White Reform

*Warning: This post is mostly satire, aimed at challenging (and changing) pervasive and destructive narratives that are applied to people of color while ignoring and even downplaying violent behaviors in whites. While written in jest to expose the level of hypocrisy and hatred embedded within white supremacist ideology, something must really be done to dismantle a system that kills black and brown bodies around the world. We need a collective movement, comprised of various strategies, people, and ideas, including new, liberating theologies centered on the experience of people of color, immigrants, and women, that will shake the beast that is white supremacy to its core, freeing us all from it’s grip.*

I try not to listen to anything Donald Trump says. Everytime I do, I walk away with a severe headache and a profound sense of hopelessness for our nation. And so, for the sake of my sanity, I mostly tune his rhetoric out. This week, however, my strategy has proved to be futile as news outlets and social media focus in on Trump’s latest mumbo gumbo. The unfortunate target of his vile, hate speech this time? Muslims.

It is no secret that Trump has a deep disregard for people of the Muslim faith. On the campaign trail, he has expressed a desire to essentially stomp out Islam and those who are connected to it, in order to purge the world of ISIS. Since the San Bernardino shooting last Friday, where it is suspected that Muslim radicals engaged in a mass shooting that killed 14 people, Trump has only doubled down on his rhetoric going so far as to insist that Muslims be banned from entering into the United States.

In one speech, Trump targeted all Muslims to address the actions of a few. Although people from both aisles of the political divide are denouncing his actions, this is something that will likely yield disastrous results in the Muslim community – both in the U.S. and around the world. Missing from his speech, of course, was any action directed toward the other mass shooters in 2015. By some estimates, there have been 355 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, including one on the same day of the incident in San Bernardino, the shooting at Planned Parenthood several days prior, an incident in Minneapolis a few weeks ago when five people protesting the execution of Jamar Clark were shot, the mass shooting in Oregon in October, and the shooting of the Mother Emanuel 9 in June. Most of the suspects in these cases have been white men. And yet there hasn’t been any speeches, by Trump or others, calling white men in.

In addition to the mass shootings, there have been other ongoing acts of violence by white men in our society. In 2015 alone, 1,109 people have died at the hands of the police, exceeding 2014 numbers before the year has come to a close. Overwhelmingly, the officers in these cases have been white. And in 100% of these cases, no officer has been convicted – though more officers have been charged in recent years due to the efforts of Black Lives Matter and others raising this issue in the nation’s consciousness. Of course, these numbers do not take into account the number of people who have been brutalized by cops without death nor the number of women who have been sexually violated by police officers. Nor do these numbers consider the ways in which practices and policies – so often passed and implemented by white men – make life a living nightmare for communities of color and indigenous communities around the world, contributing to a slow, agonizing death of sorts that seldom makes the evening news but is just as deadly, and far more prevalent than guns.

Of course, not all white men are mass gunmen and not all white cops are would-be killers of black and brown bodies. Even still, these occurrences, suggest that there is something at play that goes beyond gun control and police reform. The deeper issue is the culture of violence that is pervasive among white men, violence that often goes unchecked because they are white men. Besides the increased presence of police cameras, which has not seemed to pay off like some said it would, police are not held accountable for their sins against people of color. And mass shooters, if they are white, get escorted to the nearest Mickey D’s and get off on mental health charges instead of having to seriously deal with the ways that they have terrorized the American society. Vigilantes like Zimmerman often go scot free, and if they are charged, it is often for a lesser charge in order to ensure that they are not actually punished for acts of terror and white supremacy.

How will a society, no a world, that is terrorized by angry white men find healing and wholeness? What can we do to ensure that these disastrous things come to an end, and that when they do happen, white men are actually held accountable for their actions?

I propose something called White Reform. In the same way that our country passes policies and programs to address problems in communities of color and indigenous communities, it is time that we flip the script and put white people under the microscope for once in order to get at these tenuous social ills caused by white supremacist ideologies that exploit the life and liberties of others to satisfy the blood hungry appetites of white men. Below, I have briefly outlined a few bold steps that can move us forward today:

  1. The government should start a new initiative focused on improving the outcomes of white men in our society. Call it, “My Whiter Brother’s Keeper,” if you like. Invest millions of dollars in the initiative and award local municipalities who come up with the best strategies for solving the white problem. Emphasize the need for mentorship in order to address the fatherlessness problem that exists in white single-parented households. Challenge and condemn promiscuity among white teenagers; blame white musicians and sexual icons for their role in increasing violence and other inappropriate behavior.
  2. Commission a report that will study the extent of the white problem and put forth a call to action that will outline tangible and measurable steps to get to the bottom of the culture of violence in the white community. Nonprofits should start hiring organizers who will work in the white community. Foundations should invest money to support the efforts of these nonprofits. Invent lots of programs, throw money at them, but make sure that the actual money stays in black and brown communities. Audit and scrutinize organizations run by white people because they might not use their limited funds correctly.
  3. Invest in social services and other medical interventions to figure out why so many white male shooters are mentally unstable since guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Conduct focus groups and listening sessions where people of color do all of the talking and are the experts, but be sure to have a few white people in the room who won’t challenge what is being said, to analyze the factors that contribute to the mental instability.
  4. Early childhood education, all education for that matter, must explicitly teach white children to not be racist. Teach real American history, lifting up the true narratives of American Indians and African Americans. Reveal this country’s practices and policies that have cut people of color and indigenous communities out of opportunity, and let children know that these practices have taken root not only in the south but in the so-called progressive north where liberalism and tolerance abound. School districts that have comprehensive lesson plans that yield results should be awarded with dollars to improve their education programs.
  5. White parents should send their children to inner city schools to make sure they get a good education. Simply being next to black and brown children will improve their life outcomes.
  6. Train educators how to handle white rage and misbehavior. If they teach in Minnesota or other Northern states, they should take note that the rage will be more passive in nature and appear less dangerous but it is just as harmful as in your face, overt racism. Social workers and psychologists must learn how to best work with these people. If all else fails, tell their parents they have a learning disability and insist that they take harmful drugs so that they sit still in class.
  7. Equip all of the suburban and rural schools with medical detectors and security guards. Ensure that no white student or adult walks through the doors without being screened to make sure they are not in possession of a firearm or other explosive. Do not tolerate the slightest incidence of misbehavior from white children; use suspensions as a disciplinary method.
  8. Universities should start offering White Studies at a bachelor and master’s level. The programs should emphasize the social ills created by whites living away from people of color for so long. Black and brown students should be admitted into the program as well. They should become the experts in White Studies, even though it is the lived experience and daily reality of whites.
  9. Take a paternalistic approach to all policymaking, programs, and other efforts aimed at solving the white problem. After all, people of color know what is in the best interests of whites and can even speak for whites if they have one white friend, family member, or grew up living next to whites.

Of course, not all white men need to be reformed. There are many, outstanding white citizens who are a testament to their race who are nonviolent, anti-racist, and simply fantastic human beings. Use these men to be the models for the rest of them. Bring them on talk shows, news outlets, and quote them addressing the white problem so that others in the white community can be influenced by their good behavior. However, use disagreement among these leaders in the white community as an opportunity to humiliate them and discredit their movement. Write articles and op-eds pointing out the inconsistencies in vision and approach as a means to justify their continued marginalization.

Is this plan discriminatory? Perhaps. But something must be done to get at the culture of violence exhibited by angry, white men. Our society must be rid of white oppressor behaviors that continue to steal from our children, rape our women, and kill our men. Contrary to white supremacist ideology, we must take a collectivist approach here and prioritize the needs of the community over one, lone individual. And until we have a handle on the problem, perhaps we should pass policy reforms that will keep white men from voting and achieving political power over people of color and indigenous folks. Relegate them to certain neighborhoods, separated from the rest of us so that they cannot harm others. And if they still do not get in line, threaten stricter social reforms, mass incarceration and deportation.  

Jordan, Marbury, and the Global Retail Industry

JordansMy daughter was recently gifted her first, and probably her last, pair of Jordans. Though I would have preferred her to opt for something different, you know like Adidas or K Swiss, my fashion forward five year old persisted: “Mommy, these are purple, though.” So we went with the purple Jordans because to a five year old girl, purple really matters.

But trust when I say that my anxiety rose a little bit as we purchased them. Ok, my anxiety rose a lot. While Jordans may simply be an expensive shoe to some people, for blacks they have long been a much coveted after status symbol. And like many other status symbols, such as the once popular Starter Jackets, they have been coveted to the point of violence.

Had it been 1995 instead of 2015 and we lived in my old hood in Milwaukee instead of in Roseville, I would have made a different choice and exercised my parental muscles a little more. I would have made a different choice because I would not have wanted my daughter to be targeted just because of the kind of shoes she wore on her feet. Spanning decades, countless numbers of men, women, and children have lost their lives because of this shoe – countless, because I don’t think anyone is tracking. In any case, growing up in the hood, you didn’t need a statistic to tell you what you already knew to be true – that we were losing our lives and taking that of others over temporal, material things. I still remember the Family Matters episode that tried to raise awareness over this issue.

Knowing this, I very much appreciate NBA legend and current Chinese Basketball Association star Stephon Marbury calling out former NBA star Michael Jordan for his role in all of this. In a series of tweets sent over the weekend, Marbury criticized Jordan for robbing the hood of people and money over the years. However, as Marbury won me over in one tweet, he lost me in the next, as he claimed that Jordan’s shoes cost the same to make as his own – $5 apparently – and yet, Jordan is charging $200 and he is only charging $15. Before we rush to canonize Marbury over his seemingly sainthood, hold on just a second: both of the shoes are being made in China.

Now isn’t that ironic – ‘cue Alanis Morissette!’ Or at least a little hypocritical. While Marbury condemns Jordan for exploiting the hood, is he not doing the same thing to workers in China? The global retail industry is notorious for giving workers very little pay, forcing them to work long hours, and under deplorable working conditions. In China itself, conditions in some factories are so horrid that workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that can cause severe neurological damage. I sure hope Marbury’s shoes are not being made in factories like these but chances are great that they are. Global retail factories, due to an insatiable demand in developed nations, are forced to bid low and produce high, which quickly reduces the prospect of having a safe work environment. Indeed, when profit is the bottom line, safety is not even on the table as an issue to be considered.

Just because Marbury chooses to only charge $15 for his shoes instead of $200 doesn’t exonerate him from his own participation in global labor exploitation. But we ourselves are also culpable here. The success of big retailers such as WalMart and Amazon prove that a core American value is buying as much as you can for as cheaply as you can. Shopping days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday thrive because getting a deal is more important to us as than the turkey and dressing we just ate. Much of the merchandise that fills our carts and that now clutters our homes – clothes, shoes, and electronics alike – are made in similar factories as Marbury’s wonderful shoes. Truth be told, it is our collective spending habits that create a global system that perpetuates injustice.

Many of us know this, but when we talk about justice we simply do not want to go there fearing the affect change in this area would like have on our wallets – and our lifestyles for that matter. Too many of us benefit from an oppressive retail industry and that alone inhibits us from taking to the streets in protest and advocating for policy change. But the reality is, we won’t have justice, in the hood or anywhere else, until we connect the dots and understand how these systems of oppression are not only related but feed on one another in order to make a profit. Global capitalism is destroying and killing communities all over the world; none of us will be free from its grip until we think comprehensively about its reach.

I’m sure Marbury has good intentions. We all do. But it takes more than good intentions and cheap shoes to make a meaningful impact.

Wisdom, Wealth and Eternity: Valuing What Truly Matters

s-RICH-PEOPLE-MEETING-largeI can probably count on one hand the number of sermons I have heard from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Many preachers, I suspect, do not find the book as relevant or God-inspired as the others because it reflects a time in King Solomon’s life – the accredited author of the book – when he was at his lowest. Though Solomon started off his reign having a close relationship with God, his wealth and fame caused his heart to turn away from the one whom he went out of his way to build a house of worship.

Solomon amassed great riches and power as a result of the wisdom that he possessed. He was a shrewd king who worked his people crazily – so much so that when he died, the people requested that his son Rehoboam ease up on the workload that was put in place by his father! But he also made many strategic political alliances with foreign nations through marriage – the Bible states that he had at least 700 wives and 300 concubines representing various nations and people groups. As a result of his craftiness, he is known as being one of the richest people in the world. Says 2 Kings:

“Solomon received twenty-five tons of gold in tribute annually. This was above and beyond the taxes and profit on trade with merchants and assorted kings and governors.

King Solomon crafted two hundred body-length shields of hammered gold—seven and a half pounds of gold to each shield—and three hundred smaller shields about half that size. He stored the shields in the House of the Forest of Lebanon.

The king built a massive throne of ivory accented with a veneer of gold. The throne had six steps leading up to it, its back shaped like an arch. The armrests on each side were flanked by lions. Lions, twelve of them, were placed at either end of the six steps. There was no throne like it in any of the surrounding kingdoms.

King Solomon’s chalices and tankards were made of gold and all the dinnerware and serving utensils in the House of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold—nothing was made of silver; silver was considered common and cheap.

The king had a fleet of ocean-going ships at sea with Hiram’s ships. Every three years the fleet would bring in a cargo of gold, silver, and ivory, and apes and peacocks (2 Kings 10.14-22, the Message).”

There was nothing that the King could not afford! Everything and anything he wanted he had unlimited access to. For all intents and purposes, he should have been a very content and happy man. Yet, Ecclesiastes tells us what 2 Kings does not and allows us to get a sneak peak into Solomon’s heart as he evaluates all of his wealth:

“I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.

Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2.1 – 11, NASB).”

Meaningless. This is what Solomon concludes of the wealth, of the stuff that he has accumulated in life. Not only is the wealth meaningless; the striving that Solomon put forth to get that wealth was also pointless – no doubt something that probably cost the most vulnerable in his society the most! But why, after living a lifetime in fortune and fame did Solomon draw this conclusion? Because as he neared the end of his days, he realized that: (1) wealth was unable to deliver on the promise of happiness and (2) of all of the possessions he gained, none of them could be taken into eternity with him.

While Solomon may not be in the same place spiritually as he was when he first started his reign, the wisdom and insight that he possesses should not be negated. In fact, the analysis that he provides of his experience deserves much more attention than what most preachers and religious scholars typically provide. Perhaps if we heed Solomon’s advice, we could put forth a better theology that will also have implications on the way that we order society!

We live in a culture, in a nation that places a high priority on the bottom line. Like Solomon, we are willing to do anything and everything to be wealthy, even if it costs others. Indeed, built into our nation’s very economic structure is the oppression of Native Americans and African Americans – it is the land and labor of each that has made this country the fiscal powerhouse that it is. With increased globalization, however, our country is adamant about staying on top and so, we turn corporations into people so that they can continue making big profits, we ramp our already unjust international trade policies, and we continue to police people of color for the most ridiculous things including spitting, lurking, and consuming alcohol in public making them pay for simply being black and brown.

American theology, unfortunately, supports many if not all of these things. Our theology reflects an orientation towards blessing and prosperity and leaves little room for evaluating just how that prosperity is secured. In fact, in many Christian circles, people believe that material blessing is the mark of God’s approval on one’s life. Never for a moment do we ever stop to consider Solomon’s words, let alone any other biblical writer as it pertains to wealth and material possessions. Remember, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned to follow after Him and He met that quite literally!

Meaningless. Wealth is utter meaninglessness. Oppressing people in order to get it is pointless, hoarding it is stranger still. But then what in life actually, truly matters?

Solomon provides us with perspective once again. He advises us to live simply – eat, drink and enjoy our labor! To me, Solomon’s sage advice means that there is value in providing for the needs of self, family and the community. Working so that you can provide clothing, shelter, food and transportation for your loved ones makes sense and is even spiritual stuff. However, building bigger and better simply for the sake of having more not only is meaningless but it robs other people of their capacity to provide for their basic necessities. Contrary to popular thinking, it is not about narrowing the gap between the winners and the losers; it is about eliminating that gap altogether.

But Solomon also encourages us to set our minds on eternal things, which means that whatever lapse he has taken spiritually has not altered his ability to see the big picture. God matters and spending eternity with him is pretty important stuff. Anything that detracts from that, including wealth, is simply not worth pursuing.

Race Relations Sunday: Have You Received Since You Believed?

The following is the text of the sermon that I preached this morning for Race Relations Sunday. The Bible reading is out of Acts 19.1 – 7, which was one of the lectionary texts last week Sunday. If you would prefer to listen to the audio, click here.


seymour_williamI have been walking with Christ for over twenty years. I first came to faith back in 1992 at an Assembly of God church in Milwaukee, WI – Easter Sunday. From the moment that I made that decision, my faith in Christ grew significantly. I remember being baptized a year later, I was maybe 9 or 10 at the time, and shortly thereafter committed to daily Bible reading and prayer. I joined our church’s youth group in 1995 – that was the same year that I threw out all of my secular music in exchange for gospel and contemporary Christian sounds. In 1997, I was baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, or praying/ speaking in an unknown language – an experience that my denomination took very seriously. That same year, I made a decision to attend North Central University for college, a small Christian college in Minneapolis, and did once I graduated from high school 4 years later. To many including myself, I was growing in my faith. I had a vibrant prayer life, evangelized fervently, and was reading the Bible like nobody’s business.

I just didn’t care about social justice. I didn’t care about the poor, I didn’t care about the marginalized, I didn’t care about those people – even though I in fact was among those people. You can imagine the internalized oppression was real. I got anxious anytime I ran across a Bible passage that challenged me to think differently. I remember reading Matthew 25, trying to over-spiritualize what Jesus was saying about caring for the least of these so that I could feel good about my indifference. You see, a theology of justice and compassion just didn’t fit with the quaint Assembles of God box that I was sitting in – a box that prioritized baptism in the Spirit above all else. To be a good Christian, this baptism with the evidence of speaking in tongues mattered the most. Everything else, with the exception of personal evangelism and the rapture, was nice but not necessary and maybe even a distraction.

Fortunately for me, something shifted in 2007 – 15 years after I first committed my life to Christ. This was the year that I started to wake up to the injustices around me. It started with a missions trip that I took to Central Africa’s Rwanda. Leading up to the trip, I studied the nation’s history and was broken by the genocide that took place between two ethnic groups who were so remarkably similar and Christian at that. In my spirit, something just didn’t feel right. As if on cue, I started to pay attention to not only what was going on in Rwanda but around the world pertaining to issues of injustice. And I started to pay attention to what was going on in the United States as well, looking more critically at one of our biggest injustices – slavery and the perpetual dehumanization of black children, women and men.

I knew about slavery. I knew that my ancestors were stolen from their home in Africa and put in forced labor in America. Milwaukee public schools, for all of its limitations, did teach me that. And I also knew about the Civil Rights Movement and the sacrifices that people like Martin Luther King made to ensure that blacks like myself would enjoy freedom, justice, and equality in the country that had denied it of us for so long. What I lacked was race consciousness, or the understanding that racism is the ordinary way that this country does its business. I lacked the critical analysis that would afford me the opportunity to understand that our nation is fundamentally, essentially, at its core racist because of the way that it built its wealth and prominence in the world by exploiting natives, blacks and other people of color.

But then I woke up. I woke up from my slumber. I woke up from the optimistic but naive line of thinking that we were living in a post racial America. I became much more critical, and subsequently, more alive to our present struggle to be recognized as wholly and completely human.

For those of you who are also awake or are waking up to our country’s reality, you will understand that the last several years have been especially trying for black folk. It seems like the moment that Obama got into office, an all out attack against black people ensued. One month into his presidency, the Tea Party Movement was formed, uniting under the adage of taking their country back from black and brown people who were getting too big for their britches, I suppose. In 2010, they did just that! Republicans took over the house at the federal level and also dominated the House of representatives and the Senate at the local level in many states across the country, including Minnesota.

That year alone saw some of the most regressive social policies proposed. In Minnesota, the Human Rights Department budget was almost obliterated, a voter ID amendment which would have drastically compromised black folk’s ability to vote was brought forth, and a version of the Stand Your Ground gun law was also put on the table – none of which passed here in Minnesota but that is not the same story nationwide. Many states have adopted their own version of the Voter ID amendment, and we also know that at least 23 states have adopted some version of the Stand Your Ground laws. In addition to the policies and practices that were already devastating our community, these suggested that Tea Partiers and other sympathetic whites were serious about limiting the progress of black people as well as others of color in this country.

As destructive as these are, I still refer to this as racism lite compared to what is going on right now. In February 2012, the black community was rocked when news broke that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth carrying skittles and an iced tea was killed. Several months later, Jordan Davis, another unarmed black youth accused of blasting his rap music too loud was also killed – both by white men who felt threatened by the presence of black life. The trend of profiling and killing black people has continued – statistics suggesting that every 28 hours a child, woman or man is killed by either a self-appointed vigilante or a police officer.

The later part of 2014 has definitely given witness to this. Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Darrien Hunt, Rumain Brisbon, and Tamir Rice – just to name those at the top of my head. All black men and children, all unarmed. All of which tells me that the struggles of my parents, grandparents, and relatives before them are not in some distant past but are overwhelmingly present today.

It is open season on the black community in America. This idea may make some feel uncomfortable, it makes me feel uncomfortable, but lets call a spade a spade and tell it like it is. When white men and police officers can kill black people at will and not be held accountable for their actions, we should know that something insidious is going on. To not understand the signs of the time that are upon our nation, is to be sleep, to be blind, to be dead to our present reality. It is to fail in connecting these recent tragedies to the larger tread of injustice and exploitation that is woven into the very fabric of our nation.

blacklivesmatter

In response to these killings, people across America are speaking. In cities across our country, multicultural, multiethnic, and even multireligious coalitions are forming full of people demanding human rights and police accountability by marching, blocking highway traffic, and staging die ins. Just last month, lead organizers in the #BlackLivesMpls movement organized a peaceful protest at perhaps one of capitalism’s biggest establishments in Minnesota, the Mall of America, understanding that capitalism itself is the force that drives many of these injustices in communities of color across our nation. Behind the scenes, others are working on policy changes, so that police are held accountable when they abuse their authority. In addition, many people are having the awkward conversation that they maybe never wanted to have about race in America.

There is one segment of our population, however, that has been largely quiet – the Church. And when I say the Church, I mean the American White Church. Black Churches have always been speaking up, organizing, protesting, and agonizing about this – our prophetic, audacious faith is what has led us through some of this country’s darkest hours. But the white Church has largely been silent. For many, I am sure it is as a result of not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do, fearing that the wrong course of action could brand one offensive, at best, if not a racist. This type of behavior is called stereotype threat, where white people fear their actions will live out the stereotype of them often being classified as racially biased. But for others, the silence has more to do with not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to get involved in political fodder, not wanting to sulley one’s hands by siding with black folks.

But the silence on part of the white Church really means complicity, doesn’t it? Those who refuse to speak up and out against evil, whether they like it or not, are actually purveyors themselves in that evil. Silence gives permission for those who assault life, justice, and freedom, ironically core American values, to continue assaulting life, justice, and freedom. Understanding this, silence is not a viable option? So what then will the American Church’s response be?

When I ask myself this question, I look back over my Christian heritage. I think about the baptism in the Spirit that I experienced and reflect on how this gift, so to speak, has been primarily used to build myself up over the years. I have used it to encourage myself, enhance my prayer life – in my closest, in my room, where no one can hear me speak. And then I look at the early Church in Acts and understand that this is not what the baptism that Paul speaks of in Acts 19 is about:

It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether [a]there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized [b]in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men (Acts 19.1 – 7, NASB)

If we were to sit down and comb through Acts this morning, we would see that this baptism is about more than personal edification and enrichment. It is about the ability to speak truth to power in a deeply, oppressive context. In Acts 1, Jesus told the disciples that when the Holy Spirit arrived, they would be able to effectively testify on behalf of the Gospel. Prior to this announcement, the disciples couldn’t testify to anything – remember they ran out on Jesus when he was arrested because they feared going down with him.

But now, now that the Spirit was coming, they would be able to stand against the religious leaders, against the Roman Empire and tell the truth about Jesus, and what his inaugurated kingdom meant in light of how Rome was currently running things. Jesus’ reign meant that the reign of Herod Agrripa was coming to an end. The wealth that he enjoyed as a result of oppressing the poor would not only come to an end but be used as evidence to indict him in the kingdom of our Lord. The power of the High Priest, and other religious leaders whose policies led to the death of Jesus, was also coming to an end, meaning that they too would be judged for disowning and killing the Son of God. But how do you tell the truth about that in a context that is ready and willing to crucify anyone over the slightest appearance of wrong? Or let me reword that – what the empire defines as wrong. You see when you are under the rule of a regime like the Roman Empire, or the United States, more and more of the ordinary, not so spectacular activities of people who pose a threat to the empire become criminal.

Such is the reason why Paul questions the disciples of John in Acts 19 about whether or not they had received the Spirit when they came to faith. Paul knows that the stakes are high. In and of themselves, they won’t be able to speak against the corruption that they witnessed in Ephesus. Ephesus, once a hub of commercial activity, is on the decline in the time of Paul. Though on the decline, religious influence continued to draw worshippers to the Temple of Artemis, also known as Diana. Through Artemis they were able to continue to profit and grow their economy.

She was Ephesus’ only economic hope. And this was what believers were supposed to speak against and challenge? Not without the Holy Spirit. But John’s disciples have not even heard about the Holy Spirit. In fact, they have not heard about Jesus. They received John’s baptism of repentance and were probably living a righteous, moral life that modeled the very things that John taught. But John was not the Christ. Jesus was. In fact, John himself told those he baptized that he was only preparing them for the one who was coming after him, Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus, the lamb of God who critiques, opposes, and completely reforms the systems of this world that force people to choose between God and empire.

Understanding where John’s disciples are in their faith journey, Paul takes the time to explain the way to them and then baptizes them in the name of the Lord Jesus. As the text tells us, as Paul lays his hands on them, they receive the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in tongues and prophesy. From there, Paul ends up confronting some of the very challenges that they were up against, going head to head with those who are making profit off of Artemis and is accused of jeopardizing Ephesus’ prosperous trade. The city, enraged and in confusion, drags off Paul and his traveling companions with the aim of trying them and most likely killing them.

It takes people with a whole lot of audacity to speak to injustice like that, especially when any type of economics are involved because empires hate losing money. Audacity, or the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can speak what we would otherwise not say. On our own, we are often weak, frail and timid, but with the Spirit working through us, we can prophetically testify against the powers and structures of injustice in our day.

One of the greatest missed opportunities in the Pentecostal Movement, and believe me there are many, is this right here. Almost instantly, we became attracted to the display of the Spirit’s power and missed just why He was giving us this power. In 1906, in the throes of Jim Crow and segregation, the Holy Spirit visited an obscure street in Los Angeles, California pouring out His Spirit in what can only be likened to Acts 2. There is speaking in tongues. There is prophesy. There is healing. People are being raised from the dead. And it is all being led by a black man. Can you imagine? And get this, whites are sitting under his leadership. For the first time ever in this nation’s history, black, white, Latino, and other people of color are doing worship, compelled to fellowship with each other in perhaps one of our country’s darkest hours.

the-problem-we-all-live-with-1935-e1365972666933Decades removed from this movement, I ask myself what the Holy Spirit was doing back then? What was He trying to bring about? How was He empowering believers to speak against racism, Jim Crow, and segregation prophetically, by first bringing them together in one accord and in one place? But white people didn’t get it. They were so consumed by racism that they separated out from this powerful movement to create their own assembly, led by their own leadership. Quenching the move of the Spirit, the only thing that remained was speaking in tongues. Only form and no power.

Brothers and sisters, as we find ourselves in the midst of the ongoing struggle to dismantle racism in this country, demanding an end to police brutality and every other vice that dehumanizes and devalues black life, I find myself looking, expectant for a move of the Holy Spirit. We missed what the Spirit was doing in our nation 100 years ago through this multicultural coalition of believers led by a black man; we are in desperate need of His outpouring again so that we can do it right this time.

The Pentacostal in me calls out for a fresh visitation of the Spirit because I honestly don’t think the white Church as an institution, not necessarily individuals within, will be what it needs to be in this moment without His prodding.

This is why I call out for a renewed indwelling of the Spirit, not so that the Church can hide behind Him, but so that the Church can rise up and be the prophetic witness it needs to be in this generation. This generation needs the presence and the voice of the Church, not to lead or dominate the movement for racial justice, but to do what unbelievers cannot do in calling out the powers of darkness, commanding them to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Only the Church can recognize, through the spirit, the demonic spirit that racism is, a spirit that is so divisive, and so potent that it has kept people of color and whites alike, divided and captive to its force for over 400 years. A spirit not only bent on destroying black lives but every life. Only the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can come together, and tell this deadly spirit that it is time to go. Racism, you must leave! We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. You will no longer reign and wreck havoc in our nation. You must flee!

I have alluded many times throughout our time today to my theological background which prioritized speaking in tongues above all else, including using this as the sole physical evidence to indicate whether or not someone was baptized in the Holy Spirit. As I look at the biblical text with these lenses removed and witness the evidence of the Spirit in the lives of brothers and sisters around me, who may not speak in tongues, but are full of love, compassion, and a prophetic witness which I have never seen in believers who were supposedly full of the Spirit, I am beginning to expand my definition of what it means to be baptized and full of the Holy Spirit.

Quite honestly, I ardently believe that the Holy Spirit dwells in the life of every believer. The question that Paul posed to John’s disciples as to whether or not they received the Spirit was relevant then because they did not yet know the Lord, and it showed! This is not the case for many of us in here, as perhaps most of us have committed our lives to the Lord. As believers, his Spirit is a gift to us, given not merely for our own benefit but for the benefit of the world around us. Imagine us as a people of God collectively lifting our prophetic voices to call out white supremacy, to challenge institutional and structural racism, to call foul on our capitalistic democracy, to pronounce God’s judgment upon a nation that has built its empire by going throughout the world exploiting others, to bear witness to the kingdom of God among us as well as the fulfillment of God’s kingdom where He at last redeems this world.

But just maybe, maybe it is the case. I personally hate to judge people’s relationship and authenticity with God. I would rather not spend my time trying to figure out who is in and who is out. First of all it is a waste of time, and kind of weird. But most importantly, God is the judge, I am not. Only He can see the contents of the heart. But perhaps it is appropriate to look very critically at our situation and context here. We have all, whites and people of color a like, been fed the adage that this is a Christian nation. Many of us have grown up in Christian homes, have gone to Christian schools, have partaken in Christian rites such as baptism, confirmation, and communion, pray at dinner, go to church on Sunday, and at least pick up our Bible’s once a week to carry it to church on Sunday.

While all of these things are good, where is the evidence? Where is the prophetic witness? Where is the presence of hospitality, love, respect, respect for human life and heartfelt desire to love mercy, do justice and walk in humility with the Lord? Perhaps many of us really are more like John’s disciples than we realize. There is evidence of some sort of belief and morality. But our very behaviors don’t reflect that we are following Jesus. Our ungodly bent towards white people over people of color in this country, using capitalism, colonialism, and orientalism as a means to uplift and support white supremacy, branding everyone who is not white as the enemy to the extent that our government and others in power such as the police, are willing to literally silence, through imprisonment, public shame, and death, anything or anyone who poses a threat the structure of white supremacy suggests that many of us are not following Jesus. These things do not reflect who He was, what He said, or what He came to do, no matter what version of the Bible you use to paint a different picture. These attitudes, behaviors and structural, systemic oppression, in fact, suggests that many of us, like John’s disciples, first need Jesus before we can receive power to speak prophetically and authentically that #BlackLivesMatter!

Receive Jesus this morning! Receive His peace, receive His love, receive and embrace His Word for your life. Be born again, embrace new life in the same way that John’s disciples did. And in your renewed relationship with Him, submit to God through the Holy Spirit, and become still before Him to hear what He might be saying to you in this hour. Repent of your own complicity and hardness of heart toward blacks and others of color in this nation. Grieve our nation’s history, lament and wail over it in the same way that Jeremiah and the prophets of old wept over Israel. But then allow the Holy Spirit to fill your mouth with the words to say and your heart with the boldness to say it in this renewed movement for racial justice.

Links to photos:
1: http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/seymour-william-j-1870-1922
2: http://www.fortruthssake.com/2014/12/black-lives-matter-race-baiters-silent-about-death-of-lontrell-turner/
3: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/04/15/1863561/georgia-governors-office-calls-push-to-end-segregated-prom-a-silly-publicity-stunt/

Ferguson: It Is a Sin Problem

TruthImageThere’s a Facebook post that is currently circulating. You know, the one written by football player Benjamin Watson. In it, Watson wrestles over his emotions regarding what is going on in Ferguson. While I don’t necessarily resonate with many of the points that he raises in the post, I do agree with some of Watson’s analysis of sin being the root of the problem in Ferguson. And so do other Christians, apparently. Over the last day or so, my Facebook feed has been full of peers posting and commenting on Watson’s piece, jumping on the sin bandwagon. Sin seems to be the idea that believers, who have otherwise been largely silent in Mike Brown’s death, can unite around. And so, since the idea of sin has come to the forefront, it is expedient that we take the opportunity to identify just what type of sin we are dealing with here.

You see, if we are going to have a conversation about sin we must be honest and forthright in our analysis. We cannot simply look at individual sins, but we must look much deeper into the soul of our nation and consider the factors, the history, and the values that have led us to this point.

Capitalism. This is really the sin that we are dealing with here. In the name of capitalism, America has done a lot of shameful things which include exploiting black and brown bodies. In pursuit of profit at all costs, the idea of race was created and used to justify treating blacks as property instead of people. Because blacks were not seen as fully human, it was okay to enslave us, beat us, and even kill us, with little to no consequence for any of these actions. In that construct, blacks were not only seen as inferior to whites, but were also labeled dangerous so that whether we are asking for help, walking down the street, or playing in the park, we are automatically assumed to be guilty without ever having a chance to be proven innocent.

The sins of racism and capitalism are, therefore, closely intertwined. In fact, capitalism cannot thrive without racism continually waging a war against black people in this country. Consider the war on drugs which disproportionately targets and imprisons black men, when in fact, whites use recreational drugs at the same rate, if not higher. Also look at the housing crisis; the homes of blacks were foreclosed on at higher rates than whites due to discriminatory lending practices. Blacks, regardless of credit and income, were steered into subprime mortgages and so were at a greater risk of losing them compared to whites.

And of course, Ferguson. Let’s look at Ferguson and the incidents of police brutality around the country. Data suggests that a black man is killed by a police officer or self-appointed vigilante every 28 hours. In the few weeks surrounding the death of Mike Brown, there were are least 4 other men who had been assassinated by the police. Now that Jim Crow is no longer legal, a practice that was set in place when whites started to feel threatened by the economic gains that blacks were making, the police force has become the de facto executioners of the state. Not only is this sinful; its downright demonic.

So yes, sin is the undergirding problem in Ferguson and America at large. But it is the sin of capitalism and racism that must be dealt with in order to move this country toward a place of healing, reconciliation and love. This is why we cannot allow the idea of sin to exonerate ourselves from dealing with the bigger issue here because if we ignore it, we will not only lose out on God’s peace but His very presence. While undoing racism is a big task (we are dealing with structural and systemic issues here), with God nothing is impossible. Here are a three ways to get started today:

1. #BOYCOTTBLACKFRIDAY: In the wake of Monday’s verdict, protestors, community leaders, and activists all over the country have been calling like-minded individuals to #boycottblackfriday and in fact, all related activity through Cyber Monday. Since it is capitalism that continues to allow people like Mike Brown to be shot and killed without being held accountable, capitalism has to take a hit. Stand with black people and our allies and proclaim before the world that #blacklivesmatter.

2. Preach about Ferguson this Sunday and the weeks to come with a deepened analysis around racism and capitalism. See the sin for what it is and bring your congregation, small group, or social media following through a critical and informed understanding of what is going on. This will require that you take the time to listen to what other people are already saying about Ferguson, but it will also demand that you start to educate yourself around racial justice issues.

3. Pray. And after you are done praying that God break this nation’s strongholds, join up with others to demand justice. This is a battle that will not only be won on our knees but with our mouths, hearts, and feet as we declare God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

*Note: It’s not about the rioting. It’s really, really not. It is because of CAPITALISM that some Americans value property over life.

Link to image >

Doctrine of Discovery and the African American Experience: Rejecting White Theology in Pursuit of New Wine Skins

This weekend, I had an opportunity to present at “This Land is My Land? The Gospel of Conquest and the Church.” In the presentation, I discussed how the Doctrine of Discovery relates to the African American experience of slavery and capitalism, one of the pillars of white supremacy. I also discussed the role in forming a new theology in freeing the American church from this colonized worldview, moving us all to a place of freedom, reconciliation and love. Here is the audio of this talk >

I also encourage you to listen to the rest of the discussions from the conference, in particular the plenary by Mark Charles which was amazing. Here are the remaining audios >

Racism, Oppression and the Hope of the Gospel

A few months ago, I sat in church with tears streaming down my face like waterfalls. Just days before, I had been utterly disappointed and hurt by someone who I considered an ally simply because they said they were committed to racial reconciliation (that was my first mistake). Though I had experienced similar situations before. the familiarity of this injustice did not minimize the pain – in fact, its strange familiarity intensified the feelings of hopelessness that threatened to swallow me whole. I began to ask myself what was the point in fighting so hard if things wouldn’t change? What was the point in striving, pushing so hard against the elephant of racism if at the end of the day the elephant remained?

elephant_in_room_by_worshipgirl-d6hhq8x

(Image from Worship Girl

As I reflected on my own experience, I likewise mediated on the words from the day’s passage in Ecclesiastes where the preacher speaks about the realities oppression. The preacher says:

Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 4.1-5, NASB).

In this passage the preacher, assumed to be King Solomon, offers a candid picture of oppression and the lack of hope that many feel as a result of their situation. The repeated censoring, marginalization, and exploitation of the poor, women, and people of color, leaves many feeling overwhelmed with the pain that they encounter on a daily basis. In this country, much of the oppression exists along racial lines and those of color most often the victimized. From being turned down for a job, to being profiled and harassed by a police officer, we as people of color so often get the snot kicked out of us. We try, God knows we try hard, to move the elephant of racism that is literally killing us left and right. Every once in a while, he moves – the elephant actually shifts a little. Policies are passed that offer new promises of opportunity. White people start to listen and pay attention to our stories without centering themselves in it. A pastor recognizes and repents of his/her own role in maintaining racism and commits to the work of  diversity and reconciliation. Finally! We are making progress.

But then the elephant shifts right back to where he was before. Or maybe we were delusional and the elephant never really ever moved in the first place. Damn!

The question is how do we maintain hope when nothing seems to shift. How do we keep holding on, fighting the good fight when things seem to remain the same? In light of all of the recent happenings of black men being profiled and killed, I feel like we are living in a time warp. I wasn’t alive in the 50s but what we are experiencing in 2014 sure does feel like a page from the civil rights movement of old. How do we maintain our hope for justice when we are stuck fighting the very same fight for mere existence that our ancestors did?

The reality is that we do have hope. Jesus is our hope! His coming kingdom ushers in a new reality where those who have been victimized and those who have been silenced are made whole. When I think about this kingdom, the description of restoration from Joel 2 comes to mind where God makes up for all of the years of utter destruction and calamity that the nation of Israel endured at the hands of their enemies. In the process of restoration, God solidifies a reign of justice and peace where those who have been responsible for so much chaos are disarmed.

At the same time, in this new reality, the oppressor no longer feels the need to compete, to control or to hoard resources at the expense of the vulnerable. Like the oppressed, they too are made whole and complete in this kingdom, resting confidently in the new identity that the resurrection brings. I imagine that in the context of our country, this means forsaking the doctrines and ideologies that have prioritized profit over people of color, including indigenous people and immigrants which include white supremacy, manifest destiny and more. It means letting go of the desire to have the strongest and most affluent economy in the world. It even means evaluating how we build this economy and resisting the temptation to build it by making rich off of black and brown bodies. It means adopting a new value system, creating a new mission in which to govern ourselves, throwing of policies and procedures that disinvest and embracing laws that give life to all regardless of the color of their skin.

In this country, I imagine a time where the oppressed and the oppressor, black and white, poor and rich, slave and free – are all bound together in an inextricable embrace. The glue that binds us all is the blood of Christ, poured out for all, which not only tears down the walls of division between us but also fundamentally changes the nature of our relationships with each other. This is our hope! And in spite of what we continue to face on a daily basis, I refuse to give up on it.