The Season of Advent
First Sunday of Advent. A new season of thoughtful waiting begins. We wait in the same way that concert goers, sports spectators, and travelers wait with joy! The longed for, highly anticipated, waited for, beginning has come. The conductor has waved the baton and the crowd has hushed, the ball has been tipped and the clock is running, and the train has pulled out of the depot. We waited for so long for the exciting trip, the big game, and the beautiful concert. Finally, the wait is over! It all has begun now, finally!
But now we wait to see how it will end. Who will win? What will the finale sound like? What will the destination really be like?
In the fulness of time God sent forth His Son to be born of a virgin. The wait was over! But the new wait had just begun! Each year many Christians formally hit refresh on our wait and remind ourselves that the game is in its final minutes, the concert is building toward a tremendous crescendo, and the destination is as certain as the departure because the long-awaited beginning actually came!
Jesus has come! The wait is over!
Jesus is coming! We wait!
The Importance of Ritual
We have suggested before that the chaos of our lives needs to be anchored by "the three r's" that reveal our true priorities: relationships, routines, and rituals. A recent article from the Wall Street Journal emphasized the point of ritual that Bob has been teaching at Redeemer.
Instead of struggling to be authentic, Confucius proposed another approach: “as if” rituals, that is, rituals meant to break us out of our own reality for a moment. These rituals are the very opposite of authenticity—and that’s what makes them work. We break from who we are when we note the unproductive patterns we’ve fallen into and actively work to shift them—“as if” we were different people in that moment.
When you hear your girlfriend at the door and make yourself go to greet her instead of sitting there absorbed in your iPhone, you are creating a break. When you make a point of ignoring your mother’s harping and solicit her guidance, you are recognizing that both of you are constantly shifting and changing and capable of bringing out other parts of each other. Instead of being stuck in the roles of nagging mother and put-upon child, you have behaved “as if” you were someone else. It turns out that being insincere, being untrue to ourselves, helps us to grow. (Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-college-of-chinese-wisdom-1459520703)
Holy Week Activities
If you are a Christian there are some very important dates in the calendar. We all know about Christmas and Easter, of course, but many people do not observe other days of the Christian calendar. The week before Easter is sometimes called Holy Week. We traditionally have a service on the Friday before Easter and that day is often called Good Friday, but the service is somber. Sometimes the Good Friday service is called Tenebrae Service because tenebrae means darkness. It recalls the fact that man tried to snuff out the Light of God by crucifying Jesus. We will have a Tenebrae Service this Good Friday on March 25 at 7:30. I hope you will join us!
On Easter Sunday the tone of remembrance will change from somber to celebratory! And we want to start as early as we can. For centuries Christians have met at "Sunrise Services" on Easter morning. We won't meet that early, but we will have a breakfast at 8:00 and a service at 9:00AM! Come join us!
Simple but Substantive
The Christian Hymnal illustrates the “simple but substantive” of Christ that we are prayerfully asking for our church life. Hymns by Christians of all stripes, denominations, eschatological views, historic periods, and conflicting ideas of practical Christian living are wonderfully unanimous in content and yet remarkably substantive. It’s not finding commonality in the lowest common denominator. Quite the opposite; it’s finding unity in the highest common denominator.
It is amazing to me how much Americans are like the good Germans (98% to be exact) who rushed in the reign of Adolph Hitler. German Christians were also swept up in the hysteria. I cannot help but see how the masses of American evangelicals are just as easily impressed by success "as the measure and justification of all things." Thus, the larger a man's church gets the more credible he becomes whether his ideas or opinions are worthy or not. Thus, a man who is wealthy has "many friends" (as the ancient proverb says) and they all assume that he is a worthy leader. This happens in national politics as well as in the Church. But it's not automatic. Here's how Bonhoeffer put it:
In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done. . . . With a frankness and off-handedness which no other earthly power could permit itself, history appeals in its own cause to the dictum and the end justifies the means. . . . The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.
Our Christian Thinkers' Bible Study
We would like as many of our attenders to participate in a 12 session Bible Study that is probably different than any Bible study you have ever done. Instead of doing a book study with the book of a good Christian author or a topical study on a particularly relevant subject for Christian living, we are going to do something that I (Bob) believe is even more relevant to the Christian who wants to be a critical and analytical (but believing!) thinker. We want Christians to know how to use their Bibles for themselves. Thus, we are presenting to our congregation a study that has been honed and crafted over the years to instill five important pillars for the thoughtful Christian by using only the Bible. Here is a brief explanation of the five pillars:
1. Redemptive History. Throughout the twelve bible studies we will try to teach by example and instill an automatic instinct for discerning the paradigm-shifting worldview and storyline of redemptive history. Redemptive history is the record of all the events in history, recorded in the Bible, that are fulfilled in the Christ-work of God.
2. Inductive Research & Reasoning by learning fundamental skills for data-gathering and processing in our Bible study. Here we learn to customize bible notation and marking, what to highlight and what not to highlight, how to process all the information that we read in order to come up with sound and logical conclusions. On the premise that you find things you weren't looking for if you approach your search with specifics in mind I will try to show the participants that every Christian has the education and discipline necessary to do some exciting study for themselves.
3. Basics of Interpretation Consistent with Christian Tradition. We will learn the value of traditional Christian Creeds and Confessions as benchmarks, authoritative guides without absolute authority, to hedge in our interpretation of the Scripture. In other words, our interpretation of what we read in the Scripture must be informed by the Church. There is no private interpretation.
4. Gospel-specific Application Skills for Immediate Relevance We want to train our minds to read the Scriptures and hone in on the immediate (immanent)fact of Jesus in the particulars of our lives at home, work, play, and church.
5. Life-experience Fellowship. We want to learn to identify the sine qua non of Christian fellowship, the essentials. Turning away from a consumeristic understanding of fellowship to a theological understanding of fellowship has a wholesome psychological effect on the Christian thinker.
These Five Pillars of Christian Thought are not an exhaustive list, but they are fundamentals that need to be cultivated in any intelligent Christian who wants to be follow Christ. Please consider signing up for this bible study. You'll love it. We'll be all over the 66 books of the Bible!
I look forward to our moments together.
Cross-Cultural Evangelism in Lystra
On their first missionary journey the Apostle Paul and Barnabas went into a region that was as non-Jew and pagan as any place they had been thus far. There they began their ministry by healing a man who had been lame his entire life and the city went crazy with enthusiastic joy. It seems that there was a legend in the land that gods had previously visited and only one couple was humble enough to receive them. These gods, Zeus and Hermes, rewarded the humble couple with great prosperity and punished the inhospitable villagers with poverty and difficulty. This was a mistake that the villagers of Lystra were not about to allow again. So with great pomp and circumstance they approached the messengers of Jesus Christ with a sacrificial offering. Paul and Barnabas recognized what was going on and immediately tore their clothes, a thing unbecoming of gods, and ran into the crowd to disrupt the worship service that was held in their honor. It was all quite dramatic. And we have a portion of Paul's message, perhaps the message in its entirety in Acts 14. He never gets around to introducing Jesus to the pagans. They want to stone him before he gets there, but there are three very important emphases in Paul's message that would do us well if we remembered them when ministering in our culture today.
The apostles tore their clothes, a strong visual message, to say that they were not gods. And they said something that was very remarkable for Jews to be saying to polytheistic pagans: "Men, we are just men like you wit the same nature that you have." This is less remarkable to us in our Westernized way of thinking, but that teachers of any ethnicity -- but particularly Jews! -- would voluntarily associate with the common man was something that made these messengers of God unique. In the same way, we should be very honest about who we are and not allow ourselves to think that our testimony among men is enhanced if they think we are better than we are.
The apostles said that their objective was very simple. They wanted to tell the people the gospel of God so that people would turn from the "vain things" of prosperity and earthly comfort to the "living God." This is our ultimate object and it is difficult to to keep our focus. There are so many comforts that people are seeking and we are tempted to accommodate their desires to the point that we obscure the ultimate Comfort, God himself.
As soon as the crowd understood that Paul and Barnabas were not Zeus and Hermes they decided that these men should be stoned! Crowds are fickle! Even in the midst of adulation the apostles understood their crowd! They knew that the culture of the crowd had taught them to value prosperity and to do anything to protect their physical and material interests, even if it meant stoning people that would suggest that they ought to turn from "these vain things" to the "Living God."
We live in a similar culture. These three emphases in Paul's mini-sermon should help us as believers in the Gospel of Jesus. We are broken people just like everyone else but we believe that God is and the Rewarder of those who seek him. The world we live in will like us until they don't. It all depends on how they respond to the Gospel that God is better than what they want.
To hear Pastor Bob's recent sermon on this subject, go to the sermon link in the main menu and click on the sermon titled, "Cross-Cultural Evangelism." We hope that it will encourage and challenge you.
The Institutional Church v. Home Church
In their very readable work Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion Kevin DeYoung gives five arguments in defense of organized church as opposed to the ideas that are promoted by Frank Viola in his attack against organized church in Pagan Church. It doesn't take an academic to see that much of Viola's use of history and quotations are done in ways that would not pass if it were graded in college, but unfortunately the huge use of footnotes in his work has impressed many people already inclined to abandon church. I submit DeYoung's arguments here with limited comment.
I. "First, [Viola's] description of the usual Protestant worship service is grossly uncharitable. It would be one thing to argue for another option, but Viola insists that the worship in most of our churches is not simply lacking in some ways, but thoroughly unbiblical, pagan, and dreadfully dull. Are we really to believe that true biblical worship has been in hiatus for about two millennia and is just now getting a second chance with charismatic house-church meetings?"
II. "Second, we must keep in mind that the description of worship in 1 Corinthians 14 is not the only information we have on worship in the New Testament... The services at Corinth were not meant to provide a normative blueprint for Christian worship. IN fact, the reason we are given such detail about the gatherings in Corinth is because they were too free-flowing."
III. "Third, Jesus is not the head worship leader of the service as Viola argues (without evidence) numerous times. Jesus is the object of our worship, and Jesus ministers to us in worship. But the New Testament never suggests that Christ leads our services."
IV. "Fourth, many house-church proponents assume rather simplistically that informality is good and formality is bad. Of course, there are stilted liturgical services full of rote formality and dead traditionalism. But can nothing good come out of a well-structured, liturgical, more high-church service? In fact, one of the main critiques of evangelical worship, and the main reason people jump ship for Canterbury, Rome, or Greece, is because our worship lacks any kind of otherness. It's too much aw-shucks and 'Good morning everybody' with little to suggest that what we are gathered to do on Sunday morning is awe inspiring and set apart."
V. "Finally, Viola's reconstruction of the early church is hugely mistaken. The worship of the early church was simply not without ritual and structure."
DeYoung elaborates on each of these points and for those who are interested in finding out more, the chapter is will worth the read. My point here is simply to show that Viola's arguments, though very popular in evangelicalism, do not carry weight when put under any kind of thoughtful scrutiny. The problem, however, is that sometimes Christian leaders take it for granted that the problems are so obvious that they do not realize that many people within their own congregations are being taken in by the seemingly impressive logic of bad argumentation.
Confession of an Ambition Junkie
Some people complain that their ambitions are so much larger than what God wants them to do and they struggle nobly to yield to God. My problem is the opposite. I love my petty ambitions. God’s ambitions for me are too grandiose, far-reaching, over-the-top, and extravagant for my liking.
I want to
-write a book
-make a movie
-start five or six churches (some which grow to be very influential)
-give large sums to help the poor
-make friends with influential people in order to influence politics and movements
-preach to thousands
-serve and suffer spectacularly, modeling for God’s people what it is to take up one’s cross daily
-write a hymn
-be above average.
That kind of stuff.
It seems like God’s ambitions for me are more along these lines:
-befriend a discouraged person who has no influence
-high-five the little boy who has no dad
-speak up for the little girl who is being neglected by her parents at school and has no protection
-spend hours to write a personal letter to one individual who has not counselor to help him think through a spiritual problem
-make friends with the guy in the shop who’s opening up to me about his marriage because he has no person with whom he can be safely vulnerable
-open my doors to the lesbian because she has no Christian in her life
-advocate for the abuse victim because she has no advocate
-listen to the bitter and angry teen because he has no one that will listen to him
-be me because God has no other one to be uniquely and totally and unreservedly me
You know. Basically average Christian stuff.
These ambitions are too radical for me. To be joyfully average? That’s extreme. I mean, I know what history has indicated happens because of the joyfully average, but still. The story of God’s average people throughout history has revealed things like these:
-the befriended discouraged soul with no influence in turn influences someone who changes the world
-the little boy who has no dad grows up to be a model father
-the little girl who was not protected grows up to be a leader in school reform
-the person struggling with no counselor in turn counsels others with the very words that were shared with him and the stream of counsel trickles through generations
-the lesbian is freed from a one-dimensional understanding of Christianity because she has been loved by one who does not see her one-dimensionally
-the victim of abuse is given just enough hope to believe in eventual vindication and spreads the hope to other victims of abuse
-the angry teen eventually remembers that an adult listened to him and chooses to listen to his own angry teen
-and the millions of unknown Christians who have happily lived life just being who they are testify to the fullness of joy that comes to those who are unshackled from their petty ambitions for God and embrace his big ambitions for them in anonymous averageness.
But I want to do silly stuff instead. Now. God gives me a beach and I prefer my sandbox. Because in my sandbox I can be king. On the beach I’m just a kid dancing in the sunlight.
The kid dancing in the sunlight is the real me. And deep down I like that. If only I didn’t have such petty ambitions.
A Gardener with Scars
A Gardener with Scars.
The first Adam died in a garden. The Second Adam resurrected in a garden and he was mistaken for a gardener. Those with indomitable life appear so mundane.
This is one of the most remarkable features of Jesus Christ’s resurrection: his humility. The angels blazed with more brightness than he did post-resurrection. Jesus is still patiently waiting for his ultimate exaltation. Thus, those Christians who have death-defying life abiding in them still appear to an unbelieving world as merely regular; gardeners, gardeners with inexplicable scars. We are copies of our Elder Brother, the First Fruits of Resurrection, just ordinary people with the hidden glory of eternal life.
He is risen!
The Symmetry of the Life of Jesus
There is such a beautiful symmetry in the life of our Lord. It is as if there are bookends that mirror each other with thematic resemblance and frame the beginning and ending of the amazing life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Ephrem the Syrian noted this symmetry when he commented on the Triumphal Entry of Jesus. "He began with a manger and finished with a donkey, in Bethlehem with a manger, in Jerusalem with a donkey."
In the beginning of Jesus' life children played a dramatic role in the Massacre of of the Innocents. At the end of his life it was children who, again, played a dramatic role in shouting out the praises of God and waving palm branches.
Most remarkably, the glory of Jesus to draw all men to himself is seen in the beginning and end of his life. At the beginning, men from the East came asking, "Where is he who is born King of the Jews?" And at the end, men from the West came saying, "We would see Jesus."
Jesus' life is also a message, not just what he did and said. The fact of the incarnation is a powerful message, from beginning to end.
Join us for Good Friday Communion
Perhaps the climax of the year for the church of Jesus Christ is Holy Week. Holy Week is the time that the church collectively sets aside to remember and celebrate the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The highlights of the week are Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday (Easter).
This year, Redeemer Church will be meeting together with three other church to observe a special Good Friday Communion Service. These churches are Gracepoint Fellowship Church (Korean), Christian Telegu Church Fremont (Telegu), and Calvary Bible Church (English). We are excited to be celebrating Christ and the Gospel with these partner churches at the Roberts Avenue Project.
If you are in the Bay Area, consider joining together with us. Details below -
Address: 41354 Roberts Ave Fremont, CA 94538
Date: April 3
Reading Your Bible Daily
As a pastor one of the troubles that I have encountered among many sincere Christians is the guilt of "not having a great devotional life." I have tried very hard to free people of that guilt. There is nothing in the Word that requires daily Bible study or even reading. Prayer is our daily opportunity and, if we're tired, Jesus gently gives us the exact words to use or, if more energetic, an outline to follow in "The Lord's Prayer." But we have urged "personal devotions" and "God & I Time" to the point that the criticism of Gabriel Hebert should be considered.
We can encourage a devotionalism that is "manifestly for the élite, for the religiously gifted, for the few choice souls" which leaves "ordinary people out in the cold". We must have, instead, a paradigm of devotion that consecrates "the schoolboy's football and the shopkeeper's profits" and "we lose the essence of Christianity if we interpret it simply as a way of holiness, having for its end the salvation and the perfection of the individual soul. Personal religion, so interpreted, becomes a way of escape from the body by meditation and contemplation. But Christianity is the redemption of the body, and of common life, by the Divine action in the Incarnation."
Martyn-Lloyd Jones, the famous English pastor of the 20th century, once said that everyone should read their bibles every day except for mothers with toddlers! That wry concession admits human frailty even while it respects the hard work of motherhood.The old English Puritans said, rightly, that attending church was more important than personal bible reading. But our individualism has become a burden and we have lost appreciation for our communion with the saints. Time in the Word individually is a joy, a rare treat that most of God's people throughout the history of the Church have not had, not a duty. And if you can't get it in on any particular day, don't feel guilty. Be grateful you have a copy of God's Word with you; throughout the history of the Church most of God's people have never had their own copy of the Word and still don't.
So, if you have time to spend in daily bible time, glory in it. If you don't have the time, glory in the fact that you don't have to. Grace!
Emmanuel in the "World of Me" - A Christmas Meditation
Impenetrable world. Indomitable me. My soul is a stormy place. Cold and desolate. It is a world all to itself with its goblins and ogres and monsters lurking in every shadowy corner – some roam freely about the World of Me as if there is no fear of light because no other world called Human has ever accessed this World of Me.
They say that “no man is an island unto himself.” But this is only part of the truth. The damning reality is that every man is actually a world unto himself. The government of those worlds, of the World of Me, is rogue and brutal, as isolated and inaccessible to the wisdom of other worlds as North Korea, a hermit country, is from other free countries. Hermits are hermits because they cannot tolerate the image of God beaming wisdom into their isolation. There is barrenness and death and hatred and confusion and fear in the hermit country, The World of Me.
The World of Me needs a King. A new King. A good king. A king to be born into this world. Surreptitiously. Because if grace does not ease the True King into the World of Me harmlessly and child-like I will revolt so violently and dangerously that the steel trap of my sullen self-love will forever clang shut around my cold, hard dominion, freezing out the burning love of the Conquering King who is set on redeeming and renewing the World of Me. My soul, like a very sick body, will heave and wretch out the very nourishment designed for its healing.
So the King full of grace and truth sneaks in. When I’m not looking; where I least expect. This king does not parade in and overcome me with power ensuring my death by my certain rebellion. No. Instead a song is sung from Another World and it says, with warm and gentle tones, “Unto you a child is born. Don’t be afraid.”
A child! This is how God sneaks into my world. And the Child grows. He grows in the World of Me. Year by year the World of Me begins to thaw and warm to the love of God and the monsters and ogres and goblins begin to creep away.
Then I realize that if I could I would have flung the gates open, saying, “Come, Emmanuel!” But because I could not, Emmanuel stole into the dark World of Me as a helpless babe. This is why I like Christmas. For in the World of Me, impenetrable to all others, there now dwells a King.
Stop Using the "Black on Black Crime" Rebuttal
Our nation is in a very loud, emotional argument about race, crime, laws, and "the system." In The Gospel in Black & White: A Missiological Perspective on Ferguson I suggest that we attempt to view this dialogue as if we were a disinterested third party, paying attention only to be able to bring about a peaceful reconciliation between the two warring factions. In this piece, I'd suggest the same stance, but I speak primarily as a white evangelical to white evangelicals. I would like to address the problem of communication, particularly the use of "black on black crime" as a rebuttal to the concerns of African Americans who are decrying the systemic abuse of their young men.
I would ask our black friends to forebear while I direct this specifically to white Christians. We are not used to being addressed as a collective, the privilege of being the majority. And for my white Christian friends who are already miffed by the use of the word privilege in this context, please forebear. What are we saying as a white Christian community? What are we being understood to say? Much is getting lost in the communication. As ambassadors of Christ we must fix this problem because our main goal ought to be to communicate Christ, his Good News, and show to the world that we are his disciples because we love each other.
Missiologist David Hesselgrave said it best: "Communication is the missionary problem par excellence." And in his masterful history of Europe, historian Tim Blanning began with this powerful statement:
“Communication is central to human existence. Apart from basic physical functions such as eating and defecating, waking and sleeping, nothing is more central. Whether the form it takes is symbolic, as in speech, or physical, as in travel, it is communication between people and people, or between people and places, that weaves the social fabric (3).
Christian friends, we have a communication problem and it is tearing apart the social fabric of our nation, even negatively affecting families and churches.
On the following pages I will attempt to dissect one counter-argument, used often like a knock-out punch, by whites when feeling defensive and overwhelmed by the criticism of blacks about the number of blacks that have been killed by police officers.
The argument goes something like this:
If blacks are so concerned about #blacklivesmatter why don't they start doing something about black on black crime?
This is then followed with statistics of black on black crime and sometimes screenshots of statistics from, for example, the O'Reilly Show are put up as evidence of the grotesque difference between the number of black men killed by white officers and the numbers of black people killed by black people, or the disparity between the number of whites killed by police officers as compared to the number of blacks.
Rather than discuss the merit of the data, I would like to address the argument itself, particularly as it comes across on social media and in the context of family discussions around the dinner table. Something is not right about this argument. What is it?
The arguments are in and of themselves forms of communication that package the desires and fears of the communicators to the hearers, held together by the glue of moral reasoning. But we cannot hear the arguments. What we actually are distracted by is the data, because conclusions are supported on both sides by facts. Facts, however, are not truth. The truth of a matter is much more difficult to assess than merely culling data and facts to support our point of view.
Good Communication Understands that Facts and Truth are Not the Same Thing
First, facts and truth are not the same thing, especially when we are dealing with the truth as it relates to souls. Nations have souls. Collectives have souls. People are souls. In the conflict of souls we must understand that truth and facts are not the same thing. Truth is always more than facts when it comes to the truth of souls. Truth cannot contradict facts, but facts can be marshaled together, logically connected, and presented as a reasonable lie or misrepresentation of the truth. More than just data, truth is meaning, context, understanding, intention, heartbeat, big picture, and soul. The facts will support truth, but the facts never guarantee truth. The truth is always much harder to come by than the facts.
This is why in a conflict of souls it is extremely important that we attempt to understand the souls to get to the truth of the matter. Anyone that has ever tried to help two hurting people come together knows that what is said and what is meant are often two very different things. As Christians who long to be peacemakers in our society we should strive to understand the truth of a situation instead of shouting down our challengers with indisputable data.
People who think that they can assess truth on the grounds of facts alone are people who will never serve the peace of souls in the long run. Many whites need to understand the pain that many blacks feel because of the decisions in Ferguson and New York. We need to come to grips with the fact that factual accuracy and legal precision can team up to promote a lie. We must listen to trusted Christians in the minority group who are, by their protests, suggesting to us the reality that systemic injustice can flourish with just the facts and the truth can die at the hands of the law. They don't believe truth was served despite the facts that legally exonerate the officers.
On the other hand, some of our black friends need to understand that the law will never adequately serve truth. The legal system is a slave of facts. Most are already aware of this painful reality experientially, but even as they fight for fairness in the judicial system, it is imperative that they understand that no person and no new law will be their messiah. Justice will only come through sustained pursuit of peace. This takes generations of black and white peacemakers who know that truth and facts are not the same thing.
Good Communication Depends on Respecting the Categories of Moral Reasoning used by the Aggrieved Party
This is more complex, but I believe it is absolutely vital for thoughtful communication. In a deep argument with another person we cannot switch categories on them in order to misrepresent their argument. This is more subtle than just pretending they said something they did not say. This is actually using their words against them by responding to a different kind of argument than they are making. Husbands and wives have pulled these shenanigans for years. But allow me to explain:
The average Freshmen in college learns about the difference between consequential moral reasoning and categorical moral reasoning with the noxiously overused illustration of the trolley car on a track. They are told to imagine being the conductor of the trolley car that is careening toward five unaware workers on the track ahead of them. However, in the track ahead of them there is a switch that will steer them on to another track on which there is only one worker. They are then asked what they would do? Most say that they would immediately switch tracks and kill one person for the sake of saving five people. In this case, consequential moral reasoning makes sense to most Freshmen. Fewer deaths are better than more deaths is the justification of their quick decision.
But the same Freshmen are less confident when asked what they would do if they were on a bridge that overpassed the tracks on which the out-of-control trolley was running toward the five unsuspecting workers and they had the opportunity to push on to the tracks a fat man that will be killed, yes, but stop the deadly trolley from killing fiver workers. Most struggle with this one.
At this point, the professor pedantically and purposely "mocks" the students for wrestling with the question, suggesting that they stick to their fewer deaths is better than more deaths rationale. But, of course, it is not that easy. Usually, Freshmen ethicists are then introduced to a Kantian categorial moral reasoning in which some things are always right or wrong. While it is conceded that consequential moral reasoning is not always immoral, it is also emphasized that this kind of reasoning is generally weak reasoning. It is usually over-simplified as a simple ends-justifies-the-means rationale.
Now, enter the "black on black crime" riposte. (I use the word riposte here on purpose because it is most often used as a checkmate, end of conversation.) The African American community is rebuffed by the cold, hard facts of "black on black" crime. The implication is obvious: They should shut their mouths, stop complaining, and quit killing each other.
Some problems with the argument..
First of all, it is a very subtle ad hominem argument because it portrays the argument of the black community (and, therefore, disparages the black community) as a classically weak argument based upon consequential moral reasoning. It pretends that the African American community is only concerned about the mathematics of the situation, the consequences, the numbers of their tribe being diminished, and that the essence of their argument is that too many black boys are getting killed. Thus, the easy rebuttal is, "Well, stop killing yourselves then."
When white Christians use this argument against black Christians they are essentially dismissing their moral concerns as merely utilitarian while emphasizing the "otherness" of their community, the very problem that the black community is trying to eliminate. It is "otherness" in the liberty and justice for all that is at the very heart of the problem according to most of our black brothers and sisters in Christ. To say in response to their concerns about the slaying of black men at the hands of our government that they just need to worry themselves first and foremost about "black on black" crime is not a helpful communication even though it is factually true that more blacks die at the hands of blacks than do by the gun of policemen. This is, in my mind, a racism that pervades the white rhetoric even if it is not consciously in their minds when they blurt it out.
The "black on black crime" rebuttal is an insult to the intelligence and morality of the Christian African American community because they are, in fact, presenting to the nation a concern that is grounded, not on consequential moral reasoning, but on categorical moral reasoning. If their concern was strictly utilitarian they'd settle for a deal like this: if you can cut your black on black crime by 50% we will guarantee the diminishment of police brutality by 50% and then fewer black boys will be killed. Of course, they would not accept this because they are not grounding their concerns in raw utilitarianism. They are, in fact, making a complaint about systemic injustice that is supported by sound moral reason; to answer their argument as if it is merely a utilitarian argument is gravely insulting.
If I may detour a little bit just to say that I find it very disturbing when whites make the argument because it is a not-so-subtle way of saying, "You people." Your kind needs to take care of itself. Survival of the fittest. While the black community issues its complaint with the we/them language regarding the systemic issues in our country, it is immoral and unjust for white Christians to issue a counterpoint to their we/them differentiation with a you/them rhetoric. Too many Christians think that blacks do not have the right to use we/you rhetoric because it is racist. However, I would argue that in an argument between two collectives (in this case, the dominate white culture and the minority black culture) it is justifiable that one party have more leeway with the we/you rhetoric than the other party.
Suppose white evangelicals are incensed that their children who are being justly incarcerated for their bad behavior are getting targeted in prison for sexual molestation because they are Christian and no one likes Christians. Suppose the prison guards turn their heads the other way whenever one of our children is getting molested. Suppose we decide to band together and object to the systemic "turning of the head" toward our children, saying that too many of our children are getting molested in prison. We use a we/you rhetoric when we go to the streets to protest our grievance. Now, suppose we are told on Fox News the IRREFUTABLE (because it would certainly be shouted) fact that most Christian children who have ever been molested were molested in the Church and that if we really care about the sexual crimes against our children we should address the issues of the Church first. Furthermore, we are scorned by the talk show hosts for using we/you rhetoric when this is a concern that affects all Americans.
That would be systemic injustice toward our children and the response of the conservatives would smack of anti-Christian bias to us even if all they were doing was being sloppy in their argumentation.
Welcome to the plight of the African American community.
In the case of the molestation of children in the Church, the fact that the facts are irrefutable ignores the truth of the matter that concerns us. If we were making a simple utilitarian argument then the facts shouted at us by unconcerned citizens would be relevant. But we are not making a utilitarian argument. We are making a moral argument grounded in categorical moral, biblical, and American reasoning: that we are a land with the promise of justice for all and systemic isolation of any people group is categorically unjust.
The "black on black crime" argument is racist because it ironically discriminates racially by the very people who are using it to rebuke blacks for not being good Americans and desisting from crime. It forces African Americans to think of crime in terms of "black on black crime." I am white. I do not have to think about crime in terms of "white on white crime." I don't have to think in terms of "black on white crime." I get to think about crime just as crime, as if I am a human being in a world of human beings who are potentially criminal. Yet we verbally chastise the African American community for being race hustlers and thinking of themselves as a collective instead of individuals while simultaneously demanding that they think in terms of "black on black crime".
Good Communication Feels the Aggrieved Party
We need to feel what the other one is feeling to get at the truth of a matter. I always wondered what "bowels of mercy" in the King James Version of Philippians 2:1 meant. It's uninterestingly translated affection in the ESV, but the word is more like guts, intestines, entrails, or bowels. While I cannot be certain, I think that it is possible for Spirit-filled Christians just to feel along with other Christians in our gut. The black community wants to be fully and freely and safely American. Can't you feel that? It's an instinct to feel with mercy.
If Christian whites really want Christian blacks to feel like they are a part of us then we should refuse to use we/you rhetoric when talking to them about systemic injustice. Because the system is something is not just fact, but feeling. Let me explain:
Going back to our Freshman philosophy illustration of the trolley on the track. Supposing it is your loved one that is the lone person on the track that is selected in order to save the lives of the five who were on the other track. You could live with the quick thinking rationale of the conductor because you might have done the same thing in the flash of a moment. But suppose this same accident happens again. And again. And each time the lone person on the track happens to be a loved one of yours and the five workers that just so happen to be members of the conductor's family. No matter how rational the decision, you'd begin to suspect something was wrong systemically because your loved one was always isolated on a track.
We could all feel along with this scenario even if we knew that, rationally, it was just a string of bad luck. But this illustration fails because it doesn't get at the heart of the meaning of the word systemic.
Systemic is a word that talks about the whole. When the black community rises up in protest about systemic injustice they are saying, "We are all sick." To retort that they need to take care of themselves is to say, in essence, "you are not part of the whole." But there are two reasons why white Christians in America should feel what they are saying and hurt alongside the black community besides the fact that we are all human. The first is that we are Christians in one body and if any members of the body hurt we should not dismiss them with political jargon, partisanship, and cultural bias. Secondly, we are Americans and as horribly as we have treated the black community we have begun the long process of restoration by saying, loudly, that they are Americans too.
Just as we would want American government to look into the abuse of our children (defined narrowly as Christian children) in prison on the grounds that we are American, so we cannot ignore the cries of our black brothers and sisters who say that they are being unfairly singled out by our system with trite and flippant data about "black on black" crime. Instead, we should recognize the American principle that we are our own government, we are governed by us, and that blacks who feel the weight of systemic unfairness are feeling it, not from them, but from us. Furthermore, it is not they alone who are suffering, but we are suffering the systemic injustice of us on us.
Our gut should tell us something. We have to have Solomonic analysis when he threatened to cut the baby in half. The real mother objected passionately because she couldn't bear to see her child die. The person with the most emotional investment is the one who might lead us to the just solution. Look past the vitriolic criminality of looters on the street and look into the faces of the godly, black mothers and fathers. Your gut should tell you they have a point. To dismiss the truth hidden in the looters' excesses is akin to rejecting the claims of Christianity hidden in the excesses of Benny Hinn. As Christians we do not like it when our cherished feelings are rejected on the grounds of excesses that have been done in the name of Christianity by other people. How can fair-minded white Christians do this to the black community generally?
The irony here is that the black community is not monolithic, but our "black on black crime" argument treats them as "you people" and "your monolith." Yes, the black community is coming before the nation for justice as a black community, but they are not a monolith. There are many ungodly among them. There is, of course, a criminal element. To choose to let the criminal element be the voice of the black community is to voluntarily choose to not understand the black community.
We are a nation that must find a just solution to our anxiety and the true mother in this scenario is not the system. It is not the criminal element. It is not the looters. The true mother, the woman who agonized through the birth of civil rights and will mourn the setback of unjust analysis of Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Garner, is the hundreds of thousands of God-fearing, upright citizens who are black. It is these people, the majority of the black community, who are not getting heard in the media because the truth of these Americans is a narrative that doesn't fit the narrative of white conservatives who feel defensive about anything that criticizes their idyllic conception of America and the more liberal media that favors the splash and sensationalism of the "angry black man."
It is a tragedy that white Christians cannot quickly perceive who the real mother is. I think we could get to the truth of this problem, despite the facts, if we decided to embrace good communication with black Christians and remembered these three simple rules:
- Good communication understands that facts and truth are not the same thing.
- Good communication depends on respecting the categories of moral reasoning used by the aggrieved party.
- Good communication feels the aggrieved party.
Peacemakers in Black and White
Have you ever been misjudged on the basis of facts alone? Have you ever had someone ignore the real you on the grounds of irrefutable facts? Tonight as we watch our nation once again vent its hurt and anger over the decision in Ferguson, we must remember that just as it is not just to deal with the souls of people in conflict on the grounds of facts alone, it is not just for those of us who are in the dominate culture to base our sense of justice on facts alone. It is possible that in the court of law the admissible facts fail the truth. Because truth and facts are not the same thing.
In the horror of relational misunderstanding, the hurting soul wants to be understood not only on the basis of stubborn facts. The soul wants truth to be served. Peacemakers understand that facts are stubborn and dangerous and effective for legality and accuracy, but legality and accuracy are not the same thing as truth and justice. Our President is right. We are a nation of laws. But the angry souls of thousands who sense that justice is not being served are also intuitively right. Legality and accuracy and facts don't always guarantee truth.
Nations have souls. Collectives have souls. People are souls. In the conflict of souls we must understand that truth and facts are not the same thing and pursue peace. The pursuers of peace know that truth cannot contradict facts, but facts can be marshaled together, logically connected, and presented as a reasonable lie or misrepresentation of the truth. Truth is more than facts. Truth is meaning, context, understanding, intention, heartbeat, and big picture, and soul. Truth includes history. The facts will support truth, but the facts never guarantee truth. The truth is always much harder to come by than the facts.
People who think that they can assess truth on the grounds of facts alone are people who will never serve the peace of souls in the long run. Many whites need to understand the pain that many blacks feel because of the decision tonight. I grieve with my black brothers and sisters who are mourning tonight because their souls scream out in beaten-down despair that truth was not served. Peacemakers should empathize. We who are the majority race who want to serve a peacemaking role should resist the simplistic acceptance of the factually accurate and the legally correct and honor the rich complexity of the human soul and admit that if their righteous souls are indignant and unsatisfied that it is clearly possible that truth has been betrayed by facts.
Black Christians who feel betrayed by the law (as well as the rest of us who are similarly shocked when injustice in our relationships occurs, albeit "factually supported") need to understand that the law can never adequately serve truth. It is a slave of facts. People who are hurting or being unjustly served long for peacemakers to enter the scene of their brokenness. It is time that the Church of Jesus Christ present itself in our racially torn nation.
Justice will only come through sustained pursuit of peace and peacemakers know that truth and facts are not the same thing."Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God"(Matthew 5:9). Our nation needs the children of God right now.
Liturgy for the Introvert
Introverts need the liturgy. I know because I (Bob) am an introvert that leads a fairly public life. But my public life is not really involved with others in the sense that I share myself intimately and, when I do, it seems to backfire. For example, on the rare occasions I have opened up or wept, I've had people tell me I was emotionally fragile. Little did they know that all the yeas they knew me I was emotionally fragile! So I don't open up and I don't like going to church to gush in group therapy that is called an "atmosphere of worship." But as an introvert I need church. Liturgy is what opened up church to me and me to God. Here's an excerpt from a great book on liturgy that illustrates that this point so beautifully.
Excerpt from Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy by Mark Galli
To be honest, I do not want to love God perfectly. I like to love him sometimes, but I need a break from God now and then. Even when I feel like loving him, I always hold something back. I'm frightened of loving God perfectly. I don't know what he'd want of me, and I'm too scared to even think about it. I live a pretty good life, and most people would consider me pretty religious. But it's respectable religion I enjoy; religion that leave me some personal space.
I've spent a lot of energy in my life making sure I have some space. I've never loved anyone or anything whole hog. I've always held something back, lest I get hurt, lest I start feeling trapped, lest I find myself having to do things I really don't want to do. It's one reason I've battled loneliness my whole life. But given that I keep up this pattern, I must think the trade off worth it.
In contrast to this lifestyle, I find this unnerving prayer at the beginning of the liturgy I participate in every week:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
That we may perfectly love God - yikes! But that is what the liturgy intends to do to us, help us perfectly love God. And it's the reason I keep participating in liturgical worship. A person like me needs to be reminded regularly that I have been made for this. And I need practice at this love. When it comes to love, the liturgy is both teacher and coach.
The liturgy reminds me that I've been made to love God "perfectly." It doesn't mean perfect in some abstract ethical sense, love with no mistakes. A perfect evening with a lover doesn't mean every course of the meal was delicious or that every part of the conversation sang. It means that the evening as a whole contained all the elements that go into a romantic evening: good food and wine, engaging conversation, and a slow and elegant dance toward union. As my wife and I lie in bed afterward thinking about the shape of the whole evening, including the brief argument before dessert, we're still apt to say, "That was perfect evening." TO love God perfectly means to love God fully, with heart, soul, mind, and strength. We've noted in various ways how the liturgy engages the heart, soul, mind, and strength, but we've only skimmed the edges when it comes to the Object of love. The liturgy does not hesitate to repeat the essential nature of that Object, and it does so because once we know and experience this particular God, loving him perfectly becomes that much more possible.
The Second Generation Christian
The real difficulty for those who have grown up in the faith is that they have answers before they have questions. And questions validate answers. So the belief experience is very different and may, depending on the psychological makeup of a person, be much more complicated. We have to be tempted. And, in a sense, we have to prodigalize. We all need to come to our senses when it comes to our faith. This is not a license to sin. But this is saying that pounding into our heads that “Jesus is the Answer” before we ever had a question can put us at risk of thinking we have answered the questions of our soul when, in fact, they have never been raised. And we might trick ourselves into thinking that having the answers the questions will never come.
It can be quite a shock for the young adult to wake up with questions that she never thought she'd have to encounter. For a person like me, a man who was put into the Gospel ministry while still in my teens, confident that I had the Answer AND the answers, nothing was more upsetting in my life than the slow unraveling of satisfaction in my heart and mind for answers that used to seem so invincible. I was not prepared for questions that would issue from my own heart and mind because I truly thought that answers precluded questions. At the same time nothing has been more rewarding to see the faith of my childhood, under the barrage of questions, stand. But some of my answers collapsed. The Second Generation Christian needs a prodigal/Jesus encounter, coming to Jesus "from the other side" even if the other side is only in his or her mind.
The adult experience of many Second Generation Christians is much like that of Francis Scott Key who was trapped overnight in the belly of the very ship that was attacking the fort of his homeland. He was a nervous spectator feeling the recoil of the cannons on his ship as bombs burst in the air.He wasn't an enemy, but he had the enemy's perspective. But just like him I have spotted with the light of the rockets’ red glare through the din of attack on the fortress of my faith that the banner, the Banner of Love, is still there. I sometimes want to testify to the secret fears of the Second Generation, “O, say can you see?!”
The Gospel in Black and White: A Missiological Perspective on Ferguson
Ferguson. We've all been watching the news. The headlines emphasize a racial tension, specifically the tension between blacks and whites. But there is another tension that does not get as much press, an awkward reality that cannot be ignored. It is the uncomfortable conflict of opposing views within the Christian community, particularly white Christians and black Christians. It is not that this is altogether forgotten by the media. On August 17, 2014 the Washington Post ran an article about the parallel universes, as one black pastor put it, that separate white Christians from black Christians. It was entitled Two churches in Missouri are filled with faith, but common ground remains elusive.
Why is the common ground so elusive? Why is it that sincere Christians, white and black, instinctively analyze a crisis like Ferguson along color lines when they both love the same Lord? Many white Christians sincerely wonder how any sincere black Christian can take offense at their calls for delayed judgement "until all the facts are out" while seemingly ignoring the alleged bad behavior of the victim that put him into conflict with a police officer in the first place. And many black Christians wonder how any sincere white Christian can not see the obvious problem of prejudice and white-on-black abuse of authority that exacerbates tension and escalates any confrontation between black youth and white authority in ways that are manifestly unfair. And so the churches meet separately. The whites pray for the officer who is a "good man" who risks his life daily to fight for crime. The blacks pray for the family of the victim who is a "good boy" who was unjustly and prematurely cut down by white privilege. While neither side will go out into the streets and throw Molotov cocktails at each other because they are law-abiding Christians, their sympathies which are visceral and spiritual come together like the repulsive force between two north pole magnets. In other words, it is in crises like Ferguson that a repulsive force of seemingly opposing sympathies is most felt between white and black Christians.
Perhaps one of the problems is that pastors, black and white, need to adopt a different posture in the racial conflict than what is normally practiced. Perhaps we should step aside and look at the tension from the perspective of an outsider. Much like a missionary seeking to reconcile two tribes that have woven into the fabric of their respective cultures a hostility toward one another, the gospel preacher must yearn to bring hostile communities together on that embarrassingly "elusive common ground". Embarrassing because both communities claim the same Lord, the same Bible, the same Gospel, the same Hope and yet we can't pray together in the same way when a Ferguson happens.
Outsiders tend to look at conflicts between parties with more objective emotions, if not more actual knowledge of the grievances and pain that have been experienced by the warring communities. Therefore, they are sometimes more clearheaded about what the real problems are. The Hatfields and the McCoys have been fighting for so long that they don't even know what they're mad about. The McCoys just know that if the Hatfields had anything to do with it they don't like it. And the Hatfields know that if McCoys like anything, they hate it.
Enter the Gospel. It is the news from the Outsider. And it is brought by ambassadors from Another Place. Ambassadors from another place know that their news of reconciliation has to penetrate three different cultures: the McCoy culture, the Hatfield culture, and the Hatfield/McCoy culture. Foreign missionaries who are addressing warring factions know that the Good News must penetrate cultures (plural), and they know that they can best communicate cross-culturally when they learn the language and the culture of each party.
This is to say that the racial conflict in our country is deeper than skin. It is a cultural issue. There is a black culture and a white culture. There is an American culture and an Evangelical culture. And Christian pastors will not be able to have an effective ambassadorial work until they familiarize themselves with both cultures with the detached objectivity of a foreign ambassador.
What is culture? There have been many definitions of culture that range from a few words to multiple paragraphs, but perhaps one of the more famous definitions is most helpful for this conversation. I will present my thoughts about the Gospel in Black and White by using two very simple -- and definitely not comprehensive -- definitions of culture. It would be more accurate to say that I am using parts of a complicated understanding of culture to advance my proposal. Culture is, among many other things,
- shared understanding, and
- shared values.
The first comes from Robert Redfield who said simply that culture is "shared understandings made manifest in act and artifact." When Michael Brown was slain on August 9, 2014 what followed between white and black Americans was anything but shared understanding. Instead, as it did in the Trayvon Martin case and in many cases prior to Michael Brown, there surged into the American consciousness a conflict of seemingly irreconcilable understandings. Blacks understand the crisis in one way and whites understand it another way and dialogue between the communities gets sabotaged by leaders who need crises to be relevant. This is further complicated by the political nature of the crisis and so liberals, conservatives, libertarians and the myriad of nuanced shades of political ideologies in those categories all have their own preferred interpretation of Ferguson. But the focus of this article is the very real tension that arises between black Christians and white Christians. Both love the Gospel, but both are watching the evening news with different understandings, and those understandings are so deeply embedded into our sense of identity that we cannot even pray to our common Lord together.
Obviously, the problem is not the Gospel. But on the face of it the Gospel does not seem to be the solution either. I would suggest that a large part of the problem is the preachers of the Gospel who are missing an opportunity to do ambassadorial work that is truly culturally relevant because if the Gospel is not the solution there is no solution.
The Gospel is not partisan and the Gospel comes most effectively through preachers who, like Jesus, enter into the context of the conflict with the goal of sympathizing. They have an incarnational approach to gaining understanding of the conflict that divides the tribes. They don't interpret social events in black or white. They see colors, hues, shades, light, and darkness. As my friend, Dr. Ed Copeland says, they are committed to "learning the narrative of the other". They see creatures created in God's image, and they see Christians who have the Spirit of Christ indwelling them, a Spirit who has baptized all redeemed humanity, black and white, into one body.
Preachers of the Gospel have to be outsiders while politicians fight for the role of champion insiders. I suggest that too often black preachers of the Gospel have been tempted to be less ambassadors of another city than advocates for their community while too many white preachers of the Gospel have never even bothered to consider the fact that they minister from the position of unjust privilege.
Politicians may enjoy capitalizing on the differences, and many hope that these angry outbursts will turn into movements. The language is already employed in the media. Movements get their momentum in tragedy and in a heightened perception of hostility. Opportunists on all sides clamor for simple, reductionistic explanations that will cohere their group identity. And too often it is around their personae. This is the way self-serving leaders work. As Paul said, "They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them" (Galatians 4:17). The point is this: opportunistic leaders like the chance to seal off one group from another in order to inflate their significance as a messiah for the wronged group. Politicians need opportunity to forge collectives that advance their causes and their personal ambitions. This is the way social change has always happened.
All of these are merely the outworking of social movement. Social movement is the shifting of society into collectives by which individuals can feel rescued from threats real or perceived. It gives them a sense of belonging and safety. They are bumped and prodded and coaxed and goaded and frightened into groups in which they feel best identifies who they are as individuals. Some may even be there reluctantly, but they feel safe there. People long to belong and social crises as we see happening in Ferguson are often more about identity crises than anything else. The fifth generation Hatfield only feels like he really belongs when he is shooting at the McCoys. Thus, reductionistic explanations and stereotypes are all he needs to feel vindicated in his fiery outburst as a proud Hatfield. And in that outburst there's a sense of renewal. As sociologist Jeffrey Alexander said, "Virtually every kind of modern collectivity. . .seems to depend at one time or another on integrative processes that create some sense of shared identity, even if these are forged, as they all too often are, in opposition to simplistic constructions of those who are putatively on the other side." Whites imagine blacks don't care about law and order and close their eyes to the disrespectful behavior of the young men toward authority. Blacks imagine whites don't care if black kids die and that predominately white police forces seem trigger happy when it comes to black children. Both are "simplistic constructions of those who are putatively on the other side."
The problem is that for the black Christian and the white Christian there really should not be another side. Both black and white preachers of the Gospel have to approach the feud as outsiders who, like their Master, are prepared to identify with the people he is saving. Jesus is the Ultimate Sympathizer and this can only be done with ambassadorial effect when outsiders enter fellowship with the true identity of those they wish to minister to. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. I am a white American and so I have to detach myself from my automatic white sympathies in order to learn black sympathies by choice. This is incarnational gospel ministry.
How might we do this? We must do this by immediately choosing to respect the understanding of the culture that we are approaching. If we are white we need to dignify the the black understanding of Ferguson with immediate respect and ban our censorious simplifications and reductionisms. We must choose to look through their lenses if we are to truly empathize and until we empathize we will never be able to be effective ministers of reconciliation.
But how can we identify their understanding of a situation? How can we immediately move from simple respect to shared understanding?
We could begin by understanding the values of the black community.
Many whites bristle when they are told that they may be contributing to a racist system, or conveying racially insensitive communication. They have a black friend! They hire black people! And, by golly, if the white police office is proved guilty after due process he should be punished to the fullest extent of the law! How can anyone think that they are racist?!
Similarly many blacks perceive racism in the actions and words of godly whites when, in fact, there is none. David Hesselgrave famously said, "The missionary problem par excellence is communication." Perhaps the real problem between white Christians and black Christians is communication. Perhaps what they think they are saying is not really being heard.
Let me give an illustration of potentially offensive communication that comes from white Christian leaders that conveys the wrong message although it is usually stated sincerely. Almost ten times out of ten when a white leader is asked about the situation in Ferguson the reply is something like this: "Well, we don't know the facts." And the accompanying action is one of silence. This sometimes infuriates blacks and frustrates them at the very least. Some wish to scream out, "Here's a fact that we do know. An unarmed teenager from our minority community was killed by a predominately white police force and his body was left to lay in the street for four hours. How can you call yourself a decent Christian and not be outraged by that?" To which the white Christian, especially upon hearing that the teen had allegedly been misbehaving earlier in a store, responds with sanctimonious grief, "How can you claim to be a follower of Jesus and not care about the fact that the white police officer may have been trying to do his job while dealing with a lawbreaker? This is not about race! Gasp! I am NOT RACIST! If the white officer is guilty, prosecute! Wait for due process."
But the issue is not about the morality of the individual officer, whether he was justified or not. The issue is about the value of black life and the seemingly easy way in which it is disposed of by a white system of policing.
The practical reality of this cultural communication conflict is best understood as a misunderstanding of values. Culture, among other things, is shared values. The black community has values that are different than the white community. Values and the priority of those values determine our actions or reactions in any given situation. If I am eating a sandwich in the park on my lunch break and see a chicken dart into the busy street I will not suddenly spit out my sandwich, scream out an alarm, bolt into the street, adrenaline shooting through the roof, wildly flailing my arms to alert the traffic, risking my very life like I would if it were a child running into the street. Why? Because I highly value the life of a child. I only value a chicken if it is dead and grilled. Values are often revealed in my knee-jerk reactions or non-reactions. Would a white boy's body have lain in the streets of Ferguson for four hours? Actions and reactions reveal value and non-value.
Whites are confused by the outcry of blacks from all over the country when a black boy is killed. This is because whites do not value their white collective in the same way that blacks value their black collective. The black culture values the black community. They value the black collective. It was through community that the blacks prevailed through the Civil Rights Era. In fact, it is through community that African Americans survive still. They feel much more dependent on community than we whites do.
Whites, on the other hand, simply do not see themselves as a collective. We are the proverbial fish in the water that sincerely asks, "What is water?" We see ourselves as Missourians, Bears fans, cowboys, motorcyclists, Democrats, evangelicals, and countless other possibilities, but we do not feel ourselves to be part of a white collective. Thus, when our black friends feel the impact of Ferguson even though they are three states away we scratch our heads and wonder how in the world this whole affair became a white/black thing when it just happened to be a white office that killed a black youth while in the line of duty. How, we wonder, can this be so visceral to them? As one black pastor friend said, he was vicariously traumatized. Honestly, I was not similarly traumatized. I went to bed that night without the feeling that one of us had killed one of them because as a white I don't even get the feeling of a white us. In the same week a white teenage girl was shot and killed by the police three blocks away from my home. Naturally there were questions about the police procedures and an investigation is taking place, but no white person felt like one of us had been eliminated by a large impersonal other. It wasn't until I consciously chose to respect the understanding and interpretation of black Christians that I sorrowfully recognized my slowness to sympathize with them.
White christians trust too much their initial feelings, not realizing that feelings are shaped by understanding. I do not say that black Christians do not have the same temptation. I am speaking, however, as a white Christian preacher, trying to model ambassadorial effort. We have to understand that our instincts and knee-jerk analyses are products of our culture.
The reason for this is in the question of value. The fact that trumps all other facts emotionally in the culture that values the black collective as a minority community is that there is one less black boy of an already too-few number, dead at the hands of a white system that seemingly does not share that value. This assumption that a white system does not value black life seems proven when the force seems more trigger happy when the black youth is the target or when the force leaves his body on the street for hours before picking it up. As the value of a child would call up from deep within me a visceral, passionate, death-defying lurch toward the street in the flash of an eye, in the same way the devaluing of a chicken fails to to call up the visceral reaction in my soul and body to do something about it. In the same way, the black community senses from whites who calmly munch on their sandwich and say, "We don't have all the facts yet" a devaluation of a black life. They do not see what whites think they are conveying, a calm deliberation that waits for due process and accepts the rule of justice. Instead, they hear from our inability to sympathize, "It's just another black thug with sagging pants that wasn't respecting authority."
White evangelicals need to learn that it is not enough to have a black friend or to love a black person. One must love the black community. We who are white have grown up in a world where blacks must learn to live with us but where we have never had to learn to live with them. We love to go to a black church as tourists, but we do not want to go there as members. One must love the community that an individual comes from to truly love that individual, especially if the culture of that community places such a high value on its community.
In the 2014 sitcom Welcome to Sweden Bruce, an American accountant moves to Sweden with his girlfriend and becomes friends with an older Iraqi who hates America but accepts Bruce because Bruce, in his desire to have a friend, introduced himself as a Canadian. The charade goes on until Bruce can no longer stand being "accepted" by someone who does not accept where he comes from and dumps the friendship. In the same way, many evangelical Christians cannot comprehend what is possibly wrong with their sincere efforts to accept black individuals while they persistently refuse to accept where they come from. Only when Christians begin to love the black community will they ever begin to truly love black people. In so doing they will begin to share the same values that the black community shares. White christians who rail on black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as race baiters do not comprehend that they are actually alienating most blacks, even those who do not share the same views as Sharpton and Jackson or the Black Panther or any other person or party that cares about the black collective. Because one thing that almost all African Americans have in common is a deep-rooted value of the black community.
If we white Christians are really earnest about healing the rift between black Christians and white Christians we will make a firm commitment to care about the black community as a whole and interpret the tragedy of Ferguson in light of what a minority culture is telling us about its values and understandings, and we will humbly trust godly black Christians to help us feel the way they feel. Until we act incarnationally we are not loving Christianly. Then, and only then, will the "elusive common ground" between black Christians and white Christians begin to pierce through the fog of cultural differences and what we see will be the cross of Jesus Christ where we all go to die to ourselves.
The Gospel in black and white is this: there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Church.
A Church for Wounded Racers
A number of years ago in a prior church ministry, I wrote the following words, inspired by the story of Olympian Derek Redmond who was running his dream race and suffered a horrible injury before the finish line. His father shoved his way through the crowd, ignored the stadium personnel that tried to get him off the track, put his arm around his son, and helped him limp across the line. It was beautiful. Youtube it. I was so blessed to be in a church in Rockford, Illinois that loved me the way Derek's father loved him. It is my hope that Redeemer of Fremont will become a church like this:
The Derek Redmond of Ministry
I feel like I’m the Derek Redmond of ministry. I’m in the race. Sort of. In the race, but not with those who run like the wind. All aspirations of being in the pack or ahead of the pack are lost. Finding out that I don’t have what it takes to run with the winners has collapsed me. All I’m trying to do is muster the will to finish. One inglorious step after another, praying for the finish line. To die is gain. But to live must be – it has to be, please! – fruitful labor necessary on the account of the Church even if it is only to show that hobbling too is a trophy of grace.
What we need – what I need – is a church like Derek Redmond’s father who from the distance sees the faltering runner, his blood brother, and starts pushing and shoving through the fracas of mundanity to get to the elbow of the stumbling saint. Somebody has to break out of the crowds of spectators who are too dull to know the real spirit of the race, defy professional protocol, wave off the guardians of conventional wisdom, stiff-arm the lifeless moralists, get on the track and help their brother cross the line.
I want to be a church like Redmond’s father that shoos off conventionalism and makes a practice of hooking up with the faltering, crossing the line arm in arm if necessary. I want to be a church like the assistants of the blind marching band in this year’s Rose Bowl Parade who quietly walked alongside their needy musician satisfied to be only a steadying, comforting, and guiding hand while the one who conventional wisdom had declared unable to ever make music in a marching band marches and makes music.