As I ponder how to begin our blog today, I’m asking the Holy Spirit to give me the ability to write with clarity–the chance of being misunderstood is great. On Sunday, Pastor John diverged from his Sermon on the Mount series to focus on the issue of racial injustice, and our (majority culture) silence that happens over and over in our nation. What makes this hard to discuss is the tendency among many majority culture people to bristle at the mention of racial inequity. Defenses go up, political assumptions are made, lines are drawn and division occurs. Conversations (or social media threads) get heated. Thoughtful, culture-changing conversations don’t happen. I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. I do know the polarization keeps us from healing, from becoming better and from experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth.
I’ve been on a journey for a number of years now trying to gain better understanding of the systemic issues of racism in our nation. One of the push backs that happen when this subject comes up is an immediate “I’m not racist”, so I want to clearly explain a couple of terms.
Pastor, seminary professor, and author Soong-Chan Rah wrote one of the clearest definitions of systemic racism that I’ve read thus far. In his book The Next Evangelicalism he wrote: Central to our understanding of the sin of racism is our understanding of the image of God... we make ourselves the standard of reference in the determination of our values and norms. Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of reference…Racism elevates the physical image above the spiritual image of God given to us by our creator. Racism is idolatry…it elevates a human factor to the level of the ultimate.
Systemic racism can be really subtle. It can be as subtle as “flesh” colored band-aids, and “nude” pantyhose, which are the color of my flesh. I’m “the norm”. I can walk into stores and not be deemed as suspicious or someone to keep an eye on because my very appearance doesn’t create any kind of stir. I’m “the norm”. My education primarily highlighted the contributions of European settlers–“the norm”. Up until the last few years, most of the theologians and Bible study authors I’ve read have my color of skin–meaning even our church theology can be subject to “the norm”.
In speaking of church matters, Professor Rah writes: When the majority culture church continues to define and shape what the church will look like, those who are “the other” are …silenced and the multiethnic dialogue deteriorates to a white monologue.
And yet…if we look at the New Testament, In Revelation 7:9 John shows us what the “C” church looks like: I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb.
The Apostle Paul writes: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) and In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11)
In the book of Acts, Peter had this realization when God confronted him with his own racism ( the mindset that the Jewish people were “the norm” as God’s people) and he exclaimed I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) A few chapters later, Peter stood up at the Jerusalem Council and told church leaders that God made no distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, he gave them the same Holy Spirit without having to become Jewish– “the norm”. (Acts 15)
In speaking of justice, I’m not talking about worldly social justice. However, the Bible speaks of justice from beginning to end; therefore, it is imperative that we pay attention to and understand biblical justice.
The Bible Project group says: According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.. most of the time the Bible uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. Taken this way, the combination of righteousness and justice that God dictates means a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are fixed. Is this something we see our churches addressing?
A small sampling of scripture on this issue includes:
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)
Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. (Isaiah 1:17)
He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3)
Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)
He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps 33:5)
To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Pr. 21:3)
This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)
Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)
The call of Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18)
So what are we to do? Acknowledge, listen, learn, act, influence…
I’ve shared before about my parents’ influence–my mother began a group in my hometown (a college town) for wives of doctoral students who were from other nations–they built community while learning from and supporting one another. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Love, fairness, justice, and respect are pillars of that group still today.
My dad had a KKK cross burned in the yard of his church in 1950 because he welcomed a black man in his church and visited him during the week. 15 years later my dad marched with MLK.
I am of the first generation of integrated schools; my friend group was highly diverse, which was encouraged in my home. I’m grateful for that legacy.
Our nation was founded by people escaping oppression who incorporated biblical principles in our early documents; however, a look at history shows they failed to see the image of God in the people who already lived here and brought with them the very oppression they were escaping from. They failed to see the image of God in their slaves and used scripture to justify atrocities. These things are hard to face, but we must recognize them, do what we can to help heal centuries-old wounds and not participate in a culture that contributes to ongoing oppression.
A few years ago, Laura, another friend, and I attended “The Justice Conference” in Chicago. We didn’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to be spoken to so frankly. We didn’t like it at all (at first). However, I’ll be forever grateful that we stuck it out and wrestled it through. Our role at the conference was to listen and learn. We heard from Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, a Christian Syrian refugee, a Muslim Yemeni refugee, a Jewish rabbi, and others. We were confronted with our own cultural bias and lens. One of the things we became aware of was the individualism and silence of white culture America in matters that don’t personally affect us. A majority culture man in the audience pushed back against one of the speakers and he got called out on it. It was uncomfortable and we thought he was treated unfairly. The three of us went back to our hotel, and in our arrogance, we discussed how we thought the minority culture speaker was wrong. Later that afternoon, we boarded a train and headed into downtown Chicago.
Our train car’s seats made it possible for groups of four to face one another– it also had an upper level of single row seats facing perpendicular to the lower level bench seats. We could look to the upper level and see the faces of the people seated there. At one station, an ethnically diverse group of young people got on the train and headed to the upper level. They were older teens, jovial, and enjoying their day. Most seats on the lower level were filled with people who looked like us, one group contained middle-aged men.
While we were en route, two testosterone-laden majority-culture teens came through our car. One of the youth on the upper level said something about a hat; the young men below thought the comment was directed at them and started verbally threatening the group. The upper-level group tried to explain, but the two young men were already escalated and were right next to the seat where the middle-aged white gentlemen sat. Those men looked down, looked at each other, but didn’t say a word to the angry young men. It’s what we had just learned at the conference; if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.
The angry young men turned, came right by us, and climbed the staircase to the upper level–they were ready for a fight. One young lady tried to block them from hitting her boyfriend. We were flabbergasted, jumped up, and spoke out. We said things like “Enough!” “Stop!” etc. And you know what? They did. They came back down the stairs and cussed their way out of our train car.
We sat back down, all three of us shaking, and all three of us amazed at the lesson we had learned. We got off at the same stop as the young people, checked on them, told them how deeply sorry we were that they were treated that way, and went our separate ways. It was life-changing. Our arrogance flew out the window and we were/are more determined to listen to and learn from minority voices. However, it is not the job of minority culture people to teach us. They are exhausted. It is our responsibility to learn about our own individualistic culture, what is helpful and what is not in seeking biblical justice, and how to come alongside (not take over) and work together to change oppressive systems.
Could our experience on the train have gone differently? Yes. Could we have been in danger of being hurt. Yes. Would that have justified staying silent? No.
And we can’t stay silent when George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here are murdered, or incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or given longer sentences than those of “the norm” who committed the same crime, or not speak out about the disappearance of hundreds of Native-American women, or not pay attention to land that is still being confiscated, or not be deeply concerned by the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. These indicate serious, serious systemic issues.
We must stop judging peaceful protests because we don’t like the way they are done. We must pay attention to people in power who abuse their roles. We must advocate for arrests, for fair trials, for equity in our judicial systems. We must look beyond the surface to deeper issues, the things that don’t directly affect us as part of “the norm”. And when frustration spills over to rioting, we must remember the words of MLK from his 1968 “The Other America” speech who said:
Let me say as I’ve always said… riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…
…[but] I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis,a riot is the language of the unheard.
And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity…
What do we do? It’s a complex issue that’s not going to be fixed quickly–so we commit to the long journey. We commit to listening, to learning, to looking deep. We commit to squelching our own defensiveness, exploring why we get defensive, and acknowledging our own fragility when this subject comes up. We commit to trying to see through a different lens. We commit to abolishing pre-judgment and suspicion based on the color of someone’s skin. We commit to not being discipled more by our preferred news sources than we are by the Word of God. We commit to paying attention to who Jesus valued, loved, saw, encouraged, and to treat others as he did. We commit to using our voices and standing with those whose voices are being ignored. We commit to paying attention to and changing oppressive political policies. We commit to the common good.
And, as the people of God, we humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face (even in the faces of image-bearers who look different from us), turn from our wicked ways (judgment, individualism, silence, contributing to the standard of “the norm, systemic racism) and God will forgive our sin and heal our land. (2 Chron 7:14).
Lord God, move us deep within. Help us to hear, to see, to acknowledge, to act. Help us to empathize, seek to walk in another’s shoes, care deeply. May your kingdom of total inclusion and equity come, may your will that includes the flourishing of all humanity be done right here on earth, through us, as it is in heaven.
Like Luanne, I have been revisiting the things we learned at The Justice Conference and remembering our experiences from that weekend. I’m so glad I have notes saved in the journal I took with me to Chicago–I come back to them again and again. As I have been reading back through the things I learned from so many wise presenters, some of their words stood out in new ways in light of what we are experiencing in these days. I want to share some of the quotes I recorded with you as we press into the holy work for biblical justice and equity that Luanne explained so beautifully and clearly for us. I’ll start with something she said above:
“…if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.”
The story of what happened on the train drilled this truth into the three of us that experienced it together. If we are part of the majority culture, we have the option of entering in… or not. If it’s not convenient, if it feels unsafe, if we’re criticized for speaking up or standing up, if the cost to us personally seems too high… we can choose to opt out. This is what privilege looks like. It’s not about wealth or having an easy life. It’s about having the opportunity to choose whether we’ll be affected by injustice or not.
Many people don’t have that choice.
Injustice, prejudice, racism, violence–these things affect their daily lives. And until the majority culture, the ones holding the power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, chooses to listen, to speak up, to come alongside, the daily lives of those on the underside of the power dynamic will continue to be negatively impacted by a multitude of injustices. Our silence has consequences. Our silence allows things to remain as they are, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Many of the speakers at the conference we attended spoke directly into our silence, which is, as we learned, complicity with the systems that are in place.
Pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal said,
“How can we say we love our neighbor and not stand up against the systems that break them? We can’t say we “do life together” unless we actually do.”
We were challenged at the conference, and continue to be challenged in our day-to-day lives to do more than simply break the silence. It is a good and necessary first step, speaking up. But if our words never grow legs and move us into action, what good are they?
Justin Dillon, Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Made in a Free World, shared that,
“Participating in the problems of others is the path to purpose.”
He went on to describe something we’ve mentioned in the blog before: virtue signaling. Justin explained this as “lending a voice, but no action, pulling equity out of something we have no investment in.”
Virtue signaling is real and it can hurt the very people we long to come alongside. When we raise our voices, when the words we say make us sound like allies, but we are unwilling to move into action, to do the hard work required for change to come, our words are hollow.
But what do we do? I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly in recent days. The truth is, as Luanne highlighted above, it is a process. We are not experts, we are part of the majority culture, members of the societal norm. But we have chosen to take the posture of learners, to listen, to get proximate to the wise, faithful voices on the margins and follow their lead. Humility is essential. Acknowledging our own biases, coming to terms with our privilege, admitting our shortcomings and lack of understanding, owning our failures–these are all part of where we start. We heard the word “proximity” over and over again in Chicago. It’s important that we get proximate to the real people behind the stories we hear. As Reverend Gabriel Salguero shared,
“We have a seeing and hearing problem… the biggest fog is distance.”
He also talked to us about how our fears and beliefs about others, our implicit biases that we don’t even know we have impact our ability to see and to act:
“Fear of our neighbor must be overcome. Love is what overcomes it. You cannot love people you’re afraid of.”
He addressed our fears of feeling unsafe in this work. He said of God,
“He’s not safe, but He is good… To truly love your neighbor(s) is never safe. But it’s always good.”
He also reminded us that to truly love, there must be mutuality…
“You can’t be a neighbor to someone you’re trying to conquer.”
This is where equity comes in. There is a power dynamic that exists, and it is fiercely guarded. It favors the strong and powerful and further oppresses the marginalized. When it attempts to act on behalf on another, it does so with bravado, like a hero on a white horse, seeking applause and accolades that maintain and strengthen the dynamics rather than shift them. In seeking to be a neighbor, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we must actively choose to be quiet so that the voices around us can be heard. It’s not about being the voice for the voiceless–no one is voiceless. It’s about quieting down so that the voices of those who haven’t been heard can be elevated. They are speaking–we simply haven’t been listening.
We will never see the stunning mosaic of God’s kingdom come to life in our churches, in our communities until we intentionally elevate the voices on the margins. What they bring to the table is not a threat to our faith. No. They bring a feast we didn’t know existed because we’ve been eating the same meal for too long. So we invite them to bring the fullness of who they are to the table, understanding that sometimes it is necessary to let go of our limited understanding. Inviting, elevating, believing and honoring the voices of our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us to lead us expands us, grows us, helps us to see a more complete picture of God. We cannot think we have an understanding of who our God is if it only includes the narrative of the normative.
So we start with humility. We listen, learn, get proximate, acknowledge, give up our seat at the table, understand that we don’t understand and so we look to those who do, those who live on the margins. We engage in hard conversations with those in our own circles–our families, our friends, our churches. We choose love over fear, and we let our love grow into action. We do not lead out as heroes in the story. We follow the lead of those already in the trenches, fighting for change, and we leverage our privilege to magnify their voices. We don’t burden people of color with our questions, our guilt, our shame–we find resources (there are so many available!) and we do the hard work of educating ourselves. We repent and we let Jesus and his way mess in our business. We wrestle with our defensiveness, our fears, our selfishness, and our complicity with our God–we don’t lash out at others. We walk alongside our friends, as humble allies, not heroes looking for a pat on the back. We recognize that there’s much we don’t know, but we do know this: In Jesus’ kingdom, the marginalized are prioritized, loved, protected, and elevated.
These are some things we can do. But how we do these things matters just as much. As I was flipping through my notebook and praying about what to write here this week, I came across notes from a sermon that Pastor John preached in July 2017. Reading through the points I recorded from that message out of Colossians, it struck me that this is how we do these things that matter. The passage is Colossians 3:12-14:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Pastor John began his message with these words, “This passage is all about connection, it is transformational rather than transactional. The way we connect with others is a reflection of our connection with Jesus.”
We looked deeply into what the virtues highlighted in these two verses really mean, as they are all about how we relate with others. Here’s what we learned:
Compassion begins with seeing a problem, then letting what we see penetrate our hearts. It can literally be translated “co-suffering.” Compassion moves us beyond feeling pity into action. It moves our hearts and our feet toward others and it always involves personal sacrifice.
Kindness is “a tender goodness that is useful.” It is all about community. It goes against independence and individuality. It cares for the well-being of all others and is willing to be a “last” so someone else can be a first. It leads us to see the needs around us. Pastor John called it, “the yoke of Jesus.” I love that.
Humility is defined in a multitude of ways, but John highlighted that it means “groundedness, earthiness.” Humility is not about cowering; it is not self-deprecating, pathetic, or downcast. It doesn’t minimize our individual gifts. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and taking our place, filling up only the space that is ours--not more, not less, so that everyone else can take up exactly their amount of space, too. To be humble means to have an honest, healthy perspective of who we are in relation to God and others and knowing our place in the kingdom.
Gentleness, what the translation above calls “quiet strength,” is exactly that. It is not voicelessness. It is the middle ground between too much and too little anger. It is a burning that stirs us to move toward something that needs addressed, corrected. It says what needs to be said, led by the Spirit. Pastor John said that gentleness is letting God out of the inside of you, saying the hard, difficult things with strength. It does not shrink, and it does not rage. It finds the space between the two and remains planted there.
The word discipline in the passage in more often translated patience. It is connected to gentleness because it also deals with anger. It is a restraining of anger, a very long wick. It is steady and keeps a little distance between us and the anger and swelling emotions. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on how we lean into this space, but in our dealings with others, this is what creates a little space, allows us to wait and process, restrain destructive rage and choose how to we will move rather than being led by our anger.
Forgiveness in this passage also carries the concept of forbearance. Both are important.
Together, they mean being tolerant of some things and releasing our “right” to get even. This means abstaining from attacking and controlling others because we value and honor the person. We choose to see every person as someone of value and we choose to be for them, not against. Forgiveness and forbearance are born out of grace, and leaning into this hard work takes us out of the role of judge and keeps us flexible and willing to engage with others to work toward the flourishing of all.
Love is what holds it all together. If love is not what drives us, none of the other virtues will grow in our lives. Love is where we start and end–everything else flows out of it. Love, according to what Jesus taught and modeled, is self-emptying. It “…never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it can’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, trusts God always, looks for the best, never looks back, keeps going to the end.” (taken from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
We must be willing to do something, to put actions behind our impassioned words about the injustices in our world. But we must choose how we engage. Wisdom reminds us that we always have choices. We must choose wisely. Our fight for restorative justice is born out of compassion–the kind of compassion that sees someone hurting, abused, silenced and, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, moves toward that person–regardless of the cost. Kindness leads us to be willing to prioritize the needs and voices of the marginalized and unheard. Humility makes us aware that the space we’ve been handed by our world may not match the space that is actually ours to take up according to the kingdom. In the kingdom, there are no power dynamics at play, and no one gets more space than another because of their skin color, gender, education, or status. It recognizes the systems that have been built to uphold some and oppress others and it desires to set things right–to restore Shalom according to kingdom principles. This does mean those of us that have been given more than our share must choose to step back into the space we were created to inhabit so that those who haven’t been able to breathe, speak, grow, lead can expand into the space that is theirs to fill.
Gentleness moves us into the space where we say what needs to be said–not more, not less. It sounds like strength, but it’s controlled and measured. It is a healthy anger that smolders within–enough to move us into the work that needs to be done, but not so much that it engulfs what is good, holy work in flames that could burn the whole thing down. Patience creates the space we need to keep going. If we burn hot and engage from a place of raging anger, we will never see restorative justice come, and the flourishing of all will be inaccessible. Forgiveness is imperative in this work. It’s messy and not one of us will do it right all the time. We have to be willing to hang in, to keep working together in spite of our differences, and extend grace to others and ourselves when we cause and experience pain on the journey.
Love is the foundation, the source, the river that carries the work of justice. Without it, nothing we do or say matters. But when we’re firmly rooted in the love that gives and sustains life, grounded in the goodness of the One from whom it flows, there is nothing we can’t do, nowhere we can’t go. When we’re driven by love, we are empowered to do the work that needs to be done in a way that makes justice and equity possible.
May we remember that Jesus already brought the kingdom to earth. It’s here. But it needs channels to flow through so that everyone can be brought into wholeness and flourishing for the benefit of all of creation. The world will remember our response to the mounting injustices plaguing this generation. How we are remembered is up to us. What we do matters. How we do it matters. May we be found faithful citizens of the kingdom we carry within us.