In the wake of a provocative sermon…(you can listen to it here)
So this past Sunday was easily the most challenging in my 20+ years of ministry. I knew that I had to say some vulnerable things, some controversial things, some incomplete things, some…things. For only the second time in my life, I wrote out the sermon in a manuscript form. I knew that if I didn’t write things down I’d forget to say things that needed to be said, while simultaneously saying more than my usual fare of unnecessary things. As I predicted, the sermon did NOT offer a clear and tidy summary of the events of last week. It did stir some deep feelings in the hearts of some precious people, and I’ll forever be grateful for and humbled by the fact that they were willing to share their feelings with me. My prayer is that by writing this post, I will provide a pathway forward deeper into the darkness of America’s sin, so that while we’re there we can be a source of light and hope. This is not about backtracking or toning down what I preached on Sunday, but adding layers of complexity and understanding to it. Let the praying commence!
I think I’ll number a list of some of the issues that have come up in the last 48 hours…
- There are times when it’s healthy, appropriate and godly to walk away from a Sunday gathering with a deep sense of discomfort. Generally I do feel that the worship gathering should produce a people who are truly happy because they have been reminded of the fact that their God is the Lord! (Psalm 144.15) Yet at the same time, the realities of our broken world and our confused souls require a different response. In those moments, to leave church comforted is dishonest and probably selfish. We’re the people who are called to “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12.15) If we couldn’t stir up tears on Sunday but we at least left feeling uneasy, that’s a spiritual gift – embrace it. (Amos 6 comes to mind…)
- These message was meant to address different ethnic groups differently because, generally speaking, their needs are different. We must not ever presume that the “black” or “white” experience in America is monolithic. People and cultures are amazingly complex and with that complexity comes a figurative kaleidoscope of perspectives. With that fact in view, however, there are some lowest common denominators that need to be addressed. My call to white Christians is going to be more authoritative and pointed because…I’m white. We are most inclined to listen vulnerably to people who are like us, who give us a sense of safety. I cannot imagine a context in which I could’ve even entertained the idea of “white privilege” if Cornell West was presenting it. However, when Pastor Tim Keller presented it, I could listen sincerely. I wish that wasn’t the case, but that’s my story, and I don’t think I’m the exception. White saints need to be a source of “oil and wine” right now to the black community. That probably looks like doing a whole lotta listening. Like inviting people who don’t look like us out for coffee and getting to know them. Like listening to public voices that challenge our thinking and genuinely listening to them. Does the African American community need “pointed” talk? Maybe. Some of my fellow pastors who are African American seem to think so, but my response to that possibility is prayer not pontification.
- “Black Lives Matter” can be understood in at least two ways. This slogan has a general/existential sense and a specific/movement sense. When I said those words on Sunday I meant them with all my heart. I will not recant. And I reiterate: to say “All Lives Matter” is deeply problematic and is an adventure in missing the point. Do you think I don’t believe humanity matters? Of course I do! But the segment of lives in our communities that are hurting the most, that are disproportionately suffering right now, are black and that’s why I said that. However, please know that I was not endorsing “Black Lives Matters” as an organized protest movement. The reason I was not endorsing it is that I don’t know enough about the movement to get behind it. Many are convinced it’s essential to progress and many are convinced that it is little more than liberal manipulations, playing on centuries of hurt. Unfortunately, I have not done the research needed to qualify either one of those claims, and consequently have not made any endorsement.
- We desperately need a flood of “holy suspicion” in regard to our preferred cultural narratives. Fox News. MSNBC. The NY Times. Rush Limbaugh. All of these “news outlets” and more are standing at the ready, prepared to offer us not mere information, but a way of seeing the world (and its inhabitants). We have more news coverage/opining than we ever have, but the quest for the truth (i.e. reality) is more challenging than it’s ever been. Do not give any news outlet a free pass. Do not presume one is better than another. There are intelligent, thoughtful people on the right AND the left, which tells me each ideology contains some truth. BUT…as I said on Sunday, America is not the Kingdom of God, it is not eternal or authoritative – we must rise above the fray and press into the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Seriously. Test the spirits while you take in the “news.” Hold what’s being said up against the Sermon on the Mount. Ask the Spirit to show you what news is being omitted (and why)? Talk to brothers and sisters who have a Kingdom-seeking agenda, not one that falls in line with the Democratic or Republican platforms. Right/Left ideologies are a lot like Fundamentalist/Liberal theologies – I don’t have confidence in either one, NOR do I trust them to provide me with a Christ-like understanding of what is happening in the world. Be very suspicious…(especially of the voices most like your own!)
- There is a difference between “white privilege” and “white guilt.” This is a hot issue and but for the grace of God expressed through Pastor Keller, I might take issue with this. So, if I’m your pastor, please hear me out. When I speak of “white privilege” I am referencing the fact that I can walk through my day, my week, my month and beyond, without ever being conscious of the color of my skin. When making plans or decisions, I don’t spend mental or emotional energy considering how my skin color might affect the outcome. This is a privilege – something I didn’t do anything to possess. When something negative happens to me I am free to analyze the situation and consider cause and effect, and thereby improve myself – all this without ever considering that my only liability might have been skin color. This is a “gift” to me, a privilege that many (not all) of color do not enjoy. I could go on, but I’ll simply say that “privilege” is speaking to consciousness. “Guilt” on the other hand is not remotely like this. While topics like this are best reserved for books and classes, I will say that “white guilt” is often little more than an attempt to ease one’s conscience via psychological manipulation. It’s not about having deep empathy for people of color, but being animated by the wrongness of past white behavior. This is not helpful or Christ-honoring and I do not want anything to do with that sort of thinking. In this sense, “white guilt” propagates racism – it doesn’t address it. Am I willing to be associated with the guilt in America’s past, even though my family wasn’t really here to participate in it? Yes. Why? Because that’s what Jesus does. Is this “white guilt”? No – this is living in grace. I acknowledge “white privilege” as I’ve described it (it’s not economic!) and realize – thank you to Dr. Christopher House for this! – that I cannot divest myself of white privilege, I can only leverage it for the good of others. Sunday’s sermon and this essay are my feeble attempts at doing just that.
- I believe that training and positive engagement is necessary on both sides of this painful issue. Our police are overwhelmingly good men and women. Most are not discriminatory or bigoted, but rather want to see peaceful, harmonious communities. I truly believe this. Black people are not thugs and they do not hate the police. As one person beautifully said: “We don’t want revenge – we want equality.” If the actions of our police officers are strictly a matter of training and not bias, then it appears as though it’s time for the leaders of law enforcement to reconsider how they’re training recruits. The tragic videos we’ve seen often reveal the climax of tenuous exchanges that might have turned out differently with different training. And as one officer recently told me, it would help if the upcoming generation (of all colors) would be taught how to engage the police respectfully. I agree and hope most responsible citizens would as well.
- My insistence that “white cops must stop killing black men” was one of the more inflammatory statements and it does need explanation. I was not suggesting that white cops are out to kill black men (I do not believe that is true of any significant number of the law enforcement community!). I was not suggesting that white cops are exclusively to blame for police violence against blacks. I was not suggesting that if a white cop never killed another person of color our race issues would be resolved. I was saying that in light of a messy American history that has substantial periods in which the laws themselves dehumanized and oppressed blacks, it is exponentially painful when a white law enforcement officer takes the life of an African American. Let’s be plain – the actual numbers are contextually low, with about 1,200-1,300 people (from all ethnic groups) being killed by police each year. The loss of life is always tragic, but in a land of 320+ million people, that is a small number. The fact that our nation is so embroiled is revealing that it’s not just about the number of blacks being killed, but the greater context of being black in America and more specifically, how that lived experience intersects with law enforcement. I question the effectiveness and the appropriateness of me telling blacks how to be black in America, but I do feel the need to call out to white people and insist that we do whatever we can to facilitate healing and wholeness.
I should probably stop here. I’ve said a lot. My prayer is that we would all renew our commitment and desire to live here as sojourners and exiles, not “typical” American citizens. I do believe that faithfulness to Jesus and his kingdom will inevitably be an act of treason, whether figurative or literal. I do believe we should embrace seasons of discomfort for the sake of loving our neighbors and being conformed to the image of Jesus. And I am very concerned that you will join me in having honest, loving, vulnerable conversations on this topic. If the blood of Christ is not a strong enough bond to hold us together in the face of emotionally- and ideologically-charged discussion, what good is it? Do we know how to listen well? To disagree well? To live in tension well? I think a “yes” to all of the above is what shalom/Salem really is…