Wednesday, July 14, 2021

From The Red Summer To Today: The Lived Experiences Of This Generation (Planting The Wind; Harvesting The Whirlwind, Part 3)

This is the third in a series on the history of slavery and racism in the United States.

In Part One, "1619 To The Civil War: Slavery Before Emancipation," I noted the biblical basis for caring about the history and the legacy of racism in our country before giving an overview beginning in 1609 through the Civil War and Emancipation. Basically, we should care because Jesus cares. If you have not yet read the first post, I encourage you to do so. There is a lot of information that will add context to what you are reading.

"Emancipation To The Great Migration: Jim Crow, Reconstruction and Sundown Towns" continued to look at the sinful impact and harsh legacy from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. 

We pick up our narrative in 1921. Starting now, there are still people alive today who experienced these things. 

Emancipation To the Great Migration: Jim Crow, Reconstruction And Sundown Towns (Planting The Wind; Harvesting the Whirlwind, Part 2)

 This is the second in a series on the history of slavery and racism in the United States.

In From 16019 To Emancipation, I started by noting the biblical basis for caring about the history and the legacy of racism in our country before giving an overview beginning in 1609 through the Civil War and Emancipation. Basically, we should care because Jesus cares. If you have not yet read the first post, I encourage you to do so. There is a lot of information that will add context to what you are reading. 

We pick up our narrative right after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

From 1619 To Emancipation (Planting The Wind; Harvesting The Whirlwind, Part 1)

We learn some important things about how we, the followers of Jesus, ought to be present in the world simply by looking at how Jesus was present with the people in his time.

·    He “saw” people[1] (It’s a loaded word - see Matthew 9:36 – but it led to compassionate action.)

·     He listened and thoughtfully responded (See the Rich Young Ruler[2]; the woman who touched his garment[3]; the woman caught in adultery.)[4]

·     He spent time with them (He was that crazy ‘friend of sinners,'[5] an insult Jesus embraced.) 

·     He invited himself into their homes. (Zaccheus)[6]

·     He went to their unclean neighborhoods. (Samaria)[7]

·     He empathized with them (Hebrew 4:15). [8] “In our pain; Jesus is pained. In our suffering, he feels the suffering as his own even though it isn’t… his heart is feelingly drawn into our distress.. His human nature engages our troubles comprehensively.”[9]

·     He poured out his life for them. (#crucifixion)

·     He offered them hope. “I have come that you might have life.” (John 10:10)

This is what the love of God looked like expressed through Jesus. We model the loving example of Jesus when we see, listen, spend time together with others, seek to sympathize and empathize, and pour out our lives so that we might faithfully and lovingly re-present Jesus in hope-filled attitudes, actions, and words.  

Because I want to write about an aspect of life that ought to inspire a motivating sorrow as we see the impact of evil in the world, it’s worth noting that a key way in which is described: “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”[10] 

“Twice in the Gospels we are told that Jesus broke down and wept. And in neither case is it sorrow for himself or his own pains. In both cases it is sorrow over another – and in one case, Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), and in the other, his deceased friend, Lazarus (John 11:35). What was his deepest anguish?  The anguish of others. What drew his heart out to the point of tears? The tears of others.”[11]

There is a movement of people leaving white evangelicalism (#leaveloud) because of ongoing frustrations with how the brutal legacy and ongoing painful reality of racism is (or isn’t) being addressed. A recent Barna survey revealed that “more than any segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African American brothers and sisters.”[12] It doesn’t feel to many non-white evangelicals like the church is a place where the heart of Jesus for those hurt by sin is on display. Their experience is that the church is refusing to see, listen and take seriously the ongoing legacy of the pain of racism. That feels a lot like a refusal to love by a refusal to empathize.[13]

Here’s a practical example about what’s at stake. The Nation of Islam began in the 1930s and quickly became an alternative to Christianity for many black people who had become disillusioned with the Christian religion’s seeming impotence in the face of racial prejudice. Muhammad Ali once explained that he had embraced “the Nation” as a teenager after a NOI member gave him one of their newspapers with a cartoon depicting a white slave owner whipping an enslaved black man while also telling him to pray to Christ.[14]

Maybe the lack of honest tackling of this issue is happening because there are a lot of ways for this discussion to potentially go wrong. We are seeing that on display as our nation tries to address it. But I also know this: not talking about is a way that will definitely go wrong. With that in mind, I am walking into this praying that this will go right. We are called to be ministers of reconciliation [15]; we can’t be part of that if we don’t understand what needs to be reconciled, and how, and why. 

I have preached a lot of sermons and done a lot of posts calling out sin and discussing the impact with which sin lands on its victims. This is just as true for racism as any other sin.·     

      If we don’t rightly name sin for what it is, we can too easily dismiss sin, not see sin, or fall into it rather than pursue righteousness. I will define racism as the dismissing, demeaning, objectifying, discarding and/or brutalizing of image bearers off God simply because their ethnicity or melanin differs from one’s own. Globallyracism is not unique to one group of people.[20]  In the United States, the legacy of racism directed at particular groups of people by other groups of people has historically been focused in particular ways, and that’s what we will look at: our history in the United States.

      If we don’t rightly see this sin, we will not see the victims of sin; if we do, we won’t see how profoundly it lands.  We see and listen so we can know and understand how legacies have shaped our collective national and American church history so that we might clearly intervene with righteousness and move both victims and perpetrators toward healing and restoration.[21] In the Old Testament, the Israelites constantly recited their history. They did not forget. Read Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9. He begs for God’s mercy for the actions of generations past; Daniel was not responsible for their sin, but he was responsible for what he did with the legacy they left him. Puritan Richard Sibbes wrote in relation to the compassion Jesus felt, “When [Christ] saw the people in misery, his bowels yearned within him; the works of grace and mercy in Christ, they came from his bowels first.”[16]

      If we don’t see how profoundly it lands, sin will continue without Christians moving into those sin-ravaged places and stopping the chaos and pain by bringing gospel healing to those who are the victims of it. What we learn should provoke us to love well so that we might have more wisdom on how to be faithfully and lovingly present in attitude, action, and word with those who have both experienced racism - and perpetrated it. 

      If we don’t move into those sin-ravaged places, especially as it shows up in the legacy of the church, the presentation of the gospel and the experience of doing life together with God’s people are going to suffer great harm. We want the community of the church to become a compelling place that embodies the heart and mind of Jesus for a world that is groaning from the weight of sin in every corner as it awaits redemption.[22]

The Bible is clear that there is a legacy of sin that gets passed down (Exodus 20:5; Exodus 34:7; Deuteronomy 5:9). Ken Wytsma, a pastor in Beaverton, Oregon, looks at how racism leaves a legacy by summarizing our different American histories this way:  

“Much of our identity is derived from our past, our cultural heritage – where we’ve come from…The white American ‘creation story,’ as it was framed in the melting pot analogy of the 1940s and ‘50s, is positive and exciting: a country forged in the ‘untamed wilderness’ out of nothing more than a healthy dose of curiosity and courage and a thirst for liberty, freedom, and – ironically – equality. The black American creation story, Asian American creation story, Latin American creation story, and Native American creation story are rooted in tragedy, kidnapping, enslavement, theft, coercion, rape, murder, genocide, inequality, exclusion, terrorism, and oppression in this country, all because of the color of their ancestors’ skin. There is no denying the powerful psychological influence of such a heritage, nor the difficulty involved with forging an identity out of such a painful past.”[17]

There is no doubt our histories form us; the legacies of which we are a part shape our view of the world and the stories we tell ourselves about our place in it. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah talk about Historical Trauma Response (HTR), a diagnosis developed by a social worker working with Native Americans. It’s a type of trans-generational trauma that happens when any people group endures widespread and prolonged trauma on a communal level. It’s “transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms.” One example will, I hope, suffice: The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are overrepresented by 300% in referrals to child psychiatry clinics in comparison to the general population.[18]

We have to take the legacy of sin seriously. We must see how racism has landed like a bomb in particular communities, sometimes for generation upon generation. We must not ignore how trauma lingers in a broken creation crying out for redemption. Not seeing this is refusing to see reality.

And yet.... Ezekiel is clear: when we are committed to righteousness, our history is not our destiny any more than our ancestors’ history is our destiny (Ezekiel 18:19-20) [19]  The whole point of the Gospel is that God can bring beauty from ashes, and that God’s people have the opportunity to spread the righteous and just boundaries of Eden into the wilderness of the world, bringing life and hope into places of death and despair. 

So, we are going to look at racism in American and specifically American church history. If what follows feels really personal to you – like I am attacking you as an individual or you as a white person - then you’ve got something going on I don’t know about. 

I’m not going to shame you, or tell you that you are a racist, or that being white automatically makes you complicit in racism.  As far as I know, nothing I cover will overlap with what you have done in your life. If it does, own it. If it doesn’t, don’t project false guilt onto yourself. 

Because I have been reading and listening to black and Native American evangelical writers and podcasters this past year, their historical experience will by my primary (though not sole) focus. There is going to be an avalanche of information, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

This will be a four part series: 1619 To Emancipation;  Emancipation To the Great Migration: Jim Crow, Reconstruction And Sundown Towns; From The Red Summer Until Today: The Lived Experience Of This Generation; and Where Do We Go From Here?

I beg of you to see and listen in order to build sympathy and provoke empathy, so we can be a loving, righteous and ultimately hope-filled presence in our culture and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Thinking From Behind A COVID-19 "Veil Of Ignorance"

(a thought experiment inspired by John Rawls)


John Rawls (1921-2002) argued that we could determine just ethical principles by seeing what a free and rational people would choose if they attempted to create a just society from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. 


John Rawls proposed a famous thought-experiment in which a group of humans come together and have to devise a set of principles for their society to work by. The imaginary part of this is that the individuals doing the deciding are told that there will be some people of greater and lesser intelligence, greater and lesser degrees of health, greater and lesser pigment in their skin, ability to lead, to follow, to carve wood, to care for babies, etc etc – in other words, these people would represent a reasonable cross-section of the types found in human society. However, the deciding individuals did not know which attributes they themselves possessed...

This ‘veil of ignorance’ Rawls thought would ensure a just distribution of rights and duties in his hypothetical society – just as if you were in charge of cutting up a pizza to share and only knowing that you would get the last piece: you would do your best to cut it equally. (“Deontological Ethics.”


Rawls thought that people would likely agree to things that would benefit the population no matter their situation: freedom of speech; a limited role for a government influenced by or answerable to the people; an equitable social system wherein people have equal opportunity, access to resources; a system that encourages virtue, etc. 


This veil of ignorance would make people aware that that they could be among the disadvantaged or marginalized, and they would want to make laws that would protect them if they were one of the weaker members of society and not punish them if they were one of the stronger.  


With that foundation in mind, let’s apply that idea to COVID-19.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

MemeTalk: Are We Being Conditioned To View Freedom As Selfish?

I've been seeing this commentary on life during COVID-19 pop up on social media. It got lots of virtual applause, and why not? Who doesn't love freedom? And who doesn't want to avoid being conditioned by "they"? It got me thinking about how we Christians wrestle with notion of freedom in general, especially our exercise of the freedoms guaranteed to us as citizens of the United States. 

My thoughts are almost certainly incomplete and perhaps misguided, but I really think we need to wrestle more deeply with the broader theme that this meme addresses. 

* * * * *

Here's the reality: some freedoms are deeply important for the common good, and the exercise of them is not selfish at all. Some freedoms are remarkably detrimental to the public good, and the exercise of them is, in fact, selfish.  

If you are a Christian familiar with the Bible, you know this to be true.  Read what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Ye, this is about church life rather than civil life in this particular case, but as best as I can tell this principle is a foundational one for Christians in all of life.
  • “We have the right to eat anything we want, even food sacrificed to idols. But if what I eat is going to call my brother to stumble because he thinks eating such food would be sinful, I’m not going to eat it.  In fact, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8)
  • "Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?... Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a wife along with us?  But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.... I have not used any of these rights.... What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." (1 Corinthians 9)
  • “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others... If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. So you ask, “Why should I give up my freedom to accommodate the scruples of another?” or, “If I am eating with gratitude to God, why am I insulted for eating food that I have properly given thanks for?” These are good questions...Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10)

If I am understanding Paul correctly, freedom is a complicated issue for Christians. In the Bible we are freed in two ways: from and to. We are not simply freed from the chains of sin; we are freed to serve God righteously. We are not simply freed from hatred; we are freed to love. We are not simply freed from stinginess; we are freed to generosity. We are freed from selfishness to selflessness. 

American freedom tends to be presented primarily as freedom from the government's attempts to unjustly impose restraints on our lives. That is an excellent start, to be sure, and our Constitution is a pretty remarkable foundation. However, freedom from is not enough. The questions is what are we freed to do?  The United States, while establishing important foundational aspects of what we can do in a free civilization, has not provided direction on what we should do as we exercise those freedoms. And without that sense of direction, terrible misuses of freedoms often follow. 
  • Pornography, anyone? It follows free speech. So does the remarkably crass entertainment that is so ubiquitous. We are freed from the government stopping free expression, but freedom can be used horribly and destructively. It's possible to exercise the freedom of speech selfishly.
  • We have a "right to privacy," a freedom from government intrusion into personal autonomy. It's possible to exercise a freedom that has a terrible impact on others. Pro-life advocates have been making this argument for years. So have opponents of the legalization of drugs.
  • We are free from a government that might want to take our guns - and, as our gun crime statistics show, it's possible to use this freedom selfishly. 
  • We are free from a government that wants to stop our free assembly - but we can assemble with neo-Nazis, or storm the capital, or clog up traffic such that ambulances can't get their patients to the ER, etc. We can assemble selfishly. 
  • We are free from government intrusion into worship. We can also form cults that abuse people financially, physically, and spiritually. We can exercise religious freedom selfishly. 
It's just too simplistic to complain that boundaries or structure or rules are a menacing act of brainwashing. It turns out some freedoms are, in fact, exercised selfishly.  I think we all agree on this point. 

Now, to be clear, there is doubt that there are some power-hungry politicians who would love to selfishly wrest freedom away from we the people so that their power increases. That, too, has been part and parcel of the history of the world, and we are no exception. That danger always lurks. The panic that followed the beginning of the pandemic is the kind of "soft spot" that opportunists can exploit, and in that sense I am sympathetic to what the meme is (I think) trying to address. It is very possible that the curtailing of freedoms was unconstitutional; we already see that some restrictions have been shot down in the courts, and others will surely be analyzed in hindsight and affirmed or rejected.  I appreciate living in a country that focuses on curtailing creeping facism. 

But  - and now I am back to the broader theme of freedoms in general - pointing out that an insistence on exercising freedoms might be selfish is not necessarily brainwashing, unless you think the Apostle Paul was brainwashing the early church. 

If our track record is any indication, a freedom can be both protected by the constitution and selfish in at least some of its expressions. These are not mutually contradictory stances. I know that requires us to wrestle with ethical complexities, but it's a complex world. It ought to be expected. 

I hope we can be honest about a reality of life that touches on all our freedoms: they are ripe for misuse, and selfishness crouches outside the door of the best of us, and it would be good for us to go through thoughtful reflection on how we exercise all the freedoms that we fight to protect. 

All of our freedoms are freeing us to do something. What is it we ought to do with the freedoms we have? How do we best serve others with our freedoms?

Let's think and talk deeply about the complexities of living in a world where we are not only (hopefully) free from injustice and selfishness, but also free to pursue righteousness and selflessness. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Living In Fear Or Faith? COVID-19 Edition

Person A wears a mask all the time, social distances, and sanitizes because they do not want to get the coronavirus. 

Person B takes Vitamin D, some herbs, essential oils, and works on building their immune system naturally because they do not want to get the coronavirus. 


1. A is living in fear.

2. B is living in fear.

3. A and B are both living in fear.

4. Neither A nor B are living in fear.


If #1 or #2, what distinguishes the two?

If #4, what word would you use to describe them: “They are living in _______”


* * * * *


Person A gets the vaccine because they do not want to get the coronavirus. They think that possible side effects from COVID-19 are worse than the vaccine, and they will take their chances.


Person B does not get the vaccine because they think it will make them sick or even kill them (and may not want to be around others who got the vaccine because they might “shed” it). 


1. A is living in fear.

2. B is living in fear.

3. A and B are both living in fear.

4. Neither A nor B are living in fear.


If #1 or #2, what distinguishes the two?

If #4, what word would you use to describe them: “They are living in _______”



* * * * *


Person A thinks the coronavirus is part of a fallen world and worries we might never get back to normal.


Person B thinks the coronavirus is part of a conspiracy and we might be headed toward facism (or population control).


1. A is living in fear.

2. B is living in fear.

3. A and B are both living in fear.

4. Neither A nor B are living in fear.


If #1 or #2, what distinguishes the two?

If #4, what word would you use to describe them: “They are living in _______”



* * * * *


Person A says, “I don’t need to take precautions knowing that if God says it’s my time to die, it will be my time to die.” 


Person B says, “I am taking all the precautions I can knowing that if God says it’s my time to die, it will be my time to die.”


1. A is living in faith.

2. B is living in faith.

3. A and B are both living in faith.

4. Neither A nor B are living in faith.


If #1 or #2, what distinguishes the two?

If #4, what word would you use to describe them: “They are living in _______”



* * * * *


Other options:


·      We have not sufficiently wrested with, as Christians, what is appropriate and inappropriate fear within the Christian worldview. 


·      We have not properly defined faith, and what it means to live in it. 


·      There are a lot of assumptions about people’s motivations embedded in this.


·      We are not taking seriously the biblical tension of God’s sovereignty and human agency


And if these other options resonate with you, perhaps we should be more thoughtful – and even kind (!) - when we talk about the examples posted at the beginning. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, The African Preacher. Compiled and Written by Himself (1811)

I recently purchased African American Readings Of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation, by Lisa M. Bowens, Emerson B. Powery and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Beginning in the 1700’s, this book draws from personal narratives and historical accounts to uncover the religious dynamics of various eras in American history, focusing on how African Americans have handled the writing of the Apostle Paul in the face of often terrible misuses from the white population around them. 

Today I was reading a section recounting incidents from the life of John Jea as compiled in his narrative The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, The African Preacher. Compiled and Written by Himself (1811). Like all the stores from the slave era, it’s a heartbreaking read. The physical violence, dehumanization and humiliation coupled with purported ministers of the gospel butchering the Bible to enable slavery is really hard (but important) to read. One thing that stands out is how God brought the truth of His Word to life to the enslaved even in the midst of such overwhelming misrepresentation. 

Jea was born in 1773 in Old Callabar, Africa. He and his family were stolen, shipped to America, and sold as enslaved Africans in New York to a Dutch couple. The following contains excerpts pulled directly from the book. I am italicizing only Jea’s entries so as not to cause confusion with the book’s additional commentary. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Three Anti-COVID Vaccination Arguments I Understand (But Don’t Necessarily Agree With), One I Kind of Do, and One I Don’t


“The COVID-19 vaccine is morally compromised.” 

Christians (such as myself) have consistently wrestled with whether or not we formally or materially cooperate with evil if we use vaccines developed from the stem cell lines of aborted fetuses harvested in the 1970s and 1980s. Questioning the development (and testing) of COVID-19 vaccines is consistent with this concern. Because I share that concern, I’ve read numerous statements from church leaders and Christian bioethicists concerning the COVID-19 vaccines. Here is a short sampling:
Generally, Pfizer and Moderna get a green light; Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca get a yellow light tinged with red.  

So while I understand and appreciate the moral concern associated with COVID-19 vaccines, I believe there are at least two options that avoid the potential for immoral cooperation in a bad thing. 

The COVID-19 vaccine is unsafe.” 

There has long been concern over the introduction of vaccines into the human body, as there are often side effects.  With the COVID-19 vaccine, there is the additional concern over a) the speed in which the vaccines have been rolled out, b) the use of Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA rather than straight up approval, and c) the lack of time to do long-term studies on side effects. These all deserve serious responses. It’s not like the history of vaccines has been above reproach, and we have only had months instead of years to study the impact of the recent vaccines. 

From what I can tell, the speed in which these vaccines reached the public was the result of a number of things.