Archive for June, 2020

Moving Forward

Note: the following article was written by a brother in ministry, Russ Whitfield (@whitness7 on Twitter). Russ pastors Grace Mosaic Church, a sister PCA congregation to Granada, in Washington, DC.  He provided permission to me to share it with you via my blog.  (This entry comes from his contribution found in the book: Heal Us, Emmanuel, available via Amazon.) I have shared it because Russ invites us into his experience and provides us much needed gospel application. Enjoy!

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You may be having a difficult time understanding the reactions of many people of color (and White allies) to the news of Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. Maybe you are even a little bit frustrated with the emotional response and the cries of injustice against “the system.”

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Russ Whitfield – Grace Mosaic

Perhaps, you’re on the other side of these events. You are angry, heartbroken, and feeling hopeless because you can’t help but see injustice every time one of these all-too-familiar scenarios appears in news headlines. Either way, if you identify as a Christian, you have been called to be a reconciler, a peacemaker, and a light in this current darkness. It is imperative that you work through this distinctly Christian calling with wisdom, courage, and a mind to new obedience. The love of God constrains you. The grace of God teaches you. The Spirit of God empowers you to live an altogether different kind of life in light of the new age that has dawned in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

The issues at hand deeply affect the lives of real people within your local church and real people outside of your local church whom you have been called to love faithfully. This is to say that our engagement or disengagement with these issues will shape the dynamics of our life together, along with our missionary encounter with the world. On these issues, our local churches will either testify to the glory of the risen Christ through mutual love and humble repentance, or we will obscure the glory of the risen Christ through hardness of heart and indifference.

One thing, however, must be made absolutely clear: passivity has never been a viable Christian response to divisive and destructive social dynamics, especially within the church. Most of us are already convinced of this. But we feel like we’re stuck. We’re unsure of how to participate in bringing the healing that is needed.

STORY AS GUIDE
So how might we begin to proactively engage these issues? How can we begin to chart a course forward? I would invite you to consider the theme of story as a guiding paradigm for progress. All sides in this racial struggle tend to live within their own separate stories. These cultural narratives predetermine who our friends should be, who we can trust, and how we should relate to the world. These cultural narratives encourage us to find our deepest identities and alliances within our own ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. However, I would propose that if we are to move forward together, then we must situate these tensions, our community, and our very lives within the same story—the story of God. No matter what truths may be found within these smaller cultural stories, we must give the greatest weight and the final say in our lives to God’s story. To put it another way, the story of God must be our “true north,” our greatest orienting factor. The story of God must dispel the cultural myths in which we have been living for far too long.

I’m intentionally resisting the typical “to-do” list, for real problems are rarely solved by checking the boxes. Rather, I’m proposing what I think will be a fruitful trajectory of thought as we try to move forward in mutual love and understanding. Admittedly, it takes much prayerful, humble, and communal reflection to figure out what this might look like in your context. The specifics will take different shape in different places. However, I would propose that if we are to be built up together in love (Eph. 4:16), then we must stay attuned to God’s macro-level narrative for perspective.

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Grace Mosaic at worship

Let’s start with some important ideas. Each tragic, racialized event tends to take on a life that is much bigger than itself. Each of these events tap into a broader, more tragic, and more painful story for people of color. If this does not register for you, then the effect of all your preaching, Scripture quoting, and #praying tweets will be muted, at best. Please understand that every act of racial injustice, every episode of racism and race-based mistreatment takes on a symbolic status that brings to mind an entire network of historic injustices, sufferings, and the dehumanization of African Americans and other people of color. In the minds of many Black people, each racialized event serves as a heart-rending cipher for chattel slavery, Jim Crow, historic church bombings, Klan terrorism, redlining, and many other wounds received personally, and by living family members of former generations. Each event reads like another chapter in America’s running commentary on my Blackness—my worth, my status, my place in society—and it’s not a hopeful picture.

At one time, I did ministry in an affluent area in another part of the country, and I was often invited to large parties that were held in the beautiful homes of friends and church members. I was usually the only person of color in the place, except for “the help,” of course. On more than one occasion, a fellow party-goer would come up to me and put their trash or empty glass on my plate, assuming I was “the help.” I was clearly not expected to be in attendance as an equal or a friend. On another occasion, as I stood at the front of the house chatting with a friend and taking in the beautiful weather, a fellow party-goer tossed their car keys to me upon their arrival, assuming that I was the valet. Why did he toss the keys to me rather than my White friend? On each of these occasions, I heard America’s commentary clearly: “We’ve already assigned a social role for people who look like you, and that role is beneath us.”

Based on your current life situation, these events can carry slightly different, but equally painful messages. If I’m a Black achiever, I get the message that no matter how many letters I have behind my name (MDiv, PhD, JD), no matter how much money I have in the bank, no matter what gifts, talents, or job titles I hold, I will forever and always be subservient, even expendable. The dark clouds of stereotype, racialization, and essentialism will never lift.

I will never be able to walk through the world with the freedom and security of my White counterparts. The media stereotypes, fear-filled glances of passersby, and constant pressures to prove my virtue, decency, and value are a regular reminder that I don’t get the benefit of the doubt so I must work that much harder to diffuse the doubts and fears. In certain situations, it could mean the difference between life and death. Each tragic episode tells me that I will be on the social treadmill indefinitely: The reality of motion with the illusion of progress.

If I’m a Black non-achiever, I get the message that if I ever entertained even the smallest notion of rising from my current situation, I should probably just forget about it. It’s not worth the effort. I’m stuck and might as well stay put. If I try to rise, anyone with cultural power can put me back in my place of subjugation without any repercussions. Each racialized incident sounds like a ringing confirmation of the nihilistic chorus of voices that continually dance in my head. Sadly, many succumb to this bleak outlook.

If at this point you want to say, “Well just follow the law, and you don’t have to worry about these things happening. You can take responsibility for your actions—look at Barack Obama!” I understand how this makes sense to you, and it is true that personal responsibility must be taken, but try to consider the countless Emmett Tills of America (and if you don’t know who Emmett Till is—Google him!) For every Barack Obama, there have been thousands of Emmett Tills in American history. In addition, each incident is a reminder of the flood of personal experiences of racism and injustice that the particular individual has endured. Like that time when I was called a racial slur and that time when people expressed shock at my ability to speak “the king’s English.” Add in that day when my college friends suggested that I was granted acceptance because of “affirmative action” rather than personal merit (because I could not possibly have earned it…being Black and all). We could easily produce dozens of these microaggressions that have rubbed our souls raw through repeated abrasion.

None of these incidents that I or anyone go through happen in an emotional or historical vacuum. God made us as emotive, storied people, it’s a fact of our anthropological hardwiring. So, often, when Black people experience America’s commentary, it is an experience similar to the real, lived pain of seeing a mangled car on the roadside after having lost a dear loved one in an auto accident. Viewing that singular image on the side of the road instantly creates a tidal wave of emotions. Then, after this wave hits you, the rip tide of grief carries you out into the sea of anguish. You remember first hearing the news of the loss. You remember watching your surrounding loved ones burst into tears. You remember the black suits and dresses at the wake. You remember the roses being thrown on the coffin as the undertaker prepared to lower your loved one six feet into the ground.

In a similar way, African Americans are reintroduced to a grief, pain, and sense of loss every time one of these tragedies occurs, and inasmuch as you refuse to acknowledge this and mourn with the mourner (Rom. 12:15), you exacerbate the pain and alienation. You stall healing and, sometimes, inflict deeper wounds.

We must realize that the optics of these events matter. Regardless of the particulars, the overriding truth, the loudest voice heard by African Americans is that another Black person’s life has been extinguished because Black lives are invested with less value.

If you are always down in the weeds arguing “the facts,” you will likely be harsh and insensitive. The worst part about this is that you may be “right” with regard to technicalities, but you will not be right with regard to Christian love. You may need to consider holding your tongue in certain moments. Many of the things that we think in our minds are not beneficial for public consumption (beware your Facebook and Twitter rants).

The question is not so simple as to ask, “Do the details of this particular case harmonize with the American justice system?” The bigger question is, “Does the American justice system harmonize with the true justice of God in this particular situation?” To conflate the American justice system with the true justice of God is naive and misguided. We have to acknowledge that the American justice system is failing Black people, brown people, White people, and law enforcement officers at any point where the American justice system departs from the principles of eternal justice. I’m not suggesting that we could or should pursue a theocracy in America. But what I am suggesting is that there must be an acknowledgment of the fallibility of our system and, at the very least, a fight to rid the American justice system of its glaring inadequacies, insofar as we are able to participate in this labor.

But it is also important for us to remember a number of other important facts as we aim to move forward.

First, there is a beautiful history of White people entering into solidarity and seeking justice for all. They have used their social, educational, and financial privileges to work for justice. People of color should encourage them and receive them as family and allies in this worthy struggle.

Second, there are many genuine, kind-hearted, White people who are doing their best to make sense of things. They do not see any injustice or why these incidents would warrant such strong reactions. They are honestly trying to work through it all. Let grace and the Golden Rule be your guide in dialogue. Try to give the same space and grace that you would need to see things from their angle, given their life experiences. If they ask you questions and the answers seem painfully obvious to you, don’t assume or project malicious intent, lest you be guilty of the same kind of thinking that contributed to these tragedies in the first place.

Third, there will always be people who see emotional responses of pain and frustration in such situations as “race-baiting,” “excuses,” or “playing the race card.” There will be trolls on the comment sections of digital newspapers and blogs that spew unspeakably awful, hateful things. I would simply encourage you to spend your emotional energies on your local context with real people, building real relationships of trust and honesty. Staying at the national level to the neglect of the local level will likely tend toward hopelessness and despair. Conversely, the small victories that happen around the kitchen table and in the neighborhood, born of prayer, love, and perseverance, will bless you more than you know. Celebrate this good fruit.

What’s even more important than these practical pieces of advice is the more central need that we have to share the same overarching narrative. This is the truth: We need each other if we are going to break out of the dehumanizing narratives under which we each live. If there is any truth to the notion that we are deeply affected by the narratives under which we live, then we are confronted with a question: What does a narrative of untimely death, violence, criminalization, racialization, and inferiority do to a people group? When this historical narrative of subhumanity and expendability seems to be confirmed time and again, what happens to its beleaguered characters?

It has been said before that racism and the racialization of American culture is bad, not just for people of color, but for White people as well.[1] It is not true nor healthy for people of color to live under the narrative of inferiority and dehumanization. In the same way, it is not true nor healthy for White people to live under the narrative of superiority and suprahumanization. You are in a dangerous and unhealthy position when your race, ethnicity, biology, and overall way of life is canonized and made to be anthropological holy writ. Adherence to this social orthodoxy will cloud your mind with a soul-stifling pride, which God opposes (James 4:6). No one people group should be so cast down below the rest, and no one people group should be so exalted above the rest—neither of these outlooks is a healthy way to be human. The conflicts we are witnessing result from the ways in which we have all lived out of these lesser narratives, allowing these mythologies to govern our lives and ruin our relationships.

However, there is a way in which all people can simultaneously acknowledge their lowliness, fallibility, and the vulnerability of their situation—but also the beauty, glory, and hope for their situation. This is the story of the Gospel, and it is this story that we must share together if we are to make progress in mutual love and understanding.

GOD’S STORY
According to God’s story, every human being was designed for glory and dignity in connection with God and the people around him or her. Every human being surrendered his or her glory in walking away from God. But the hope that God gives is that his story is all about affirming these twin truths: You and I are simultaneously sinners, yet accepted in the Beloved by grace alone through faith alone. We are ruined but rescued, awful but adopted, devious but delivered. God’s story tells us that brokenness is not the sole proprietorship of any one ethnic group, and by God’s grace, glory is not the sole inheritance of any one ethnic group. This is God’s commentary on our shared identity in Christ; and it’s infinitely better than America’s commentary.

This story alone sets the stage for fruitful, healthy, restorative dialogue and true progress. This story tells me that my identity rests, not on being right, but on being loved. I am free to be wrong, to learn, and to change as I live in community with the other. I am free to acknowledge that my mind needs to be renewed, and that this renewal is possible. If what the Bible says about me is anywhere near the truth, then humility, teachability, and grace must govern the way I move forward.

Don’t politicize this issue, gospelize it. The Gospel is the only story big enough to swallow up the grief of a ruined humanity, overcoming that ruin with the glory of a renewed humanity. Build this into your local church through every means available—pulpit, programming, community groups, and neighborhood gatherings. Explore the implications of God’s story for the current racial conflicts that we are facing. In what ways do you need to embrace difficult changes personally and corporately? How does God’s story encourage me to drop my defenses? Who should I be inviting to my dinner table in light of God’s story? How should we rethink the power-dynamics of our church or organization in light of a glorious God who humbles himself in love in order to lift the other?

The story of God answers these questions and many more with life-giving and life-changing direction. But one thing is for sure, if you bury your head in the sand on important issues like these, your witness will be blunted and your missionary encounter with the world will ebb over time as America grows more diverse.

You have an opportunity to speak dignity over the disenfranchised—did not Christ do this for you (1 Pet. 2:9)? You have an opportunity to proclaim words that invite humility and gracious acceptance—did not Christ proclaim these words over you (1 Pet. 5:5)? You have an opportunity to participate in the formation of a cross-cultural community—is this not the community that God has already determined to bring to completion (Rev. 7:9)? In God’s story, the poor are made rich because the rich One was made poor (2 Cor. 8–9). In God’s story, the weak are made strong because the Almighty was pleased to enter into our weakness (Rom. 5:6, Phil. 2:5ff).

In God’s story, there is hope for the hopeless, joy for the joyless, and power for the powerless. Christ, the King, will not suffer the status quo injustice and tragedy of this world to remain in place forever. But my question for you is this: Are you going to embrace your role as a participant in God’s story of renewal? In Christ, we have an entire treasury of resources for living up into this bigger, more meaningful, and more beautiful story. I would invite you to reimagine your relationships in light of this story. Reimagine the final chapter of this story, allowing that vision to shape your life and relationships in the present. If you do, the mile markers on the side of the road will reveal that you are actually making progress in the journey toward racial healing and social flourishing. This story, shared among us, is our hopeful way forward.

[1] Peggy McIntosh. “White privilege.” Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology, (1998): 94–105.

Preserving Life

Screenshot 2020-06-02 17.44.04This has been a tough week. It has been tough because we feel raw and exposed, weak and at a loss. In seeing the sins of others and deep injustice in our world, our hearts are revealed as well.  Hopefully, this time leads each of us to repentance.  It has for me again and again.  There is no room for pride here. Only a humble seeking of God for life and for forgiveness.  Here’s why.

First, the gospel reveals that the whole world is under the power of sin.  These moments should grieve us but not surprise us. Our entire world has the contagion of sin. Years ago, I would not have included myself in the problem of racism. It was through an African American pastor who befriended me that God revealed my part.  His name was Bob, and Bob shared with me his life story. He explained what it was like to start a trucking business as a black man. Securing a business loan was near impossible. His business merited the loan for sure. He had been successful, but he was denied because of his skin color. This was the small tip of an immense iceberg. His story was filled with disadvantage and discrimination. His entire life had been lived resisting a force like gravity constantly pulling him and keeping him down.  It was always there working against him. His story seemed unbelievable to me because I did not live in his world. I assumed his world was the same as mine. It was not.

glassesHere’s the thing. Bob never blamed me for being born into a different world. No, he had become a Christian pastor by the time I met him. I could only see the love of Jesus in him. I was ashamed when I heard Bob’s story not because I didn’t know, but because I never sought to know and understand.  It was thinking about the incarnation that brought me to repentance. Jesus entered into our world, and shared our story so that he might bring life. I began to wonder what it might be like to reflect the love of Jesus and enter the world of others. What would it look like to build new friendships, and to seek to understand? How would it be if all of us did this?

Someone said that theology is geography.  What we believe will determine where we stand. I believe it will also determine those we stand with.  I find that when we stand with the poor and those that are oppressed and distressed that we are standing with Jesus because that is where Jesus is.  I think this is a time when we are called to do that.

handsSecond, the gospel calls us to oppose racial prejudice. My friend caused me to reread the gospel. It was amazing how often the gospel spoke to this deep sin of the human heart.  Because “there is no distinction…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23) there is no room for pride. As we like to say, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. None of us are worthy of God’s grace. No racial group has an advantage. Instead, God gives his love freely. Our temptation (read: mine) is to feel pretty good about ourselves, and to see other people, especially those different from ourselves, as on the other side of a great gulf. There is grace for us, but not so much for “them.”  But, the gospel speaks this word of truth to us all. None of us have a privileged place before God. God shows no favoritism.

Grace means that we must guard against our own pride and also against the judgment of others because “we do the same things.” (Romans 2:1) Yes, you may find yourself standing in judgment of racists at this time.  We can always find someone we can judge.

The good news is that the gospel from the beginning has united Jews and Gentiles, people of different cultures and socioeconomic groups, and men and women. Jesus has torn down the dividing wall of separation that human beings seem to always be rebuilding. Prejudice based on race has been endemic in our world. There is no place for racism in the life of the gospel.  Our refusal to see this is a denial of our need to be redeemed through the grace of Jesus. It is a denial of what Jesus has done.

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Third, the gospel requires that we do all we can to preserve life. Our church’s larger catechism (used to instruct us in the faith) reminds us that we are required by God’s law to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any… (See text below) This is our high calling. This means we don’t use our words to incite violence. We protect others with our words and actions. We guard even our thoughts and purposes.  The catechism goes on to say that we avoid sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge as well as provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life.

Yes, it is not enough to remain silent. We are to do all that we can to preserve life, to guard against those practices that put life in danger. We are to value all people as made in the image of God, seeking God’s justice for each individual.

The catechism speaks a hard truth to us.  We must be careful not to add more violence to the mix, but to trust in the power of God’s love in word and deed. This means being proactive not reactive.

worldFinally, the gospel reminds us that our battle is not against flesh and blood. Scripture teaches that our world is under the control of what it calls “principalities and powers.” (Ephesians 6:12) What are these?  Remember my friend Bob? He didn’t simply encounter people that stifled his business-growth. He found himself living as part of a system, a way of doing life and viewing our world, that perpetuated oppression for some, and opportunity for others. For sure, people keep the system going, but it is larger than any person, political party or nation.  It is these powers that keep us trapped in cycles of violence and oppression. Each one of us shares in that.

This is what ultimately led Bob to Jesus. He could see in Jesus the only hope for our world. How so?  First, Jesus speaks the truth about our condition.  Scripture is honest about the need of every person to receive forgiveness and life. In the gospel, Bob found himself no different than any other human being. Second, Jesus opened the way for our reconciliation with God and with each other. Though born into the power structure of our world, Jesus refused to obey its direction in the way he treated minorities and women, and those of different cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds. In this, Bob knew Jesus loved and welcomed him into his kingdom. Third, Jesus established an alternate kingdom that is alive and at work in our world.  It is that kingdom we become part of when we come to faith in him. Bob wanted to share in what Jesus is doing to change our world.  We can choose by the power of the Spirit of God to do as Jesus did. We can treat each person with dignity and respect and without partiality.

crosspicThrough the love of Jesus, I met Bob and we became more than friends. We knew we were brothers. His friendship gave me a whole new outlook on the world, and the ability to comprehend what is “the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, and that there was room for me. It also led me to repentance, to see how wrong it was not to enter into the stories of others, not to protect others. I had been comfortable with distance instead of motivated by God’s love.  This is a complacency and comfort that God is constantly leading me away from.  I hope he is doing the same with you.

That’s why I am asking at this time: what can we do to protect others?  How can we build friendships that will foster understanding and open the way for gospel transformation?  Let us pray and work for this together. When the darkness seems the deepest, light seems the brightest.  Let your light shine before all that people may glorify the Father in heaven.

I hope you will do what you can as an individual to protect life and oppose oppression in our city and our world.  I’m going to ask our leadership to consider how we as a church can better engage in our city going forward. I’d love to hear your ideas. Please reach out to me if you have any input for our conversation.  I ask your prayer for our city, each other, and for our efforts together in the future.

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From the Westminster Larger Catechism

The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent. Answer to Q. 136 in the Westminster Larger Catechism

The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life. Answer to Q. 137 in the Westminster Larger Catechism