Monday, February 08, 2021

On Someone Yelling the N-Word in Public

Originally published at Misfits Theology

So, this week we’ve seen another “scandal,” where a white person yelled the N-word in a fit of heightened emotion, then later apologized for the mistake. I know there are some people who think this is a regrettably acceptable occurrence, but we’ve got to stop making those excuses.

I get that some people have grown up around overt and intentional racism, where white people saying the N-word is common. If a person comes from such a background, I get that, perhaps, that word is part of a seldom-used vocabulary that comes out when they’re especially angry. I suppose apologizing is about all one can do in that instance, but I suspect there’s more that can be done to prevent it.

I can’t recall any white person ever saying the N-word in my presence (ie: not on TV or in the movies). Ever. I’m not saying I haven’t heard a lot of offensive or derogatory, racist ideas from white people – and I’ve absolutely heard a lot of other, equally unacceptable slurs against cultural and ethnic groups in casual conversation, I’ve just grown up in an environment where the N-word is a known taboo.

That’s not to say the white people I’ve been around haven’t thought it or been capable of using it; I just haven’t heard it. That reality makes it nearly impossible to imagine how anyone could even accidentally say it.

I’m suspect I’m in the minority, as it pertains to white folks, but I’m not trying to say, “we’re not all bad.” Just because that particular word wasn’t uttered, doesn’t mean I haven’t been thoroughly steeped in and guilty of racism.

Most of my conditioning wasn’t race-related at the time. It’s only as I grew up that I realized code words like “urban” were rooted in racism, which make those ideas – like locking the car do when driving through a city – so difficult to excise. My guess is that white people who “accidentally” use the N-word may have similar problems. I do believe there are still kids growing up who hear that word used a lot, for long periods of time, before they ever learn its offensive.

Dealing with our ingrained racism isn’t just a problem for the most obvious offenders, though – its a responsibility for every white person – and, to date, we’ve largely dealt with it by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist. This is why these incidents are so terrible and so terribly handled; it’s as if someone’s worst secret is being publicly exposed.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We’re very used to celebrities using their platforms and money to address things like climate change or injustices in the court system or food insecurity or animal rights. They draw extra attention to issues where none of us is perfect, and while they may be annoying or extreme, we’re rarely offended or defensive about it.

As much as we hate to have those things thrown in our faces, those conversations do move the needle. They remind us of our own abilities to change and push us collectively towards improvement. Their fervent, sometimes comical views shape the conversations we’re able to have amongst our friends and neighbors and they do make a difference in how we live.

What we don’t often see, what we need more of, are honest conversations about our own biases, especially when it comes to race. Try as we like, we really can’t control what comes to mind in a given situation. We can certainly work to change in the future, but I can’t change a thought I’ve already had.

There are times I think more about my personal safety when I see a black man walking towards me than I would if he were white. It’s terrible and wrong and I hate that it happens, but, from time to time, it does. Of course there’s a huge difference between that thought and actually crossing the street because of it. I deserve no praise or pat on the back for simply continuing to walk down the sidewalk in those instances. At the same time, every time I do it – consciously reject the racist thoughts that pop into my head – the less likely those thoughts are to arise again. This is how change happens. It is, in fact, pretty pathetic to say “I’m less afraid of black people than I used to be,” but it is the truth. Again, that’s not something to be proud of; its quite literally the least that I can do.

Of course, we should be doing more than the least that we can do. It’s not enough just to do that work individually. This is the difference between being not-racist and what’s come to be termed anti-racism. We have to stop being silent. Those conversations that happen in our heads need to happen out loud – and in settings that are all white.*

We’re much more comfortable talking about our own racial failings in mixed settings, because we perceive some nobility in looking progressive in front of black friends. We’re much more reluctant to bring it up in all white settings, because we’re terrified of someone getting defensive. That’s a self-perpetuating problem.

We don’t speak publicly about the racial biases we’re trying to address and thus it becomes unacceptable to do so, making it more difficult to address them and us more likely to do whatever our personal version of screaming the N-word in public might be.

Part of that is the shame we direct towards people who are more racist than us. I can’t imagine using the N-word, even in a fit of rage, so it’s easy to scorn those people who do – but I’ll find myself on the side of unending grace when its my own racism that’s on display.

Again, this is not some plea for acceptance; its a call to conversation. It’s a call to white people, because the Black, Brown, LGBT, and Jewish among us shouldn’t have to bear the burden of being the racial police; they’re already putting up with enough.

They also shouldn’t be put in a position to absolve us. “Don’t worry, I know you’re trying.” Maybe our fragile egos need to hear that from time to time, but if we seek it out, we should seek it from white people – and white people who know us well enough to temper it with accountability.

I’m not saying people should get a pass and please don’t give me one. I’m certainly embarrassed when I say something ignorant or racist, but I need to know I said it if I’m ever going to change. I do believe, though, that if all we do is cancel someone or shame them, nothing will get better. Shame breeds secrecy and secrecy feeds dysfunction.

In the same way someone can stand up in church and say, “I’m a sinner” and receive lots of grace, someone can falsely be called a hero for admitting “I’m a racist.” When we start listing those sins, however, everyone becomes uncomfortable. We don’t know how to handle it. Starting those conversations puts us in the position of deciding whether to keep our own sins secret or expose them as well.

One of those choices is much easier, but if we make it, nothing changes. I’m not going to list here all the racist battles I’m waging in my own life and mind – it feels like too easy a way to gain points for honesty – speaking in a public forum, outside of real conversation. We do all need, though, to be willing to speak of those things among the people with whom we do life. Friends, family, coworkers, teammates, and fellow congregants – the people who have access to our lives and are in a position to keep us honest and hold us accountable.

We can’t be satisfied with being less racist than someone else and we can’t be motivated by getting “woke credit” for whatever work we’ve already done. Yes, we should all work to be less racist tomorrow than we are today, and while that is progress, it’s not something to be proud of, its just the bare minimum expected of a member of the human race.

So when someone uses the N-word, an apology really can’t be “enough,” but something does have to be “enough,” if we’re really working for the redemption and reconciliation of all people. I suspect, though, the “enough” is not something you can ever do after the fact; it’s work that needs to be done before.

*They also have to involve more than just our racist thoughts and words, but how those thoughts and words, over time, have contributed to inherently racist social systems and the ways we can participate in their reform or reimagination.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Reflection on Peace and Division

Originally published at Misfits Theology Club 

All I’ve been able to think about during this time are Jesus words in Matthew 10:

“Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ does not make sense to everyone. It seems downright foolish – stupid and dangerous to many. The Kingdom of God is not well received by the majority of the world around us, maybe not by those who sit next to you in worship, maybe not by those who sit next to you at dinner.

Divisions are not really the issue. Jesus tells us the gospel is, by definition, divisive.

The issue is how we respond to that division. For some, they see Jesus’ talk of swords as allusions to violence. We plant our flag in the ground and defend it to the death, pushing away those who disagree and increasing the chasm that’s grown between us.

For others, the next few verses ring true:

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

The other response, opposite, but equally problematic to violent self-defense, is denial. We pretend the divisions between us don’t exist. We avoid talking about them or looking at them. We carry on as if everything is fine, hoping it will be.

Neither of these responses reflect the gospel. We can’t pretend our divisions don’t exist. We must, indeed, plant our flag in the ground and hold firm to our beliefs. What we must not do, though, is allow those divisions to break the bonds of love that tie us together as people.

Yes, there is a chasm between you and me. It is a distance too far to cross and neither of us will give in. Our only recourse is to deal with it. Speak the ugly, difficult truth. Talk to one another. Listen!

It is only when we maintain these tricky lines of communication, these essential bonds of love, that we can begin to pull our two drifting sides back together. We can close the chasm that’s formed, not by violence, or belligerence, or denial, but through the hard work of love.

If we are committed to one another, to serving one another, to seeing and hearing each other as human beings – beloved children of God – then we can truly be about the business of making peace. Not a stalemate or a truce, but genuine community that’s won through the hard work of naming and facing our divisions.

Photo by Ian Cylkowski on Unsplash

Sunday, November 01, 2020

The Temptation of Democracy

This post originally appeared at Misfits Theology Club.

Democracy muddles the Christian ethics of power. In a world where most people have no say in or control over the selection of governmental leaders, it’s relatively easy to determine how God’s people should respond: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Follow the laws so long as they don’t violate the gospel and be willing to suffer the consequences gracefully when you must disobey.

Democracy changes the equation, though. It gives each voter a position of power. Christian ethics move from a discussion of our relationship to power to a discussion of how we use the power we’ve been given. Whether we hold elective office or not, by voting, we become part of the power structure.

There’s an argument that this is a positive development. By receiving a place within the power structure, God’s people have some ability to shape it, perhaps in ways that reflect the Kingdom of God. The question I’ve been pondering, though, is whether or not the Kingdom of God can ever be served by the use of coercive power.

The power of God, as demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is entirely non-coercive. God loves us and forgives us and bears with us in radical patience as we continually refuse to be shaped by that love. God is relentless in love, returning over and over again with a divine faith in the power of love to outlast all opposition.

By that I don’t mean God’s love will eventually wear us down in the end – that would be coercive – simply that our power to reject God’s love and refuse the transformation it offers can never outlast God’s ability to keep loving. Christians believe in a world that never ends, because God’s non-coercive love can never be exhausted.

What does that have to do with democracy and power? Well, even the most benevolent governments are coercive. The very nature of worldly power is its ability to force reluctant participation. There will always be some part of us (both individually and collectively) that spurns coercion, even for the common good.

The most good for the most people is still coercion, because it doesn’t allow real freedom for the minority who are negatively affected. It might be the best any human authority can muster, but it falls short of the gospel ideal and of the Kingdom of God.

So, when we vote, aren’t we just contributing to the coercive authority of whoever happens to be in charge of government? Yes, one could argue one candidate is better than the other for the majority of people, but that’s still a short sighted goal achieved through coercion. The Kingdom of God promises a world in which all people live together in peace and love; there is no human system that can promise or produce this eventuality by way of coercion.

I wonder if the opportunity to vote is not the same temptation faced by Jesus when he was shown all the kingdoms of the world and offered authority to rule them all. Certainly the reign of Christ would be preferential to whatever human leaders would emerge in those kingdoms. There would be less suffering and more freedom is Jesus were on the literal throne.

Jesus refused that option, because to take it would be to endorse coercion, even perfect, holy, divine coercion. This was, evidently, unacceptable to the mission of Jesus Christ.

When we vote in elections, we’re expressing a preference. We believe the government of one candidate or party would be better than the government of another. That is almost certainly true (even if we make the “wrong” selection). But neither government could ever advance the Kingdom of God, because coercion is anathema to God’s eternal future.

What if one government would alleviate the suffering of one or more oppressed groups? Shouldn’t we be able to choose the best available human government for the thriving of the most people AND also work for the coming of God’s eternal now and future Kingdom?

You’d think so. I’d hope so. And yet we’re left with the decision Jesus made on that mountain. He forsook the immediate help he could offer to the suffering and oppressed in all the kingdoms of the world to embrace a non-coercive mission of love that led to his own torture and execution.

Couldn’t Jesus have chosen to rule the kingdoms of the world and usher in the Kingdom of God? One would think so and yet he didn’t. The fact that Jesus did not choose both immediate and eternal good leads me to the conclusion that perhaps both are not possible – at least on the level of governmental authority.

I can surely feed the hungry and clothe the naked and work for the freedom of the oppressed in my own individual ability, but to employ the means of coercion to that end on a grander scale just isn’t morally responsible given Jesus’ example.

I don’t like it, but that’s the only conclusion at which I’ve been able to arrive. Voting is an endorsement of coercion and even if that coercion is in line with the principles of God’s Kingdom, it violates the principle of non-coercion and thus can’t be the means through which the Kingdom is fulfilled.

I wonder if, like with issues of violence, there are moments where voting for (or against) a particular candidate or party might be preferable to abstaining. I don’t think, though, in those moments, we can justify our actions as “right” or “moral” or “correct.”

It just seems impossible to believe voting is a particularly Christian or moral duty when Christ himself had the ability to be elected King and refused. He rejected coercion and I think, no matter how reluctantly, we should reject it, too.

**Edited for clarification: 1) This applies largely to Presidential elections (and to a lesser extent, Governors and Mayors) – the notion of singular executive authority is one that pretends (even unintentionally) to compete with God.  Politics, in general, is just how we get along with each other.  At the neighborhood level, we talk to each other and work things out.  As we get into larger societies, we have to elect representatives – there’s a different power dynamic there, although I see elective office as more important, the lower the level.

2)This shouldn’t be seen as abdicating the importance of political action.  Christians should continue to march, protest, advocate, and evangelize on behalf of food for the hungry, equity for the foreigner, and release for the prisoner.  We should do so, though, not with an aim at changing laws, but with an aim at inviting people into the Kingdom of God.  As our collective heart is changed, our laws will follow; they just shouldn’t be driving the ship.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Advent as the Antidote

Originally posted at Misfits Theology Club.

I quit Lent this year. I didn’t really, but in retrospect, I should’ve. When the COVID lockdown started, it was unsettling. Everything was different. People were dying. The world seemed lost. I didn’t figure it out until Easter, but, in the time of global pandemic, Lent doesn’t make sense.

The liturgical year is a re-enactment of Jesus’ life, a way to tell time that corresponds with the cycles of hope and despair, suffering and salvation, which mark human existence. We observe these seasons as a reminder. In a world that is easily distracted by wealth or privilege or competing attempts to ascribe meaning to self-indulgence, we’re prone to forget reality, if not ultimate reality.

In normal times, at least for us in the wealthy West, Lent is a welcome and necessary focus on the suffering our culture spends so much time helping us avoid. As we walk through the pains of human existence, through the eyes of Jesus, who chooses willingly to identify with the poor and oppressed, we can better understand our responsibilities to each other. We recognize and remember that salvation costs something.

It’s often said that white congregations focus on Good Friday and minorities emphasize Sunday morning. This alludes to the divergent experiences of privilege and oppression. Those Christians who don’t look like me don’t need to be reminded of the cost of salvation, or the very real place of suffering in the human condition.

In normal times, I need Lent. Yes, it’s the epitome of privilege that I can choose a specific season to focus on and attempt to understand the depths of suffering in the world, but it is also reality. Without those intentional periods, despite my everyday attempts to avoid the seclusion and separation to which modern society gravitates, if I don’t make space for suffering and sacrifice, my culture will do its level best to ensure I never see it.

Ideally, we’d be able to focus on all aspects of God’s Kingdom and Christian living at all times. We’d be able to balance the positive and the negative, the suffering, sacrifice, and celebration all together in a messy, but helpful mix. I’ve tried and I’m just not that good at it. I need the rhythms of the Church Year to keep me honest.

Not this year, though. Lent just didn’t make sense. I did not need to be reminded that people are suffering, that the world is not as perfect as I’m led to believe, that peace and justice and equity and salvation don’t just happen. I was reminded of those things every day. More of it on Sunday wasn’t helping.

But its for that same reason I’m really looking forward to Advent. In the same way Lent was the exact wrong season for us to be in a global pandemic, Advent is the perfect time to experience an overwhelming problem that is beyond our control.

Advent is my favorite season – largely because I’m a control freak and I constantly guilt myself into believing I’m not doing enough. I love Advent, because I’m given permission to pass the buck, to admit I can’t solve all the problems in the world – that no one can – and to put all the weight of responsibility back on God.

Advent is the season to shake your fist at the heavens and exclaim, “Why the heck are you letting this happen?”

Now, I don’t believe God pulls strings in everyday life. I don’t think God controls the weather and I don’t think God can keep my car from running out of gas until I get to the next exit. I don’t have a conception of God that lends itself to the unexplained.

I’m also not one to abdicate human responsibility. I don’t think we, collectively are incapable of living and being the people God created us to be. While I don’t think humans naturally possess the ability to bring about our own salvation, I do whole-heartedly support the idea that, as part of God’s salvation of the world, we’re invited and included (and perhaps necessary) for that future to become reality.

We can do what God has called us to do. We have a part to play in the fulfillment of all things. We just can do it by sheer force of will. Like most gospel-related issues, this is one of control. We attempt to tackle, solve, and overcome our problems with power and force. If we give more, work more, try harder, accomplish, then we can bring about the solution to all life’s problems.

Advent is the season where we admit that’s just not true. You cannot conquer your enemies by cunning or guile or brute force. We can only “win,” by persistence. Advent is the season where we remind ourselves to keep our heads down and keep at it. War, poverty, hatred. Racism, inequality, violence. These are the insidious enemies of the gospel and they remain so because we continue to attack them on their own terms.

COVID has shown us we can’t win through bluster. We can’t wish or will it away; stubborn refusal to acknowledge the power of this particular enemy has not effect (or maybe the opposite effect). That does not mean it can’t be defeated. God has promised and given us the power to overcome. It’s just not done the way the world tells us it should be.

We are powerless to defeat real evil, if we expect the victory to come tomorrow or the next day, or even in our lifetime. That doesn’t mean we stop trying, but it does mean we take a different approach. Advent is the season where we let go of our allusions of grandeur and say, “God, your way better work, because ours sure isn’t.”

That’s the desperate hope I need during this pandemic Advent season. I pray it’s hope you find for yourselves during this time as well.

Christ has come. Christ is coming again. Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Anti-Abortion, Pro-Roe v Wade


Abortion is always tragic.

It’s a loss of life. We can get into biological and theological arguments about when exactly cells become an individual life, but those cells – all cells – have always been a part of the collective reality we call “life.” Our modern, individualistic world focuses on individual life as if that’s the only life that exists. I’d argue individuals are only bit players in the grand reality of existence.

When we say Christians value life, we’re not (or at least we shouldn’t be) speaking only of individual life. Individual lives are indeed important, but only insomuch as they point us to a larger understanding of life. We want to be life-giving people, but that doesn’t mean our primary aim is procreation. It means we are contributing to the health and well-being of all life – usually through interactions with one or more individual lives, but with a higher purpose.

This is evidenced in the traditional evangelical approach to abortion: ban it. We want laws changed to criminalize the practice, not necessarily to put women in jail, but to fearfully discourage abortion as an option. We’re willing to lie to pregnant women about science, laws, health outcomes, and whatever else it takes to influence their choice away from abortion.

If the purpose of our efforts was to limit the number of individual abortions, this might be justifiable on a purely numeric scale (although these tactics remain morally suspect). The Christian aim, though, when it comes to abortion is not to limit the practice, but to eliminate it. Even one is too many!

Laws, fear, and coercion will never eliminate abortion. Making it difficult, scary, or unpopular will indeed stop some women from following through. Desperate women, though, will revert to back alleys, homemade poisons, coat hangers, and “falling” down the stairs – all common abortion practices in times and places where traditional evangelical approaches to abortion dominate.

Legal limits can never stop abortion, because they do not address the desire to have an abortion.

The only means to remove the desire for an abortion is to provide social conditions that preclude the desire. If women and children and families (and men, who are an integral factor in, and often root cause of, every unwanted pregnancy) were supported in true, loving community, there would not be a need for abortion. That’s the goal: elimination, not moderation.

That doesn’t mean Christians can’t or shouldn’t address individual life. Coming alongside vulnerable women, supporting them during pregnancy, and demonstrating your commitment to the value of their life and the value of the life of their future child is important. Adoption, especially adoption out of foster care, adoption of older children, and adoption of those with special needs, are important.

These things are not important, though, because they might limit abortions. These individual actions are important because we have a Christian duty to provide such loving care for all people at all times. There are hundreds of millions of vulnerable women around the world who’ve chosen to have their babies and still live unsupported and unloved. Abortion is irrelevant to the call for us to care for the vulnerable.

The point of life itself is to be a life-giving presence to all people in all circumstances, especially those most vulnerable to the insidious tentacles of trauma, pain, and death. Being present is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. THE end itself.

Guilt, shame, fear, and coercion cannot get us to the Kingdom of God – which is what Jesus called those optimal social conditions that prevent the desire for abortions. This Kingdom is also the future we have been promised. At the core of Christian faith is a belief that the Kingdom is not just a possibility, but a reality. Jesus announced and makes possible the world we seek; we must live into it as it comes into being around us.

The “end” Christians seek, the Kingdom of God, cannot be realized through guilt or shame or fear or coercion. We cannot achieve our goals through those means. The means by which we seek the Kingdom is the goal. We must do all things in love, because love is the only law in the Kingdom of God.

If you are calling guilt, coercion, shame, or fear “love,” because you have good intentions, you have missed the point. That is transactional morality; it is not what Jesus taught.

These conclusions can be infinitely expanded upon, but they are a good start for those who wish to end abortion:

The mandate to love means working for systems that fully support mothers and children.
The mandate to love means ensuring safety and equality for all women.
The mandate to love means holding accountable all people who abuse and manipulate women.
The mandate to love means working to change systems that oppress and disadvantage women.
The mandate to love means naming and addressing racial inequities that disadvantage women of color.
The mandate to love means naming and addressing economic inequities that disadvantage poor women.
The mandate to love means providing community and support to all women in all walks of life.
The mandate to love means organizing society in which every child is treated as if they were yours.

I was raised in a very conservative household. I picketed an abortion clinic when I was barely old enough to remember it. My parents remain, to this day, largely one issue (anti-Roe v Wade) voters. Many of the members of my denomination would largely be appalled if they knew our own Manual of Christian life and practice allows for abortion after much prayer and counsel with a pastor.

My creativity on this issue was sparked by reading John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules, which powerfully illustrates not the value of abortion, but the tragic realities out of which women seek abortions. I began to see the problem not as the intellectual moral debate over abortion itself, but the deficiencies of a society that immorally withholds life-giving options from desperate pregnant women.

I began to study the scriptures more directly and think about how to apply Jesus’ words on the Kingdom to this particular issue. All you’ve read above is the summary of that process – a process that’s boiled down to one troubling conclusion:

The Christian mandate to love means ensuring safe access to abortions for those who desire them.

I believe this not because I’ve become persuaded that abortions are acceptable or justified or moral, but because I don’t believe it’s Christ-like for the most vulnerable in our society to pay the price for our collective sin and indifference.

The woman caught in adultery was not justified in her actions. Jesus did not excuse her behavior, but he refused to allow her to be the scapegoat for a society’s sinful indifference.

An abortion is not the “fault” of the woman who seeks it or the doctor who performs it. It is not the “fault” of the child’s father or the laws that allow it. Every abortion is a condemnation of our collective failure to provide the healthcare, emotional support, education, housing, validation, purpose, and physical protection every member of our society is entitled to as a beloved child of God.

We ALL bear collective AND individual responsibility. We don’t ignore individuals in need, but we can’t limit our scope to fixing individual problems. Christian faith calls us to a higher purpose: to embody a people, God’s people, who exist to be an example to the world of God’s Kingdom – a place where, among other things, abortions don’t exist, not because they’re illegal, but because they’re unnecessary.

If you think this perspective on the world is fantastical or unrealistic or impossible, please, let me introduce you to Jesus Christ and the wonderful message of the gospels: the Kingdom of God is at hand. If we fail to see it, it is only because we fail to live into it.