#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches

blackchurchesBlack churches are burning again in America!

By rough estimates, eight black churches have been set ablaze since the horrific #CharlestonMassacre two weeks ago. As an African American whose spiritual roots are connected to these institutions, I cannot explain the absolute horror that I feel inside. You see, I first caught the Holy Ghost in my grandfather’s church, a Baptist church in Milwaukee, when I was maybe 9 or 10. Before he was placed in a nursing home in my early teens, he took me and my sister to church most Sundays. It was there where I discovered that I could sing, got baptized, and started to develop my love for God.

It was in my grandmother’s church where I first got saved, over 20 years ago now. And at my mother’s church, where I was discipled. Although both of these churches were a part of the Assembly of God, a historically white denomination, it is because of a black man – William Seymour, that the Assemblies of God exists. Seymour, who became born again at the Simpson Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church and was later greatly influenced by the Holiness movement, was the leading figure in the Azuza Street Revival from 1906 – 1909. Walking in the Holy Ghost, God used him to bring whites and blacks to worship under one roof until racism tore the movement a part. At this point, whites separated themselves and created the Assemblies of God; many black congregants joined the Church of God in Christ, the first sanctioned Pentecostal assembly in the United States.

My Assembly of God experience over the last two decades has been greatly influenced by the black church. I have sat under the leadership and discipleship of two godly black pastors, in both Milwaukee and Minneapolis; without their influence and presence in my life, I would not be where I am today. Seeing them lead in the pulpit week in and week out was affirming in a society that consistently demonized blackness. So you see, I am tied to the black church. I owe my salvation to the black church. For me, the black church represents a place of refuge in a nation that insists on terrorizing us.

Yet, black churches are burning again in America.

Unfortunately, however, there are people in our nation who do not look at the black church through the same pair of eyes that I do. The very things that mean safety for me, are the things that cause others to tremble because of the black church’s enduring stance against white supremacy. Indeed, the black church was founded in response to blacks being forbidden to participate in the life and worship of the white church. Our coming together was not only characterized by worship, but a deep commitment to overturn slavery and racism in this society.

Power structures in this country could not allow this to be. Whites who were also committed to maintaining slavery could not allow the black church to be the institution that we needed it to be. Whites who were proponents of Jim Crow and segregation simply could not allow the prophetic voice coming out of the black church to endure. And so they terrorized them, hoping to silence the prophets and invoke fear in the parishioners – taunting us with the notion that not even God could save us from the horrors of white supremacy.

But catch this. The same whites who attack our churches and mock our God, also claim to worship this same God. Remember that the black church was born as a result of not being able to participate in the white church, and so, historically many of the whites who have committed these atrocious acts are also following Jesus! They are reading the same Bible that blacks are reading. They are eating from the same communion table that blacks are eating from and bowing their heads in prayer to the same God we pray to. Then they hold up God’s Word as a justification for assaulting black life.

Thusly, the same cross that white supremacy hides behind to sanction violence against black people is the same cross it attacks to further this violence. Such proves that it has never been about Jesus, but evoking a gross caricature of our Savior as a means of social order and control. For the sake of white supremacy, Christ Himself is re-victimized and crucified all over again!

We may not necessarily know #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches in this hour. But we do know what allows such things to be: white supremacy clothed in a distorted form of Christianity. It is this form of Christianity that our nation claims is its foundation and that certainly may be. But so that we are clear: this American Christianity no more resembles Christ than does a cat resembles a car – the two are simply not the same thing! It’s time that we stop allowing our Savior to become the sacrificial lamb in order to bolster whiteness.

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/

Diversity, Oppression, and the God Who Hears

Diversity1-560x560-560x270Here are a few pieces that I have submitted to other blogging networks over the last few weeks:

Does the Church Really Want Diversity
Over the years many American churches have expressed a desire to be more open to people of color so that we feel welcome in the congregation. The thought is that as the number of people of color increase in this nation and the number of white people decrease, our bodies are needed to grow the church numerically. And the sentiments here are true-ish. At last, I believe, we have hit on something of importance that truly sheds light on why the American Church is declining. Still, something just doesn’t feel right.

You see the conclusion is right (we do NEED to embrace diversity) but the analysis and approach at reaching this conclusion is off if not even insulting. In the quest for diversity, what many ‘experts’ miss in their analysis is that there is a reason why we are not currently diverse.

For years, hundreds of years in fact, whites have gone through great lengths to tell people of color that we are not wanted in their places of worship. They didn’t want to eat communion with us, they didn’t want to fellowship with us, and they certainly didn’t want to be led by us! In fact, they literally killed cross cultural movements of the Holy Spirit where people of color were in charge. Read the rest over at the Salt Collective >

#StayWokeAdvent: God Who Delivers the Oppressed
The events of the last few weeks have left many people in our country weary. When the grandjury in Ferguson decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, the shoulders of many black people fell. Our hearts, already broken and bruised as a result of living in an oppressive society, broke even more. Once again, a nation that never intended for us to make it, that never intended for us to do well, failed us. Though to be expected, we couldn’t keep ourselves from weeping. We could not keep ourselves from grieving. And we certainly could not help the feelings of utter disappointment and rage from boiling in our bones, pressing against our bodies, dying to get out. For a moment, we allowed ourselves to hope in a justice system that has had a long track record of treating us with malice. And hope failed us.

For nearly 400 years, our story has remained relatively the same. For nearly 400 years, blacks in this country have been marginalized and exploited by one form of oppression or another. Slavery. Convict Leasing System. Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration. Redlining. Generational poverty. Police Brutality. Though all of these techniques have different faces, the aim of each is to ensure that blacks don’t know peace.

After 400 years of this, you simply have to wonder when will things change. When will those of us who have been oppressed break free? When will we, at last, be able to break the yoke of white supremacy off of our necks? When will we stop drowning in this sea of perpetual turmoil and be able to finally come up from air? When will we be able to stop fighting to simply exist? Read the rest over at #StayWokeAdvent >

Maybe Jesus Isn’t a Superhero After All

superhero jesusAny ten year old American kid could tell you what a superhero looks like. Although they all have distinguishing characteristics, every superhero from Batman to Spiderman to Wonderwoman, bear one thing in common: the ability to save the day and beat the bad guys. They exist solely because oppression exists.

Although Marvel comics didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, I can only assume that this is what the disciples thought He had come to do – beat the bad guys. The Jewish people had been expectantly waiting for a Messiah, a hero, to come and rescue them from the evils of this world and for good reason too! Throughout Israel’s history, they had been oppressed and marginalized by nations who were stronger and had more savvy military might. Lest we forget, they experienced slavery, had their land taken away from them, and seemed to always be under the constant threat of being overthrown and taken advantage of. During Jesus’ time, they – like much of the Mediterranean world – had come under Roman rule, an empire that was as oppressive as it was idolatrous. For these reasons and more, they hoped that Jesus would liberate them from the empire’s oppressive rule which taxed them heavily, limited their access to economic opportunity (sound familiar?) and demanded their worship.

Hopeful and perhaps a little anxiety ridden, the disciples questioned Jesus – wanting to get the low down on how He was going to assume authority and when He was going to do it. They, like every other human being who has ever had to deal with the daily realities of being oppressed, wanted some very real answers to the dilemma they faced. If Jesus was who He said He was, the Christ or long awaited Messiah, then He would surely set things straight. He would subdue all of the wickedness and evil that surrounded them. He would go toe to toe with Herod and overthrow him immediately, assuming all power and authority as the Son of God. He would undo the system of taxation which drove people into poverty, and create an economic system that ensured no one would be left behind.

2,000 years later, I find myself hoping for the same things. I find myself expectant, even demanding Jesus to come to my rescue and save the day. That He would free me from all of the isms – sexism, racism, classism – that box me in, forcing me to call out, “Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on me!” I dream of the day when Jesus will come down and unseat all of the racists, knock out all of the sex traffickers and pimps, and subdue all of the crooked politicians, special interest groups, and others who get rich by exploiting the poor.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

By now, I think I am beginning to understand that Jesus just doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t subdue wickedness with force and tackling it the way that we think He should. He defeats it by laying His life down to the point that He Himself is exploited by it. Do we get that? Jesus submits Himself to the very evil that has been a source of pain for the Jewish people. To a greater extent, He allows Himself to be subjected by sin and death – the greatest oppressive force in the world. But in doing so, He defeats it! In taking the sins of the world upon Himself and even allowing Himself to die, He cripples its power!

So maybe Jesus isn’t the Superhero that the world has always hoped for. Maybe He doesn’t bring down wicked regimes with one wave of His hand or stamp out racism with one blink of His eye. While He holds all power, and could easily do so, I believe that Jesus understands that this is not the way oppression is defeated. It’s more about a quiet, peaceful resistance that requires a radical love, self-sacrifice and a humble spirit. This is the only way the power of oppression is actually broken. This is the only way that systems and institutions that have held people in bondage actually begin to change.

As His disciples, I believe that Christians are called to live out of this model more than anything else. If Jesus is the one that we claim to worship and commit to following wholeheartedly, than we must follow Him in giving up ourselves on behalf of others. So often, I find that as believers – especially those with more resources and privilege – we use our theism to secure power so that we can theoretically make the world a better place (well, some do it for other reasons but let’s not go there today). We want to be the superheros, the ones who come in a save the day, which is good – in theory.

But for the last 1700 years since Constantine, we’ve been using this model. We’ve used our position as the most prestigious faith expression on the face of this earth, the one that has the most political and social power, to do ‘right.’ Arguably, much of the right that Christian communities have sought has led to further oppression, further exploitation and suffering, causing the disinvestment of communities around the world, mostly of color. Under the aim of seeking to evangelize the world, we have in fact, oppressed the world – forcing our ideology and way of being on people who have no other choice but to submit.

Evangelism is a worthy goal – a necessary goal and is the only way that people will know that Jesus is who He said He was. Justice is also necessary, and with that, advocacy on behalf of those who poor and vulnerable. But if the way that we do that mirrors what we have done in the past, how is this different? How will this lead to different outcomes? How will this lead to people placing their faith in the true Jesus Christ, not a caricature of him based on Western theology? But if we do this, if we pursue peace and reconciliation and justice and preach the whole gospel, in the way that Jesus did rejecting the temptation to become a superhero and embracing sacrifice, denial, and love, I believe we really will subdue oppression in a way that has not been done in a very long time.

 

Announcing Latest Book Release – Embracing a Holistic Faith: Essays on Biblical Justice. Find out more at amazon.com

Make Disciples of All Nations (and Then the Nations Came to Us)

paintings_189As Jesus was preparing to leave the earth and ascend to heaven, He gave his disciples a few instructions called the Great Commission. Jesus directed his remaining followers to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching and baptizing them in the way of the Lord. For the last 2000 years or so, that is just what the church has done (albeit imperfectly and not always contextually). Since Pentecost, ministers of the gospel have gone out to other places in the world to preach and teach the Word of God, and have led billions upon billions to faith in Jesus Christ. Amazing right!

Over the last few hundred years, however, this cross-cultural ministry has primarily been led by American and European missionaries. Out of a desire to win the lost in exotic, third world nations (and sometimes out of a desire to colonize those nations, let’s just be honest) they have crossed land and sea, spending their entire lifetime discipling people in the way of the Lord. Yet, as a result of immigration and other global trends/ situations, something quite fascinating has taken place. Now people of other nations and ethnicities are coming to America, looking for opportunities to start over, raise their family, receive education or just live to see another day. This has wonderful implications on the gospel and missions efforts, because now the very people that we’ve been trying to reach are our neighbors. But instead of reaching out to them, inviting them into our churches, our homes, our lives, many Christians and churches are pushing them away.

The reality is that these immigration trends are causing the browning of America. Whereas people of color, non European immigrants, and indigenous people used to be the minority in terms of numbers, we are increasingly becoming the majority. For the first time ever, the majority of babies born in the United States are born to parents of color. This has implications not only on how our society is governed, meaning that we need to adopt more inclusive and racially just practices and policies, but it also suggests something for our churches.

What it purports is that if our churches fail to do ministry with and alongside of people of color, these nations that now live within our border, we run the risk extinction (in America, not globally). In 50 years, more than half of all adults in America will be people of color and immigrants. If our churches fail to make disciples of the nations living amongst us in meaningful, authentic, non colonial, non token ways, we will quickly become a post-Christian nation. To be clear, the onus will not be on those ‘unbelievers’ who failed to accept Christ; it will be on the American church and its failure to represent Christ and bring people who are far away near.

Now when I say the word ‘disciple,’ I am not just talking about people who will come to church every Sunday, fill the pews and give their tithes and offering. While that is important, what is equally important (if not more so) is that our churches are training people from the nations to actually minister the gospel. Are they training them to be pastors, preachers, leaders, ministers, evangelists, teachers, and missionaries? Are they training them to go and make disciples? Are they nurturing their gift? Or are they sitting on those gifts, making them jump through hoops that they never had to, to prove what they never had to prove, to serve a God who is equally available to all? This is important because it will be these people who will continue to carry the gospel forward, from generation to generation until Jesus comes again (sidenote: I am not just talking about paid clergy. It is important for the entire body of believers to be built up in this way).

“Make disciples of all nations.” This is the charge that Jesus has given the Church. Interestingly enough, the church in America is now poised in a similar situation to the first century church in Jerusalem. If you read the second chapter of Acts, you will see how the nations of the world were in Jerusalem for one reason or another, heard the gospel in a culturally relevant way, and then put their faith in Christ. 3,000 people from different nations and tongues were added to the church in one day. And I have to believe that it was these people, along with the apostles, who were responsible for carrying the gospel into the world. If we are careful, America could become ‘A New Jerusalem; – a place of discipling, equipping and sending forth. But it will have to start with the church welcoming the nations, as well as the people of color who have been here for centuries, instead of pushing them away. The response of the Church will be a determinant as to whether the influx of non European nations into the America society will be transgenerational blessing or a lost opportunity.

The Church’s Role in a New Racial Justice Movement

Last week, the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Leading up to this event, numerous blog posts and articles abounded which raised awareness around the fact that de facto segregation and racism is still very much alive in our society. Although many people in the United States believe that we live in a post-racial society (I mean, people are no longer getting lynched and we have a black president, right), the reality is that our nation is far from the ideals that Dr. King imagined of inclusion, solidarity and equality for all people regardless of the color of their skin. The proof: the high unemployment rate, incarceration, and health disparities that are more prevalent in communities of color in comparison to white communities.

In light of this, many activists, community leaders, and just plain old common people are starting to call for a new racial justice movement to move us beyond this point in our nation’s history. If we do nothing, we can expect that in 50 years things will look pretty much as they do now, or even worse. In recent years, it seems like we are treading backwards instead of moving forward on very pivotal issues. Voting rights have been called into question, the safety net for the poor has shrunk, and the racial undertone is more divisive than ever. In order to move past this and bring justice, equity, and healing to our nation, we have to imagine and then begin to construct a new reality.

A new racial justice movement must be all inclusive. The first one marginalized women and was largely missing the voice of other ethnicities. Although these communities still played a role in the movement, they organized in their separate silos. This division cannot be characteristic of a new movement; we need all hands on deck! A recent Colorlines article by Rinku Sen gets to this:

“We can and must get to the place where we all see ourselves as one movement, rather than as a collection of movements working in solidarity with one another. It’s a subtle shift, but one that would serve us well. Being one movement doesn’t mean we have to lose the specificity of our experiences and solutions, but it does mean that we can engage in a level of joint analysis, planning and action that would make the most of each community’s assets. I can tell you, the leaders and foot soldiers of a single movement talk to each other far more often than do the leaders and foot soldiers of allied movements.”

The vision that Sen lays out of a movement consisting of multiple players is beautiful and compelling because that is exactly what it will take to stomp out this evil. However, I strongly believe that the Church needs to be a part of that vision. When I say the Church, I am not talking about individual churches but the entire body of believers signing on, standing up, and locking arms with others who are already knee deep in the muggy waters of this thing. As a community of faith, we need to march, we need to fight, and we need to pray alongside of those who’ve been standing for far too long. We need to see ourselves in it for several reasons: (1) we have a role to play (2) we are all affected by it.

A Role to Play

The Church has a very clear role to play in a new racial justice movement, and that of spiritual warfare.  You see, sin and demonic oppression lie at the root of racism and only the Church is able to speak to that. There are many ways that we can do this, but the one that I want to highlight now is prophecy.

In Ezekiel 37, God leads the prophet to a valley of dry bones. Looking at the bones, God asks the prophet if the bones, which were dead and decaying, could ever live again. Ezekiel’s response – only you know Lord. God then tells the prophet to speak over the bones and command them to come to life again. And at Ezekiel’s word, the bones begin to come back together and regained breath so that they lived and functioned as the living souls that God had called them to be.

I believe that God is asking the body of Christ in this nation the same question that He asked Ezekiel, except the problem is not dead bones but racism – both individual and institutional. The question of the hour is whether or not we can ever get to the bottom of this horrid injustice, and by the Spirit of God, the answer is yes. In the same way that Ezekiel prophesied to the valley of dry bones, we as a community of believers need to call out to racism to hear the word of the Lord. We can begin to speak life to that which has represented death and demonic activity in this nation, and command life in its place. As we do, the very real stronghold that has held our nation captive in its grip for hundreds of years will begin to break.

We Are Affected, Too

I call this out as a separate reason that the Church needs to get involved because many people erroneously believe that what is happening in the world around us, has no implications on us. Such people also believe that staying in their little bubbles full of church activities and people who look like them, will keep themselves unstained by the “pagan” practices of the world. However, the Bible tells us to keep ourselves from conforming to the pattern of this world; it never instructs us to separate from it. That would pretty much be impossible.

With this in mind, it would behoove us to be concerned about the world’s state of affairs, and for the sake of this post, the state of affairs in this nation when it comes to racism. Every single person who lives in this nation is affected by its insidious consequences. When the people of Israel went in to exile in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah likewise instructed them to be concerned about what was going on there: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”

Or stated another way: We do better when we all do better.

So now we understand why the Church needs to get involved in a new racial justice movement. The question that remains is how. Another post, for another day.

The Crippling Effects of Racism (A Personal Story)

In June of 2001, less than a week after my high school graduation, I went on a mission’s trip to Argentina. I was ecstatic and had waited the majority of my senior year for this experience. This was not my first mission’s trip; just the summer before I went to El Salvador. It was during my trip in El Salvador that I sensed God confirming my call into ministry, specifically missions and pastoring. In just a few short months after my trip to Argentina, I would be starting my freshman year at North Central University, a small Bible College in the Twin Cities to pursue a degree in missions, rather Cross Cultural Studies (the formal name of the missions program at that time). Surrounded by these two realities, going to Argentina was very significant to me and I was ready to be challenged.

But the challenge that I received was not what I was expecting. A friend and I were the only two black people on that trip that consisted of nearly 40 youth and three adults. There was one other person of color, who was Latina. But I was aware of this fact some two or so months before as our team gathered in Waupaca, WI for mandatory training and they all seemed nice enough, so cool, right? Wrong. I had never felt so ostracized in my entire life than during those two weeks on that trip. Many times after a day of ministry, I would come back to the place that we were staying at the Bible College in Buenos Aires and weep my eyes out because I just couldn’t put my finger on why I was treated the way I was. All throughout I kept questioning whether it was me; was I saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing?

There was a pastor who was there with his youth group, and they made up the majority of our missions team. Together they would take pictures, hang out and do other activities, but my friend and I were never invited to participate. Seldom did that pastor interact with us; in fact I can’t recall one instance where he actually did during that trip. I internalized his treatment towards me, wondering what the basis of his actions were. He didn’t even know me.

Tonight as I was praying, grieving over a different issue that I am facing in the present, this trip and all of its accompanying feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, worry and fear came to my remembrance. It has been 12 years and never have I once thought of what happened on that trip until today; I left and buried those memories in Buenos Aires, Argentina back then and walked away. But God resurfaced it, and all of a sudden I felt all of these emotions that I didn’t know what to do with. I wept for that girl who experienced this so long ago, because no one should ever be in a place where they feel discounted as a result of the color of their skin. I weep for that same girl, now a woman, today because it is unfortunate that I still encounter the same hatred, the same resistance, the same despondency which makes me second guess myself and ask: was it me, was is something I said? Am I not qualified enough? Not beautiful enough? Not spiritual enough? Not networked enough? Not bold enough? Not proud enough? Not humble enough? Not brave enough?

But no, its just racism waving its ugly head in the most insidious ways. So often it’s so subtle and covert that you wouldn’t even know it’s there. But it’s there, and it has a nasty bite that has a tendency to cripple its victims and disarm its opponents. And the most terrible thing about it to me is that it is often perpetrated the most by people who claim to be God’s own. It’s time for a change.