Courageous Discipleship in an Idolatrous Nation

What follows is the last part of yesterday’s sermon from 1 Thessalonians 1.

What are you known for? What is our reputation? Our Lord Jesus wants his gospel to so thoroughly transform us that we cannot control our reputations. He desires for us to have been so completely rearranged, so completely put back together, so completely rescued from sin, saved from death, and liberated from the devil’s deceptions that the message of the gospel leaps out of us.

I need to be direct about this. Some of us, myself included, risk mistaking our association with someone else’s reputation for the gospel as our own reputation for the gospel. What do I mean?

We have among us women and men whose discipleship to Jesus has led them to costly sacrifice and suffering in the face of this nation’s idols and ideologies. Their love for and allegiance to Jesus has allowed the message of the gospel to spring forth from their lives as a beautiful witness to Jesus’ saving lordship.

Others of us, shielded by layers of privilege, have avoided sacrifice and suffering. We  content ourselves with private beliefs about Jesus rather than whole-life discipleship to Jesus. Worse, we have mistaken our proximity to those men and women who have sacrificed, who are suffering as evidence of our own faithfulness. But proximity is not faithfulness and some of us are guilty this morning of appropriating somebody’s else’s reputation for the gospel as our own.

We must not be content with living a vicarious life of discipleship. Turn away from your idols. Serve God alone. Wait on the Lord Jesus. God wants his gospel to leap out of your life. Don’t be content with anything less.

When the gospel transforms you at the levels of your motivations, priorities, and reputation it will no longer be possible for you to be a passive citizen of this idolatrous nation. The miscarriages of justice we saw from the Cook County Courthouse this week are the rancid fruits of a nation that has longed worshiped the god of white supremacy.

You’d be hard pressed to find a temple to white supremacy or carved statues to the god of racial superiority. But look a little closer and our deceptive gods begin to reveal themselves. We see our idols when we look closely at who fills our prisons. We see our idols when we listen to how our border is debated and how those who cross it in desperation are publicly debased. We see our idols when we listen to how Laquan McDonald – murdered and gone for four years – was put on trial again and again in that courtroom, his character assassinated long after his body had been shot down, the particularities of his image-of-God-bearing-body used as justification for his extrajudicial killing by a man whose racism was renowned.

5ac26ecd1e00003b137b058fFifty-two years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Riverside Church in New York City and said, “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” We see the devastating impact of our idols a half-century later when we observe that rather than transforming the Jericho Road or dismantling it, we have paved it over, made it more efficient. Rather than restructuring the edifice, we have made it larger: more prisons, more immigrant detention centers, more wars.

Our idols are bloodthirsty. Some of you know this all too well. The travesties of justice we watched this week are not theoretical to you. You cannot help but see your sons and your daughters in Laquan, Rekiya, Sandra, Philando, and Tamir. You felt the news on Thursday and then again on Friday in your bodies, reverberating like death knells, simultaneously shocking and not at all. Your discipleship to Jesus has led you to stay awake. To choose the way of love and reconciliation. Even to forgive. And some of us are tired today. Because you are living this story, have only lived this story in this idolatrous nation.

Today I say to you the words in 1 Thessalonians 1:4. We know brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you. Despite its malicious intentions, this nation has not destroyed you. The devil cannot have you and death has no claim on your life. You are loved by God. He has chosen you. You may be tired this morning. You may be afraid or angry this morning. Depression and despair may be nipping at your spirit this morning. But God… has chosen you.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has transformed you at the deepest level of your being. Our culture’s idols will one day go the way of Thessalonica’s temples and cults. Racism will die. White supremacy will die. Injustice will die. Courtroom injustice will die. Every idol  which seems to hold endless power will go the way of all things, will crumble and disintegrate. But you, brothers and sisters loved by God, will live. You may be tired, but today you live. You may be angry, but today you move and breathe and have your being held together by the Lord Jesus.

God sees you. God loves you. God has chosen you.  What does it mean for God to choose you? It means, that the same Jesus who is Lord of the universe has drawn near to you. Not in some theoretical, merely theological sense. No, God took on your flesh and came close. God took on hungry flesh. He took on thirsty flesh. God clothed himself as a stranger. God took on naked and vulnerable flesh. God took onto himself imprisoned flesh. God took onto himself the flesh that made him a despised and dangerous target to the Empire. And on October 20, 2014, God took on Laquan McDonald’s bullet-ridden flesh.

God has chosen you. He has drawn near to you. And no matter the lies from the Cook County Courthouse or the White House, you are being transformed in such a manner that nothing will stop the testimony that God has for you. No matter how your heart betrays you, the devil tries to deceive you, or this world rises up with the rage of hell to oppose you- the Holy Spirit of the Living God will fill you power, conviction, and the joy of your salvation. So today we speak life over all who are tired. We speak courage over all you are afraid. We speak endurance over anyone who is ready to give up. We loose every spiritual gift for those who are marching into battle with our enemy. We loose work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope. We bind racism and racial supremacy. We bind materialism and consumerism. We bind false comfort and blinding privilege. We proclaim today, in this city, in these circumstances, that there is only one Lord. Jesus. God with us. God for us.

Opposed, Cautious, and Irrelevant

15 or so years ago, while enrolled at a Christian graduate school, I went to an evening seminar in which the speaker, a well-known visiting professor from a prestigious university, was to present on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology. The turn-out from the largely white campus was small, especially given the topic and professor’s reputation, but what I most remember was how much of the presentation was dedicated to making the case for King’s Christianity. It was as though the professor knew that, before discussing King’s theology, he had to convince his mostly white, Christian audience that the most revered preacher America has ever produced was… a Christian.

I’ve thought a lot about that strange moment over the years and again on this 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 20 years, about theology, preaching, organizing, prayer, and more. But what I’ve most learned – what that 15-year-old memory reminds me of – is how white people, including Christians, generally respond to movements for racial justice.

I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise; most of what I’ve learned about white people, about myself, has been from black people. Ida B. Wells taught me about the violence that cannot be disentangled from whiteness. James Baldwin showed me the blinding nature of whiteness. Frederick Douglass helped me disentangle the slaveholding religion of white Christianity from the peaceable religion of Christ. Numerous mentors and friends have revealed to me with increasing clarity the meaning of whiteness and my mindless benefitting from or willful opposition to it. Black people, for whom understanding whiteness is of deadly concern, have always known more about white people than we have about ourselves. And King, in a myriad of ways, has shown me the defensive and violent response of most white people to expressions of racial justice. He most famously discussed this in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

Wether debating King’s movement strategy, American loyalty, or Christian faith, white Christians were quick to find ways to discredit the movement for racial justice and thus ignore or oppose it. In this regard, as that college seminar revealed, very little has changed in the 50 years since King’s murder.

Occasionally I’m asked about how white people respond to things I write and say publicly about racial justice. The assumption, correct much of the time, is that the responses can be harsh. In fact, I think very little about these responses anymore. Mostly this is because I know how much more opposition my friends of color, particularly women, face when they speak for racial justice. Any flak I take is small in comparison. But the other reason I’m not surprised about these typical and troublesome responses is that King prepared me. He taught me to understand how unrepentant whiteness responds when the possibility of genuine racial justice surfaces.

Let me be more honest: King taught me to anticipate my own backlash to racial justice. His words and actions, and the violence they provoked, help me to see the violence within myself. Under his influence, I’ve come to doubt my initial responses to calls for racial equity and repair. The privilege and blindness that comes with my race make my emotions and experiences untrustworthy guides in the journey toward justice. King taught me to submit my instincts to the wisdom of those friends who exist outside of whiteness’s blinding lies.

King taught me to understand and anticipate the tepid caution, dangerous opposition, and utter irrelevancy of most white responses to racial justice. This backlash has exerted only a tiny price from me but this week we remember that for many others the cost has been deadly.

“…the sacrificial spirit of the early church…”

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

-Rev. Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Birmingham Revolution

Birmingham Revolution

Fifty years ago Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, scratching out a modern epistle in the margins of a newspaper. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a direct response to a letter published in the local newspaper written by a group of Birmingham clergy who were critical of the civil rights movement which had upset the balance in the “Magic City”. Rev. King’s response was nuanced and not without charity. It was also very direct.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail is especially fascinating for its open criticism of those Christian leaders who considered themselves progressive yet who distanced themselves from the Civil Rights movement. Rev. King’s logic and critique reveal the strange and disappointing relationship between white Christians and their pastors and the experiences of their African American brothers and sisters in the Faith. As Edward Gilbreath shows in his new book, Birmingham Revolution, the relationship is no historical artifact. Rev. King’s critique retains its prophetic edge today.

Gilbreath acknowledges that Rev. King’s life, including this important episode in Birmingham, have been extensively documented, analyzed, and interpreted over the years. So why another book? Gilbreath’s unique and helpful contribution comes from his journalist’s eye, his commitment to Christian faith, and his long experience in white and black churches. From this vantage point he weaves a captivating narrative that pulls from history and contemporary events and shows the ongoing relevancy of Rev. King’s letter.

To show why the letter still matters Gilbreath ranges far and wide: NPR stories; many interviews, including with those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement; The Boondocks; his own personal experiences of race and injustice. He combines an unflinching eye with a light touch and the book moves quickly, subtly building the case that Rev. King’s observations and questions should be applied to the justice issues of our day. Throughout the book we meet lesser-known heroes of the movement- Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is one the author is especially drawn to, and for good reason! We’re left wondering about who our contemporary foot soldiers are. Who are the women and men whose faith directs them toward such courageous compassion and critique?

Early in the book Gilbreath writes,

Just like Luther’s memo nailed to the Wittenberg Church door, King’s jailhouse epistle is a document teeming with deep and challenging ideas about theology, justice and freedom. If we allow it, we’ll find King’s freestyle meditation will take us on a sweeping journey form the Birmingham, Bible Belt, Deep South of 1963 to the postracial, post-Christian, Red State-Blue State cacophony of twentieth-first-century America and beyond.

Glibreath is just the right guide and Birmingham Revolution maps the journey with precision, imagination, and just the right amount of hope.

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On Saturday February 22 Edward Gilbreath will be our church’s guest for a half-day conference that will be open to the public. We’d love to have you join us. I’ll share the details next month.

Violence 3: We, The Violent

So far, in these meditations on violence, I’ve not actually defined the word.  We probably imagine a violent act to be one done intentionally, likely by a person with power who willfully injures or destroys one with less power.  How much more specific can we be?  Consider whether violence can ever be just.  Is a destructive act against another technically violent if done in self-defense or at the command of a military superior?  We Christians have our own histories to contend with when it comes to understanding the place of violence within our story: I recently heard a theologian differentiate between the terrible-seeming acts commanded by God in the Old Testament and actual violence; the latter, asserted the theologian, is something God never participates in.  (Whether or not he’s correct isn’t the point.  I mean simply to acknowledge the difficulty of this word, a difficulty that isn’t easily simplified by Christianity.)

Coretta Scott King during the Poor People's Campaign. (Jack Rottier Collection.)
Coretta Scott King during the Poor People’s Campaign. (Jack Rottier Collection.)

I wonder if the slipperiness of the word makes my earlier point that violence is less a moment in time and more the ground on which we walk.  On June 19, 1968 Coretta Scott King addressed the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington DC and described the pervasiveness of violence.

Poverty can produce a most deadly kind of violence. In this society violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence; suppressing a culture is violence; neglecting schoolchildren is violence; discrimination against a working man is violence; ghetto housing is violence; ignoring medical needs is violence; contempt for equality is violence; even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.

Context always matters, no more so than in the case of Mrs. King’s remarks.  Less than three months earlier her husband, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis.  His was an especially violent death, captured in images and eye-witnesses accounts that still register in our national consciousness.  Yet, when describing the toll of violence, Mrs. King pointed not to her husband’s spectacular and undeniably violent death but to the millions of accepted and overlooked acts that take place every day.

Making the shift toward Mrs. King’s view of violence leaves us with a dilemma far more significant than a murky definition: such a view implicates not a few violent actors but most of us, most of the time.