to experience something other than they have known.

I fear that by spending so much time debating with people who only want their own biases confirmed – you know, the people filling your inbox with Candace Owens tweets and videos – we end up overlooking the people near us in whom the Holy Spirit has been moving.

Does this mean we shouldn’t defend ourselves against those who attempt to derail, distract, and sometimes even defame us? That’s a question we each need to discern personally. I can only say that as a white man with an immense amount of cultural privilege, I do my best not to defend myself. In my experience, the trolls lose interest when they’re not being fed.

There’s another reason not to get sucked into these constantly shifting excuses-disguised-as-moral-concern. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus uses the imagery of trees which produce good or bad fruit as a way to warn his followers away from false prophets. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Mt. 7:18-20)

There are times for debates and arguements. But for the Christian, these times will be kept within their limits and won’t be allowed to distract us from who we are called to be, people who produce good fruit. Fruit which is, in John the Baptist’s words, “in keeping with repentance.” (Mt. 3:8) Because here’s the thing, accusations of being a CRT agitator or a Marxist sympathizer or a whatever whatever are only signficant if we aren’t producing fruit of righteousness and justice. And the more time we spend debating the partisan and racial ideologues, the less capacity we have to attend to the good work that God is doing all around us.

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: Monstera).

Worship → Justice → Worship

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Last week I shared ten characteristics of biblical justice. (If you’re interested, I expanded the the list into an article for Missio Alliance.) Of those ten, I’ve found myself regularly returning to this one over the past year: justice begins in worship. Today I want to tell you why I think this one keeps surfacing for me and why I hope those of us who are waking up to injustice will lean into worship.

When it comes to justice, my most significant formation has come through relationships with Black women and men and their churches. What I’ve noticed is that, for many of these Christians, the pursuit of justice is theologically and experientially tied to worship. I mention this for two reasons: 1) the connection wasn’t always intuitive to me and 2) there are plenty of Christians for whom it is and theirs are the voices we need to pay closest attention to.

Now, about that connection. God does not simply command his people to seek justice, though he does. God is just. “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts.” (Isaiah 5:16) To really understand justice, according to Scripture, we need to know God. And one of the primary ways we know God, not simply know about God, is through worship.

Animated by the Holy Spirit, we proclaim our singular allegiance to the Lord Jesus. We adore him above each of our desires and longings. We join our voices and lives with God’s people and testify to the One through whom all that was created derives its being.

In worship, we encounter that righteous God. This is the God who cares that the scales of justice are balanced, that land is honored with rest, that animals – domesticated and wild – are respected, that workers are dignified, and that vulnerable outsiders are protected.

The friends and churches who have formed my perspective know how to worship. Proclaimed allegiance and sung affection are priorities. This wouldn’t surprise many white Christians, but here’s what might. I’ve stood with many of those same friends in the middle of protests, marches, and die-ins as we agitate for justice. I’ve been invited to their tables as we plan, strategize, and fund raise for justice for our communities. Worship and justice, in these space, are a seamless garment.

And here we need to ask the obvious question. If our worship does not lead to justice, who exactly are we worshiping? Surely we have remade the God who severely condemns injustice into a benign deity who affirms ill-gotten wealth, privilege built on oppression, and the stolen land we delusionally claim to own.

Many of us remember God’s command to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) We might forget, though, that this is a command to worship, a contrast to the people’s empty festivals, assemblies, and offerings. God wasn’t asking his people to stop worshiping in order to do justice. He was exposing their actions for what they were, an idolatrous form of worship which led to injustice. Like many of us, it seems Israel had remade God into their own self-serving image. As a result, justice was neglected. Worship too.

There’s something else though, something that, for the Christian, makes the relationship between worship and justice wonderfully and permanently tangled. As Vince Bantu writes in Gospel Haymanot, “God’s desire for our liberation is so that we may worship Christ alone.” Justice points beyond itself, to its source. Worship leads us to pursue justice, yes. But also, justice fulfilled leads to worship.

Frankly, I’m nervous that as some Christians are waking from their privileged slumber, they will overlook the importance of worship. Because their previous forms of worship ignored God’s true nature, they will assume that justice is separate from allegiance and adoration. They will construct methods and strategies that pay only the faintest lip service to the righteousness and justice of their God.

I understand this misguided tendency. It’s hard to pursue what you’ve never seen. But just because you can’t imagine this beautiful tangle of worship and justice doesn’t mean that a whole host of Christians haven’t been living it for generations. For many of us, the journey to justice needs to begin with finding some guides and friends who know the way. Thankfully, there are many who know this truth in their bones, that justice begins and ends with worship.

(Photo credit: Luis Quintero)

Ten Characteristics of Biblical Justice

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week I spoke (online) at a church in California. They had assigned me the topic of biblical justice which ended up being a good excuse to think about what we might actually mean by that phrase.

Often, in my observation, there’s a certain kind of Christian who talks about biblical justice so as to assure other (nervous) Christians that they’re not dabbling in social justice. (Why that certain kind of Christian is nervous about social justice is a newsletter for another day.)

But despite this strange use of the word “biblical” to limit what is meant by justice, I am a Christian and one those for-real-for-real Bible-believing ones at that, so it seems reasonable that there could be some constructive ways of thinking about how the Bible helps us imagine justice. I ended up sharing ten characteristics of biblical justice with the California church, and I’m going to share them again here in a condensed form. Mostly I’m interested in what you think I missed. What’s another characteristic that should be on the list?

OK, without further ado, here’s my list along with a scripture or two for each.

1. Justice is God’s idea. (Deuteronomy 16:20) Justice might be new for some, but it’s been God’s idea since the beginning.

2. Justice is affirmed by Jesus. (Luke 4:18-19) For lot’s of good reasons, most of the Bible’s direct language about justice is found in the Old Testament. It doesn’t take long, though, to see how Jesus affirms his Father’s expectations that his people will seek justice.

3. Justice begins in worship. (Isaiah 5:16) Christians who’ve only recently woken up to the biblical concern for justice can easily miss the connection with worship. Don’t be that person.

4. Justice demonstrates God’s sovereignty. (Deuteronomy 4:40) God desires that all of the creation would flourish under a people living justly. When we live that way, we are demonstrating God’s caring sovereignty over the world.

5. Justice is social. (Exodus 23:6; Leviticus 25:1-5) That Leviticus passage is one of my favorites in the Bible. No, really! Here we see that God’s understanding of justice is one that includes all of the social fabric of the creation. Individuals matter but, biblically speaking, you can’t engage the individual outside of their social situation.

6. Justice prioritizes the truth. (Exodus 23:1-3; John 14:6) Christians will refuse to prioritize the comfort over the truth. (Which ends up being a lot harder than it sounds.)

7. Justice prioritizes the oppressed. (Exodus 20:9-10) I’m always amazed that the sabbath commandment includes “your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” Those who were most vulnerable to exploitation were given the same weekly gift of non-productive rest. Could our own society be any more different?

8. Justice humbles the powerful. (Matthew 23:23-24) This privileged white man has way too many stories to illustrate this one.

9. Justice is a normal part of the gospel-anchored life. (Matthew 19:8-10) Zacchaeus is so instructive: confession and repentance lead him to do justice. Justice is not occasional for the Christian, but wrapped up in the normal stuff of the gospel on which we depend daily.

10. Justice leads to reconciliation. (Romans 3:25-26; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19) What does justice have to do with reconciliation/forgiveness? is a question I’ve been asked way too many times. Those of us who are rooted in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus understand the importance of justice being satisfied for genuine reconciliation to be accomplished.

All right, that’s my very incomplete list. I’m curious to know what you’d add.

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.)