Balancing Act: Facing Reality about Racism and Still Maintaining Hope

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Racism is alive and well in the United States. Those who were in denial about it before for one reason or another, must come to grips with this sobering reality post 2016 election. We have not progressed our way out of it as many have eagerly but ignorantly imagined. Nor have we come remotely close to dismantling it, in spite of all of our good, earnest efforts spanning generations. While political pundits analyze so many different components of the election results, all with varying and sometimes contradictory statements, one piece of truth that continues to bear out is that racism is the culprit laying at the root of the tree.

Let me be expressly clear about what I am and am not saying. I am not saying that one political party is racist and the other not. Both Republicans and Democrats embody deeply racist ideologies and both at times, can present policy platforms that appear to help vulnerable people while simultaneously screwing them over. And I am not saying that the other candidate was America’s salvation in any way – she represented more of the status quo way of doing things than any substantive change in either direction. And I am not saying that everyone who voted for the president-elect is necessarily racist, though I have some pointed questions for those who did. What I am saying is that the man who ran on a platform that was openly and explicitly crass towards African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and women – just to name a few – won. What I am saying is that the man who – without specifics – proposed building walls and banning people of a particular faith, just secured 304 electoral votes. What I am saying is that the man who received the endorsement of a known terrorist organization, is slated to become the next president of the United States. In just a few more days. God have mercy on us all!

To me this reaffirms this nation’s historic roots. In spite of all of the work that activists, faith leaders, community residents, academics, journalists, and even government allies have done over the last eight years – not to mention the work spanning hundreds of years which made the last eight years possible – racism is rearing its ugly head, insisting its pre-eminence and staking its claim on the United States’ soil, land, and air. Racism, the manner by which this country was built since it was stolen from American Indians, is here to stay. It is the only way that this country can survive – the entire nation’s economy, power, and way of being in the world exists only because racism exists. It is the nexus by which every other thing in this nation holds together.

Because it is the way of doing things in the United States, all of the effort that we put into uprooting this awful evil often seems to be ineffective. Sure, there may be short terms wins along the way evidenced through policy change and shifts in individual attitudes. But these wins, just as quickly as they come, can disappear when the political climate shifts, the economy fails, or when people simply grow tired of doing the right thing. When it is no longer expedient to do the right thing, when equity is no longer as appealing as it once was, when people forget all of the work that we have collectively put in to get us to this point, these wins – like voter rights and affirmative action – lose their effectiveness. They either lack enforcement metrics or laws change so that the metrics that secured equal rights are no longer valid as evidenced in the work to repeal Obamacare just this week.

It is very difficult to maintain hope in the face of such a reality. It’s not impossible, as with God all things are possible, but it is beyond challenging to keep imagining that liberation could actually be a tangible reality when this present-day system has endured for more than 500 years. Could this great imperialistic evil, that haunts our memories and threatens the future of our children and our children’s children – children who are increasingly of color as our nation’s demographics continue to change – come to an end so that we can all be free? Can we dismantle the spirit of white supremacy, that in the words of Toni Morrison causes people to do things that they otherwise would not do and abandon their sense of human dignity in the name of identity? “Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.” Is a reality beyond this current situation even plausible or are we merely deceiving ourselves?

Facesatthebottom2.jpgPermanence of Racism
I recently finished reading Derrick Bell’s ‘Faces at the Bottom of the Well.” Like December recently. I bought the book over a year ago and finally picked it up the week before the election. Perfect timing! Although it was written in 1992, I was struck by how relevant Bell’s analysis around the black experience was more than 20 years after he published the book.

One of the most compelling chapters in the book was the last one – the Space Traders. An allegory, it illustrated how in times of political and financial turmoil, black people are easily scapegoated for the nation’s problems while being simultaneously called on to fix the nation’s ills. In this particular story, visitors from another world visited the U.S. and promised the country financial resources, the means to clean up the climate, and other goods in exchange for its black citizens. Activists, journalists and other leaders representing different racial and religious backgrounds tried to make the moral case for denying the visitor’s offer. Business leaders also tried to make a financial case for resisting this great temptation, not in the name of morality but because of black citizen’s purchasing power. Some leaders who were worried about violating the constitution, even tried to make a legal case against the Space Trader’s offer.

In the end, politicians gave into their depraved lusts and took the visitor’s offer. They amended the constitution so that it was now legal, even honorable to exile a whole race of people – telling black citizens that they were now being enlisted in selective service to save the country. They shut down journalists who contradicted their narratives, published the names of Jewish leaders who were to secretly give black people refuge, and even published propaganda through religious leaders who could deceive their audiences into believing that this was the right thing. They even went as far as to criminalize and even kill blacks who tried to escape the country or who fought back. Nothing would keep them from securing the financial and material gain that could be theirs by turning over the country’s black citizens to God knows what fate met them ahead.

Fortunately, no visitors from outer space are coming to take any of us away! And still, the parallels between this allegory written more than 20 years ago and our present day reality are uncanny. While the sanctioned means of exploitation and oppression changes from generation to generation – slavery to convict leasing system to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to police brutality – the oppression of black people is part and parcel to this nation’s survival. And as the country becomes increasingly diverse the codified hatred of blacks has expanded to include everyone who is not white, and particularly, not a wealthy, white, able-bodied, heterosexual ‘Evangelical’ male.

Everyone outside of this narrow demographic has been blamed for the economic and social instability in our country, further proving that the struggle for human rights and survival is now a struggle shared by all of us – even the so-called disenfranchised whites who voted for him in the first place. Many of these – certainly not all – voted out of the desire to Make America Great Again. While the popular slogan never mentioned race, it was a dog-whistle that called out for days gone by when whites held more power.

But not all whites, let us remember that. Power, as much as it is divided along racial lines, is more greatly defined along economic ones. Race is not the foundation, the foundation is gross inequities and class divisions between wealthy whites and non wealthy whites. Race keeps those without resources from going after the wealthy, instead turning their attention to people of color of all economic classes. Race has been effective in warding off uprisings and political revolts as so commonly happened in Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries. And in order to hold on to economic power, the wealthy rally disenfranchised whites to put pressure on people of color. As Obama so eloquently stated in last week’s farewell speech, “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving (person of color), then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

If this is it, and this is all we have, and if policies that promoted human rights can be taken away with the stroke of a pen, and if it is so seemingly easy to incite people to turn on each other, what, pray tell, can we hope in? How do we keep ourselves from becoming filled with utter despair and sadness as we see history repeat itself right before our eyes? How do we keep marching forward and stay stedfast on the course of justice, truth and righteousness when others around us, even in the household of faith, have seemed to lose sight of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel that is “about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion.”

A Reason to Hope
Unfortunately, many people have cast off hope. After seeing generations of their ancestors struggle and fight for the same basic human decency in which we strive for today, some have given up on the idea that things could actually improve. The unbelief, which manifests itself in various forms including nihilism and atheism, comes from a place of deep despair and hopelessness as a result of the continual failure of the system to change. And who can blame those who embrace such ideologies? It is not for wantonness and debasement that these choose unbelief, but rather out of desperation and pain. Persistent despair causes people to surrender hope in exchange for something tangible, something real in order to face reality for what it is. As the Word of God affirms, hope deferred makes the heart grow sick.

Still, I believe. For me, hope does not equate to a sense of false optimism, but it is a hope that is painfully aware of the current reality and still utterly convinced that another reality is possible. Though it may come off as mere foolishness to some, I sincerely do believe that change is not only possible but is on its way. You see, evil always resists the hardest right before a cataclysmic shift in the spirit. Remember the stories of Moses and Jesus, and how the ruling powers of their day both tried to extinguish the chance of deliverance through genocide and oppression? Similarly, in our time, the national and global intensity of oppression in this moment has to cause us to ask what the Spirit of God is about to do in this moment. Though we are prone to tremble and fear, we still have to understand that there is so much taking place in the spiritual world that we cannot see with our natural eyes. As hard as we are fighting for the cause of justice in the natural, we can trust that God is moving things in the supernatural. If He wasn’t, if things truly were not changing, if that moral arc of the universe was not ever more bending towards justice, peace, and reconciliation, Satan would not be fighting so hard. Satan fights because he is fighting a losing battle – he will not win, God’s peace, truth, and righteousness will prevail!

In that vein, I also hope because of the imminent return of Christ. Deep in my heart, I believe He is coming back to restore all of humanity to Himself, each other, and the environment. All of the relationships that were destroyed as a result of disobedience will be repaired and we will finally enjoy the fullness of His presence. In that return, the systems of this world will fall. Every empire built on the backs of the disenfranchised will not only be called into account but will also be done away with. You see, if Jesus is Savior and LORD, there is no way that any of the rulers in this world can occupy that space. Even the most powerful dictator will have to face the fact that they are not in charge and will be held accountable for how they marginalized vulnerable populations for the sake of financial and political gain.

I also hope because there are so many people who are rallying for justice. People of different races, ethnicities and creeds. People of different income and educational levels. People within the nation’s boarders and without. People of different genders and sexual orientations. People of different abilities. People of all different shapes and sizes. People of different religions and faith expressions. Even people of different political ideologies. All of us, in spite of our differences, are pursuing justice. Because of our differences, we may not all take up the same approach but the point is, each of us with our gifts, skills, and abilities are doing what we can to usher in peace and justice, and stomp out evil and oppression. The sheer vastness of this coalition of folks also tells me that there are more people intent on securing righteousness than those bent on evil. Evil, at times, may seem to be more powerful. Because of its reach, we may even begin to feel that we are outnumbered. But let us remember the apostle Paul’s admonition to the early church who faced persecution under the Roman occupation, saying “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew! Do you not know what the scripture says about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left and they are seeking my life!” 4 But what was the divine response to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand people who have not bent the knee to Baal (Romans 11.2 – 4, NET).”

There are more of us than there are of them. Though those bent on evil may wield power and resources, we are mighty if we stand together under the common bond of love, mercy, justice, and reconciliation. As the words of the 1973 Chilean socialist movement declared, ‘El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido (The People United, Will Never Be Defeated)! If we stand united in purpose, even if our approaches and methodologies differ, we will not only be able to stand against the present day threat to our collective human rights, but we can stand against structural racism and capitalism that continues to devastate our beings and witness the unfolding of the kin-dom of God before our very eyes!

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Belonging and Survival

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The human condition is predicated on the premise that we belong and are needed by others. In order to survive and live life well, we are dependent on the presence and generosity of those who surround us – not only for provision but for meaning, relationship, and warmth as well. Just think about it: in creating humanity, God recognized the need for Adam to have a companion, a wife, a compadre in the struggle who he would be able to do life with. In His own words, God said that it was not good for humans to live alone. Such isolation not only gives us an inflated vision of ourselves but it denies us the opportunity to love and be fully loved by others.

Babies are born utterly dependent on their caregivers and as they mature into adults, they remain dependent on parents for years to come. Adults, in their old age, are dependent on younger family members, social programs, and so much more in order to provide for their needs. Every one of us is a part of a family, a community, places of worship and/or culture where we give our time, talent, and treasure. None of us are able to survive without these connections. We can neither go it alone or imagine that others can go it without us. Such demands that we relinquish selfish ideologies that place ourselves at the center, understanding that the center is much bigger than we ourselves, it consists of all of us. All of us are needed, important, valued and loved.

We cannot imagine for one minute that we could have it any other way. It may seem convenient at times to distance ourselves from others, minimizing our commonalities and mutual need for connection in order to survive. At least, that is what we are told – that life is a zero-sum game where there are winners and losers and that in order to survive, some of us just have to lose. In this alternate reality – alternate because it has no truth in it – people grow richer and more powerful by annihilating all of those who get in their way. Truth is, the act of casting others off comes with the cost of one’s own demise. Remember Cain? Many of us, I’m sure, recall the way in which Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealousy and greed. Many of us, I’m sure, have grown up mourning the loss of Abel. And while, Abel’s loss is tragic, the greatest tragedy of the story is that in Cain’s murderous act against his own brother, he likewise separated himself from community and love. He cut himself off from the very human fabric of which he denied his brother.

Likewise, every time we deny others the opportunity to live and be free, we cut our own selves off from the same opportunity. When we choose profit over life, we rob our own water supply, diminish our own land, and compromise our own ability to breathe fresh air. When we marginalize communities through acts of racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, we cause our own communities to be less safe and driven by acts of fear and aggression. When we trust in politicians instead of the testimony of our neighbors, we put our own lives at risk of being exploited by their despotic policies and practices.

Darwin – in so many ways – had it wrong: our survival is not predicated on the extinction of others. The opposite is true, our survival as a human people necessitates the wellbeing of others. If we want to exist, live, be free, and do well, we have to ensure that no one – on account of their race, religion, ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, or income – is marginalized for the sake of the advancement of a few or even the security of many. Picking others off just so that some can get ahead only creates an incessant cycle of finding a new class of people to demonize and vilify – until there is no one left.

We are not each other’s enemies; we are each other’s best chance at making it! We are our best chance at putting to rest all of the ways in which we allow ourselves to be cut off from each other. We are our best chance at combating climate change and uprooting white supremacy. We are our best chance at dismantling patriarchy and homophobia. This is not to say that God doesn’t have a part to play, this is His world after-all, but we have to stop using the will of God as a crutch to justify our spirit of do-nothingness. The Spirit of God will do what the Spirit of God will do, and fortunately for us, God often chooses to work through the hearts and lives of human beings. Throughout the Word, the history of the world, and in this present moment, God calls us to recognize our interdependence and out of that recognition, pursue love, justice, and mercy with all people without distinction.

God does this because He knows the ways in which division and disconnection destroys all of us. After-all, He was there when Cain killed Abel. With His own eyes, God saw how Abel’s act made him a fugitive and wanderer on the face of the earth.

And He saw how sin destroyed the unity between Adam and Eve (Genesis 3).

And how fear caused Sarah to abuse and misuse Hagar (Genesis 16; 19).

And how desperation separated brothers Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25, 27).

And how out of jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery (Genesis 37 – 50).

In each of these instances, the very act of exclusion that people used in hopes of survival cost them greatly. Acts of exploitation and oppression always come at great cost – not just to the marginalized but to the oppressor as well. This is because God in His infinite wisdom, created us to survive on the connection of others so that when we hurt others, we hurt ourselves. As the South African concept of Ubuntu affirms, we only exist because of the existence of others.

Today, let’s commit to walk back toward one another. I know we’ve been through a rough year, a year marked by violence and chaos on a local, national, and global scale – all of which has been heightened by the lies the we’ve been told about each other. Some believed those lies for various reasons – be it fear, hatred, or bigotry – but at the root of them all was the need for survival.

Let’s reject the lie. Every day, starting from today for the rest of our lives, reject the lie that someone else’s life is costing us our survival. Every day, let us rehearse the truth that we know about each other – that each of us are loved, valued, and needed. And then, let us reach out and form unsuspecting alliances to bring each other in.

Because we’re worth it, I’m not willing to give up on us!

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Do We Really Want Reconciliation? Or Are We Just Conflict Averse?

 

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Can we all just get along?

If you were around in the early 1990s, you would remember this challenge posed by Rodney King, a black man who was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles. To quell the riots, perhaps, after the officers were acquitted for their level of inhumanity, King exhorted people to learn to get along instead of allowing the black-white divide to remain the defining characteristic of our society.

At first glance, King’s challenge appears to be a good one. As an American people, we should learn how to get along across racial, ethnic, and economic differences. We should be interested in building bridges that connect us to each other instead of constructing walls that intensify long-standing resentments towards those who do not share the same skin color or ideology that we do. These are worthy goals and even necessary as such actions do create some semblance of peace in our society. Some.

Far too often, however, our efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation stop at the getting along part. So long as our neighborhoods are diverse and we are able to attend multi-cultural churches and our workplaces have one or two people from a different cultural background than our own, we feel as if we have arrived. We host one or two potlucks that bring people of diverse cultures together and we think we have really done something fancy. The unfortunate truth is that diversity does not equal reconciliation and neither do our attempts at peace that make us feel so warm and comfortable on the inside. If at the end of that potluck – and even during – we cannot have an open conversation about why we are divided in the first place, we have done nothing more than apply a new shiny layer of paint to walls that are moldy and in decay.

More than showing that we are committed to the arduous task of reconciliation, “getting along” only reflects our inability to deal with conflict. We cannot handle disagreement, especially when people disagree with us. Neither can we handle being wrong. So instead of working through our issues with blood, sweat, and tears, we call for unity.

But the conflict that we want to avoid does not solely reside outside of us; in many instances we want to avoid having conflicts within our own person over what we understand to be true about ourselves in the world when we are presented with new information that challenges our assumptions. We cannot have an honest conversation about racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression because we are not able to handle what having this conversation actually means for our own lives. If police brutality exists; and rape culture is pervasive; and we are living on stolen land; and the Church is complicit in white supremacy; and internalized racism is a reality; and oppressed people really do oppress other people; and both political parties are corrupt; and even the most liberated man can exhibit sexism; and our justice movements still resemble white supremacist, individualistic ways of being in the world, what does that say about us as individuals and as a society at large? It says we are all guilty. And that we have some serious work to do.

Most people would rather not have THAT conversation. Most people do not want to explore the ways in which they have been complicit in oppression; they would much rather point out the ways in which others have oppressed and harmed them. I know it does for me. Even though I sit at the intersections of multiple oppressions as a black woman who was raised by a single mother in the hood, I also realize that I carry multiple privileges as an educated, middle class, homeowner. It is easier for me to talk about how my life is littered with examples of the ways I have been hurt by others; it is more difficult for me to speak to how I benefit from the hurt and pain of others.

Shallow attempts at diversity and unity allow me to downplay my own privileges but they also force me to ignore my pain. In pursuit of diverse workplaces, houses of worship, and neighborhoods, we cannot rock the boat – everybody must play ‘nice’ and ‘get along’ in order to have peace. In the absence of that peace, anything can happen when real trouble ensues. But the reality is that the persistent refusal to deal with issues leaves trouble festering behind our kumbaya’s and worship songs sung in three languages.

How do we move our culture and churches beyond ‘getting along’ to ‘being whole?’ And for that matter, is wholeness – total and complete shalom – even possible in a society that is so broken? I believe so. I trust in the Word of God and the salvation that Christ extends to everyone who believes in Him. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that through the shedding of His blood, the walls that divide us as a result of race, sex, class, religion, and every other distinction are utterly destroyed. In Him, we are made one.

But understand, while this gift is free to us, it cost Christ a lot. He was born in a stinky manger in questionable circumstances; He was on the run for His life from an early age; He lived in deplorable housing situations; He was a part of a marginalized ethnic/religious group in his society; He knew hunger, grief, and pain; He was ridiculed, despised and rejected; He was spat upon, abused, and cursed at; and He was ultimately executed by the same state that sought His life in the beginning. Christ’s efforts to reconcile us back to God and to each other was not an easy process but demanded a lot of sacrifice on His part. As His disciples, wouldn’t the same be required of us?

If we truly want unity, if we honestly want reconciliation, we have to be committed to doing the hard, laborious work to bring it to pass. Nothing in Scripture, or life itself, suggests that this is an easy process. It may appear easier to settle for artificial pleasantries that require no work and force us to all get along but the current frontrunner of a major political party should be proof enough to understand that ignoring the task of reconciliation only pushes the proverbial can down the road; it does not actually get rid of it.

Link to image: https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/initiative/diversity-and-inclusion

 

 

What Reconciliation Is Not

Reconciliation is not about keeping peace but making peace. And in order to make peace, one has to be willing to put themselves in situations that are uncomfortable, messy and seemingly chaotic. These situations will cause you to confront the very reasons why peace is not present, something that is usually tied to the absence of justice. And when that happens, you have a choice:

1. Deny it. Deny that peace is absent. ‘Everything is fine.’ Or explain any chaos and tension on some sort of Darwin-esque fatalism. ‘That’s just who those people are. What do you expect?’

2. Suppress it. Smooth out the ruffled feathers. Make everyone get along to go along and emphasize niceties over transformation and heart change. Squelch every statement that could be interpreted poorly. ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’

3. Lean into it. Embrace the tension. Ride the waves of chaos and hurt. Ask the tough questions. Tell the truth,with humility and integrity. Name the hurt and pain. And listen when others do with us the same. By leaning in, we put ourselves in situations where the Spirit of God can truly work, uninhibited by the constrains of people who insist on artificial harmony because they are spineless cowards.

This is when the work of true reconciliation can begin. If tension and truth-telling are not present, neither is genuine reconciliation.

 

 

Forgiveness and the State of White Supremacy in America

Charleston2Yesterday, Mother Emanuel AME reopened its doors after experiencing such a traumatic ordeal Wednesday evening. The congregation lost nine precious souls that evening – Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor – when a white male opened fire aiming to start a race war. By holding service instead of keeping its doors shut, the congregants displayed the great capacity of the human spirit to forgive. It sends a loud message not only to the shooter, but to the American society as a whole, that racism and terrorism will not stop God’s people from moving forward. Instead of being defined and crippled by white supremacy, this community is demonstrating that it will conquer it through forgiveness.

Forgiveness. It’s a term that has been evoked since Wednesday’s shooting. Just days after the incident, Chris Singleton, the son of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was praised for his ‘poise and strength’ and ability to forgive the shooter for killing his mother. Similarly, Marcus Stanley, a gospel singer from Virginia, posted to the shooter’s facebook wall an incredible message of forgiveness and grace. These are the messages that have gone viral and that have been uplifted in the media. They are important messages which reflect such amazing grace and mercy, but on their own, they are incomplete.

You see a message of forgiveness is wholly incomplete without a message of repentance. In times like these, we not only need to hear the words of forgiveness but also words of confession.  As African Americans, who have experienced this level of terrorism in our communities for 400 years, we need to hear “we’re sorry” more than we need to say “we forgive.” Yes, forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel, but so is repentance. Indeed, we cannot even begin to receive God’s forgiveness until we repent. If this applies to our own relationship with God, why would we expect the arrangement to be any different in our own human dynamics?

Yet, if those in our society who tout the importance of forgiveness are honest with themselves and with us, we will begin to see that the urge to forgive is only masquerading as the gospel. In all actuality, forgiveness is being lifted up at such a critical time as this in order to disarm the grieving and silence the broken hearted. And as a result, the victimized are re-victimized again! In addition, demanding forgiveness without offering deep, sincere repentance, also leaves open the opportunity for such atrocities to happen again because it never deals with the wrongdoing.

Those in power must also be honest and admit that they are deftly afraid of black rage. As such, in rushing a wounded community to forgive they also demand us to put out the godly, justified anger that is welling up in our hearts and force us to quell our raging emotions. But once again, they fail to understand what the essence of forgiveness truly means. Reflecting on the murder of #MikeBrown nearly a year ago, Tracy M Lewis breaks the meaning of forgiveness down:

Forgiveness, and all the good it facilitates, is NOT the equivalent of blind allowance. Forgiveness does not mandate that I be silent. Forgiveness does not mean neutrality. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t rally around those who are the victims of violence or demand justice from the same people I know I must forgive. At some point, I have to think that a demand for compassion and forgiveness for those who hurt me or my children must somehow meet up with the demand for repentance and justice. While a demand for peace is certainly right, every action has a reaction. There are consequences–some of which will be meted out by those being commanded to be peaceful. This is especially true in a world that increasingly refuses God and His grace.

As Lewis states, forgiveness and repentance must meet. Together, these two powerful forces will bring about the change that our society needs. Although slavery was abolished 150 years as of this past Friday, the vestiges of white supremacy are still alive and well. The terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel AME this week is evidence of that. It is not an isolated incident but is connected to the larger narrative of dehumanization and marginalization of black life. Police brutality is also connected to that narrative, as is as mass incarceration, housing discrimination, unemployment, health disparities and the educational gap. We will fail in dismantling this horrific narrative if we do not raise repentance to the level of forgiveness.

Hand in hand, forgiveness and repentance will not only bring about change but it will usher in reconciliation. Reconciliation is when two individuals, groups or communities, that have been divided find their way back together, whole and healed. Reconciliation is of value because living in peace and harmony with one another is a worthy goal. We should aim to live in a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and no one is discriminated against on account of their skin color is our goal.

In reporting on the reopening of Mother Emanuel AME’s doors, CNN contributor Van Jones suggested that reconciliation had taken place. I understand the desire to want to claim this as a victory, we certainly need a win, but he was so wrong! Reconciliation was missing because repentance was not present. As Curtiss DeYoung states in his book, Reconciliation: Our Greatest Challenge, Our Only Hope, “reconciliation is impossible until an individual (or a group of people) takes responsibility for the polarization that exists and takes action to create a better future.” To this date, neither the shooter nor America’s white supremacist society have taken action to create a better future for African Americans as a result of this atrocity.

The question before us now is how. How might this society, so entrenched in white supremacy, confess and repent of its sins against African Americans? How might those in power, not just say sorry, but put some teeth behind that sorry so that reconciliation and justice can be a reality and not just some unattainable idea? Here are just a few ways:

1. Confess and repent. The shooter needs to repent. South Carolina needs to repent. Our government needs to repent. The American Church needs to repent. The entire society needs to repent of the ways in which it has perpetually dehumanized, exploited and exterminated black life. This is where we need to start. A verbal “I’m sorry” that goes viral would be nice. At a deeper level, however, this nation needs a process that gives space for public confession of wrongdoing similarly to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Canada to address the crimes committed against the Aboriginal people (Native Indians).

2. Call this what it is. It is terrorism that was racially motivated. It needs to be identified as such and prosecuted the same. As much as I believe that gun accessibility needs to be addressed, this is not what this is about. And yes, hollywood has a lot of flaws but this is also not about that, Franklin Graham. It is also not about persecution of the Church, FOX News! It’s about the ongoing persecution of blackness.

3. #TakeDowntheConfederateFlag that flies over South Carolina’s state capitol. No seriously, it needs to go. It is a gross symbol of America’s history and justification of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. Tear it down.

4. Enact legislation that starts to uproot the remaining vestiges of white supremacy and that puts an end to policies that systematize the dehumanization of black folks including police brutality, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline.

5. Put your money where your mouth is to ensure: total employment of the black community, quality housing, good schools, access to healthy food, and other economic opportunities that redresses the long standing disparate outcomes in the African American community.

6. Develop and preach a theology of social and biblical justice. Here are two resources written by me that would be a great start: Embracing a Holistic Faith: Essays on Biblical Justice and The Lord’s Prayer as Social Justice Theology.

7. Follow and learn from black theologians, scholars, sociologists, writers and thinkers including: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Charles M Blow, Brittany Cooper, Christena Cleveland, Brenda Salter McNeil, Drew Hart, Austin Channing Brown, Efrem Smith, Michelle Alexander, Lissa Jones, Cornel West, Claudia May, Isabel Wilkerson, and Kimberle Crenshaw. These are just a few, there are many, many more including amazing resources referenced in the #CharlestonSyllabus. Follow them. Learn from them. Support them financially. Just do not appropriate their wisdom or their work.

8. Teach your children about racism. We cannot believe, and we should have never believed, that racial justice and love is learned through osmosis. There is this prevailing notion that younger generations, millennials, are more racially tolerant and open than others. The shooter, who was 21 years old, as well as the students involved in the horrible SAE chant, and the three teens who purposely used their truck to run over and kill a black man in Mississippi, have proven this to be false! Be honest with your children about our nation’s history and ongoing battle with this. They can handle it.

9. Center black folks. Yes, #AllLivesMatter, but all lives are not being threatened. It’s the lives of black men, black women, black children, black clergy, black legislators, black youth, black LGBTQ, black Christians, and black atheists, that are being called into question. If America is serious about valuing all, it must then get serious about valuing those that it treats with the most contempt.

The road to reconciliation in America is long. It will be tough. And it will be arduous. But it is not impossible. If the nation addresses the sin of racism and white supremacy in the ways that I have just outlined above, I believe that we will see the change that we so desperately seek. Let’s not allow that process to be cheapened by inappropriate demands for forgiveness.

When Evil Appears to Have the Last Say

The Cross and JesusWhen the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15.54 – 57, NASB)

Oftentimes, it seems, the evil around us – and sometimes in us – appears to have the last say. No matter how hard we fight to right the wrongs of the world, the cloak of darkness falls heavy on us, suffocating our very being, often leading to eventual death. Cancer takes the loved one for whom we’ve been praying. Climate change wipes out indigenous communities around the world. Women are hunted and trafficked for sex. Missing children are never found. War continues to wage, taking out entire families and destroying whole communities. Plane crashes and disappearances take friends and family members way too soon. The police continue to profile, shoot and kill young black men, women, and children. Homelessness, helplessness, and hopelessness abound. Children die of otherwise preventable diseases. Malnutrition, hunger, and thirst are the order of the day. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is crucified.

I for one, tend to come down hard on the disciples for abandoning Jesus at the cross. Most often, I criticize them for their petty fear of the Roman government (well not petty, the Roman empire was pretty deadly) and for selling Jesus out. Definitely not the ride or die crowd! What I often neglect, however, is the role that shame played in their reluctance to stick by Jesus. Shame, because in the end, evil overtook Him, too.

For three years, they followed Jesus wholeheartedly, believing that He was the one who would turn the world upside down. They thought that Mary’s Son would put an end to the tyranny of the Roman Empire, restore dignity to the Jewish people, and essentially save the rest of the world from their sins. For three years, they hung on to His every word, and though they did not always get it, they trusted this self-proclaimed Son of the Living God. They went about prophesying in His name, casting out demons in His name, pointing people to the future in His name – all of which came to a grinding halt the moment that Judas planted a kiss on Jesus’ cheek.

As if on cue, the Roman soldiers came and arrested Jesus. After His arrest, he appeared before the High Priest, Pilate, and the Roman government – all who were co-signers in his eventual crucifixion and death. By the time Jesus makes it to the cross, He has been spat upon, mocked, and nearly beaten to death. Not exactly the kind of scenario you expect from the so-called Savior of the world!

Nailed to the cross, Jesus spends the last few hours of his life fighting for it. A man known for His eloquent homilies and illustrative parables has been reduced to essentially nothing, giving his all to get out a few final phrases. The last, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” signifies that Jesus has met His end; he takes one final breath and dies.

The shame of it all! Jesus cannot deliver, not because He doesn’t want to, but because evil is just that powerful. The disciples, both ashamed and afraid, run away and leave. And at last, evil has won.

Or so it seems. Looking back nearly 2,000 years, we know that this is not how the story ends! Three days later, the same Jesus who was crucified, rises from the dead. Glory hallelujah! Death can’t hold Him and the Roman Empire certainly can’t destroy Him. He is alive! Our Savior is alive!

2,000 years later, we commemorate the day of Jesus’ death on Good Friday. But we can only proclaim that this day, marked by death, is good because we know the end of the story. We have seen the other side of it. The disciples, unfortunately, were not able to enjoy the perspective that we have today because in the midst of Good Friday, all they could see was evil waging a mighty storm.

All too often, we find ourselves in the exact shoes that the disciples wore and we feel like evil is winning. As our losses pile up, due to violence, racism, hunger, terrorism, poverty, greed, and corruption, everyday can feel like Good Friday.

But resurrection is coming! Resurrection represents the things that are dead coming back to life. As the passage in I Corinthians 15 illustrates, death loses its grip, its very power in the face of resurrection. As a result, death will not be the final chapter in our lives.

But resurrection not only represents a coming back to life; it also signifies a power change. In the face of resurrection, the Roman Empire and every other entity, that seeks to wield authority over people’s lives comes to an end. And this is good news! It’s awesome news. For at last, oppression and injustice are defeated! And at last, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, reigns. That reign, unlike any other government or kingdom that we have seen on this earth, brings with it love, joy, peace, kindness, and unity. Neighbor will not kill neighbor in this kingdom. No one will discriminate against another simply because they are of a different race, ethnicity, culture, or gender. We will not compete over resources because there is more than enough to go around and no one is hoarding. People, at last, will be prioritized over profit margin and the bottom line. Sickness is completely done away with; health, wholeness and well-being are the order of the day.

As we wait for this future, seemingly living our lives between Good Friday and Resurrection, our job is to continually elevate and point to what is coming. As believers, God calls us to continuously declare His present and coming kingdom and help those around us visualize what the kingdom will look like. In so doing, we will inspire hope in a world that is so often overtaken by evil. We will lift the consciousness and stir the imagination of those who have been so defeated by evil that they simply cannot see any other way. But there is another way. Jesus is that way! Resurrection is coming! Keep fighting and keep hanging on until we get there!

*Link to image >

Looking at End Times Theology through the Eyes of the Oppressed

liberation artGrowing up as a Christian in the 90s, I learned to be preoccupied with two things: revival, also known as present day manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and the rapture. The desire for revival across many churches, at least Pentecostal ones, rose to prominence due to what many considered to be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Brownsville, Florida in 1995. This manifestation, which lasted at least 3 years or so, was often characterized by increased incidents of healing, speaking in tongues with interpretation and prophetic utterances (there was also reports of dogs barking and gold dust being found on people – but we won’t go there). Many people went down to Brownsville in hopes of experiencing for themselves this renewal of the Spirit that was being talked about. Others prayed in expectation for the Holy Spirit to visit their churches in a similar manner. I myself participated in several prayer and revival meetings that focused on this. We prayed and prayed that the Holy Spirit would visit us so that we could also take part in this esoteric phenomenon.

Although the idea of the rapture (dispensationalism) had been around since the 1800s due to the work of John Nelson Darby, the Left Behind book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins helped many Christians to think about it in a new way. And so did the ‘A Thief in the Night’ film series from the 70s and 80s. Both works were pieces of fiction, but they were largely based on an already developed end times theology which theorized that all faithful believers would be taken away from the world, while the rest of the earth experienced an intense tribulation period ruled by Satan and other forces of darkness.

As a teenager, I quickly learned that there was nothing worse than to be left behind when the rapture occurred. Although being left behind still brought with it an opportunity for redemption, one simply did not want to take that risk. In order to guarantee that one was not be left behind, a strict code of holiness and morality were necessary: Don’t listen to secular music. Don’t listen to Christian music that sounded to worldly. Don’t dance, especially not in clubs (even if they are Christian). Don’t swear. Don’t have sex. Oppose abortion. Evangelize, evangelize, evangelize. Pray all of the time. Read and memorize the Bible. Don’t blaspheme the Holy Spirit (though we were largely clueless as to what blasphemy meant).

While this fear of missing the boat here brought with it an intense focus on individual efforts, it largely missed what was going on in the here and now. We were so consumed about the future and eternity for that matter, that we paid little attention to our present reality. This meant that we also were not concerned about reforming or being accountable to this reality. Like the Christians in Corinth, we emphasized the importance of the spiritual world and neglected what was going on in the material. Our negligence also meant that what we did in it and to it didn’t matter. Theoretically, we could exploit the world and destroy the world because Jesus was coming back to take us away from it.

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2014, for all of its ups and downs, was a busy year for me. In addition to my 40 hour a week day job, I interned at a church in the Twin Cities, I continued to write vicariously, and I also had the opportunity to take a course at a seminary close to where I live as I wrestled with the idea of going back to school to earn an additional master’s degree. Some of these activities  brought with them additional opportunities to preach, teach and write. One such opportunity presented itself in October and I was invited to give a talk on the Doctrine of Discovery’s role in dehumanizing black people.

After spending nearly an hour talking about the long term effects of white supremacy on blacks and others of color, again justified by this doctrine that the Church ordained, I opened the room up for questions and reflections. A white man, probably no more than 25 years old or so, suggested that since the Church was culpable in many of the acts of atrocity against people of color, that the answer was to leave it and work outside it for peace and justice. A few others, also white, chimed in and also expressed their disregard for the Church. They thought that it was better to abandon it rather than reform it, or seek the opportunities for hope, redemption, and salvation within it.

I was really taken aback by this rejectionist ideology. But I checked in with other people outside of that assembly, I learned that this line of thinking is quite pervasive in theologically liberal circles. Because of the trauma that conservative theology has inflicted on people of color and indigenous communities up to the present day, I have witnessed many white liberals distancing themselves as far away from this as possible so as not to be mistaken for those oppressive white people.

In the process, a lot of what is considered to be orthodox theology gets deconstructed and sometimes, reformed. This is particularly true concerning end-times theology (also called eschatology), which includes analysis on the rapture, the tribulation period, the second coming of Christ and the millennium reign of Christ. Among white liberal theologians that I have witnessed, much of this goes out the window – the proverbial baby and bathwater both get thrown out! In its place, there is only an expectation for believers to continue to live virtuous, righteous, and justice-oriented lives. The only hope for redemption, at least according to Pope Benedict, is when we die.

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Both of these approaches to end times events appear to be quite different. In reality, however, they are two opposing sides of the same spectrum that essentially believes that God will not right the wrongs of injustice and oppression. The more conservative approach doesn’t believe that God really cares about systems of injustice, since it places a higher priority on the spiritual than the material. The more liberal approach believes that God cares only to the extent that the systems can be changed through human effort – because remember, Jesus is not coming back according to many liberal theological perspectives.

This being said, both approaches give little hope to those who are oppressed. Both approaches, in fact, essentially suggest that Jesus will not challenge the structures of this world which perpetuate injustice. Yet, if Jesus will not hold these systems accountable for the evil that they exude, what incentive do leaders, governments, and others have to change these systems? If the West gets to destroy the world through tar sand removal, deforestation, land-grabbing, and decimating entire populations, and then gets to escape the world in one cosmic act, what pressure does it place upon those who act with such impunity to stop? If Jesus is not coming back, and is busy doing other things as the Pope believes, where is the Holy Ghost power that we truly need to rid our society of racism, genocide, colonialism, sex trafficking, and every other vice that devalues and dehumanizes the precious life that God extends to each and every one of us?

For me, this is why theology must be done by the oppressed, those at the margin in our society. We must have a theological approach that is formulated by the experiences and wisdom of people who are continually disinvested among us – regardless of whether we know Hebrew/Greek or not. This is necessary because our theological interpretations have strong sociological implications. The way that we see Jesus interacting with the here and now, as well as what will be, will influence our own responses to the here and now. If Jesus is unconcerned about our present situation, and therefore, unconcerned about climate change, racism, and injustice, we will likewise be unconcerned. But if Jesus is involved in the present, and not just in a mystical way, but in a very hands-on, influential manner, we will likewise be involved.

Looking at theology from the perspective of the oppressed is also important because Jesus Himself was oppressed. While the Jews once held a lot of power in the Ancient Near East, this is no longer true by the time Jesus shows up: Rome is now running things and it is an oppressive regime. Rome steals from the most vulnerable in society, and then imprisons – sometimes even executing – those who protest this oppression. Rome silences the politically marginalized and even has a disproportionate amount of influence in the temple so that people cannot even worship God freely. Jesus is a product of that environment, and does theology from the perspective of one who has experienced a fair amount of oppression.

Jesus liberates the oppressed, including Himself, by offering good news: Rome’s tyranny will not last forever; the Kingdom of God is here and will be fully fulfilled. In this kingdom, people will not grow richer by exploiting others. In God’s kingdom, governments will not hold sway over people’s decision-making ability and they definitely won’t be imprisoning and/or killing them for posing a threat to that government. In God’s kingdom, love, justice, freedom and unity will fully and completely reign and there will not be the slightest hint of evil. Jesus, both fully God and fully human, has nothing to lose as the kingdom of God unfolds in this manner. In fact, Jesus has everything to gain!

The Kingdom of God, as Jesus described, is forward looking. It will not be fully actualized in this life, but will be made complete in the next as He comes to earth once again, bridging heaven and earth. In the process, as we are waiting, as we are looking, as we are praying, justice happens! Reconciliation happens! All which has impeded the progress of both disappears. Oh happy day! You can’t possibly understand the absolute joy that the news of liberation brings unless you have experienced oppression!

If our future will look completely different than it does right now, we have an added incentive to influence our right now. If we can look out ahead from this moment and see justice, peace, and unity as a result of Christ’s return, we will also begin to imagine pieces of that future unfolding before us now and will subsequently work to actualize it. This is why we must lift up the voices of those who have experienced oppression in our theology, and especially in our end-times analysis. In fact, it is the imagination of the oppressed – that justice really can prevail – which will bring us all closer to actualization of the Kingdom of God as prophesied through Jesus.