Favor in the Wilderness

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”

This is what the Lord says:

“The people who survive the sword
    will find favor in the wilderness;
    I will come to give rest to Israel.”

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again,
    and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
    and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards
    on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
    and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out
    on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.’”

– Jeremiah 31:1-6

My family lived in Southern California during my high school years and one spring break we drove a couple of hours east, into the Mojave Desert. What we found was not a dry and desolate place, but a landscape with patches of green, soft blue skies, and bursts of wildflowers in every direction. After the winter rains, the desert wilderness was full of life.

The people God sent Jeremiah to found themselves in a wilderness. The Kingdom of Israel had splintered in two, and the Northern Kingdom had been carried into exile. Judah, in the south, was left uncertain and afraid about its future. Violent empires rose around them, threatening their existence. Exile seemed inevitable. And into this moment in time, God had his prophet Jeremiah remind his people of his past favor to instill hope in his future provision. There would be life and favor in the wilderness.

There are many ways to describe this collective moment in which we find ourselves. But maybe you’ll agree with me that, among its other characteristics, these weeks have been a wilderness. Not only is the pandemic ravaging our world, once again it is those furthest from our society’s power who suffer the most. Asian Americans have been scapegoated. Immigrants are expected to continue working so that the rest of us can shelter in place. Indigenous communities are suffering disproportionately from the virus. Here in Chicago, while making up only 29% of our city’s population, African Americans represent 70% of those who’ve died from COVID-19. This is a wilderness; a terrible and terrifying wilderness. It can feel God-forsaken.

Is it? The answer from Jeremiah to God’s splintered people was, No. In this wilderness you are not forsaken. Even here, even now, a there is a future worth living toward. On this Easter morning, on the other side of the crucifixion, I want to remind us that the same is true today. No wilderness can overpower our hope if it is established in Christ’s resurrection.

If we’re to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s two declarations in this passage. We need to hear his declaration about our past and his declaration about our future.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. These verses dance between the past and future. God says, “I have,” and “I will.”

[31:2] This is what the Lord says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.” The sword recalls Israel’s flight from Egyptian captivity and Pharaoh’s army. After being saved by God through the parted sea, the people stood before the vast wilderness. From the frying pan into the fire.

We know this feeling today. If we make it through this catastrophic moment, then what? What about our job, our educational goals, our retirement? God’s answer to his people then, and to us today, is: There is favor in the wilderness.

The Hebrew word for favor is not about God being nice to us or giving us the things we think we need. Favor can be seen in that well-known blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. 24 “The Lord bless you and keep you;25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” God’s favor has to do with his presence, with his relational nature. The people had been freed from slavery into favor.

And rest too, according to Jeremiah. Enslaved people are not granted the daily and weekly rest for which our image-bearing humanity is made. And so to be granted rest, even in the wilderness, is a sign of God’s intentions. It’s a vision of flourishing humanity, no matter the circumstances.

God is reminding his people of the favor and rest he showed them in the wilderness. Their current events had made them forgetful. Where is God now? Why has God allowed this to happen to us? What future can we possibly imagine for ourselves?

Of course, we get this tendency. The more overwhelming our circumstances, the more forgetful we become. We want to get back to the way things were. But in their wilderness moment, God doesn’t have Jeremiah remind them of their normal days, or even their great days. Instead of pointing back to the days of King David or Solomon, God brings their memories to the wilderness: Pharaoh’s sword, the terror of the escape, the gaping wilderness before them.

Could it be that in our own wilderness moment God might ask us to remember our wildernesses of the past? That time you were sick, heartbroken, homeless, jobless, friendless, abandoned, alone. When we remember the wildernesses of the past, we also start to remember what God did.

And when we remember what God did, we start to remember who God is. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. [31:3] God is a verb and a noun: loved with love. God is love itself. His unfailing kindness is a covenant love; a never-quitting, unstoppable love. There is no human equivalent. This is why we remember those previous wilderness times.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. I showed you favor. I gave you rest. I loved you with an everlasting, unstoppable love.

Today we remember that when Christ took our sin to the cross, we could finally be at rest. Self-righteousness died. Striving for perfection died. Pleasing others, earning merit… all of our toiling died.

Today we remember Christ’s everlasting love. He loved us when we opposed, misunderstood, abandoned, betrayed, convicted, mocked, and crucified him. And on that Sunday morning his love sent the authorities scurrying and the demons fleeing; it sent Mary rejoicing and his disciples running with expectation.

On that first Easter morning, God’s everlasting, never-quitting love took back what the death had stolen. His love tore through dividing walls and ripped through curtains of separation. His love was an earthquake- raising the dead to life, loosing chains of oppression, shaking foundations of power.

The power that raised Jesus from the dead is a power that makes this everlasting love a reality to behold. If we are paying attention, we will fall to our knees before this resurrected love. We will stammer and quake before it. Our knees will knock and mouths hang open. There is nothing tame or safe about the love of God. A love that led through a bloody cross is nothing to be trifled with.

But it is eternal evidence that you are loved with an everlasting love. This love has raised you from death into life. This love is transforming you from the inside out. This love has brought near the kingdom of God, pushing back the shadows of our rebellious world.

It’s a strange request to make on Easter, even stranger during a pandemic but would you remember a previous wilderness? Remember God’s loving-kindness. His rest. His favor in the wilderness. Don’t let today’s wilderness make you forget about God’s yesterday favor in the wilderness.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we also need to hear God’s declaration about our future. Our Passage begins: “At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.” [31:1] These are a splintered people and this is a promise of reunion.

God reminded his people of their past; now he points ahead. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. [31:4] But what, precisely, does this mean? Well, God provides three characteristics of the future promised to his people.

God’s future will be joyful.  Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. [31:4b] This is a spontaneous joy. It’s not the pre-planned excitement of a birthday party or a holiday. There is simply joy in the air.

God’s future will be marked by justice. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. [31:5] Samaria was, at that time, occupied. So this is a picture of reunion, but not only that. The people tending the land will also enjoy its fruit. No sharecropping here. No enslaved people toiling for someone else’s benefit. No undocumented immigrants forced to work for subsistence wages. Those who steward the land will enjoy its fruit. There will be no lack in God’s future.

And God’s future will be full of worship. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God. [ 31:6] Like Samaria, Ephraim was occupied territory. So this too is a vision of reunion, but it’s not a return to normal. Worship is not coerced in God’s future. It does not compete with idols or ideologies. It does not turn a blind eye to injustice. The worship in Jeremiah’s vision is whole-hearted. It is the purpose of a people reunited.

Now, an obvious question for a people in the wilderness who are hearing God’s vision for the future might be: Do we have to wait for these things? Are we to sit around until this future arrives? The answer is provided a few chapters earlier, in Jeremiah 28, when God invites his people to begin living into this future now. For a people in the wilderness, God provides a vision of joy, justice, and worship. It’s a vision that can be lived into in the wilderness.

This is a challenge for us. In the wilderness we want to return to normal. But God is calling us forward into something new. A lot of us can’t wait to get back to normal. But I’ve seen your normal – and mine – and I don’t think it something we should settle for.

On this Easter morning, we might also remember that Jesus didn’t come to return us to normal. Jesus didn’t battle the devil in the wilderness to bring us back to normal. He didn’t confront the religious and political powers to bring us back to normal. He didn’t drive out demons, heal blind eyes and diseased bodies to bring us back to normal. Jesus didn’t raise little girls and old friends from the dead, he didn’t give himself over for betrayal, abandonment, arrest, beating, mocking, and crucifixion to bring us back to normal. He certainly didn’t storm the gates of hell or ascend to the heights of heaven or raise with nailed scared hands and a sword pierced side or trample the head of sin, death, and the devil so that you could get back to normal!

Israel needed to hear God’s declaration about the future while they were in the wilderness, not so they could dream about the good old days but so that they could build for God’s new day. Please don’t settle for normal when God has done something new. As N.T. Write puts it, “Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.” (Surprised by Hope, 67)

The resurrection is a future word bursting into our today wilderness. Behold, I am making all things new! A word of joy, justice, and wholehearted worship. The opportunity of this wilderness season isn’t about your old normal; it’s about the new creation accomplished by the resurrection of the Son of God.

Can I suggest that your desires for normal are not strong enough? They are faint shadows of the desires you were made for. You were made for joy. You were made for justice. You were made for worship. Let those small desires open you to the real thing: new creation streaming into this sick and weary world; breaking into our sadness and grief; redeeming our losses.

When we hear God’s declaration about our future, we understand that nothing in this wilderness can overpower our hope.

In the wilderness, God speaks to his people’s past and to their future. Remember your previous wildernesses. Did I not give you rest? Did I not love you with an everlasting love? Did I not show you loving-kindness that could not be overpowered by anything in the wilderness? I will build you up again. You will dance with joy. You will plant with justice. You will gather in worship. Reoriented by these divine declarations, the people’s hope is restored. For it becomes clear that with God, there is favor in the wilderness.

I know some of us are tired, sick, and despairing. Does the message of Easter ring hollow in the wilderness? Then let the let the despised and rejected one draw near. Let the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief draw near. Let the despised one; the one who bore our infirmities and carried our diseases; the stricken, afflicted, wounded, and crushed one draw near to you today.  He knows the wilderness. He has suffered the wilderness. And he will walk through this wilderness with you.

Turn your face to the one whose countenance is always upon you. Look to him today. He has won your future. His new creation, one day to be fully realized, is even now growing in the wilderness.  

24 “The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” [Numbers 6:24-26]

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.

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.

Seeing Through Cruelty

When I arrive at Jackson Park, having walked briskly the fifteen minutes from our apartment and crossed the footbridge which, for me, marks the edge of the neighborhood and the beginning of the park, I instinctively slow down. In warmer months the swallows swoop from under the bridge, chasing the insects which skim across the surface of the lagoon before returning to their nests hidden somewhere beneath my feet. I often have the paths and trees to myself so, aside from the distant traffic on Lake Shore Drive to the east and Stony Island off to my right, there aren’t many noises to compete for what I’ve come listening for: the birds. Not that I actually know what I’m listening for; I don’t. Anything that sounds like it might be a bird gets my attention. And so I walk slowly, one of my ears cocked slightly toward the canopy, trying not just to hear but to listen.

Listening like this is new for me. This winter is only the second that I’ve made this walk my weekly habit and the difference between the two is that I’m just slightly more aware of how poorly I’ve noticed the birds that populate the alleys, shores, and parks around our neighborhood. I’m learning to listen, and to see.

This spring I stood still for a long time near a willow that leans over the lagoon. Small flashes of yellow caught my eye. The warbler was dancing from branch to branch, disappearing and then, suddenly, perched again within my view.

Yellow Warbler

The little bird kept circling where I’d stopped along the mulch-covered path. Why hadn’t she moved on? I wondered. Then she dropped into the branches of a very small tree, about the level of my chest, and I knew. I’d stumbled into her front yard, or maybe it was her back porch. Either way, for the rest of the summer I’d stop and look. Soon there were two small eggs, the size and shape of one of those foil-wrapped chocolates my boys might eat at Easter, a dull white and covered in brown speckles. She’d flit around my head during most of my visits, finally resigning herself to my intrusive presence and perching herself proudly on her delicately built nest.

I pointed my boys toward her nest during one of our walks and they strained to see. Eventually the eggs hatched and the mother and her young vacated their little home. They’re somewhere in Central America now- Guatemala, or maybe Panama. At least I hope they are.

+++

Earlier this year it was reported that, since 1970, the number of birds in Canada and the United States has dropped by almost 30%. There are something like 3 billion fewer birds today than there were then. Habitat loss from industrial scale agriculture and development along with pesticides which impact a bird’s ability to gain enough weight for migration seem to be the culprits. Warblers, like the responsible mother in Jackson Park, have been especially hard hit: their numbers have dropped by 617 million. It staggers the imagination.

When my boys walk through the park with me, looking and listening for birds, I think about these small deaths, staggering in scope. There is a meadow we walk through on our walks, the height of the grasses marking the time of year. A sign along the path informs the walker that this is the Bobolink Meadow, named after a species that used to frequent the area. Which other birds used to make the trees and fields along this lagoon their habitat? Which of the birds we are used to seeing are slowly, imperceptibly to my novice eyes, disappearing?

Black-Capped Chickadee

Reading about these massive population losses raises in me a sense of helplessness. How do we even begin thinking about reversing such a dramatic decline? There is an awful feeling of inevitability about these incomprehensible statistics. But of course, it isn’t inevitable. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) dates to 1918 and was meant to protect vulnerable populations of birds from their human neighbors, including “any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” The MBTA is an explicit acknowledgement of our collective responsibility for the vulnerable birds with whom we share space and fate. It requires companies to take reasonable measures to protect birds and their habitats. But then, in 2017, the current presidential administration reinterpreted the MBTA so as to benefit industry and commerce. It’s the birds who’ve suffered.

In nearly two dozen incidents across 15 states, internal conversations among Fish and Wildlife Service officers indicate that, short of going out to shoot birds, activities in which birds die no longer merit action. In some cases the Trump administration has even discouraged local governments and businesses from taking relatively simple steps to protect birds, like reporting fatalities when they are found.

“You get the sense this policy is not only bad for birds, it’s also cruel,” Mr. Greenwald said.

Cruel. That’s the word I’ve returned to during this year of learning to listen and see. Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about this inhumane tendency last year, when word of the policy change was first announced.

They’re so easy to kill, birds; or rather, the power of human industry is so profound that only a little carelessness — the slightest abdication of that deeply human impulse to know and understand — is tremendously destructive for them. Perhaps this is why dead birds so often stand in literarily for human cruelty and corruption: Coleridge’s senselessly killed albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, or the titular species of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But maybe that’s the heart of it, and maybe that’s the heart of the Trump era: permitting cruelty without consequence for the powerful. It’s harmful to the weak — birds, in this case, whose beauty needs no argument — but also to the strong who, in the exercise of cruelty, become less humane, less human.

+++

In her essay, Bruenig notes that in “the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells His followers that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge.” This is part of what makes the deaths of so many birds cruel, but I think there’s more to it. In the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, birds and other animals are often portrayed with great tenderness; the worthiness of our concern seemingly self-evident. So the psalmist writes, in God’s voice, “I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.” (Psalm 50:11)

This divine care for creatures is presumed upon God’s people as one of our responsibilities. In Deuteronomy, in a section of practical instructions about how to live well in their new land, the Hebrew people are told what not to do when happening upon a bird’s nest. If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” (22:6-7) Every time I stumble onto these verses I’m happily stunned by God’s concern for his people and for the animals within their care. And also by the explicit connection between the well-being of the birds and our own.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” sang Mahalia Jackson, “and I know He watches me.” But according to Scripture, my own eyes are also meant to be on the sparrows, finches, thrushes, sandpipers, and, one day maybe, the Bobolink.

Hermit Thrush

And this is where I’m caught short. The cruelty inflicted on the birds with whom I share a neighborhood is not some shapeless, inevitable thing. It is my own. The decimation of their habitats and their young is possible, in part, because of my own dumb and distracted plodding over land that isn’t mine, that I mistreat simply by not listening or seeing.

+++

A few days ago, during our Christmas visit to see family in Washington, we took the 90 minute ferry ride through the Puget Sound to Friday Harbor. There’s a used bookstore there, a few blocks up the hill from the harbor, and after lunch we spent some time browsing its overflowing shelves. Typically, when visiting a used bookstore, I make stops in theology, essays, and biography. But this year I’ve added to these what is alternatively called “nature,” “nature writing,” “the natural world,” and the like. In the Friday Harbor shop I found a gently worn hardcover copy of the Peterson Field Guide for eastern birds, perfect for Chicago and other Midwestern places I’m likely to find myself looking for birds.

This beautifully illustrated book was written in 1980 and as I thumbed through its pages I couldn’t help wondering about how many of the species could no longer be found in the places they used to frequent. It’s a terrible thing for a book to be out of date because millions and millions of its subjects have perished.

Walking to the counter and paying $10.00 for that book felt, even in the moment, something like delusion. But it also may have been a very small act of hope. That, by choosing to listen and see, there still might be a world of birds and people worth saving on the other side of our cruelty.

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.

Trying to Remember

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

Yesterday morning I walked three quarters of a mile from my in-law’s home in Brownsville, TN to this roadside marker beside a small family cemetery.

James Bond, a quick internet search will reveal, was once one of Tennessee’s largest slaveholders.

By the eve of the Civil War, Bond had amassed property holdings in Haywood County alone of more than seventeen thousand acres and approximately 220 slaves. In 1859 his five plantations yielded more than one thousand bales of cotton and nearly twenty-two thousand bushels of corn. The federal manuscript census for 1860 estimated his total wealth at just under $800,000. (By comparison, the total value of all farmland, buildings, and other improvements in the entire county of Johnson–situated in the mountainous region in the northeastern part of the state–was just under $790,000.)

The average passerby will intuit none of this from the marker standing watch over the great pioneer’s grave even though almost nothing on that marker would have been accomplished or amassed without those women and men he enslaved.

It’s not exactly a secret that James Bond owned people; people in this town know it, or at least some of them do. But seeing a sanitized version of his legacy etched in steel does reveal something about our shared memory. After all, the choice – and it must have been a conscious decision – to gloss over the source of the man’s wealth and generosity was an act of deliberate forgetfulness.

I’m sure this sort of thing is not unique to this country. It’s one of the privileges exerted by the powerful in any society to remember history in a manner wherein our forefathers and mothers retain their heroic status. But still, there is a particular way in which we forget things in the U.S.A.

In 1962 James Baldwin published a letter to his nephew. In it, he warns his young namesake about the dangers he will face from forgetful white Americans.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Baldwin was surely thinking about more than deceptive roadside memorials to slaveholders, but it does illustrate his point in concrete and metal.

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The gravity of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper when bread is broken and wine poured out. “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24-25) In remembrance. There are echoes here of the many times God commanded his people to remember their former captivity and God’s saving intervention.

Forgetfulness, in other words, is not normal for Christians, at least not the willful variety. Remembering is one of the choices we can make which draws us toward our Savior and into the presence of sisters and brothers. And yes, this is a remembering that centers on Christ, but at table we also remember precisely why we come so hungry and thirsty. We remember our sins, even the ones previous generations worked so hard to forget.

This week, using this helpful site, some of us posted to social media which Native American people’s land we were celebrating Thanksgiving from. It’s true that this could easily slide into a kind of meaningless virtue signaling. But, for some, it represents a decision to remember what has been forgotten for so long that many of us hadn’t even known that it could be remembered. It’s a small decision which can remind us that forgetting isn’t inevitable.

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After visiting James Bond’s grave, I walked to the small town square which is dominated by a monument dedicated to “the Confederate dead of Haywood County.” There, a block away, is a recently placed monument to Elbert Williams, a man known as the NAACP’s first martyr. For his efforts to register black voters, Williams was kidnapped by the police and drowned in the Hatchie River.

I’m not sure why the Tennessee Historical Commission decided to erect this marker so many decades after Williams was lynched, but its presence is notable. Standing in the shadow of the county courthouse is this honest testimony to an ugly past and proof that, if we want to badly enough, we can remember what was previously and purposefully forgotten.

The Offense of Grace

Photo: Stefano Corso.

Botham and Brandt Jean and White Christian America’s Refusal to be Forgiven

When Brandt Jean extended forgiveness to the police officer who murdered his brother in his own apartment having, apparently, mistaken it for her own, I saw a poignant example of grace. Given the racial dynamics however – Brandt’s brother, Botham, was Black; the woman who killed him is white – many others didn’t see grace at all, but a tiresome and infuriating repetition of an old reality: an African American is mortally wounded by a white neighbor and is expected to forgive publicly and quickly. The word of forgiveness is a stabilizing word which leaves the racial hierarchy undisturbed and allows both the perpetrator and the supremacist system that shaped them to walk away unscathed.

First Lady Dorena Williamson, in an important article for Christianity Today, identifies the way racism distorts our understanding of forgiveness and grace.

Yes, God is a forgiving God. But we haven’t really understood the depth of that grace if all our examples of forgiveness are times when the people being forgiven look just like us. Given the long history of white supremacy in this country, we as Christians should ask: Why aren’t there videos of white people forgiving their black assailants trending on our social media? Why aren’t black accusers hugged by judges or comforted by the victim’s family members, as this former police officer was? How long O Lord?

Indeed, this was one of the many insights shared on social media following Brandt’s forgiveness. Why is it always Black people who are expected to forgive the assaults of their white neighbors? We think back to those relatives of the slain members of Mother Emanuel in Charleston who, despite the explicitly racist motivations of the murderer, chose to forgive him.

After the courtroom forgiveness, my friend Dr. Marcus Board shared an article that investigates the Mother Emanuel massacre to better understand this racialized forgiveness. In “‘But I Forgive You?’: Mother Emanuel, Black Pain and the Rhetoric of Forgiveness”, authors Andre E. Johnson and Earle J. Fisher write that when “atrocities grounded within a racist socio-historical framework explode upon our collective consciousness that causes Black pain and suffering, there is an expectation that those victims forgive their perpetrators.” Within a white supremacist landscape “white emotion usurps the affirmation of black humanity. This is why African Americans in times of such tragedy cannot express ‘black rage’ or anger.”

The authors quote an op-ed by Roxane Gay in which she explains why, contrary to this racist assumption of Black forgiveness, she will not forgive the many who murdered the worshipers at Emannuel AME Church.

What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.

These warning and complaints are more than legitimate; they are true. Yet in them I still see an example of grace, both for the reality of forgiveness to which it points as well as the reality of justice which such an act of grace creates. Brandt’s choice to forgive, I believe, testifies to something that has long been accomplished, a grace whose offense is largely lost on us until we’re confronted by something like his courtroom forgiveness. And it also calls into existence a possibility of justice- genuine justice that has long eluded the racialized imaginations of our nation’s justice system.


Despite the understandable protests elicited by Brandt Jean’s decision to forgive, I still see in him the closest example to Christ’s costly grace that this racist nation is likely to experience.

In the forgiveness offered to the woman who murdered his brother, Brandt Jean offers a window to the grace of Christ not despite our long racist history but precisely because of it. Many have pointed out the endless ways white people presume upon the forgiveness of Black people who we have purposefully and systematically oppressed for centuries. We might worry that by elevating Jean’s act of grace we are rendering it meaningless. After all, this is the sort of thing that always happen in this nation and to what effect? Black people continue to be attacked and murdered; those entrusted to protect them aid and abet their killers.

Yet to rightly understand grace in the Christian tradition, we must reckon with this offensiveness. For those willing to grapple with our nation’s racism and white supremacy, Jean’s forgiveness is unpalatable. It feels unjust, undeserved. It is. But if we are to even get close to understanding the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, we must be willing to drift into this kind of objectionable territory. The grace of God extends to us through the Christ’s bloody sacrifice – and only though it – because of our corruption and complicity, because of our propensity to sin and to sin again. If this divine grace is less offensive to us than Jean’s forgiveness it is our own fault. It is not grace that does not offend but our tepid and self-serving interpretation of it.


This is the reality to which Jean’s forgiveness points. This, for Christians, is our sure foundation. It is offensive, a stumbling block as the apostle Paul rightly understood. Yet to those who’ve realized our sinful corruption and complicity, it is the way to life. And here is where we see that in Jean’s forgiveness, and in the similar acts of grace by African American Christians over the centuries, a new reality is being created. Christian forgiveness, as a reflection of Christ’s grace, is creation-al and allows for the possibility of true justice.

In Luke 19, when Jesus invites himself over to the despised tax collector’s home, Zacchaeus responds to this grace in a public and accountable manner.

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The assumption, readily understood by Zacchaeus, was that Jesus’ grace required a costly response. By accepting it genuinely, he had to repent of his previous way of life which had depended on the exploitation and oppression of his neighbors.

The rich young man in Luke 18 also understood the nature of the Christ’s grace. Having been told by Jesus to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he “became very sad, because he was very wealthy.” Though their responses differed, both the wealthy young man and the corrupt tax collector understood the nature of the grace offered by Jesus. Accepting it required a complete reversal of their previous ways of life. They would become new people, living in harmony with the righteousness and justice of the Christ.

This, I think, is what white Christians persistently misunderstand about grace. Roxane Gay’s indictment of us is dead on: we want absolution. So we cheapen grace, desecrating the costly sacrifices of our Black (and Brown and Native and…) neighbors. Or to put it differently, we reject the gift that is being offered for a counterfeit of our own diseased imaginations, one that justifies our ongoing oppressive ways. In this context, it’s reasonable to think that the most gracious thing a Black Christian can do is to withhold forgiveness so as to not, in Jesus’ evocative phrase, cast their pearls before swine.

What would it look like for Botham Jean’s murderer to receive the grace offered by his brother? It would mean confessing her sins and dropping her defense. It would mean reflecting honestly on the ways her imagination and assumptions have been infected – like mine – with, in Bryan Stevenson’s phrase, the malicious narrative of racial difference. It would mean living in solidarity with those, like Jean’s mother, Allison, who tell the truth about police brutality and political corruption. It would mean losing her life in order to find it.

Were this costly grace to be received it would lead to justice. Like Zacchaeus, recipients of this grace give themselves to repairing what we have exploited. There is no spiritualized absolution here, only sacrificial and accountable action.

This is what Christ’s costly grace can create. It is a reality in which the woman who murdered Botham Jean becomes a new person. That white America, as shown not by our occasional tears or social media shares but by our sustained actions, has for centuries refused this grace is evidence not that Brandt Jean’s offer was not genuine, but that we have not genuinely received it. The fault is ours alone. As are the consequences.