Monthly Archives: June 2015

More Window Dressing

When I was nine years old and in the third grade, I ran for student body treasurer (a symbolic office if there ever was one). I did manage to win, owing to an inane campaign speech that must have stuck in the minds of my schoolmates. What the administration had not told me when I placed my name on the ballot, however, was that they were about to implement a major redistricting plan in the fall, which would mean my having to attend a different school and not being able to serve my term. The day following the election, in the usual cowardly and patronizing manner of most power structures, they did not bother to contact my parents but broke the news to me directly, offering me instead a 15-cent ice cream cone.

When I arrived home with the news, my mother hit the ceiling and got on the phone. Ice cream or no ice cream, she wasn’t going to stand for it. My mom was normally a gentle person, except when it came to her kids. Then she could exhibit the strength of a she-bear. She got on the phone and would not let go of the bone until I was promised a special dispensation. Needless to say, I served as treasurer. I relate this incident, not because of its overwhelming significance on the scale of injustice, but because it conveniently and ridiculously illustrates how power structures operate.

It seems to be a favorite pastime of governments to try to address deeply entrenched injustices in the most cheap and superficial ways possible (or in other words, not to address them at all). On the heels of race rioting here in the 1960s, for example, many municipalities offered (grudgingly) to change the names on street signs. So across America, at least in the cities with large black populations, Main Street became MLK Boulevard and Washington Avenue was renamed Malcom X Drive. Much cheaper to spend several thousands on new metal signs than to address the real and cruel economic inequalities stemming from racism.

Now, the U.S. Treasury is proposing putting a woman’s face on the $10 bill, a move that, ironically, would depose Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and father of modern banking. Some have balked that the $20 bill would be a more appropriate target, since it has long sported the portrait of perhaps our most racist President, responsible for the genocide of tens of thousands of Native Americans. Replacing Jackson’s portrait with that of Shoshone heroine Sacajawea, who guided Lewis and Clark, would certainly be a mild form of poetic justice, but hardly addresses centuries of systemic injustice. More like too little too late.

The problem is that the $20 bill is widely used in stores and ATMs, and so makes up about 22% of bills in daily circulation (compared to about 11% for the $10). That’s probably why a patronizing Treasury is willing to throw Hamilton, its founder, under the bus (he’s already dead. after all), rather than risk having a woman’s face flying out of cash machines. Still, the latter alternative would be vastly cheaper than seriously addressing, say, issues of economic inequality between the sexes.

Since last week’s horrible massacre at a Charleston church, we have seen the Confederate flag lowered for the last time at the South Carolina state capitol and thrown off Walmart store shelves. I realize the gesture is a good idea (about 150 years over due, but still a good idea), since the flag (like the swastika) has long been a rallying symbol for racism. It is a small but necessary start. But like the other cases, such appeasement alone is a largely symbolic and inexpensive attempt at addressing deep-seated inequality in this country. Certainly, a far cry and billions cheaper than making reparations to African-American families harmed by slavery and Jim Crow.

In Luke 11 Jesus gives a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees : “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs!” He was right, of course. Laying an annual wreath on MLK’s tomb is always much cheaper and more convenient than searching our hearts, helping to empower the powerless or sharing the wealth, which is what King stood for to begin with.

God grant us the strength and true repentance to see justice through to the end and not to accept mere window dressing.

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The Earth Is the Lord’s

[Last week Pope Francis, true to his name, issued his long-awaited encyclical on the environment. For those who are interested, the Washington Post published these helpful cliff notes. In honor of the Pope’s courageous stand, I am reposting a blog I wrote a while back. Hope you enjoy it.}

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all who live in it.—Psalm 24:1

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.—Genesis 1:26-28

Around midnight on December 4th, 1984 in Bhopal, India, a highly poisonous gas, methyl-isocyanate (MIC), leaked from a factory owned by Union Carbide. People were awakened by the sound of their neighbors’ screams, as the gas spread through the city choking them and burning their eyes and lungs. Many panicked, taking to the streets to flee. Author Annie Leonard describes the horror in her book The Story of Stuff. It must have seemed like the end of the world, or a scene from The Last Days of Pompeii, as families were separated and people began suffocating and dying in the streets from the noxious cloud.

When it was over, as many as 8,000 people, men, women and children, were dead, many of the bodies never identified or counted as the government quickly buried them in mass graves. Another 12,000 have since died from the lingering effects and health issues related to inhaling the MIC. Many believe that had the Union Carbide plant officials been forthcoming about what was happening at the time and shared valuable information about how people could protect themselves (such as covering their faces with a wet towel), many lives would have been saved. Yet the plant’s initial reaction was to deny that there was any leak at all. It was later found that the safety and refrigeration systems, which would have prevented the disaster, had been switched off—to save money.

Twenty-five years later the company still refuses to share anything about the chemical that might help victims who are still suffering. They claim that MIC’s properties are a proprietary secret (just like Coca-Cola). To this day many toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant site continue to leak into ground water, which the local population depends upon for drinking.[i]

Environmental crises, such as climate instability due to global warming, as well as catastrophic losses in ecosystems and the pollution of air, soil, and water, are also issues of justice. Because the poor are particularly vulnerable to changes and devastation in the natural environment, they are usually the first to suffer from the reckless decisions, carelessness, and rapacious greed of industrialized nations and their multinational corporations.[ii] Poorer countries are already paying the price for our addiction to fossil fuels by being forced to use funds traditionally slated for development and infrastructure to combat the effects of climate change: drought, floods, and other natural disasters—costs that ought to be covered by the wealthiest nations, who are the biggest polluters.

If global temperatures continue to rise, exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) over pre-industrial levels, the effects on developing nations, especially in Africa and Southern Asia, will be catastrophic—resulting in millions of displaced people, according to a report by the World Bank. Since God’s heart is always tuned to the cries of the poor, such environmental crises ought to be a focus of prayer and activism for all Christians. As he states in Isaiah 56:1, “‘Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.’”

The passage in Genesis 1 quoted above can cause (and has caused) a lot of trouble in interpretation. At first glance the language sounds rather violent. The words subdue, rule or have dominion over sound like the language of conquest. Not surprisingly, some Christians have used these very verses to justify a highly exploitative, profiteering, slash-and-burn policy toward the earth. In fact, dominion thinking has become so associated with the worst excesses of capitalism that some environmental groups blame the Judeo-Christian God for our problems: If he had not written those verses, the earth would not be in this mess! It’s nice to have someone big to blame—someone even bigger than Union Carbide—but God is not responsible for human sin or our misuse and abuse of his Word.

One basic rule in interpreting Scripture is that we should never take a verse out of context and run with it. Every word in the Bible has a literary, cultural, and historical context, and every verse must be weighed with its context against the whole counsel of Scripture.

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Does it mean we look like God, that there is some kind of family resemblance? Or is it something more to do with God’s character, a moral or spiritual quality? These are important questions, because how we answer affects everything we do and value as human beings.

In the culture and language of the ancient Near East, the phrase image of God had a very specific and recognizable meaning. When people heard it, they would not have looked puzzled as we do today. To the pagan cultures of that world, there was only one person, a single human being, who was the image, the earthly visible representation, of their god. That was the king, or pharaoh. He was the image of god, the closest thing to god on earth. He was responsible for ruling in the god’s place and for exercising justice, promoting law and order, protecting and bringing prosperity to his people.

Now imagine that you are a Hebrew slave, born in Egypt. You have had it drummed in your ear since birth by your Egyptian masters, “This is Pharaoh. He is the image of god—you are but a lowly slave.” Now suddenly, you are freed from captivity, and your God, the one and only God, informs you that all human beings—not just one, but all, both male and female—are made in the image of God. What would you think? Quite a radical paradigm shift! And what an awesome responsibility! As creatures created in his likeness, you would be responsible for taking care of creation, ruling over it as God would himself.

Far from giving us license to abuse and misuse God’s creation for our own selfish purposes, this passage, in its proper context says that, yes, we were given the earth to rule and not for ourselves, but for God. We are his vice-regents, responsible and accountable to him, as a viceroy is responsible for keeping order, caring for a country, and representing the interests of the king who sent him. So we are responsible for ruling as God would rule.

And how would God rule?

He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
 There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the hyrax. (Ps 104:10-18)

Psalm 104 shows us that God cares for, provides for, and watches over every living creature he has made. And blessed are we when we understand that our power to rule is given, not as an absolute right, but in trust, and that our job is to govern as God would govern: benevolently, generously, with special care and concern for the poor and weak.

Let me point out another scripture that helps further establish the context of Genesis 1:

Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being…The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2.7,15).

The Hebrew verb translated here to work or tend means to “serve,” and in this context, to “till” or ”cultivate.” The verb to care for means “to exercise great concern for, to guard, to watch over”—the same word used to characterize the Lord’s relationship with his people: that he watches over them with care, love, and concern. Thus, in the second chapter of Genesis, we have a good illustration of exactly what God means in Chapter 1 by saying that we shall “rule and have dominion over the earth and its creatures.” We are God’s servants, to care for what he has created. That is context.

Setting the Record Straight

Regarding our relationship with creation, there are three major untruths, or misconceptions, that have infiltrated the church. First, that the creation account shows that God gave human beings control of the earth to use and treat as we see fit—in short, that the earth is ours. As we have seen already, such an interpretation does not hold water. One might even say it is blasphemous. Psalm 24 clearly states, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who dwell in it.” The earth is not ours; the Bible never says it is. And just how do we treat something that is not ours? If you borrow something from a friend, do you return it broken or dirty? No, you treat it with care and respect. How much more when the person who owns the property is God!

Would it have made sense for God to say to Adam and Eve, “Here is the earth, I’ve taken great care in creating it, and I’m delighted with everything in it. Now I’m entrusting it into your hands. Go and ruin it, completely destroy it, make a pig’s breakfast out of the whole thing”? How can we say we love God and then trash what he has made? Yes, subduing the earth does involve our wrestling at times with the wildness of nature, in taming it and cultivating it, or plumbing its secrets, but always with respect, knowing it is not ours. If you had someone house-sit for you and you returned home to find the place strewn with garbage and human waste, how would you feel?

The second misconception is the idea that care for the environment is a form of pagan idolatry or earth worship. There are many environmentalists who are not Christian. There are even some who do worship the earth. Environmentalism has in some circles become entangled with new age practices, or neo-paganism. Why is that? Because God’s people, who should be the first to lead the fight to protect the earth from devastating overdevelopment and help species that are endangered, have for too long abdicated their role, too long been silent—and not only silent but at times complicit in the raping and pillaging of God’s creation, all in name of the almighty bottom line. There has been a leadership vacuum, and someone had to fill it. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, author of The Purpose Driven Life, says that caring for creation should be a “no-brainer for Christians.” It’s just basic. It’s not pagan. Yes, there are people who worship the earth, but that is not what we are talking about. Caring for something, exercising responsibility for something entrusted to you is not worship. We care for our children or our pets; we feed and protect them; we are responsible for them. Does that mean we worship them?

Did you know that Earth Day (April 22), now a U.N.-sponsored international celebration which seeks to create deeper awareness of the degradation of the earth, has Christian roots? It was the brainchild of John McConnell, a deeply committed Pentecostal Christian, who believed that human beings have a responsibility to care for God’s creation and to share its resources in an equitable manner. In the 1930s McConnell worked in a plastics factory and became appalled at the effects of the new industry on the environment. His appreciation for the earth and concern for its protection was also a natural outgrowth of his Christian commitment to peace and love.

A third and highly popular misconception is that it doesn’t matter what we do with the earth, since it’s all going to burn up anyhow. This idea is so widespread it’s frightening. It seems a rather perverse assumption drawn from a kind of hyper-premillennialism, a nineteenth-century doctrine that believes Jesus is going to return prior to a literal thousand-year reign on earth. Premillennialism is based on a particular, and very literal reading of a passage in the Book of Revelation.

Now, if we are going to be dogmatic about something, it would be smart if we were dogmatic about something that the Bible is dogmatic about. In other words, it is dangerous to build doctrines on one verse in the Bible that is hard to understand or open to various interpretations. Jesus is going to return; there is no debating that. The Bible is clear. Yet it is not clear about exactly when. Will there be a literal thousand-year reign on earth after he returns before the last judgment? We do not know for sure. Will he return after a thousand-year reign of his kingdom (as the postmillennialists believe), or is that thousand year reign more symbolic of the age of the church (as the amillennialists hold)? Theologians have argued over these questions for centuries. The bottom line is that we do not know for sure. All we know for certain is that Jesus is coming back. And we need to be careful that how we interpret Scripture does not justify our treating other people or the earth with indifference or disrespect. If it does, that is a sure sign that we are off track, not walking in the footsteps of Christ.

How does God feel about those who plunder and destroy creation? Here is a verse in Revelation that is frequently (or conveniently) overlooked.

The nations were angry, and your wrath has come.

The time has come for judging the dead,

and for rewarding your servants the prophets

and your people who revere your name,

both great and small—

and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

(Rev 11:18, italics mine).

I wonder why we do not take that literally. We should.

A Liberal Concept?

In my first chapter, I mentioned that Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has received a great deal of criticism from the European press for his outspokenness about environmental issues. (Kermit the Frog is right. “It’s not easy being green.”) He has come under criticism from governments and the corporate sector, who complain that he has embraced “the liberal agenda” or that he is against “progress.” Yet, caring for the earth is not just a liberal concept, or a political one; it is a biblical mandate. And we should not be ashamed to carry the banner high and speak out. So what if someone calls us a bunch of “tree-huggers”?

There is a fascinating but frequently overlooked detail in John’s Gospel. On that first day of the week, when Mary Magdalene stood outside the empty tomb weeping, she met Jesus. Only she did not realize at first that it was Jesus. She thought it was the “gardener” (Jn 20:15). Coincidence? Jesus’ resurrection was the first act of God’s new creation, the renewal of all things. And as the New Adam, Jesus might appropriately be called The Gardener par excellence. How does the Gardener feel about people who trash his garden?[iii]

For some reason—God knoweth how—many believe that to be for the environment is to be against progress. If by progress one means the careless and wholesale devastation of the earth in pursuit of profit, then yes, we ought to be against that. But that is not the definition of progress. That is just selfish greed. Progress is something that brings benefit to all humanity, not just a few; it profits posterity as well, not just one generation. Destroying the earth to line the pockets of a handful of CEOs and investors is not progress.

Speaking of creation care, the Orthodox Patriarch noted that the church has always held that our relationship with the natural world must involve a “voluntary restraint,” which the early church called enkrateia, or “self-control”:

By reducing consumption we ensure that resources are left for others in the world….Our sin toward the world – the spiritual root of all our pollution—lies in our refusal to view life and the world as a sacrament of thanksgiving, and as a gift of constant communion with God on a global scale….If human beings treated one another’s personal property the way they sometimes treat the environment, we would view that behavior as antisocial.[iv]

When we are in right relationship with God, we treat all of his creation, including other human beings, with dignity, reverence, and respect. Whether Jesus returns in five minutes or five centuries, we take care of the earth until he returns. “Why?” someone might argue; “it’s just going to be destroyed anyway!” Yes, and if we keep going the way we are headed, it should be destroyed fairly soon.

We take care of the earth and its creatures out of gratitude, thanksgiving, love, and respect because they are God’s, just as we are responsible for treating our fellow human beings with love and respect because we each bear the divine image.

Some Solutions

Practically speaking, what are some things we can do? Here are a few ideas:

We can pray and ask the Lord to show us ways in which we have misused his creation, and then repent, turn around, head back in the right direction. We can begin to practice restraint, self-control in our use or consumption of natural resources (water, oil, gas), products like plastic that pollute the earth and oceans, and paper, which has a high environmental price tag. We can educate ourselves about the real cost of the things we consume. We know, for example, the price of a hamburger, but do we consider the real cost? Producing a pound of factory-farmed hamburger causes more pollution than driving your car for three weeks. Cows raised in industrial lots produce millions of tons of waste, which contaminate our water supplies. You mean you can put a dollar value on all that? Yes, you can. When all is tallied, that burger could well cost hundreds of dollars. Of course, those costs are not passed on to the consumer—until later.[v]

Next, we can buy locally grown produce and support local farmers. This not only saves on transportation costs (i.e. pollution); it also supports the local economy. We can also use green cleaning products, detergents, pesticides and fertilizers. Product manufacturers are often not required to list ingredients, and for good reason, since many are neurotoxic, hormone-disrupting, and carcinogenic. Then they get dumped into our waterways!

Lastly, we need to take a stand against greed and work for climate and environmental justice. We can talk about these from our pulpits, in Bible study classes, our schools, and around our dinner tables. We can speak out against “legislated greed,” laws that shamelessly favor the major polluters of our world: the fossil fuel industries, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), and industrial agriculture. Did you know that factory farms, or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are not only cruel to animals, but also responsible for up to 51% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide—not to mention their polluting our soil and water supplies?[vi] Merely switching to grass-fed beef could significantly slow global warming.

James Speth, the dean of Yale’s School of Environmental Studies and the first scientific adviser to the U.S. President on climate change, said,

I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, something we scientists don’t know much about. Maybe it’s time for us scientists, including those who are not religious, to work together with people of faith to help that along. [vii]

Sounds like we are needed, Church. The world needs us to speak up. After all, we have the answer, don’t we?

Read More

[i] Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, (New York: Free Press, 2010), 90-91.

[ii] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 57.

[iii] Wilson, 57.

[iv] His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, “A Changeless Faith for a Changing World.”

[v] Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, (New York: Picador, 2009,) 44.

[vi] Zack Kaldveer and Ronnie Cummins, “Food, Farms, Forests and Fracking: Connecting the Dots,”
Organic Consumers Association, (9 May 2013).

[vii] Wilson, 59-6

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Just Decent Folks

[While the nation mourns the victims of another mass murder and our racial divide is once again in the headlines, it might behoove Christians to contemplate why, when our society has made some modicum of progress in racial desegregation, most of our churches have not. Honestly, walking into most churches these days is like stepping into some kind of time warp. At the risk of repeating myself, I thought it appropriate to reprint part of a chapter of my recent book Christ Held Hostage: the Hijacking of American Christianity. Hope it challenges you.]

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.—Revelation 7:9

“I hate it,” our little one protested, as she listed her reasons why she refused to go to Sunday School that morning. “It’s boring,” she continued. “No one plays with me!” she added. We were still not impressed. Then, like Clancey, she lowered the boom, blurting out tearfully, “I’m the only one with brown skin!”

Since moving to the American South, my family and I had attended many churches in our effort to find a spiritual home. The churches we visited were all filled with sweet, hospitable people who could not have been more welcoming to us, as a white couple with a bi-racial child. There was just one problem: all of these churches were either white or black.

It was difficult enough trying to sift through the hundreds of good churches in our city. We knew we would not find a perfect one. But having to settle for an all-white or all-black church (we visited both) seemed just plain wrong.

Finally, we thought we had found a church. It seemed like the right decision at the time. Then our daughter gave us that wake-up call to jolt us out of our complacency. As a father I felt both frustration over the racial ossification that so often strides hand-in-hand with Christianity in this country, and conviction over my own complicity in both the wider problem and my daughter’s pain.

In response to a question as to why the church was not taking more of a lead in the struggle for desegregation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked with sadness,

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning, when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.[i]

Fifty years later, one wonders if we have made all that much progress. Today, 93% of U.S. churches are still basically segregated—meaning that more than 80% of their membership represents a single race or ethnicity.[ii] Churches here are also ten times more segregated than their neighborhoods—twenty times more than the public schools![iii]

Living in the South, where the subject of race is rarely broached among middle and upperclass whites, one meets few people these days who seem openly “racist.” So what is the problem? The difficulty is that, today, racism across this country is more often tacit than stated, complicit than active. It is expressed more in what we do, where we live, the relationships or schools we choose, than in what we say or consciously believe. Ironically, this form of racism is more prevalent among the most educated segment of the population—those who would least consider themselves to be racist—since affluence affords people more options regarding where they live and where they send their children to school. In his landmark study, Michael Emerson calls this phenomenon an example of racialization. Racialized societies produce disparate social outcomes for different racial groups.[iv]

How is it that in the twenty-first century, Christians, of all people, can still be so comfortable with the status quo of racial segregation? What seems most shocking is not that there are white churches and black churches, but that most of us seem content with the arrangement!

Some contend that racial segregation in our churches is merely the result of different cultures and worship styles, that human beings are by nature more comfortable associating with those who are like themselves. Others in church-growth circles even go so far as to tout racial homogeneity as a major factor in church growth. Yet in a nation such as ours, with our obvious and painful history of racism, how can we claim that prejudice has no significant role in producing such outcomes? Or how can we deny statistics that show Protestant churches leading all other denominations, and indeed all other religions, in racial segregation? (According to Emerson’s 2006 estimate, only 5% of Protestant congregations are multiracial, compared to 15% of Catholic and 28% of non-Christian.)[v] While many larger congregations are making inroads into the problem and there is hope for change, we cannot escape the fact that half a century after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, America’s churches have relatively little to show for it.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963), Dr. King writes:

…[T]he Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will…We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

People of good will. Just plain, decent folks. Where would the world be without us? We are the mainstay of every culture, a bulwark against moral depravity and anarchy. Yet ironically, these same quiet, decent souls are the very backbone of racism in this country—always have been and always will be. Frothing segregationists and white robed supremacists may capture the headlines, but in the end they are but a carnival sideshow compared to the mighty, destructive power of the decent folk like me, whose pressed white shirts and green lawns mask a savage indifference, a ruthless, murderous passivity. Slavery could not have endured so long without us, so warmly tucked into our beds in North and South. Jim Crow could not have kept its iron talons so firmly embedded for nearly a century. Eight million Jews could not have been so tidily eliminated without the blind complicity and willful ignorance of us, the infantry of inertia, the stalwarts of the status quo.

There are many kinds of racism. There is the loud-mouthed, ignorant, bullying kind, like Commissioner Bull Connor, who loosed attack dogs on little black school girls. There is the cowardly kind, who move in packs at night protected by white sheets. There are those possessed of a dangerous eloquence that can sway millions. Yet none of them could last a day without the silent blessing, apathy, or votes of us decent folks, whose passive kind of racism outsmiles, outlabors, out-Herods all the rest.

Ethnic and Cultural Prejudice in the New Testament

The Lucan narratives in the New Testament are filled with questions and confrontations about racial or cultural prejudice. Jesus seems to enjoy making Gentiles the heroes of many of his stories and healings, a choice he knows will infuriate his fellow Jews. Clearly, he sees his prophetic role is not to massage his listeners’ prejudices, but to explode them. We have already seen how his Parable of the Good Samaritan flies in the face of ethnic hatred.

In Acts 10, even after receiving a clear vision from the Lord, Peter visits the Gentile home of a centurion somewhat grudgingly, and he is not silent about how uncomfortable he is. In his daring letter to the church at Galatia, Paul does not shy from exposing how this “pillar of the church” conducted himself among Gentiles: at first Peter freely ate and drank with them, but then pulled back when a fact-finding delegation from Jerusalem arrived. Even the Chief Apostle learns that prejudice is not something one can merely set aside; it must be crucified.

In Acts 6, Greek-speaking widows are being overlooked by an Aramaic-speaking church, and the decent folks who know about it apparently do nothing to stop it. For the average Palestinian Jew, who spoke Aramaic, there was something inferior, untrustworthy, un-Jewish about diaspora Jews who spoke Greek. For centuries little Judea had struggled to maintain its cultural and religious independence amid the brutal collision of empires—struggled and lost. These Hellenistic Jews, with their Greek language, dress, and customs, seemed barely a step away from being Gentiles.

Faced with a crisis, it may seem that the apostles merely pass the buck to a committee. Yet the larger church shows itself both decisive and farsighted in their choice of disciples to form this task force. Looking at the list of names (6:5), it becomes immediately evident that every one of them is Greek-speaking—a clear statement that the Jerusalem church would not tolerate such intolerance.

Today, we would probably see no need to take such “drastic” action. We might make sure that there is at least “some minority representation” on our committees, while keeping the majority unmistakably in charge. Not the Jerusalem church. They gave the minority 100% representation! They understood that the issue was not just one of language or culture; it was about power. They put a stop to the injustice by turning the power over to the disempowered!

Many white churches in America are painfully aware of the problem of Sunday-morning segregation but have no actual strategy to change it. If they are waiting for that day when twelve families of color magically walk through their doors, they will be waiting a long time.

Recently, I performed one of the most painful exercises I have ever undertaken. (No, I am not talking about barbell lunges.) In an effort to find a local church with a more racially diverse congregation, my wife and I went through almost the entire phone directory and looked up the various churches on the internet. Websites can be very revealing. Photos even more so. For example, a friend had recommended a certain large church downtown, claiming that an inner-city church must surely have a diverse body. We looked at the church’s website, but saw no evidence of people of color in the photos. Not one. Then we looked at the church staff page and realized why. I am sorry to say that of the twenty or so ministry and administrative staff positions, all of them were filled by white people. Every single one. The only people of color were on the custodial staff. (If you spent the time to scroll down to the bottom of the page, past the elderly lady who makes the sermon CDs, you might see them). What a statement! Sadly, in many parts of America, this is only too common.

As white pastors, why would we expect a person of color to feel welcome or comfortable in our churches if we make no effort to reflect diversity in our staff, or at the very least in our worship team, announcements, or what we present from the altar? Progress in this area, or the lack of it, speaks volumes about what we value as a congregation.

Regardless of what one thinks about President Obama’s performance in office, or his credibility problems among communities of color, we cannot get away from the fact that electing a black president for the first time in our nation’s history has been a powerful and empowering precedent for African-Americans. It has begun to shatter centuries of paralyzing racism that claimed such positions of power as a white privilege.

Some pastors of white churches may complain that there are no people of color in their congregations to promote to levels of leadership. That is rather a passive argument. But let us suppose we have done all we can to reach out to and attract minority communities without results. Another option would be to hire someone. Why is it we can employ a janitor with dark skin, entrusting him with all the keys to the building, but we cannot add qualified persons of color to our staff? Or even hire someone to make announcements from the pulpit, or lead worship? Of course, if we really want to follow the Acts model to the letter, we could make all our deacons people of color in one sweep! Too drastic? All right. But I wonder if we truly grasp the gravity of our situation. If our churches were on fire, would we not do whatever we could to extinguish the flames? Racism, even the passive variety, is a deeply rooted issue; it requires a deeply radical approach. And remember, the key is giving away power.

One church in Orlando, Florida has experienced explosive growth in addition to breaking down the color barrier. The congregation had been mostly white and middle-class until they decided they wanted to be more inclusive. They began by reaching out to people of color. Yet once inside the door, the visitors were invited to do more than fill seats. They were encouraged to serve in positions of responsibility. “It’s not ‘I love you and sit down,’” said the pastor. “You let them be in leadership.” Within five years the church quickly grew to about 50% minority representation, with a membership of over 4,000![vi]

Another reason people of color may visit white churches but never stay long may lie in the tone and content of what is presented from the stage or pulpit. For example, churches wishing to break through the color barrier may need to consider a wider range of worship styles. People of color may also feel that whites have no concept of how they live and the things they deal with on a daily basis. They are right. Many white churches spend time praising the United States of America as if it were the greatest thing since aerosol cheese. This is a great country, but it is not so for everyone. It may seem hard for whites to believe, but many people of color actually find it difficult to make it here. Understandably, they may not celebrate America’s history with quite the same unqualified enthusiasm. During a recent sermon in my city, one white pastor expressed high praise for America’s war on drugs. I could not help thinking how a person of color might feel hearing this, given that their communities are so disproportionately targeted, not to mention convicted and incarcerated.

Certainly, the system seems great if it works for you, but that is because it is engineered to work for white people, especially the affluent ones. In reality, there are two Americas, one for the white and rich, and one for the poor and people of color. If we white pastors really want people of color to stay in our churches, we need to get to know that other America. We need to immerse ourselves in the issues and challenges they face, to talk about things like racism, economic disparity, and injustice. It will do us and our congregations a world of good.

People of color also tend to vote differently (you mean it’s possible to vote “the other way” and still get into heaven? Amazing, isn’t it?) It is time to break out of that white conservative bubble, with its narrow agenda and talking points, and see how the rest of America lives!

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[i] King, “Social Justice and the Emerging New Age,” Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, (18 December 1963).

[ii] Michael O. Emerson, People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States, (Princeton University Press, 2006), 35-36.

[iii] Michael O. Emerson, William A, Mirola, Suzanne C. Monahan, Religion Matters: What Sociology Teaches Us About Religion in Our World, (Allyn & Bacon, 2011), 161.

[iv] Michael O. Emerson, Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, (Oxford University Press, 2000), 7.

[v] Keith A. Roberts, David Yamane, Religion in Sociological Perspective, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2012), 5th ed, 242.

[vi] Jeff Kunerth, “Race and Religion: Has Segregation Really Changed Since MLK?” Orlando Sentinel, (16 January 2010). Web.

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Charleston : Blood on Our Hands?

Here we are again. Another massacre by a mentally ill person with a gun– this time, a young white supremacist so filled with hate, he wanted to start a race war. Why, oh why, do these things keep happening? And in a church of all places! Why would God allow that?

First of all, let’s not blame God for human evil and stupidity. It’s not God who allows it; we do. The Almighty has made men and women to be his representatives on earth, to govern with justice and wisdom, and when we fail in that mission, the results can be tragic.

We could say these things happen because evil is a real force in this world. Ok. We could also be more specific and say, as many are saying, that if this country has an original sin, it’s racism. Check. Then we could go further and say that plain, old-fashioned greed also plays a role (witness the inconceivable remarks of the NRA spokesperson who blamed the murdered AME pastor and church members for not carrying guns. Really. For him, as a shill for the greedy gun industry, the problem is not enough guns. He thinks the world won’t be right until every parishioner is packing heat and there’s a sharpshooter in every choir loft.).

But bottom line, these bloodbaths keep repeating themselves because deep down, at the end of the day, the vast majority of Americans are ok with it. Don’t get me wrong. Sure, we shake our heads in disbelief, clack our tongues, maybe even shed a real tear on behalf of our fellow human beings—we feel that sense of brotherhood. We even mention it from our pulpits : “Let us pray for Charleston and our brothers and sisters who have experienced such loss.” (But no sermons on racism, please; after all, we don’t want to get political.) And then we go into the voting booth in November and vote for the same clowns (of both parties) who continue to make all this mayhem possible.

Why? Because as sad as these events are, the victims are merely collateral damage in a war to preserve the status quo. That’s right. All the talk about abortion, prayer in schools and family values we hear from white Christian America is merely lip service, a smoke screen for what people really want, which is to keep things the way they are, provided they continue to profit from it. The religious coating is just a way to feel good about ourselves while we’re doing it.

I heard a Christian brother the other day say, “I don’t like it when they talk about these kind of events from the pulpit. I go to church to get peace. I don’t want to keep hearing about it.” QED (quod erat demonstrandum). As long as we continue to go to church to have our prejudices and ignorance massaged instead of blown apart, the church will never be an agent of change.

God forgive us. We have blood on our hands.

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