Sunday Meditations: Time to turn up the heat

It’s Martin Luther King weekend and there are a number of celebrations of his life and legacy happening around the country. My hope this weekend is that we let the truth in his words teach us, even when they condemn us.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

Austin Channing wrote powerfully this week about what she learned from Selma about the ways in which black women, in particular, are silenced. She encourages us to recognize the influence of evil when it comes against us and gives us wise ways to resist:

Ava let me watch MLK resist taking on responsibility for the deaths of civilians and hand it back to a government who refused to demand police protection over police brutality. Ava let me watch MLK remind the white power structure that the subject of the conversation was not the noise of the demonstrations but the lack of action on their part. Ava let me watch MLK strategically reframe every “legitimate” reason to stop. Ava let me watch MLK remain resistant not just in the big ways- huge demonstrations and soaring speeches. She let me see him on the phone, in meetings, in small rooms, in one-on-one conversations. She let me see him where I live my life, where I love the Church.

As you participate in holy resistance, I hope you, too, will be invigorated by these small but signifcant scenes. I hope you will see your role as quite political. I hope you will see yourself as capable of strategizing and reframing. I hope that you will own your power to see clearly. I hope that you will speak truth to power, fully embodied in who you are and what you have been called to do. I hope you let your little light shine.

It’s been a cold, hard winter so far for a lot of folks. And some of us are still sitting idly by, settling for passivity instead of intentional, active engagement.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

-Revelation 3:15-16

Let’s do the work of a thermostat and turn up the heat this week by working for justice. Go here to learn more about the work and demands of organizers and how you can help, join, and support them.

Clergy on Twitter are showing solidarity tweeting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #usemeinstead in response to this story about Florida cops using images of incarcerated black men as target practice.

My friend Caris put together some images of MLK quotes you can use on social media, too. Check them out.

Thanks, Caris!

Thanks, Caris!

Creative destruction: Ferguson, White Responses, and the Gospel

I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about the world Jesus was born into: a world where some Jewish people were exiled, others living under Roman occupation. The Jews in Israel were ruled by one of their own, a royal governor, whose allegiance to his people was never as strong as his allegiance to the Roman state, the source of his power. It is into this system our God comes in the flesh to dwell among humankind. His birth is immediately met with sweeping violence, the loss of a generation of young boys and babies because the mere existence of a Jewish Messiah was too great a risk for the governor to take. For this Emmanuel threatened to completely expose the king’s misplaced loyalty. Christ questioned the legitimacy of the king’s power simply through the defiant act of growing up, of surviving.

Our Emmanuel still comes to us in these times when young people lose their lives to powers that were supposedly installed to protect and serve justice.

KilledByCops_Infographic8Our Emmanuel still comes and flips over tables in our temples, asking us to consider what could possibly be more valuable than the human beings that bear His image? Surely not our places of commerce. Surely not the well-established disorder we absentmindedly worship. I think about the heat and rage in this image of Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple. I can’t imagine a more upsetting scene than a previously patient and peaceful teacher, a devout Jewish man, thrashing about and destroying property His people thought was sacred, devoted to God’s work.

141126065626-03-ferguson-1126-horizontal-gallery

The Jews were so used to this system. It’s just how it worked. This is how God wants it, right? It was painful to the most vulnerable, yet so familiar and entrenched it demanded cooperation. But Jesus wanted them to see it for what it was: a yoke of oppression. In Luke, He says, “The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” He delivered on that promise, but whether it was in the temple courts or on the cross where Jesus died, surely from the outside, it all looked like destruction.

Austin Channing wrote this week:

I serve a demonstrating Christ. Surely Christ could have stood on the steps of the temple, at the entrance and waved his arm toward the commotion. Surely he could have declared to anyone who would stop long enough to listen, “Do you see what is happening in there?” “Don’t you think someone should stop this?” Surely he could have taken his twelve from stall to stall and quietly pointed out each atrocity before his eyes. Calmly explaining his rationale to each seller, he could have ministered to each one persuading them to do what it right. Surely he could have been patient and kind asking each one to please leave the temple. Surely he could have used humor to catch people off guard. Or perhaps he could have waited- waited until the day was done, until Passover was done, until the Temple was done. Surely he could have… could have done anything other than demonstrate.

But I serve a Christ who disrupts.

In the past week, we’ve seen much agitation in our country. There have been intense and deliberate attempts to discredit the work and motives of the righteously indignant people of Ferguson. For months, for years, even lifetimes for some of them, these folks have been working for a new order that addresses historic and systemic injustices. Scripture says the enemy of God prowls like a lion. It warns us to be sober and alert. Twitter activists keep reminding all of us to #staywoke. I imagine the Enemy’s pace is quickening even now as we collectively and individually consider the possibility that this system we take for granted and call “order,” is in fact, white supremacy: an evil that must be uprooted in our hearts, our churches, and every human institution.

We are told in Scripture to get mentally and spiritually destructive about this:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭10‬:‭3-5‬ ESV)

Yet, I’m still seeing white Christians post this malarkey unchallenged by their white friends:

Image links to Organize Missouri's donation page for Ferguson protestors' bail fund

Image links to Organize Missouri’s donation page for Ferguson protestors’ bail fund

So when we see conversations about Ferguson take the ugliest of turns, we must respond with truth that affirms the humanity of all involved. We cannot congratulate any person on the taking of human life. Nor can we sit idly by while people are called or treated as “animals.”

Lord, be merciful, for we are quick to condemn that which we are slow to understand. I thought momentarily about prefacing this whole post with “I don’t condone rioting,” but I’m not going to dismiss what’s been happening that easily. The situation requires inquiry and empathy not qualification or pat denouncements. Such condemnations attempt to keep the pain and anger of this community at a distance, and it reinforces a respectability standard that is unjust and impossible for black people to maintain. Roxane Gay wrote this week:

If we were talking about the murder of my child, I would not be dignified. I would be naked and hideous with my grief. I would rage. If I were murdered in such a manner, I would want people to rage on my behalf. I would want to be remembered loudly, with fire. Such visible outrage could be its own kind of grace.

Don’t misunderstand those words. Violence is not the answer but neither is peace.

White supremacy has been pressing down hard for centuries. Sometimes, folks are going to push back hard, especially when little attention or recourse has been given for their pain.

I believe it’s going to take a lot more agitation before we see progress. The frustration may get worse before it gets better. I do not know if those of us new to the fight have the stamina for it. We are untested and unreliable. We have to be willing to push forward anyway. We have role models among us. Let’s get behind them and learn.

I have hope that things are changing because I know God stands with the oppressed. He kneels to wash their feet and bind their wounds. He does not condemn them even if, in the weakness of their humanity, they falter. He says, when you see them, you see me. What you do to them, you do to me. What you do for them and with them, you do for and with me.

But He doesn’t stop there because He offers hope and conciliation for repentant oppressors, like Paul and Zacchaeus too. He gives second chances and a new calling to those who, in their ignorance or despair, did not recognize Him even as He walked and talked with them for miles.

God’s justice is not [color]blind justice. The only scales in His hands are those He has lovingly removed from our eyes so that we can see our brothers and sisters, and fully commit ourselves to them. If things feel out of balance right now, ask yourself why. Could it be that God has come and is righteously wrecking the former things, so that He can show us once again, “behold, I make all things new.” Sometimes it’s good to be unbalanced.

Perhaps like Isaiah, when we recognize the image of God resting on our black brothers and sisters, we will rightly respond with Isaiah’s confession when he saw the glory of God: “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” It’s possible when we do that, He will invite us to join Him in the work He’s already doing.

May all of us who have been missing what God is up to in our day be made new in this generation to stand for justice alongside the oppressed.

**If you’re not already reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, start now.

Recognizing Systems of Racial Oppression

All week I have been thinking about our recent national election. We saw a shift in power from Democrats to Republicans, but today I’m more interested in looking at a shift we did not see. The Washington Post worked up some interactive graphics on the make-up of the new Senate, and it’s worth a hop to go play around and learn. Not counting a few pending race results, we still have only 20 women holding Senate seats. It doesn’t take a math genius to realize that 1 in 5 seats in a body that holds 100 is not an accurate representation of male to female ratio in America, but I digress on the gender questions (for now). What I want to look at here is this: “About 62 percent of Americans are white, but today more than 90 percent of senators are white. Only 27 racial and ethnic minorities have ever served in the Senate. All of the new senators elected in 2014 are white.”

We could attempt to draw conclusions about which party benefits from the whitening of the Senate, but the truth is, the Senate has long been pretty white, regardless of which party had a majority. So we see that in the halls of power in America, white people hold most of the positions. But let’s put a pin in that for a moment and look at the least powerful people in our society for a moment: the incarcerated.

incarc rate by race & gender - webLooking at this data, we see that the least powerful people in our societythose who have been stripped of their vote, their freedom to walk about and raise their familiesthe incarcerated, are overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color (and more specifically, black or latin@).

But these disparities are not limited to these spheres, we find them in education, health care, income, housing (including renting), to name a few. All of this is what racial justice advocates call “systemic” injustice. Systemic injustices produce consistently unjust outcomes for people of color in and through institutions (authoritative bodies: churches, government, corporations, etc.) and structures (social systems: criminal justice, education, social welfare).

In the U.S., our conversations about race tend to be about the individualized racism that occurs among individuals or small groups of people (this is one of the reasons we white people are all so terrified to admit we have biases). We are reluctant to zoom out and see the big picture forces at play. But in ignoring systemic racism, we dupe ourselves into thinking we’ve isolated racism and its effects to a few rogue individuals.

And like that systemic racism is gone

And like that systemic racism is gone.

The Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley says this about our hyper-focus on individualized racism:

Given the choice, I prefer a racist (prejudiced person) over a racist system 7 days a week! I can eventually find commonality with a racist on a human level and maybe even cause them to like or admire something about me. A racist system though, prevents equal opportunities on a grand scale for generations to come and it leaves the historic wrongs of the past undone. A racist system makes it seem normal to dehumanize the other. Once that happens, you can think or do anything to that person or group and justify it.

 Allen Mitsuo Wakabayashi argues in his book, Kingdom Come, that American Christians, in particular, have fallen prey to the idol of individualism:

As a boy, I was once told to insert my name in John 3:16 in the place of the word world. So John 3:16 says to me, ‘For God so loved Allen that he gave his only Son, so that if Allen believes in him Allen may not perish but have eternal life.’ While this wonderfully expresses God’s love for me, it distorts the true focus of the verse. God didn’t send Jesus to save just me. He sent Jesus to save the whole world…[The] tradition of the Western church, steeped in this individualism, has stamped its approval on narrow conceptions of the gospel that leave us living in ways that do little to change the society around us. Like my childhood rendition of John 3:16, our conceptions of the gospel have been infected by individualism.
When we see the Gospel as a purely individualized interaction, we see the problem of the sin of racism the same way. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe this in their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America:
White evangelicals, without any necessary intent, help to buttress the racialized society. Like their forebears during the Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races and getting to know people across races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present-day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not see or acknowledge the structures of racialization, the inadvertently contribute to them.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to address both the individual sin of racism as well as the collective, systemic injustices in which we live. Not only is this denial harmful to brothers and sisters of color, it prevents white people from living out and experiencing the fullness of the Gospel. Christena Cleveland writes:

[Many] of us who identify with privileged groups exclusively process information about Jesus in relation to our privileged self, our privileged experiences and our privileged social location. It’s no wonder that many privileged Christians wrongly believe that our understanding of Jesus needn’t heavily rely on oppressed people’s understanding of Jesus.  We’ve think we’ve pretty much got Jesus all figured out.

Further, we place a premium on voices that offer information about Jesus that we can easily process as self-relevant and that is easily integrated into our pre-existing knowledge of the world. And we naturally silence the voices offer perspectives on Jesus that challenge our worldview. We like going to conferences, schools and churches that cater to privileged folks. Privileged folks don’t like it when oppressed people get up front and make prophetic statements that threaten our privileged status.  Like the Pharisees in [John 9], the privileged are often blinded by a commitment to an unequal social order and unable to hear from the voices that are needed most.

So how do we move forward as Christians in pursuit of a holistic vision of the justice Jesus commanded in the Gospels? Drew Hart, writing at the Christian Century, shares a re-imagining of church and cultural life:

[It] is pretty evident that Jesus’ kingdom can be known by the manifestation of a community where the poor, lame, sick, and outcasts of society are centralized as honored guests. That is usually the meaning of Jesus’ frequent talk about the banquet table. James understood this as well, arguing that God chose the poor of the world to be heirs of the kingdom (James 2:5). So even when the kingdom of God is found and identified among a particular people gathered around Jesus, we know it is truly so when the last of society are now first. This means that Christian communities in the United States that always privilege white male, wealthy, or educated people hegemonically and hierarchically from the top-down, then they reflect communities in which the reign of God is being rejected for something more akin to the current oppressive social order. The eruption of the kingdom of God concretely in society is clearly tied to the socially marginalized being restored and honored at the center of the community, if we are to take Jesus seriously. Repentance is walking away from participating in the old social order and voluntarily embodying the life of Jesus and participating in the kingdom of God. That requires being in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and reconfiguring our social relationships according to his life and teachings, a radical vision of a reconfigured social arrangement.

This is tough work for people who have, heretofore, preserved systems of inequality through their denial, inaction, or outright complicity. But the hope of Christ can transform us and give us new direction. Christena Cleveland again:

But those of us who check our egocentric (and privileged) bias at the door and look closely at Scripture will see that oppressed folks have an epistemological advantage. We’ll see that the so-called “theologies of the oppressed” that are often relegated to the margins should actually be front and center in our conversations about Jesus. We’ll conclude that the people in our society with the most power are perhaps the least qualified to talk about Jesus. We’ll see that if we truly want to participate in this new, equitable reality that Jesus is creating, we need to allow Jesus to disrupt our inequitable systems that value privileged voices and ignore oppressed voices.

If we’re going to see God’s kingdom manifested in these ways, we first have to commit ourselves to seeing the fullness of the need by recognizing structures of oppression, and then bringing the fullness of the Gospel to bear in all aspects of our communities. It’s my prayer that those of us who are “colorblind” (and those of us who think God is colorblind) will have our sight restored by the power of Christ.

Still ranting after all these years

I realize that as an outspoken person, my passions for justice and feminism can often exasperate my friends and family. I recently wrote for the #faithfeminisms conversation about the fatigue and discouragement that comes with being the token soapboxer in the face of sexism or racism. While most of the time, hope that people can change keeps me going, every now and then, righteous indignation is the fuel that ignites a fire in my bones to talk about these issues. Today, I’m all lit up on both accounts, so be prepared for some flame-throwing ahead.

First, the hope. As I left church this morning, I saw a note from a former student of mine: a bright young man serving in our nation’s military. He sent me a Huffington Post article that had upset him (men care!) and he thought I’d have an opinion. The gist of it is in this comment:

North Carolina Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, who is running against Clay Aiken this November, urged the Republican Party, especially men in the party, to bring policy discussion “down to a woman’s level.”

“Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level,” Ellmers said. “Many of my male colleagues, when they go to the House floor, you know, they’ve got some pie chart or graph behind them and they’re talking about trillions of dollars and, you know, how the debt is awful and, you know… We need our male colleagues to understand that if you can bring it down to a woman’s level and what everything that she is balancing in her life — that’s the way to go.”

I don’t think I need to exegete everything that is wrong with these comments, but I will say this: we have 102 women in Congress, 82 in the House (3 of whom cannot vote on the floor because they are delegates). And this woman is one of our people. To put those numbers in perspective:

Thought I'd use pictures for Congresswoman Ellmers

Thought I’d use pictures for Congresswoman Ellmers

We make up about 18% of the House and 20% of the Senate and we’re 51% of the American population. Clearly women aren’t equally represented in our government. In fact:

The dreaded pie chart

The dreaded pie chart

Now for a lot of that time, we couldn’t even vote, so we’ll consider our current lackluster state of affairs to be progress. But how will we continue to make progress when women we choose to represent us think this way?

If I were reading this right about now, I’d probably be putting on my contrarian hat (one of my favorite hats) and arguing, “This woman is an exception, not the rule. Most of us don’t think this way. It’s easy to jump up and down when a prominent person says something idiotic like this.” And I’d agree with contrarian-me. But it’s been a bit of a week for me in this area, so indulge me.

At the same time that the hashtag for #faithfeminisms was gaining momentum, another internet movement emerged around a tumblr called Women Against Feminism, which features pages of photos of young women holding placards explaining why they hate feminism. Most of the opposition to “feminism” is misdirected and criticizes stereotypes instead of critiquing actual feminism.

A common misconception: feminism does not seek to replace patriarchy with matriarchy. PS- supremacy is the enemy, not men.

A common misconception: feminism does not seek to replace patriarchy with matriarchy. PS- supremacy is the enemy, not men.

In online conversations about this anti-feminism “movement,” I keep running into even more confusion about terms and definitions. This comment was a good example:

People don’t realize that feminism grew from a certain concept but that it really is just gender equality for everyone…not necessarily “womanism.”

This commenter clearly wanted to assert an affirming view of feminism, but in the process, she threw womanism (a concept she did not understand), under the bus. While we’re all struggling to learn the language, we have to show some grace to one another, but it is increasingly difficult to even have a conversation when people involved refuse to do their homework first. Emily Shire writes:

There is no question that Women Against Feminism is utterly and completely misguided in its understanding of what feminism is. But they aren’t only the ones. Feminism gets a bad rap, and people perceive the movement as meaning something very narrow and specific—and negative.

“I don’t need ‘feminism’ because I believe that men and women are EQUAL, not that women should belittle men.” Those posts hurt a bit more because they reveal how deeply misinterpreted feminism is.

An April 2013 poll found just 16 percent of men and 23 percent of women in America identify as feminists. The women behind Women Against Feminism aren’t exactly a minority. However, that same poll found 82 percent of all Americans agree with the statement “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” That’s the simplest and most accurate definition of feminism, but the movement has come to be seen as anti-men, liberal, radical, pro-choice, and many other things that it is not.

I struggle with this quite a lot, but I’m more convinced than ever that we need to keep talking and learning about feminism. Our society needs feminism and we perhaps need it most in our faith communities, where our misunderstandings of feminism and what it means to be human inhibit the spread of the Gospel: relegating women to second class, either by overt prohibitions of their voices and participation in ministry or by the implicit expectation that women are less competent to grapple with theology. Several of my Christian friends were posting the Women Against Feminism link with supportive, “Take THAT, feminists!” commentary. These misconceptions about feminism, and the perpetuation of those misconceptions have deep roots in our churches (particularly those that romanticize bygone icons of what womanhood should be).

We're movin' on up, y'all.

We’re movin’ on up, y’all. And by “we,” I mean, upper-middle-class, well- educated white women with high-earning husbands.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a godly man that I deeply respect for his knowledge of the Bible and His love for our community. During the conversation, the discussion turned to gender roles, and our culture in general. Initially, I was pleasantly surprised that our dialog was so affirming and esteeming of women as partners in the ministry of Gospel. After a while, though, his comments shifted, and at one point, he lamented “gender confusion” and the “emasculation of boys who care too much about their style of dress and the way they look.” He went on to say that such vanity was a mark of femininity, to which I replied, “I think that’s a mark of superficiality, not femininity. As someone who works in women’s ministry, I’m bothered when we don’t expect more depth from women.” He changed course, not sure of what to make of my comment, but it was made obvious to me that his understanding of masculinity and femininity and mine were very different, and that to him, vanity was not a vice, but a legitimate expression of womanhood.

This morning, I spoke to our congregation about how my daughter made a decision to follow Jesus this week at Vacation Bible School. I told them about how when she got a Bible at VBS, she brought it home and eagerly gave it away to a friend in the neighborhood that told her he didn’t know much of anything about Jesus. The boy’s mother and I had an extensive personal conversation about faith and our families, and I had hope that some seed was planted with the family. After the service ended, I had several women I admire approach me, not to celebrate our daughter’s decision of faith, nor to commend our family on taking a step in loving our neighbors well, but to tell me they saw me on stage and thought my new haircut was cute.

To be fair, my hair is looking pretty amazing these days, but there were bigger matters at hand this morning.

To be fair, my hair is looking pretty amazing these days, but there were bigger matters at hand this morning.

I’m sure these women were speaking from a place of kindness, and I took their comments as compliments. But, it struck me as odd that after what I shared, that this was what they wanted to mention to me.

I realize that in writing this or anything else, I’m always taking a risk that I’ll be branded as “oversensitive” or received with a “here she goes again!” Yet, when I consider that there are people in power who think women are too stupid to follow the news, or that there are people I love in my church who are too preoccupied with silly societal standards of beauty to see God’s grace in the woman in front of them, I think to myself, “we still need feminism.” As Dorothy Sayers wrote, in her brilliant essay, Are Women Human?

Perhaps it is no wonder that women were the first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them as ‘the women, God help us’ or ‘the ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words or deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.

We still need the feminism espoused in the Gospel because we have yet to view women as Jesus does. And I won’t stop ranting about that until we have our share of the pie.

I want all the whole pi.

I want the whole pi.