MLK Day and the Modern Church

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Michael Emerson and Christian Smith have a fantastic sociology book about race and evangelicalism in America. Through a lengthy survey about white evangelical perceptions of race, they argue that religion often legitimizes the continual division and racialization of America. I’ve written about this book before, but I think it is important to highlight the following quote in light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Here the authors talk about the inevitable ethical dilemma of group loyalty–namely that with in-group dynamics, members of a group rarely understand the needs and experiences of those on the outside who are marginalized. The same is true for white evangelicals and African Americans:

We see [the ethical paradox of group loyalty] in white evangelicals’ assessment of the race problem and racial inequality. Although they can perhaps talk with empathy about a black friend’s situation, when they assess the group, they speak in ways, as we have seen, that largely justify division and inequality. They know that most of their friends and relatives–who are predominately white–are not hate-mongering racists bent on keeping blacks down. And they know this much better than they can know the experiences of black Americans. So, when they must assess the “race problem,” given their cultural tools, they conclude that it must be blacks exaggerating, or to the advantage of some to claim their is a race problem, or that the race problem is but individual problems between some individuals of different races. In short, they speak in ways that support their own racial group and the American system. Almost no white evangelical suggests that inequality between groups is immoral and ought to disappear, for example. And, largely isolated in their own racial group, they fail to see their advantages. The exceptions are those white evangelicals so immersed in black social networks that they appear to identify more with black Americans than white Americans.

Emerson and Smith found that many of the people they interviewed used religious grounding for their responses, even when they sounded antagonistic towards blacks as a whole. Christian congregations are typically racially homogenous, with little focus on intentional diversity.

I of course believe it is a positive thing that most white Christians are not hate-mongering racists. But race issues in our world are not limited to the stigmatized things–the racial slurs or Donald Sterling-type instances. There’s a deeper, more systemic issue when we examine what it means to be white or black in our world. Emerson and Smith argue that the only lasting solution to all this would be to address the issue of divisive identity and social networks, both individually and collectively. In other words, congregations need to integrate and address racism on an institutional scale.

In many ways I think we water down MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But King’s concept of joining hands is a truly revolutionary idea:

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama… will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

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With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

It is easy to interpret this concept of togetherness as a sort of kumbaya idea where we simply ignore our problems. In doing so, Martin Luther King Jr. is a safe hero. After all, who wouldn’t want that? But what if you were to truly join hands across racial lines? Genuinely working, praying, going to jail, and standing up together are certainly not isolationist activities. With this in mind, the problems Emerson and Smith found in their survey could indeed be cured through solidarity and this struggle for liberation. But a major barrier to this reality is our idolatrous worship of the in-group, which simultaneously leads many to keep their hands in their pockets instead of joining them with black sisters and brothers.

Isolated Illusions, Global Realities

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I remember seeing this eye-opening map a couple of years ago outlining the “midpoint” of Christianity’s global concentration. Christianity reached its northernmost point during the Reformation and has since been on a southward (and recently eastward) trajectory. The geographical center of Christianity is continually (and oftentimes rapidly) moving away from both continental Europe and the United States and has been for quite some time. I think there are couple of things worth considering because of this.

I greatly cherish biblical commentaries like the Expositor’s and New Interpreter’s for bible study and sermon preparation, personal enrichment, and scrambling to find sources for seminary papers. But a quick survey of these volumes reveals that the majority of contributors are almost exclusively American or Western European males. Shouldn’t our scholarship (both academic and pastoral) actively engage with more a global hermeneutic, instead of the ever so limited D.W.E.M. spectrum (“dead white European males”)?

Does your church recognize this reality? It is intentionally working to shape ministry with this in mind? Communities obviously exist in varying contexts, but I believe it is misguided to assume any congregation to somehow be monocultural. Likewise it’s absolutely essential for any church to have at least some sort of international partnership effort. What is your church doing internationally? This is certainly not limited to foreign mission trips or special offerings, though these may be worthwhile practices. What is your church doing locally, but with global eyes–work with refugees, immigrants, migrant workers, or displaced families?

And lastly, I think this map on the geographical center of Christianity ought to trigger the American church to be a bit more humble. Many of us thrive on paternalism as we aid the poor all over the world while primarily feeding our own self gratification. We may also view ourselves as the strongest beacon of light to the nations. Instead, it seems as though we Christians in so-called “developed” nations are actually among the statistical minority. While we might have revered commentaries and take ownership of the Reformation’s legacy, much of the global church does not look like us.

What difference does being a Christian make in your life?

Our church recently had several small groups go through Unbinding the Gospel by Martha Grace Reese, a study on evangelism and the problems facing many mainline denominations. One of the fundamental questions of the book is what difference does being a Christian make in my life?

At first this question might sound kind of strange. The most common answers usually focus on church-related community. Children attend bible study together and may develop life-long friends. Adults could find meaningful relationships through the choir or Sunday school classes. Additionally, there may be an emotive rationale–going to church helps me feel good or at peace. The pastor could be an effective, down-to-earth communicator. Lots of these responses have definitely been true for me at various times in my life. Other responses I’ve heard have been somewhat functional or non-logical: well, I go to church and I’ve always been a Christian, simple enough…?

What difference does being a Christian make in your life? I think it is important to wrestle with this question, especially throughout this season. What is our focus for Christmastime? In Advent we prepare for, celebrate, remember, and/or enact Christ’s incarnation in our lives and world. As people like Stanley Hauerwas have continually asked, what makes something a distinctively Christian response or viewpoint? In other words, what makes Christians different?

For me, this difference has been two-fold. In some ways these two areas overlap.

  1. God in abundance. Being a Christian has made a profound difference in my life through experiencing God in dynamic ways. While this might sound a bit “out there” considering mainline norms, I think this is essential to bring up. My heart has become radically transformed through worship. God’s peace has flooded my life in some very specific and unforgettable moments. I’ve seen prayers answered after 15 years time. I’ve experienced the power of intercessory prayer both ways, too. I’ve had visions from God. And I’ve seen God heal. This Holy Spirit empowerment can really shake you up.
  2. Suffering Christ. Being a Christian has also made a difference in my life in that I have come to see a direct connection with Christ and all who suffer. In some ways, this directly contrasts with the “God in abundance” experiences I’ve had. Feeling alienated, abandoned, or abused is not exactly the most positive experience. But with that said, however, I’ve experienced Christ in darkness and pain–after all, Christ suffered. I think that Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Lament for a Son summarizes this concept perfectly:

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.

In many ways, realizing difference leads to a revitalization of faith. If Christianity is simply about receiving a heartwarming message from the pastor, couldn’t we just podcast the most inspirational public speakers? If it is about gaining a network of friends, couldn’t this be done more effectively elsewhere? The list may go on, but in these models of faith, Christianity seems to be weak or without substance.

But if being a Christian is about experiencing the resurrected Jesus, then things start to look quite different. Christian faith then becomes life-changing, stirring our hearts to become empowered to live in grace and to intentionally love the least of these.

“Peace on Earth” and the poverty-stricken old man

I’ve referenced this story before, but I think it’s worth reposting. Lee C. Camp, an author and professor at Lipscomb University, shares this incredibly powerful story in Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World:

One winter in the early 1970s, nearing Christmas, my father-in-law was working as a reporter for WSM television in Nashville. Having just completed a story at the state capitol building, he heard a call on his scanner: a “10-52-64,” the “10-52,” he told me, indicating someone had been shot, and the “10-64″ indicating someone was dead. The location of the scene of the apparent crime was but a few miles away, in a public housing complex, where the police had discovered an elderly man dead in his apartment. But as they began to investigate, it turned out that the original suspicion was all wrong. There had been no shooting. Instead, the man did not have electricity, and so had frozen to death. What had originally been thought to be a gun wound was no gun wound at all, but the wound from a rat gnawing on the old man’s body. As my father-in-law exited the apartment complex, he happened to see the glow emitted from a sign, perched for the Christmas holidays atop one of Nashville’s high-rises, announcing “Peace on Earth.”

Such an event serves as a parable for a compartmentalized grace: the heartwarming religious message, “peace on earth,” that somehow never gets connected to the real world of a poverty-stricken old man.

Ivory Towers and Pride

I vividly remember one of the first bible studies I taught at St. Luke’s. Right off the bat, I made an attempt to tie in Greek words and their meanings to a New Testament passage. I had seen my seminary professors do this very thing and decided to make the feeble attempt to do the same, despite the fact that I had never taken any language courses. In the midst of stumbling through my bullet points, I soon saw blank stares and quickly switched to talk about other things.

Ivory Tower

The Ivory Tower mentality is very easy to fall into, whether in business, academia, or ministry. Those pesky consumers, administrators, or church members can really get in the way of our own insider discourse.

Particularly with church work, we are often quick to slide into an elitist theology rather than approach things with a practical mindset. Greek and Hebrew words supposedly dazzle audiences and give us credibility. Sleekly marketed concepts can potentially win over outsiders. But does this necessarily lead to transformation and effective discipleship? Or it is simply a prideful gimmick?

I’m not being critical of the message itself–the content of biblical commentaries, contemporary scholarship, etc.–only the means through which it is delivered. Scholarly approaches to biblical texts are goods, but I think the problem comes when we fail to relate to other people. This is especially important considering how our religion can be detached from the concrete world, which actually might end up being a pretty big heresy (denying the incarnation).

What about you? Where have you seen an Ivory Tower mindset in the church? Is this necessarily bad? Do you see sermons and lessons as relatable to the real-world, or are they more of an abstraction?

Modern Day Slaves

Here are some excerpts from an article I wrote that is published in the fall edition of St. Luke’s Pathway Magazine.

When most of us hear the word slavery, we usually think of past events from the 18th-19th centuries. People like Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and William Wilberforce come to mind as they sought to abolish slavery. Places like Gettysburg are sobering reminders of our dark, bloody past. But assuming that slavery was a thing of the past presupposes that all people today enjoy freedom. It also assumes that slavery is no longer a problem facing our world. We might think it odd that slavery could still be an issue. After all, people are not publicly and cruelly traded in marketplaces anymore. Labor laws, in theory, protect workers from exploitation. We fill out forms and contracts when accepting jobs. Does this mean that slavery is irrelevant?

I remember a startling realization my wife and I experienced a few years ago. We were teaching English in Ethiopia for a couple of months in an impoverished area of Addis Ababa. Next door to our guest house there was an eerie looking building, bustling with activity at nearly all hours. We thought nothing of it at first, but we soon found out that this was a small restaurant by day and a brothel by night. Crudely made booths lined the property courtyard, each with a curtain to hide a small space with a mattress. Women would take male clients of all ages to these rooms. This realization was chilling. Were women being forced to work there? I recall hearing that most women had traveled to the city from rural areas, hoping to find work. Even though brothels were illegal and there was a police station just up the road, most people simply looked the other way. It was heartbreaking.

On the same trip we met several humanitarian workers who were investigating something called human trafficking. I had obviously heard of things like drug trafficking, but this was different. Ethiopian women, looking to provide more income for their families, would commonly travel to Middle Eastern countries to work as housekeepers for wealthy families. They were usually underpaid, abused, and exploited, all without any knowledge of the local justice system and their rights. Many simply disappeared, never to be heard from again by family members back home.

When I reflect over these experiences, it seems as though slavery is not just something we read about in history textbooks. It did not end with the Civil War. We still deal with this problem. Many people are exploited for labor and sex in our world today. According to Exodus Cry, an organization addressing modern day slavery, nearly 21 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. Of this number, about 4.5 million are subject to sexual exploitation. This is a highly profitable business, generating nearly $150 billion annually, according to a recent International Labour Organization study. Of this number, $99 billion comes from commercial sex exploitation and $51 billion from forced domestic, agricultural, and other economic work.

One of the sobering realities of our trafficking epidemic is that it is extremely difficult to see. Instead of public slave markets, the trade has gone underground. Two-hundred years ago, families were ripped apart as Africans were kidnapped and transported in the transatlantic slave trade. Families are still torn apart today because of slavery, but now the location might be in a secret brothel in an urban city or an overcrowded factory in a third world country. To use a phrase crafted by journalist Stephanie Hepburn and justice scholar Rita J. Simon, trafficking is an issue that is hidden in plain sight.

Particularly in Houston, A 2nd Cup, a non-profit anti-trafficking coffee shop, notes that Houston is a major trafficking hub because of its proximity to a major port and the Mexican border, and I-10 serves as one of the main routes for trafficking. Victims, with desperation to provide for themselves and families, will be tricked into work, no matter how abusive or harmful a job may be.

As Christians, we have the imperative of following the mission of Jesus. In Luke 4, we read Jesus’ “mission statement” of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to bring about the Lord’s favor. Jesus’ mission is essentially our mission as well. Through living out a relationship with Jesus, we become a people oriented around bringing restoration. Perhaps the most pressing question to ask yourself is what am I going to do? Our world is filled with captives and oppressed people. In other words, there is a lot for us to do. Jesus calls us to participate in his mission of freedom and liberation. So, how will you get involved?