Why We Can’t Wait

From the first moments I began a relationship with the Bible, I have been drawn to the intensity and urgency in the voices of the prophets and the apostle Paul. I was most inspired and haunted by the parables of Jesus that insisted the time is short. Growing up within conservative Evangelicalism, I was taught to imagine Jesus coming back at any moment. If the sky looked just right – rays of sunlight piercing clouds – I imagined Jesus floating down from heaven. More often than not, the message I internalized was one that generated fear: I’d better get my act together or I might be left behind. The Church used that fear to instill a sense of urgency about “getting right with God” and “being saved.”

Over the past three years, as I’ve watched Trump’s presidential candidacy and now administration unfold, the most disconcerting aspect has been the Evangelical support of Trump. The same church that preached the urgent need for my soul to be saved is now urgently championing a “savior” who has from day one proclaimed his agenda to maintain and increase the privilege and power of the white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, wealthy male by means of mocking, vilifying and oppressing anyone who does not fit into all of those categories. This is anything but salvation: the kingdom of God is marked by shalom, the flourishing of all life, and I see no good news being proclaimed or embodied here. The urgency I see seems to be directed toward the dismantling of recently hard-won ground toward justice. As Evangelical leaders and institutions align with Trump to “make America great again,” I feel a fire burning in my bones that will not be held in. I hear the words that birth liberation: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7-8). I see God moving every time a leader emerges who is willing to stand and cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:3-5, cf. Matthew 3). Preparing the way for God’s salvation is the work of inclusive justice: this work is the cultivation of the ground from which shalom will spring up. And this work cannot wait.

Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, has impacted me over the years since I first read it in seminary in 2006. This weekend I have returned to this book to listen, learn and further energize my sense of urgency. Justice cannot wait: human life, the salvation Jesus proclaimed and modeled, depends on it. So, today I want to offer a few excerpts and reflections that I pray will inspire those who need to lean in to a renewed commitment to justice work.

Those of us with much privilege have to actively resist our propensity to delay change. In our anxiety we are tempted to conform to the myth of scarcity rather than to the story of a faithful God who calls us into the vocation of co-creating that which is very good. In our shame we are tempted to marginalize all “others” to avoid confronting our own pain and brokenness. In our need to believe we are innocent and good, we cover up our sin – both what we have done and what we have left undone – and rob ourselves of the opportunity to repent and build something new. We have to let the urgency of others’ demand for justice break our hearts and move us to join in the work of justice. We cannot continue saying, “Slow down. Be patient. We can’t change that quickly. Not now. Wait.”

The Negro had been deeply disappointed over the slow pace of school desegregation. He knew that in 1954 the highest court in the land had handed down a decree calling for desegregation of schools ‘with all deliberate speed.’ He knew that this edict from the Supreme Court had been heeded with all deliberate delay. At the beginning of 1963, nine years after this historic decision, approximately 9 per cent of southern Negro students were attending integrated schools. If this pace were maintained, it would be the year 2054 before integration in southern schools would be a reality” (4).

Those of us with much privilege have to recognize the ways we convince ourselves we aren’t part of the problem: one way we perpetuate injustice is thinking we are doing enough. This sometimes sounds like, “I’m not racist; I have a black friend,” or “Our church is welcoming and believes in racial reconciliation: we have a few members who are ethnic minorities and we invest in international missions.” White privilege exists, and I benefit from it because I am white. This does not mean I want or intend to marginalize people of color; however, I have to be open to learning about the ways I do so unintentionally. I have to be willing to change. I have to care more about dismantling racism than I do about my own need to be perceived as not racist. I do not want to practice tokenism to avoid discomfort or protect my privilege: I want to join those who are preparing the way for justice.

In the past decade, still another technique had begun to replace the old methods for thwarting the Negroes’ dreams and aspirations. This is the method known as ‘tokenism.’ The dictionary interprets the word ‘token’ in the following manner: ‘A symbol. Indication, evidence, as a token of friendship, a keepsake. A piece of metal used in place of a coin, as for paying carfare on conveyances operated by those who sell the tokens. A sign, a mark, emblem, memorial, omen.’

When the Supreme Court modified its decision on school desegregation by approving the Pupil Placement Law, it permitted tokenism to corrupt its intent. It meant that Negroes could be handed the glitter of metal symbolizing the true coin, and authorizing a short-term trip toward democracy. But he who sells you the token instead of the coin always retains the power to revoke its worth, and to command you to get off the bus before you have reached your destination. Tokenism is a promise to pay. Democracy, in its finest sense, is payment” (16-17).

Those of us with much privilege have to risk suffering alongside the marginalized. They, unlike us, cannot choose to opt out. We must choose solidarity. Working for the liberation of others may help us see the liberation we need and create space to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. The dividing wall of hostility between “us” and “them” must be broken down, for it is a barrier to salvation for us all. It is not the gospel we preach if it is not good news for everyone, and it is not good news for everyone unless it paves the way toward salvation with justice for the marginalized and oppressed.

To the ministers I stressed the need for a social gospel to supplement the gospel of individual salvation. I suggested that only a ‘dry as dust’ religion prompts a minister to extol the glories of Heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell” (54).

from clipboard

I would love to talk to anyone who wants to explore this struggle together.

Inclusive Justice, part 2

Communities that draw identity, beliefs and ethics from scripture need inclusive practices for reading, interpreting and applying it within personal and congregational life. However, identifying these practices is only the first step and does not automatically ensure inclusive justice. Many groups committed to community discernment and peacemaking may be unaware of the ways exclusion and injustice pervade community life. Listening to each other and encouraging marginalized voices will help us become aware of where we fall short. Too often, the voices of those who have been hurt are silenced or those persons are scapegoated in order to maintain an “innocent” or “righteous” self-perception (individual or corporate). Making space for and honoring these voices may expose “shadow sides” we’d rather not acknowledge; however, they offer us the light we need to repent, reconcile and transform.

The second voice that most impacted me during TRP’s leadership cohort is that of Drew Hart, an author, activist, and professor in theology at Messiah College. In his book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Hart calls followers of Jesus to “renounce every hierarchy.”

trouble i've seen

Hart exposes the human propensity toward dominating others by engaging the story of Jesus’ disciples disputing the status dynamics within their own group. Immediately after Jesus embodies the human image-bearing vocation of love and service at the last supper, his closest followers are concerned with “greatness.” Jesus has just spoken the words, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” and “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22: 19-20). Jesus acknowledges that there will be a betrayal, and the disciples cannot conceive of such a thing. Then, it can be argued, betrayal ensues as “a dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24). They just do not get it. We just do not get it.

Hart understands that the inclination to dominate others, to strive for positions of status that enable power over others, the power to force one’s will on others and to arrange systems and resources in one’s favor, fuels the many forms of oppression plaguing the human community.

Hart writes:

This chapter explores several aspects of oppression… This book has been most attentive to white supremacy and antiblack ideology on the racialized ladder of our society. However, as Christians, we must not only challenge racial hierarchy (though in America that is particularly important). We must keep track of all forms of human-constructed hierarchies that exist in our communities. This is so that, as God’s people, we can live more and more into the new humanity of Christ. Considering various people groups’ experiences within white supremacy (racialized hierarchy) is vital, as is confronting patriarchy (gendered hierarchy) and plutocracy (classed hierarchy). Jesus reminds us that these ways of dominating others – which, as we shall see, often overlap and intersect – should be ‘not so with you’ (Luke 22:26). As followers of Jesus, we are obligated to resist all types of lording over others. (Hart p. 146)

So much of our society is built on “lording over others.” This “looking out for number one” and “us vs. them” way of being in the world is connected to a myth of scarcity. We cannot be neighbors to one another if we are competing for resources that are never enough. Instead of finding security in God’s abundant generosity, we anxiously grasp for anything that seems stabilizing in a zero-sum game world. Walter Brueggemann has explored the myth of scarcity extensively:

We who are now the richest nation are today’s main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity – a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity… The [myth of scarcity] says there are no gifts to be given because there’s no giver. We end up only with whatever we manage to get for ourselves. This story ends in despair. It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality… It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves – and it is the prevailing creed of American society.

When the myth of scarcity shapes one’s understanding of what is possible, turning to domination over others seems inevitable. Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ disciples demonstrate their inability to imagine any other way of being in the world: someone is always going to be in power over others, and they hope that their Messiah will establish a kingdom that puts them at the top. Christians today struggle with the same distorted worldview. As Hart outlines in his chapter, too many Christians “lord over others.” Oftentimes we justify our structures, systems and behavior as “practical” or “realistic” ways of maintaining or protecting the community. Again, this reveals our bondage to a myth of scarcity. Hart writes:

Jesus does not make lording over others an option for his disciples. Unfortunately, most churchgoers today don’t appear to know that. People have found a way to call themselves Christian, which means to be Jesus-shaped, and still chase after power without thinking twice about it. We disregard Jesus’ teaching on power and how we ought not to use it to dominate others. Our practice, though, doesn’t change the fact: Jesus says that it must not be so!

Lording over others in our context normally occurs at the intersection of racialized, gendered, and economic oppression. Understanding how the experiences of various oppressed people groups are intertwined is essential in all the antiracist work we do. Our antiracism work will be limited if we don’t take account of these various facets of domination. Therefore, we must understand that all of life is always racialized and gendered. In unison, the church must commit to ending all oppression. The church must become the people who renounce lording over others in all manners, whether white supremacy, patriarchy, or economic domination Instead, we must turn to the way of Jesus as the pathway to new life. (Hart p. 160)

One step we can take to “renounce every hierarchy” is to make space for marginalized voices. We need to listen to those who can show us where we have oppressed others. Even those with the best intentions have done harm, and we need to open our hearts to those who are able to speak to that harm. If we refuse to listen, we will go on perpetuating injustice. Cheryl Anderson (featured in the last blog post) writes:

The church of Jesus Christ is called to identify and stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The act of solidarity becomes the litmus test of biblical fidelity and the paradigm used to analyze and judge how social structures contribute to or efface the exploitation of the marginalized. To be apart from the marginalized community of faith is to exile oneself from the possibility of hearing and discerning the gospel message of salvation—a salvation from the ideologies that mask power and privilege and the social structures responsible for their maintenance. (Anderson p. 54)

Though listening to voices we’ve excluded may feel threatening and may trigger a fight or flight response, we have to make space within our churches, without our communities, within ourselves to hear. Our salvation, the realization of shalom, depends on it.

In the next few weeks, I will be featuring voices from those who experience intersecting marginalized identities. I hope that you will listen, that you will hear, that you will open yourself to the new life only possible on the other side of mourning, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Inclusive Justice, part 1

Being shaped by the Anabaptist tradition, I have always resonated with “peace” and “justice.” Shalom. That which is the fruit of God’s kingdom “on earth as in heaven.” Human flourishing. All of creation flourishing. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9).

Along my journey I have seen time and again injustice perpetuated even within communities theologically committed to peacemaking. Sometimes these communities are not aware of harm done within; other times, harm is covered up in order to protect the reputation of the community and its good work. Too often “peace and justice” are only experienced by those most privileged within the community (or organization), and the wellbeing of those with the least power is sacrificed to “keep the peace.” Exclusion becomes a way of maintaining control. This kind of power dynamic predictably functions hierarchically along the lines of gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. This is not peace. This is not justice. This is not flourishing. Anytime one group benefits at the expense of another, God’s will is not being done and we have work to do.

Inclusive justice. This phrase has captured my imagination since I participated in The Reformation Project’s 2018 Leadership Development Cohort. Last month I presented a bit of what I learned during the three months of the cohort at the church I attend, Willow Avenue Mennonite Church. I highlighted three voices that have reverberated in my mind and heart, and given me language, concepts and practices that I deem critical to moving us closer to inclusive justice – flourishing for all people and all creation.

The first voice is that of Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She worked with the Leadership Cohort when we met in Chicago for a 4-day intensive training. From her I see “inclusive biblical interpretation” as foundational to the project of inclusive justice.

anderson book

Anderson, in her book, Ancient Laws & Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, identifies exclusion as a core problem within Christian tradition. Too often “orthodoxy” and “biblical ethics” are used to control and oppress others in order to gain or maintain a privileged position of power. This is done by narrowly interpreting scripture only from the privileged perspective: if alternative or marginalized voices are not heard, it becomes easier to draw lines and make rules that benefit those on the inside by taking from and/or harming those on the outside.

I have seen [a] relationship between “authentic” Christianity and exclusion… For traditional (conservative) Christianity, different perspectives are not acknowledged, and the consequences for targeted groups cannot be considered… Basically, the exclusion of certain groups and perspectives has become equated with the church’s concept of right doctrine (orthodoxy). As a result, we have come to define ourselves by that which we exclude. (Anderson p. 5)

Many Christians so closely identify “right belief” or “true faith” in terms of what they exclude. For example, many evangelicals equate being a “good Christian” with their anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ positions that those points of exclusion become the litmus test for evangelical identity. As long as you’re on the right side of the line on this or that issue, you can confidently identify with the “right” group. In my experience, however, those who build a sense of Christian identity on an “anti” foundation, are unable to listen to those voices their “anti” position excludes. There is too much at stake (a secure sense of identity), and so, for example, LGBTQ perspectives are attacked, dismissed, and/or silenced instead of heard and understood so that they might be integrated into discernment processes regarding sexual ethics or a definition of marriage.

Anderson proposes “inclusive biblical interpretation” as a way toward greater justice in our relationships as individuals, churches and as a society. Listening to our neighbor is a critical step toward loving our neighbor. If we are to be gospel people, we must break free from an exclusion-based faith identity and practice. An inclusive approach to biblical interpretation, simply put

seeks to include persons and insights that are usually ignored. More specifically, “inclusion is a discipline of extending our boundary to take into consideration another’s needs, interests, experience, and perspective, which will lead to clearer understanding of ourselves and others, fuller description of the issue at hand, and possibly a newly negotiated boundary of the community to which we belong.” (Anderson p. 8-9)

To some, this idea of inclusion may trigger severe anxiety generated by a sense of threat to biblical authority. One understanding of what makes the bible authoritative is that it is “God’s word,” and as such, it is above human subjectivity and fallibility. If the bible is God’s unadulterated guide for drawing lines between who is in and who is out and has provided a sense of security about how to be on the inside, then considering any perspective that does not match with those lines could call into question the whole system. This creates a desperate need to “protect and preserve the truth.”

The popularity of podcasts like The Bible for Normal People demonstrates a growing interest in revisiting the questions: What is the bible? How do we use it? People are experiencing greater openness to explore ideas of biblical authority and biblical interpretation beyond those rooted in exclusion. Many times this is because they have had close encounters with people who have been harmed by exclusionary and oppressive beliefs and/or practices. Wrestling with the real life impact of biblical teaching and ethics prompts many people to search for alternatives that actually produce the kind of flourishing promised in Jesus’ gospel.

As part of inclusive biblical interpretation, Anderson is committed to a concept of biblical authority yet recognizes the need to redefine that concept:

[A] new concept of biblical authority must accompany critical biblical interpretation… biblical authority does not have to be synonymous with authoritarianism. Rather than authority as domination, a critical and liberative approach to biblical interpretation defines authority as partnership, where the voice of God emerges from Scripture in the context of dialogue within faith communities. From this perspective, authority is relational rather than hierarchical. (Anderson p. 8)

What potential for peace and justice might be unleashed if our faith was shaped by voices regularly excluded? How might churches find greater strength from inclusive discernment practices? What are some concrete steps individuals and church communities can take to explore the idea and practice of inclusive biblical interpretation?

We are dying

I wrote the following reflection almost a year ago. I am pulling it up again today as I wrestle with the gut wrenching feelings I feel as I see headline after headline of stories reporting on how we are killing each other. Reading about the physical, emotional and spiritual violence being done to immigrant families floods me with anger and sadness, and I feel so helpless. Last November my wife and I attended the Fresno Community Chorus concert, “Remembrance & Healing: 75 years after Executive Order 9066 and the incarceration of ethnic Japanese in in American concentration camps.” We attend remembrances such as these and think, “How could this have happened? Never again.” Yet here we are again. This is happening.

Derek Webb, in his song “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” sings, “I don’t know the suffering of people outside my front door / I join the oppressors of those I choose to ignore / I’m trading comfort for human life / And that’s not just murder, it’s suicide / This too shall be made right.” These lyrics have always penetrated me.

What can I do? I do not want to look away. I do not want to ignore my responsibility: there are ways that I participate in systems of injustice – by what I have done and what I have left undone – and I must not allow my feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed to paralyze me. If I only offer “thoughts and prayers,” I am rejecting the human vocation of peacemaking, the calling to bear God’s image as creator and protector of life.

Today I share with you my reflections from last year, and I urge you to examine the injustice, the deathliness, of Othering – of excluding and marginalizing some and so ignoring God’s foundational command to love the neighbor.

September 26, 2017

We have eaten of that fruit, and we are dying. We have broken covenant, and we are painfully out of joint. We are in exile. And instead of seeing our sin, instead of recognizing the deep need we have for reconciliation, we search for someone to blame. Because we’re “very fine people,” we resist acknowledging our complicity in “this present evil age” – its denial, depression and desperation. We shut our eyes in order to deny all the ways we are threaded into the fabric of injustice. It may feel warm and comforting to us, but it gags others and swallows them up like body bags. But their “blood cries out… from the ground” and eventually it seeps in through the cracks in our self-righteousness: we feel anxiety rising, threatening to drown us in depression. Still we refuse to come to our senses and repent. Instead we desperately patch the cracks: we hold ourselves together with numbness, lose ourselves in amusement, or spew rage and ready for a fight when threatened.

Because we are unwilling to expose the injustice in which we participate, and because we cannot hold depression and despair at bay indefinitely, we turn on our neighbors. “Let us go out to the field,” we beckon, and then we wash our hands of the blood we spill. Death is the end result of our culture of exclusion. When we organize the world for “the powers that be” and those who are privileged by that power, we inevitably view all resources as scarce and orient ourselves in competition against “the other.” If there is only one of [insert valued item here] and two of us, you pose a threat and I must find a way to exclude you. Within this worldview, there are no neighbors; all those outside of my group are either strangers or enemies. If I can segregate you so that you are invisible, then I can comfortably go about my life with you as a stranger. If you will not keep your place on the margins, then you become an enemy. If I cannot silence you, I must discredit you. If I cannot discredit you, I must eliminate you.

I am often disheartened by the number of Christian people who defend this exclusionary pattern. It seems that “believing in Jesus” and “personal salvation” are disconnected from the cycle of exclusion playing out in our families, and in local and global communities. Somehow, Christians are living within an Empire, pledging allegiance to its violent system of power, and congratulating themselves for “defending the faith.” Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state in a very publicly humiliating and painful manner: crucifixion was Rome’s statement of ultimate power and authority used to make a spectacle of any would-be revolutionary. We follow a messiah who ushered in “the upside-down kingdom” where “what looks like weakness can do anything / and what looks like foolishness is understanding / when what is powerful has not come to fight / it looks like you’re going to war / but you lay down your life” (Derek Webb, What is Not Love).

We seem more like the “lawyer [who] stood up to test Jesus,” asking “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Like him, we ask the question assuming the answer we already have in mind is right. Jesus “said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’” Just to make sure we are certain of our “salvation,” we ask, “And who is my neighbor?” (NRSV, Luke 10:25-29)

Who is my neighbor? What are we asking when we pose this question? Who is in and who is out? Who can I exclude? Who am I obligated to share my precious resources with and who can I ignore and let starve? Who can I steal from so that I might have more? I deserve it, after all. As we “look out for number one,” we calculate who we can “afford” to let on the inside. We are on a limited budget, and so we start crossing people off the wedding reception guest list. Let’s get realistic: there is just not enough to go around. Find a smaller table, because we have got to disinvite people. I know we said, “Liberty and justice for all,” but who is going to pay for that? It costs too much. And so we become us and them. Walter Brueggemann writes and preaches extensively about this “myth of scarcity” plaguing us:

Today, the fundamental human condition continues to be anxiety, fueled by a market ideology that keeps pounding on us to take more, to not think about our neighbor, to be fearful, shortsighted, grudging. Over and over, we’re told to be sure we have the resources to continue our affluent lifestyles, especially with the approach of our “golden years” (which are “golden” in more ways than one). That same market ideology powers the multinational corporations, as they roam the world, seeking the best deal, the greatest return, the cheapest labor and materials. Whether it’s global policies or local poverty-wage jobs, those who fear scarcity refuse to acknowledge any abundance that extends beyond their own coffers.

I hear this myth in the voices of “us” excluding “them.” They are stealing our jobs. They are lazy and cheating the system. They don’t belong here (and so we label them illegal). They want special treatment. They think they are entitled. They need to get over it. They are disrespecting us. Whether we draw lines between “us” and “them” based on race and ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, socio-economic status, religious affiliation, or other identity markers, “we” seek to remove “them” from within or among “us.” The more distance we see and feel between “us” and “the other,” the more we are able to justify ourselves as we dismiss, vilify, and harm “them.” While we take life away from “those people,” we sit around believing we deserve what we have: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (NRSV, Luke 18:11).