Loving Opposition

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

On Wednesday, two weeks prior to the election, our church began two weeks of prayer and fasting. For a template we are using a list of 10 commitments that Dr. King’s movement used in the non-violent movement in Birmingham. Each weekday we’re reflecting on one of the commitments, sometimes with slight updates, and a corresponding scripture passage.

Yesterday we looked at the third commitment: “Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.” The scripture came from John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” For being so simple and direct, both of these caused me some dissonance.

One of the reasons we called the fast was a sense that the days before and after the election will call for American Christians to demonstrate a particular kind of faithfulness and courage. The possibility of deception, chaos, and even violence is not hard to imagine given what we’ve seen in recent months and how so many influential voices are willing to stoke those destructive instincts.

What makes the third commitment feel particularly difficult to me in this moment is the way so many of my fellow-Christians have themselves aligned with or been animated by these dangerous leaders. What does it look like to believe that these sisters and brothers are so thoroughly wrong – and wrong in a manner that threatens lives – and still love them?

Of course, any struggle of mine to love is small when compared with what the participants of the non-violent demonstrations faced. In that case, the adherents pf Christ’s command to love were daily faced by those who made of themselves violent enemies. And yet, I’ve heard the testimonies of those who chose to love their enemies even as their bodies were bruised and beaten.

I find that what the philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul wrote about prayer helps me imagine a non-violent expression of love. He wrote, Prayer is never other than a sequel, a consequence, a response, to the word of invitation If it is not God who is speaking, then there is nothing. The relationship is begun before the idea of praying occurs to us. I never have the initiative. Otherwise, prayer would in fact be a discourse, a monologue.

Prayer, for Ellul, is a response to the word of God which has already been spoken. It does not create something but acknowledges what has already been created and revealed in Jesus Christ.

I hear a similar expression in Jesus’ command to love. We love as a response to the love that God has expressed in Jesus: “As I have loved you.” We do not create the circumstances which allow us to love others. That possibility has already been accomplished in God’s love for us.

King and those who committed to the way of non-violence, were opposed in their freedom struggle by mobs who claimed to share the same Christian faith. It was necessary and right for the leaders of the movement to state plainly their disagreement with these fellow-Christians and to tell the truth about the many ways the segregationists and racists were doing terrible damage to people and their communities. And still, they refused to enter this spiritual battle armed with anything less than love, “for God is love.”

This, I’m convinced, is what is necessary in the days to come. We need Christians of every race, ethnicity, and culture to obey Christ’s command to love one another. And the witness of the non-violent movement reveals that this command is best understood and expressed not from the comfort of a church pew but from wherever those who fashion themselves as our enemies present themselves. We can love these men and women because we stand on the objective foundation of God’s love for us. It’s the same reason we can place our bodies in peace-making opposition to those same people when they align with violence and deception.

The command to love one another is not at odds with our obligation to seek justice. They are, in fact, sustained by the One who calls us to both.

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.

Acknowledgment is better than ignorance. Confession is even better.

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

I’m sure some of you saw the new research about Christians and racial justice released by Barna this week. Here are a few relevant sections:

There is actually a significant increase in the percentage of practicing Christians who say race is “not at all” a problem in the U.S. (19%, up from 11% in 2019). Among self-identified Christians alone, a similar significant increase occurs (10% in 2019, 16% in 2020).

There is, however, a boost in Christians’ willingness to strongly agree that, historically, the U.S. has oppressed minorities—from 19 percent in the 2019 survey to 26 percent in the summer of 2020.

Meanwhile, the number of those who are “somewhat motivated” [to engage racial injustice] has shrunk and the number of those who are motivated has held fairly steady over the past year, indicating some of those who might have previously been on the fence about addressing racial injustice have become more firmly opposed to engaging.

Some minority groups are, naturally, highly motivated to address the racial injustices that may affect them. Among self-identified Christians, Black adults in particular (46% “very motivated”), followed by Hispanic adults (23% “very motivated”), are eager to be involved—something few white self-identified Christians express (10% “very motivated”).

In short, American Christians in general are less willing to pursue racial justice, with white Christians leading the way, even as we are more willing to acknowledge past instances of racial injustice.

It seems we are watching an entrenchment happening in real time. Despite the very public instances of racial injustice we’ve all witnessed in the past few months, many Christians have found reasons to keep justice at a distance. Why?

Maybe we get the hint of an answer in the data that suggests a greater willingness to admit to racial injustice throughout our nation’s history. To be clear, there are plenty of people who struggle even with this as was evident this week in the president’s speech unveiling his 1776 Commission.

Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.

There are still those working to whitewash our history of racial terror and trauma. Willful ignorance remains an attractive option for many Americans. So, the fact that a few more people are willing to tell the historical truth is good, even if it’s a pretty low bar.

So what might keep a person who can see past injustices from seeing them today? I wonder if it has to do with a sort of cultural individualism that severs a person from the generations before him or her. An understanding of persons as completely autonomous beings allows for us to acknowledge the ugly stuff of yesteryear because, well, we weren’t around.

(There’s more to say about how this hyper-individualism and generational detachment hamstrings Christian attempts at racial justice, but that will have to wait for another time.)

But our tone changes when we move the timeline forward; now it’s us we’re talking about. Could it be that our unwillingness to see injustice today has very little to do with the awful facts as others experience them and a lot to do with an unwillingness to admit our entanglement with those facts?

There’s a big difference between acknowledgment and confession. The first requires a bit of information and sympathy; the second, a tolerance for uncomfortably close truth and a whole lot of humility. Which is what makes Christians’ unwillingness to see today’s injustices so disappointing. Shouldn’t we know something about confession? Doesn’t the gospel provide a platform strong enough for the truth?

I think we do and think it does. Who’s with me?

White fragility is spiritual immaturity

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

Here’s a confession: I haven’t read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Over the past couple of years, conversation partners have sometimes assumed that I’ve read it – You know, like how DiAngelo writes about white people in her book. – and I’ve generally just nodded along. That’s probably not a good thing and I hope to get to the book one of these days; it’s obviously been helpful to a bunch of people.

(One of the reasons I’ve yet to get to the book is that I’m prone to prioritizing books about race, including about whiteness, by people of color. If memory serves, the only white authors I engaged on the topic while writing my book were Wendell Berry, my friend Daniel Hill, and Eula Biss, a white woman whose essays about race are not nearly well enough known.)

White fragility – the concept, not the book – as I understand it has to do with the all-too-common tendency for white people to crumble in response to relatively straightforward conversations about race and, in particular, whiteness. As DiAngelo puts it in one interview, “For a lot of white people, the mere suggestion that being white has meaning will cause great umbrage.”

As I’ve listened to white Christians talk about the patterns associated with white fragility it often sounds like they are describing what, in some Christian circles, we might call spiritual immaturity. Throughout his epistles, Paul often urges the young Christians to grow up in their faith, to put away childish behaviors. And isn’t this what white fragility describes? Defensiveness, deflection, selfishness, denial, etc.

These are the sorts of reactions we might expect from a child or, in Christian terms, a spiritually immature person. Rather than having the depth to sit with tension or conflict, the fragile/immature person makes the moment about himself and steers the conversation away from the thing that deserves attention.

Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in the immature white Christian’s refusal to hear the truth. Rather than absorbing difficult new insights having to do with, say, historical racism or the nature of racial privilege, the immature Christian defaults to debate and denial. This happens, horrifyingly, even when a Christian of color is narrating the truth about her own life and the impact of racism on it. Surely we could expect that, between Christians, white people would be able to hear and hold painful truth. But no, oftentimes our fragility reinforces the deceit which defines so much of the white experience.

White fragility is real, and yet I find myself wanting to highlight the biblical language of immaturity and spiritual growth as I talk with white Christians. The reason for this has to do with a worry I have. In the time I’ve shared with Christians of color, especially African Americans, I’ve come to see the biblical language and theological imaginations for conversations about racial justice which many of these friends have access to. They belong to communities of faith which have histories of thinking, talking, and acting in response to racial injustice with the mandates and metaphors of Scripture.

White Christians, on the other hand, usually have none of this. We lack the biblical vernacular and theological constructs to respond thoughtfully to, for example, systems of white supremacy. And so, as we awaken to racial injustice, we grasp for tools and language wherever we can find it. But we don’t expect to find it within our own faith tradition because, well, our segregated congregations haven’t been interested. So the good and helpful tools of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and history become our guides and we don’t even consider the fact that many of our fellow Christians have found the deepest wisdom to be found in the same Bible we esteem so highly.

I don’t think we shouldn’t read books like White Fragility. Not at all. There is so much helpful history and analysis out there and we ought to read widely. Rather, the solution to our bereft imaginations is to push through the bounds of our segregation so that we can begin to see how others in our Christian family have read the Bible. We can listen to preachers of color, listen to old gospel music, read theology by women and men whose traditions have always found biblical insight for confronting racial injustice. I could go on, but hopefully the point is plain: as Christians we have access to a spiritual tradition which many have long found to provide wise resources for the battle some of us are just now waking up to.

So, for now at least, when I observe my fellow white Christians exhibiting our trademark fragility, my response will be, Grow up! You can say the same to me.