Friday, June 26, 2020

"In Prayer at the Place of the World’s Pain"

     On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace  be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

     Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  

-John 20:19-22 (NIV)

     At my alma mater, Harding University, the largest building on campus (I guess?) is the Benson Auditorium. George Benson was a longtime President of the university, responsible for much of the growth of the school in the middle of the twentieth century. Before that, he was a missionary in China. For much of his tenure at Harding, though, Benson resisted efforts to desegregate the school. Disregarding student and faculty pressure to integrate (to be sure, there would have been some pressure from the same directions to hold to the status quo), he refused to admit black students until 1963, when the impending Civil Rights Act would have required Harding to admit blacks or lose federal funds.

     Benson was well-known, in those days, for a line he often delivered when discussing integration: “The blackbirds and bluebirds, the blue jays and mockingbirds, they don’t mix and mingle together, young people!”

     Earlier this week I received a link to a petition for taking Benson’s name off the auditorium. 

     I’ve expected that for a while now, actually. Benson did good in the world. But he’s also a cautionary story that we all have feet of clay, that there are ways in which we all need to learn and grow, and that none of us get out this world without wreaking some havoc. (Not to mention that maybe we should tap the brakes on putting peoples' names on stuff.) Whether or not I signed the petition isn’t material here, but I understand why it was circulated. Removing Benson’s name wouldn’t negate the good he did for Harding, in the world, and in God’s kingdom. And to have it in big bold letters on the side of a building where students of all races are required to attend daily chapel is probably just too painful and too lacking in compassion for those who were refused entry, or who would have been under his presidency, just because of the color of their skin. 

     Recently, I’ve heard Christians react in anger that their pancake syrup is going to have a different name. Maybe that’s because it’s just easier and more comfortable for us to get angry about perceived slights than actual injustice and inhumanity. Maybe that’s why we get hung up on the tearing down of monuments and the renaming of buildings while essentially shrugging off the institutional mistreatment of human beings as “history.” But history isn’t neutral, and how we affirm or challenge history today says more than we’d like to admit, maybe, about who we are and how the history we’re writing will be viewed by our children and grandchildren.

     Harding’s current president has responded to the petition to rename the Benson Auditorium by saying, in part, “It is important, as we wrestle with the difficult issues of our time, that we not forget ‘weightier matters’  like justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” He seems to equate the question of what name will be on the Benson with the small issues of rule-keeping that Jesus mocked the Pharisees for. He doesn’t seem to recognize that what name students going to worship see on the building has everything to do with justice, mercy, and faithfulness. 

     But I think it’s easy for all of us to shrug and say, “Who really cares what’s written on the building?”or “What does pancake syrup have to do with racism?” when what we mean is “Who are you to make me feel uncomfortable?”  

    That, of course, is the wrong question.

     This week I also got to be part of a Zoom meeting with N.T. Wright.

     You probably don’t know Wright, so I’ll put this in a way you might get. If you’re a Cubs fan, imagine you get to sit in on a Zoom meeting with Ernie Banks. If you like baking, imagine those people from The Great British Baking Show. Wright is probably the best-known and most-read New Testament scholar in the world. I’ve struggled through most of his books, even the big thick ones. It was the coolest Zoom meeting I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in one with Barack Obama. 

     Wright was addressing a group of ministers and elders from Churches of Christ on the theology of the pandemic and racial tensions in our world. He started by saying (much more eloquently than I will) that the church is filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can be a kind of a case study in what life as God intends it should look like. That being the case, the church should have been a role model and an example of racial justice all along, not playing catch-up with the rest of the world out of shame.

    And then he went on to say, in reference both to matters of race and the fear and loss brought on by the pandemic: The church’s mission is to “be in prayer in the place of the world’s pain.”

     Instead of that, sometimes we try to defend buildings and statues and pancake syrup.

     Or we pass along conspiracy theories about why businesses are closed and we have to wear masks.

     Or we think we have to defend God or win arguments.

     I love that story in John where the risen Jesus finds his disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear. They’re terrified. Thomas is doubting. They’re sheltering in place trying to wait out uncertain times. And Jesus comes to them. He offers them peace. He sends them out to continue his work with the power of the Holy Spirit. He even condescends to their doubts. 

     Jesus comes when we’re afraid and doubting, hiding, trying to keep our heads down and our profiles low.

     Like now, in this pandemic. 

     Like now, in this turmoil over racial injustice that should have been dealt with years ago. 

      He comes and he shows us his hands and his feet and his side. He reminds us that he’s the same Jesus who was crucified for our fear, our doubts, and for our unresolved sins.  

      And then he fills us with his Spirit and sends us out to do his work in the world.

     He’s at the place of our pain so that we can be in prayer at the place of the world’s pain.

     So the last thing we should do is cope with the discomfort and fear we’re feeling by holding onto versions of the past that crowd out God’s work in the present. I think that’s part of our struggle; many of us aren’t used to living with this much fear and uncertainty. Feel it. Own it. Recognize it as part of existing in a broken world. (There are many voices that could teach us much about living with constant fear, aren’t there?)

     But also recognize Jesus. See the wounds on his body that testify to his love for this world - and also that love and sacrifice go together. Receive his peace. Receive his Spirit.

     Then go out into the world to do his work. 

     You likely won’t get a building named after you.

     Maybe the legacy you’ll leave in our world will last even longer than that.

Friday, June 19, 2020

On Seeing Color

     Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body,  so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free —and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 

-1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (NIV)

“I don't see color.”

     There was a time when I would have said that about myself and thought that would close the book on racism. There was a time when I thought that if everyone would just stop seeing color (like me), racism would just vanish. And I really did hope racism would just vanish, but considerably more than that I wanted to justify that at least I wasn’t racist. After all, I didn’t see color.

     But then I started noticing some things. 

     I didn't care for the way some people of color spoke and dressed. That wasn’t about seeing color, though, I told myself. It’s just that it doesn’t look or sound good. (Completely ignoring the fact that “good,” to me in this situation, meant “more like white people speak and dress.”)

     I started noticing, too, that everyone was saying they didn’t see color. No one was saying the opposite: “Yes, the first thing I notice is another person’s color, and I’m prejudiced toward them.” Every time the subject of racism came up — in school, with friends, at home, at work, at church — someone could be counted on to say it: “I don’t see color.” And everyone else would smile, and nod, and we’d move on to something more interesting as though we’d solved the problem right there.  

     Thing is, though: If no one sees color, why does racism still exist? 

     Someone is lying (or at least not being honest with themselves), and they do see color and are perpetuating all the racism in the world, or…

     Racism is bigger than that. It’s entangled in our society so deeply that maybe not seeing color is part of the problem, or…

     “Seeing color” has nothing to do with racism, or…

     All of the above.

     I don't want to speak for anyone, and if I’m wrong then I hope someone will correct me, but those who are protesting right now over the treatment of black people aren’t asking that we stop seeing color. They’re asking that we’ll please, please see color. They're asking that we’ll see not only an injustice that’s been carried out against people of color in our country for centuries, but that’s baked into everyday life, and that we’ll finally do something to correct it. They want the rest of us to see that people who are black, brown, red, and yellow are often not treated as equal to white people and that the only basis for that inequality is the color of their skin. 

     They want to be seen for who they are — including their color — and accepted as equals. Can you imagine how frustrating it must be for them to hear the rest of us say “I don’t see color?”

     I get it: you mean well by saying it. But I’m afraid saying “I don’t see color” is just another way of dismissing the problem of racism, waving it away as though it doesn’t apply to me and there’s nothing I can do anyway. 

     But, sure there is. I can see people of color. I can see who they are, including their color and their culture, and affirm that God loves them as much as he loves me and that I should love them too. And then I can go about loving them the only way you can ever really love anyone — by acting in their interests, even to the point of sacrificing my own.

     In Luke 7, Jesus is eating at the home of a prominent Pharisee when a woman “who had lived a sinful life” interrupts the proceedings to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet. It’s an impromptu demonstration of love that the Pharisee, Simon, predictably looks down on. Jesus tells a parable about how a keen sense of being forgiven awakens a fierce love, but Simon doesn’t seem to get the point. So Jesus drives it home by asking him, “Do you see this woman?” What he wants is for Simon to recognize that he has something to learn from this woman, and that his disdain for her and how she’s behaving has made him blind to really seeing her.

     Perhaps that’s true for some of us. Perhaps we need to see the hurt and pain of people of color — hurt and pain that they suffer because they are people of color — before we can learn how to love them.

     It’s funny, I would have thought back when I was saying “I don't see color” that I got that from the Bible. I might’ve quoted something like Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I might’ve snapped the Bible shut with a “that-settles-it” finality. 

     And I would have snapped it shut on passages such as 1 Corinthians 12. That one isn’t as easy to memorize as Galatians 3, but it’s pretty relevant. In that chapter, Paul is building on his idea that the church is the body of Christ, his physical presence in the world. He dwells at length on the point that human bodies don’t work well when all of the parts are the same. He says, “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” — his point being that it’s the same in the church. The parts of Christ’s body vary. They specialize. They’re unique, but united around a common life and purpose. 

     But hear the implications of that. One is that some parts of the body aren’t allowed to say to or about others, “We don’t need you!” (In the human body, we call that autoimmune disease. The history of the church shows that the body of Christ often suffers from autoimmune disease, too.) Get this: he says that, in the church as well as the human body, the parts that seem weaker are indispensable, and the parts that are perceived as less honorable are treated with special honor. And then this: “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

     If I read that text correctly, it says that the church ought to see color. We should see each other, and especially see the ways that people of color are treated as weak, less honorable, and less presentable. And then we should treat them with special honor, have equal concern for them as we do folks who have the same skin as we have, and suffer with them in the hope that one day soon we can rejoice with them.

     The problems of prejudice and racism seem huge, I know. But there’s hope because of the gospel. And the church — gospel people who are the presence of Jesus in the world — can and should be the one place that can show the world what it looks like when we really see each other, and then treat each other with love.

     What a colorful world that could be.


Friday, June 12, 2020

A Revolution of Washing Feet

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. 

-John 13:12-17 (NIV)

     Several years ago — nearly twenty now, I guess — I saw something at a ministry conference here in Chicago that’s

stuck with me all this time. I was at a seminar or workshop or something on racial issues, and at the end of the presentation, several black church leaders came up onto the stage and were seated. Several white church leaders then came to the stage with basins of water. Each knelt in front of one of the black church leaders and washed their feet. If I remember correctly, someone read John’s account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet aloud. 

     It was, to me, a light bulb moment that I probably should have had years before that: racism cuts against Jesus’ example of loving service. If we’re his servants, then we can’t expect to avoid the kinds of sacrificial love that our Master literally embodied. We should do for each other what Christ has done for us, and having skin of a different color doesn’t exempt us from that requirement.

     And the blessing isn’t in knowing these things; the blessing comes in doing them.

     I had tears in my eyes, as did many of us who were watching, as did the ones doing the washing, as did the ones whose feet were being washed.

     But I vividly remember the conversation around me after it was all over. Far from being touched by it, some in the audience were furious. They felt that they were being made to feel guilty for racism that went on long before them, for being white, even. But their anger felt all out of proportion. It was just a simple ceremony, one modeled by Jesus. I wondered what was going on under the surface that called forth that level of hostility.

     I thought about that because of a story I saw on social media this week. During a demonstration in North Carolina, a group of white civilians and police officers got together to wash the feet of black religious leaders. They all joined in a prayer of repentance for racial injustice. (This is biblical, by the way — you might remember that Nehemiah prayed to God in repentance for national sin that was going on long before his time. It isn't about taking sole responsibility for that sin. It’s about dragging it out into the open and announcing before God the intention for change.)

     Anyway — like at the conference 20 years ago, I was impressed by the simple and profound display of love, compassion, and humility that demonstration signified.

     Also like at the conference — some people didn’t see it that way.

     I saw the story because a social media acquaintance posted it with this caption: “I'm gonna tell you right now...I won't wash the feet of anyone... I don't care what color you are or what you think I owe you. This is just disgusting.” The acquaintance doesn’t really claim to be a Christian, so I can’t really hold that statement against him. If anything, I think he kind of gets it. Washing feet, in Jesus’ day or in ours, is not the way to promote your brand or gain influence. It’s the act of a servant. It was a privilege the wealthy and influential enjoyed at the expense of the poor and powerless. For someone in a position of privilege to wash the feet of someone of lower status was to overturn class distinctions. The disciples likely had a very similar view — that’s why Peter is so upset about Jesus doing it. It’s upsetting in our world for some of the same reasons.

     The other responses to the post were, if anything, even more telling: “Insane,” one person wrote. There were some that were equally (and literally) dismissive. And then this one: “…(I)t should be the blacks who wash the feet of the cops since they are the ones protecting them from each other,” which is so blatantly racist that it makes the fact that he was also complaining about the demonstrators asking forgiveness for something they didn’t do just drip with irony.

     So judging by the reaction, I think the demonstration was a very effective symbol of what it will take to challenge the settled racism that is still so much a part of our world.

     If you’re a follower of Jesus, then make no mistake; Jesus expects from you a radical love that flouts convention, overturns social hierarchy, and that will sometimes make people downright angry. Washing the disciples’ feet was just a shorthand for what his whole life had been about. At the cross, he knelt and washed the undeserving. He ate with the sinners and touched the lepers and in doing so insulted the prejudices of the pious. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” When we see racism in action, we can’t deflect responsibility by saying, “but I’m not racist.” Neither are we allowed to tut-tut from the sidelines. His example calls us to be servants instead of looking for another way to be served, and to serve in ways that might make others turn their noses up. 

     If you follow Jesus in this way, it will expose the prejudices in your own heart. (Don’t look so shocked and insulted; we all have them.) If you move into the world in the posture of a servant, sooner or later you’ll hesitate because you’ll be asked to serve someone that you don’t think highly of. You’ll have to ask yourself why serving them seems so especially repulsive; what are your perceptions, where do they come from, and how does following the example of Jesus in serving help to dispose of them?

     No, you didn’t create the racism in our world. But you don’t get credit for that. You don’t get credit, either,  for the ways in which you’ve personally avoided wallowing in its evil. You’re part of a world in which it’s entangled in almost every subject, every institution, every topic of conversation. Go into that world as a servant, determined not to look for privileges and credit, but to extend love, compassion, and kindness.  

     And, yes, there are times when that will look insane to the people around you, and they’ll say so. It happened to Jesus; one of the disciples whose feet he washed that night left the table and betrayed him. You’ll offend their sense of order, or your example will make them see a little too clearly what’s in their own hearts or disrupt the tidy sense they have of themselves as somehow superior. That’s OK, though, servants don’t answer to anyone but their Lord. Continue to go about your business, quietly and consistently. Your job isn’t to win arguments. It’s to serve like Jesus served. That’s awfully tough to argue with for very long.

     In fact, you might just find that the Lord is calling you to serve your toughest critics. If so, do it joyfully. Do it the best way you can, as you imagine Jesus would if he were here.

     Serving like Jesus won’t make racism go away overnight. But it will begin to undermine it, as those of us who have enjoyed a privileged position in our world exchange that position for servants’ work.

     Jesus promises we’ll enjoy a blessing when we do what we know we should.

     Maybe that blessing will be a world in which no one is excluded because of the color of their skin.     

Friday, June 5, 2020

Lives That Matter

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. 
-Isaiah 10:1-2 (NIV)

An ambulance came to the house down the street this week. There were EMTs bustling in and out. Someone came out on a gurney. I’m wondering why they didn’t do wellness checks at every house on the block. 
     Isn’t our health just as important?
     A few years ago, the police were in our yard. My wife knew one of them, and asked him what was going on. There had been a guy at the park down the street showing off a gun, and they were trying to find him. They had chased him into our yard. They found him hiding in one of our trash bins. The people who live around us had to have been wondering why the police didn’t check their bins for hidden fugitives too. 
     They must have felt like the police were playing favorites.
    The Bible, especially the Old Testament, emphasizes over and over the importance of caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners. Doesn’t seem fair, does it, that God seems so much more concerned for a woman whose husband has died or a kid without parents than he does for married women or kids with loving parents? 
     Married women and parented children matter, too.
     Jesus told a parable about a shepherd with 100 sheep. While 99 of them were safe and content, munching grass and hanging out with the shepherd, one wandered off. The shepherd, bigot that he was, left the other 99 sheep standing around while he chased down the one that wandered off. And he was happier to have found the lost sheep than he was about the 99 that stayed close.
     How do you think those 99 felt? If, you know, sheep could feel. 
     Ninety-nine lives matter.
     Of course they do. And so do the lives of married women and parented children matter to God.
     And of course the police are just as willing to protect our neighbors as they were us.
     And of course it matters if other people on our block are sick.
     The reason it’s unnecessary in every one of those examples to point out that the “others” matter too is that the others in those examples don’t need attention. My neighbor down the street had a medical emergency — not the whole block. We had a fugitive from the police hiding on our property — our neighbors didn’t. Widows and orphans in the biblical world were far more vulnerable than the rest of society, so they needed extra care that someone with family to stand up for them didn’t need. And those sheep on the hillside were OK, protected by their location and the rest of the herd. That one that had wandered off was in serious danger.
     We get that, of course.
      So maybe we can also understand why, when someone holds a sign that says Black Lives Matter, it isn’t necessary or even very helpful for the rest of us to shout “All Lives Matter!”
     The returns are in. The statistics are clear. The anecdotes line up. Black lives, in America, are in danger in ways that white lives are not. Black people are incarcerated far more frequently than are white people. Blacks, by some accounts, are 50% more likely than whites to experience violence or to be killed in interactions with police. 
     Blacks are more likely than whites to attend under-performing grammar and high schools. Blacks, when they complete college, are more likely to do so at an institution that’s less well-funded, less selective, and less well-resourced, and are more likely to receive certificates instead of Associate or Bachelor degrees. All of which contributes to lower representation in post-grad programs and certain professional fields. 
     We could go on spouting statistics, but listen to your black friends and you’ll probably hear stories of unjust treatment — mockery and bullying, discrimination at work, at school, loans denied, white people crossing the street to avoid them. You’ll hear about family members buried before their time, and about their fears that the warnings and advice they give their own children won’t be enough to protect them. And, of course, you’ll get an education on the dangers of jogging, driving, traveling, shopping, and doing business while black.
     But you probably don’t even need all that to know that black lives are in danger in a way that white lives are not. All you probably need to do, if you’re not black, is to ask yourself one question: “If I could, would I want to become black?” Probably not, at least in part because we know that life in America in 2020, over a century and a half after slavery ended and over 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, is harder if you’re black. 
     To say “black lives matter” isn’t to say that other lives don’t. It’s to say, “Black people need allies.” They need the people who have oppressed them since their ancestors were brought to America against their will to stop. They need people who benefit from the injustices committed against them to see what’s happening and use their voices to speak up for black lives. They need to be given equal access to the benefits of living in America, equal respect as human beings, and equal protection from danger. That isn’t playing the victim — black people in America are and have always been victims of injustice. For all the wonderful things about our country, that’s the great sin of which we’ve never really repented.
     So if we need to be reminded to care for widows and orphans, then surely it isn’t too much to ask that those of us with the most privilege and power in our world would stand up for those with less. 
     Surely it isn’t too much, especially for those of us who are believers, to show that black lives matter to us by speaking out against racism when we see it — even when it’s in our own neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, families, and hearts. Even if it costs us professionally or financially, or loses us friends or supporters or clicks.
     That assumes, of course, that we can see it. Too often we can’t. We tend to look at racism as an individual matter, and it’s rare that someone comes out and admits their actions come from racism. That’s where we may have to trust our black friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. That’s where we’ll have to look more carefully so that we can see racism as an evil that’s entrenched in the machinery of our society. 
     Those who believe in the God who looks after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner can’t really think that he doesn’t see the ways in which laws and decrees that benefit some of us are unjust and oppressive to others of us. We can’t really imagine, can we, that he won’t hold us accountable for the ways in which we’re complicit in that injustice and oppression, even through willful ignorance?
     May we, those of us who worship the God who is a Father to the fatherless, be friends to those in our day who are most in need of friends. 
      May those of us who claim salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus, who came proclaiming a rival kingdom whose ethic was radical love, show that same sacrificial love to those who have most often experienced hate for nothing more than their race.
     And may those of us who say the Spirit lives in us be led by that Spirit to breathe his peace into our world.
     And may we finally, belatedly, believe that God treasures the black lives that we have callously thrown away.