There is vanity under the sun,
An emptiness common to man.
Smart guys who care nothing for love,
And those who love with little thought.
Each regards the other as the worse problem
when desperately they need each other to be whole.
There is vanity under the sun,
An emptiness common to man.
Smart guys who care nothing for love,
And those who love with little thought.
Each regards the other as the worse problem
when desperately they need each other to be whole.
I’ve only felt a sense of calling this clearly and strongly on one other occasion. That’s when I first saw my wife and knew in an instant that I would marry her. A certainty something like that attends this call to be a part of the Anacostia River Church mission.
Two weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, the spiritual family of God called Anacostia River Church (ARC) launched its first public service. The service came with the swiftness of a flooded river. Before we knew it, we were busy about ordering supplies, organizing ministry teams, and “launching” a church. I don’t know who first coined the term “launch” when it comes to church “plants” (an interesting mixed metaphor), but they were onto something for we were jumping and flinging ourselves fully into the work! And what a joy it’s been!
People frequently ask me, “How’s the church plant going?” I’m grateful for the love and interest that prompts that query. But I’ve yet to find an adequate way of describing the great privilege I have of shepherding along with two incredibly gifted and godly elders, or the slight staggering I feel when I think of the amazing people the Lord has sent on this mission, or the awe at seeing how the Lord has provided for us at every turn, or the quickening happening in my soul as we work to evangelize the neighborhood. Starting a new church produces a lot of good fruit when the Lord blesses it!
But one thing amazes me more than any other. I don’t know why it amazes me so, but it does. It’s this: the number of people who pray for our efforts in southeast DC.
Now, I know Christians pray all the time and pray for all kinds of things. And I know a lot people who say, “I’m praying for you,” really mean “I wish you well” instead of actually praying. But that’s not what we’re encountering. God’s people are interceding for us and I’m convinced that’s why we’ve seen so much early blessing from the Lord.
Like the sister who approached me following a panel at TGC’s conference this week. She used to work in Anacostia. She feels passionately about the people there and she’s been praying for a gospel preaching church to start in the community for over five years. She wasn’t praying for me or Anacostia River Church by name, but her prayers called us into being.
She’s not alone. There’s Stephanie and Jayme and Jodi and Chelsea, who all work and live in the neighborhood and have for years prayed that the Lord might send the reign of the gospel. There are the many churches already serving the Lord in the neighborhood who in spiritual maturity and utter unselfishness have prayed that the Lord would send laborers into the harvest. The Lord collects all these prayers and we have been seeing His answers.
Then there is the legion of people who began to pray for the plant when they first heard public announcements about it. Over a hundred people receive one staff person’s prayer letter and they faithful pray. On Twitter, via email, in blog comments and bumping into them, they tell us they’re praying. Beau Hughes and the saints at The Village flooded us with notes as they prayed for us during their morning service. That’s one congregation among many who tell us they’re praying for us.
The outpouring of prayer simply amazes me. We walk in the wake of these pleas with God.
And can I be completely honest? It comes during a season when personally I’m finding it difficult to pray. There’s no struggle with sin, no major family problems to distract, no overscheduled diary squeezing out time—just old fashioned difficulty in prayer. I do pray. I like to pray. But it’s a fight right now.
How kind of the Lord to show me that His blessings are not limited to my petitions. And His work will have intercessors even as He uses people who need intercession. Reminds me of something the apostle Paul once wrote: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 10:11). That’s what’s happening with us.
I guess when people ask, “How’s the church plant going?” I should reply, “God’s people are praying for us!”
Thank you very much for your love expressed in prayer! Reminds me of a little song we sang in my mama’s church and in Black churches everywhere:
Somebody prayed for me | Had me on their mind | Took the time and prayed for me
I’m so glad they prayed | I’m so glad they prayed | I’m so glad they prayed for me
When my wife and I purchased our first home, I determined our lawn would be at least comparable to that lovely lush landscape of the guy two doors down. Our street took a lot of pride in curbside appeal. I joined them in the weekly ritual of weeding, seeding, planting, mowing, watering, raking, trimming and brimming with pride.
I spent a lot of time rooting shrubs and flowers, and sometimes digging up the roots of things that needed to go. I learned something valuable while bent over my spade, turning mulch, and worming my fingers into loam to find the extent of root balls: Only well-rooted plants survive, and sometimes that means roots must run deep.
That came home in a powerful way when someone gave me a cactus to plant. Actually, it wasn’t even a complete cactus, just a leaf. They told me it would grow anywhere and wouldn’t need much attention. So I stuck it in the dirt at the mailbox, the pretty white mailbox perched atop a white post with colorful tulips painted on its side. The cactus was meant to be the backdrop to the dancing colors of real tulips surrounding the post. Soon the cactus grew. The one leaf became two, then doubled again. Before I knew it the cactus had taken over the mailbox area, drinking up all the moisture and nutrients. My tulips drooped, faded and died.
Finally I decided to remove the cactus and replant the small bed around the mailbox. That’s when I discovered how deep and wide cactus roots run! That sprawling system of tentacles forced me to dig up a sizable section of the front yard curb area! After a couple weekends of toilsome digging and searching—and a couple of weekends of hard looks from neighbors—I dug up the cactus, roots and all, and started anew.
In the last couple of weeks we’ve gotten a good glimpse into the root system of racism. We thought we could stick the racists into the country’s past, next to a post marked “obsolete,” and gladly forget about it. But the roots of racism run deep. That’s why an entire police department and many others appear shot through with indications of that insidious root system. That’s why we’re now inundated with reports of municipal governments and court systems complying with police to raise revenue on the backs of African Americans. And that’s why we’re watching youtube videos of students on college campuses—both secular and Christian—engaging in acts that are at least stupid and insensitive and in some cases plainly racist.
The roots run deep, deeper than the natural eye can see, beneath the soil of our hearts, our cultures and our institutions.
We need to do some digging—especially Christians and Christian leaders. It’s necessary we take the shovels from our garages, put on our gardening gloves, and get to weeding.
Seems to me a few things need to be recognized perhaps more fully and even gladly than they have been.
1. Racism Is Alive and Well.
Greatly exaggerated were any reports of racism’s demise. That should be obvious now. But just a few short months ago a lot of people pressed back against claims of racism. They told us we could not know for certain if any racist motivation were a part of incidents like Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland. These were sad events, some said. But perhaps these were isolated incidents, not connected, almost random. Why cry “racism”?
Well, now we have a look at the roots, sprawling beneath the soil of assumed respectability and authority. Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and an untold number of other places all share the same root system. They all manifest human depravity, and that depravity sometimes takes the form of racial animus.
For my part, the DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department tells us quite plainly that the vital signs of racism are quite strong. The old man lives. And more than that, the DOJ report decisively proves the prevailing reality of institutional racism and systemic injustice. Those numbers do not lie and they cannot be explained away as chance. And when the statistics say African Americans were less likely to be guilty of the crimes for which they were stopped than white drivers, then appeals to black criminality won’t do either. Still further, Ferguson isn’t alone among Missouri towns in these practices. And Missouri isn’t alone among the states. There’s a piling mound of research evidence that shows the same thing in other places as well.
Sad to say, but racism is alive and well.
2. Racism Cavorts with Power.
Rarely does racism walk alone. She dances with power. Not just the raw, unlettered, erratic power of stereotypical toothless hillbillies who sometimes “have a few too many” and cause trouble for brown-skinned people while embarrassing the good white-skinned town folks.
No. Racism acts far more seductively than that. She prefers men in robes or suits or uniform. She rathers young people wearing the letters of fraternities, with power over who can and cannot join their organizations. Racism makes her deals in country clubs, once segregated by club rules, now segregated by club fees and culture. Racism likes smoky rooms with dark cherry paneling, where the makers of futures and cities like to laugh, back slap, and cut deals. She would marry power, but that’s too public and people would talk. So she continues as power’s mistress, the unseen influence that poisons his heart toward his wife, Justice.
We cannot have any discussion of power without suspecting that fallen human alienation along racial lines is at least a possibility.
3. Racist Contexts Cast Clouds Over Us.
The root system of racism spreads beneath all our feet. There are a lot of people in Ferguson who had no clue about what was going on in its police department. They were sympathetic toward police and trusting of authority. They couldn’t see the cactus draining water and nutrient from their community.
But the DOJ describes a pervasive corruption along racial lines. That corrupt context informed the attitudes and actions of some officers and it created racially misinformed impressions about African Americans (i.e., more likely transporting or selling drugs, less respectful of law, more criminal). The shooting of Mike Brown, the police reactions to protests, the kangaroo grand jury and the aftermath all occur in this context, under this burgeoning cloud of racist stereotype, mistreatment, frustration and anger. That cloud bust and everyone got wet.
If we don’t let the winds of justice blow then we cannot be surprised if cumulus clouds of racial hostility form overhead. And we shouldn’t be surprised when the rain comes and it’s toxic. We can’t let racism go unchallenged or it’ll come back to hurt everyone.
4. Frat Boys and Judges Have A Lot in Common.
Here’s another kindness from the Lord: On the heels of reading the DOJ report and perhaps beginning to think to ourselves, Those racists in Ferguson are terrible, the Lord shows us that our children and our brightest students can be just as terrible.
Judges go to college. They make good grades. They lead student organizations. Then they graduate and begin legal careers. Some of them run for office and make public policy. The students in Oklahoma University’s SAE grow up to be prosecutors and judges and city officials. And guess what: Sometimes such students attend Christian colleges and universities.
Perhaps the Lord is telling us that this racist root system gives rise to that Ivy and Kudzu crawling up academic towers. If any of us think we’re immune by virtue of education and class, we ought to be careful lest we fall. Education doesn’t eradicate racism any more than it eradicates any other sin. We need something more profound, that reaches farther down in the human soul.
5. Racism Destroys Lives.
This point isn’t to be forgotten. When we talk about Ferguson’s criminal justice system or systemic injustice generally, we’re talking about the weight of the State crushing citizens. We’re talking about everyday people being harassed, imprisoned, and further impoverished by a government that’s supposed to be “of the People by the People for the People.”
To put it plainly: These things kill Black people. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes suddenly. But it’s always deadly. It could be the death of long sentences or the death of bullets. It could be the lingering death of poverty and resource restriction or the infectious death of disease and few health options. But it’s death.
Things are better compared to, say, 1960—which is to say the overreaching hand of deadly oppression has been beaten back through long years of protest. But the owners of the hand are not happy about being pushed back. So the snarled hand of racism continues to overreach. And it kills what it touches. That’s why none of this is a game and none of this should be left to our favorite talking heads, whoever they are.
6. This Is a Christian Discipleship Issue as Much as a Social Justice Issue.
Tell me what you think, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the Christian Church desperately needs to be discipled regarding “race,” racism and justice. I once thought the most significant deficiency in Christian theology (at least in the West) was a deficiency in the theology of suffering. But I think there’s more ink used to help people with suffering than there is to help people think of themselves primarily as Christians and radically apply their new identity in Christ to fallen categories like “race” and insidious sins like racism.
It’s tragic that the country’s biggest sin is racism and the Church’s biggest omission is racial justice. The tragedy gets compounded when one remembers that some quarters of the Church were once the strongest supporters of this sin. That means we’re working our way out of a deficit. The roots of racism are tangled with our faith. And this means we can’t assume some neutral stance, being formally against this sin but practically uninvolved. The root keeps creeping. We had better be weeding the garden of our faith and growing one another up into the fullness of Christ with attention to this anti-Christ called “racism.”
Over and over the question I get from genuine and well-meaning Christians is, “How can I think about…?” Or, “What should I do about…?” Those are discipleship questions that desperately need answering in every local church—assuming we don’t want the roots of racism to find any soil in the body of Christ.
The roots of racism run deep and wide. They’re deeper than the outward actions of a self-professed racist. That’s surface mulch.
They’re deeper than the actions of an officer in a corrupt police force. That’s only the potted soil.
They’re deeper than police policy and institutional practices. They’re deeper than education. That’s the surrounding soil.
The roots of racism are as deep as the fallen soul. That’s bedrock.
We’re going to have to dig that deep to eradicate this poisonous root.
Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Isaac Adams, who works to serve the efforts of CROSS. I’ll be speaking at CROSS 2015 with my brothers and friends John Piper, David Platt, Mack Stiles, and Kevin DeYoung. We’d love to have you join us online for free!
CROSS exists to mobilize students for the most dangerous and loving cause in the universe: rescuing people from eternal suffering and bringing them into the everlasting joy of friendship with Jesus. To that end, we’re hosting a free simulcast on February 27. All you need to do is register here. And register soon so you can get special offers on missions resources (aka free ebooks!)
You can find more information and a free promotional pack here. If you’ve signed up, please help us spread the word by using the hashtag #PrayForWorkers on any social media and invite your friends.
If you’re hosting the event or want to know who’s watching it near you, this page is for you. We’re delighted that over 250 hosts across 40 states and 5 different countries will be hosting CROSS 2015.
I’m looking forward to thousands of people considering together the unshakeable hope we have in Christ, and how that hope grounds our confidence in taking our unstoppable gospel to the nations. My prayer is that you’ll consider how you can join in spreading God’s glory to the nations, and even that you’ll consider giving your life to God as a blank check to that end. Yes, giving your life a blank check is terrifying. But as our brother David Platt says in the video above, “Don’t forget who you’re giving the blank check to.” Will you join us?
What’s good? It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’m sorry about that. I trust school and life are good on your end?
I came across video footage of another young man gunned down by officers on February 11th. He apparently threw a stone at an officer, for which he should have been subdued and arrested. But instead, the officers fired at him in a busy intersection, pursued him, and when he turned to surrender gunned him down. We learned from the Mike Brown incident that police are only justified in pursuing and using lethal force when their lives are in danger or the fleeing suspect is thought to pose significant harm to the public. Neither appears to be the case here. It’s an emotional scene.
Keep in mind this is not a dramatization; it’s real life. We live in an indescribable age–one where some officers of the law are caught on cell phone cameras slaying citizens they’re sworn to protect. Even citizens with disabilities who make no aggressive motion–as in this incident from a couple years back. Eight officers with a police dog fire 41 times at this young man, hitting him 14 times and killing him. Is there no officer among us wise enough to talk down a man like this or find a way to subdue him? It’s insane!
But whenever you raise the issue of ending police brutality or ending the mass incarceration of African Americans, you’re bound to run into a lot of people who quickly stress “black crime” as the main problem. They come armed with 2-3 statistics that they think buttress the legitimacy and efficacy of the criminal justice system.
Don’t be exhausted by these folks. Most are well meaning and they at least intend to base their position on some evidence. If they’re honest, they’re the folks you can have a good conversation with and the evidence gives you a good starting place free from a lot of the “noise” that comes with these discussions. Have those conversations as winsomely as you can and add some research that helps color in the picture with more details.
On that note, I came across something I thought you’d find helpful the inclosed pages from Michelle Alexander’s wonderful book, The New Jim Crow, might be helpful. Excuse all my highlights! I’m devouring this book. It’s so smoothly written and filled with a blend of true incidents, research and legal perspectives that I find it difficult to put down! Read it if you haven’t. Give it to those who seem willing to consider another point of view. They will in turns be appalled at what’s going on in the name of “justice” and ashamed (as I have been) that their positions could have been so ill-informed.
I’m also including a little spending money. You shouldn’t be poor just because you’re a student! I know you agree
It’s been too long since I’ve heard from you or written. I was glad to talk with your mom and see that she’s doing well with the new cancer treatments and to hear you’re doing well in school. I praise God for that.
I was also in turns a little amused and a bit shocked to hear about the run-in you had at a recent protest. I guess you’ve discovered that “racist” is a loaded term! There’s no longer any safe way to use the word, unless the person uses it of himself.
In fact, we’ve entered a time when any use of the term excites anger, confusion, feelings of abuse or manipulation, and a fair amount of eye-rolling. It’s become more difficult to prove that racism exists, not because the evidence isn’t there but because the term has been so misused and over-used for so long now. There’s a cultural backlash. No one likes to be called a “racist.” It’s become one of the ugliest labels you can use. The racist receives no respect from anyone. They are now reviled in much the same way they once reviled others. So it’s at once a powerful and a hated word. My dear niece, use it as sparingly as possible that you might label only when necessary and that it might retain its proper force.
That means we have to know a racist when we see one. And since being thought of as a racist is such a hated thing, many people work really hard to hide their true selves in order not to be labeled. Everyone want’s “plausible deniability.” The basic posture is defensive, evasive and even confrontational. If you don’t want another experience like that last protest, then learn how powerful that term is and learn how to identify a racist.
So, what is racism and who are the racists?
Racism is an effect of the fall of man into sin. When our first parents took fruit from the forbidden tree, defying God and risking life, part of the effect was an alienation from God and an alienation from one another. One specific form that alienation takes is racism. Because the fall touches all of humanity, racism is universal in extent. So mankind—even though related by descent from our common parents—lives in a chronic state of alienation and hostility until redeemed by Christ.
Racism depends on the false notion that there are biological races. Though disproven by genetic science and by good theology, people commonly believe that humanity can be separated into distinct racial categories based upon physical traits like skin color, hair texture, etc. Even some who know that the scientific basis for races is non-existent like to cling to the category as a “social construct.” But the pseudo-scientific quest for racial classification was in reality the sin of racism seeking scientific legitimacy and I fear much the same can happen with this “social” rendering of “races.” For racism wants to assign hierarchical worth and attributes to physical features—whether or not the science supports it. So white skin becomes more valuable than black, kinky hair worse than straight, and so on. That system of “racial” (it needs to be put in quotes as a reminder that what we’re talking about doesn’t really exist) hierarchy gets codified in social customs and public policy. And so it also gets transmitted as a philosophy and lifestyle to successive generations. This commitment to the supremacy of one group over another gets received as birthright and used as currency. Racism is an insidious and irrational disease rooted in our sinful natures.
The racist person suffers from this disease—in either benign or full-blown malignancy. I hope you see that this general definition of racism and racist applies equally to all of humanity without regard to skin color. To be a racist simply requires that you admit the idea of race and then you assign value and hierarchy to it. To assert “Black people cannot be racist” is, in fact, a racist counter-racist delusion. It assumes the moral superiority of Black people. But Black people can be as racist as anyone else—and some are. No one is exempt from this disease, though some have more virulent forms than others. Though many whites throughout history tried to climb to the top of the “racial” pyramid and plop themselves down as kings of the hill, you can find people of every background sitting up there with them.
Yet one can be a racist without being the group occupying the top step of the racial pyramid. One of racism’s most subtle and sinister victories has been to convince the racially oppressed that they are either all their racist oppressors believe about them or that by virtue of their oppression they are superior to those that hinder them. They thus accept racist ideology as an oppressed person and commit themselves to both racism’s continuance and their own subjugation—showing again the utterly serpentine irrationality of sin.
So it’s paramount that we learn to identify the racist thought, racist attitude, racist action, racist policy, and racist person. And it’s important that we know whether we’re dealing with a racist person—someone whose pattern and habit of life is committed to racial supremacy and superiority—or with a racist incident. For in a given incident anyone can act or think in a racist way, but that may not define the pattern of their lives. Do you see why this requires studied care?
I would generally class people into one of four categories. There is first of all the conscious racist. They actively commit themselves to racist ideology. They may be skinheads, or they may be as respectable as judges. Some people think the racist is the backwoods hillbilly full of ignorance. But that’s a stereotype believed in large measure because, again, everyone wants to maintain respectability. So it’s convenient to limit ugly outward racism to other socially despised people. But respectable racists walk freely among us, using the cloak of respectability to hide the worst of their sin. But we may know them because sooner or later they tell us they’re racists. They’re chomping at the bit to tell us, like Jack Nicholas’ character in A Few Good Men.
Second, there are the unconscious racists. These are folks who harbor all kinds of racist attitudes and beliefs but genuinely don’t know it. They’re blind to the ways racist assumptions wriggle like worms into their hearts. We know they are racists because their words reveal it. As our Lord put it, our words reveal what’s in our hearts, and sometimes that’s our racist bias. When you point it out, they’re often defensive. The defensiveness is sincere insofar as they don’t know they have the disease. They can’t bear to think such awful thoughts of themselves. They fear admitting racism is the worst possible thing. The sad tragedy, of course, is that they don’t recognize that actually continuing in unchecked prejudice is really the worst possible thing. Less defensiveness would actually free them more fully from the thing they hate.
Third, there are those who think they’re racists but probably aren’t. These are the falsely accused. They judge themselves too harshly and are unable to properly assess their motives. They think a racist incident (racist thought, speech, action or feeling) makes them racist persons. Unable to untangle the incident from the person, they live under illegitimate guilt. The same illegitimate guilt can be induced by manipulative and spurious charges of racism. Some call this “white guilt.” But it doesn’t belong uniquely to whites. Remember, the fall affects us all.
Fourth, there are—praise God—persons who are not racist and know they’re not racist. They recognize the difference between an incident and a person, and they and others can testify to a pattern of life largely free from sinful bias. When talking about these things, we must not fall into the trap of forgetting such people exist. But we must also resist two other things: letting real racists parade in this category and letting non-racists think that simply not being racist is enough. The non-racist, the true humanitarian, must be the greatest allies in actively opposing hostility, hatred, and injustice. They must be brought to see that their inaction in the face of present evil makes them complicit in the evil. Righteousness is a positive, active thing. We need active resolve to do what’s right if we ever hope for righteousness to reign.
Now, the hard part and the necessary part is to not blur the categories. That’s how good people get hurt and bad people get away. Thinking the “respectable” committed racist is a non-racist only allows him or her to spread their disease without diagnosis. And calling the person who wrongly judges themselves a “racist” does more to harm those with sensitive consciences and to weaken good-hearted support than just about anything you could do.
Begin with the incidents. Outward speech, actions and policy are easier to identify. Be sure not to castigate the person when it’s only appropriate to speak of the incident. That specificity is your friend, and it helps to reveal other friends. Persons opposed to racism will generally oppose racist incidents. Strive to only make legitimate and defensible linkages between incidents. That, too, requires care. Not everything that seems related is. But when you can link incidents, do so. It helps to establish patterns of individual behavior or systemic bias. When those patterns are demonstrable, then you can speak with passion about people and systems. Don’t hesitate to do so, but be prepared to defend the evidence for the pattern.
Honestly, everyone will have motives to resist your implying a racist pattern exists. The racist persons will not want to be exposed. Many good people will not want to think such ugliness exists in them or in the institutions they love. Self-interest wars against indictment. But trust that your patience, carefulness and the mounting moral pressure of conscience will begin to distinguish the willfully racist from those that can be won to righteousness.
What you should keep in mind, Niecie, is that you can tell a tree by the fruit it bears. We are unable to completely hide the root of our souls. Sooner or later our natures present themselves. Careful, patient observation of our own hearts and the actions of others will in time reveal the truth.
Bottom line: use the term “racist” sparingly. But when you must, use it confidently and redemptively. Far too often people throw away other people with the term. They write them off. So “racist” becomes a final pronouncement rather than an invitation to be different, better, free. When you use the term, give it the ring of an invitation to an important meeting where the hopeful and the broken might find help. As Christians, we want people to hear an invitation to repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, who in the cross reconciled believers to God and to one another. We want them to hear a call to that fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, where sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. If ever “racist” could sound redemptive, inviting to restoration, then we’ll be speaking in the most Christian way to one of the wickedest heart diseases ever. I pray you and I can learn to speak that way.
With all an uncle’s love,
A week or so ago I had the privilege of joining some dear brothers in Christ for a variety of conferences. These saints have made the sessions available, so I thought I’d link to them for the interested.
First, there was the always wonderful group of students and staff at The Master’s College who pull off the annual Truth & Life conference. I’ve had the honor–and I mean that earnestly–of speaking at Truth & Life two times now, and I have to say that it’s one of the most engaged and mature college conferences I’ve ever attended. The students–who organize and run the event–are quick, alert, engaging and sharp. The entire faculty and staff are hospitable, generous and even sharper. This year I had the privilege of serving with doctors MacArthur, Dever, and Master’s faculty Abner Chou. Our theme was the “one anothers” of scripture. I also had the honor of speaking in chapel, where I hope the exhortation to “be ordinary” was helpful.
On the Lord’s Day, brother pastors Anthony Kidd and Bobby Scott graciously extended an invitation to preach at Community of Faith Bible Church in L.A. What a joy that was! I was relieved to finally arrive at the church after Mapquest (I know, that’s so 80s) left off a left turn and I ended up exploring the “greater LA area,” emphasis on greater. Bobby Scott was more relieved than I was when he finally saw me enter the sanctuary a song or two before the sermon time! We had a great time considering all the Lord has prepared for us from Revelation 21:1-22:5. Oh, to have a greater hunger for heaven!
Finally, the Lord allowed me to join the good folks with Plant Midwest, D.A. Horton, and Eric Mason for a special Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration in St. Louis, Missouri. That was an especially poignant trip for me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to open Luke 10:25-37 among the saints there and exhort us to genuine compassion that arises from the justified life. Eric Mason won the “dapper pastor award” that day. Horton was insightful and passionate. And where did that exuberant Presbyterian choir come from??? You can find the video of the main talks below:
Thank you for your question the other day. I thought it was a good one and I’ve been spending some time trying to get my mind around an answer. “Why don’t some Christians seem concerned or interested or even oppositional to calls for social justice?” There are a great many answers that could be given to your question. But, personally, as an evangelical Christian, I find your question has more teeth if I ask it specifically of myself—of evangelical Christians like the pastor who told you all that the only thing that would help is the gospel. I know how hollow that felt to you, and I have at least one idea for why.
There are many Christians who are escapists but don’t know it. Learning to spot gospel escapism is vital as you try linking arms with Christians. They think escapism is a matter of believing falsehoods. But strictly speaking believing false things is not the strongest form of escapist. The strongest form relies on the comfort of the truth. It’s that escapism which embraces abstract truth without bothering with actual application.
The escapist is like the kid whose balloon slips from his hand and floats away. He can still see it and recognize its bright red orb against the cerulean sky. But the child’s actual enjoyment of the balloon is entirely a matter of memory or imagination. He no longer feels the actual tug of the string as the wind jostles the balloon or the ability to make it bounce at his whim to his delight with a curt tug of the arm. The real balloon floats away and so does his immediate enjoyment of it. Escapism is releasing the balloon of applied truth—whether intentionally or unintentionally—while pretending to have it in hand. It’s pointing to the sky while acting as if merely pointing controls the balloon. We can do that with the truth, and because it’s the truth we’re discussing we tell ourselves that we have it in hand.
It’s like the man who wrote to lecture me on the scripture, how it never commands God’s people to protest or organize or march. He tells me Christianity is completely unconcerned about such things. He claims to be “orthodox” and charges me with careening off some “liberal” cliff into the abyss of the “social gospel.”
This man is blind. He means well, no doubt. But he doesn’t see how he not only removes the Scripture from real life concern, but also abandons his own “orthodox” view of the Bible. In a more abstract context he would tell me the Bible is sufficient. He’s quote a text like 2 Tim. 3:16-17—” All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” But in the actual world in which we live, he thinks the Bible has nothing to say about dead unarmed men, about our duty to show mercy, and the blessing of rulers who rule righteously or the prophet’s constant challenge to power. While claiming to be orthodox he’s really managed to escape both the hard facts of real life and the guiding truth of applied theology—a Harry Houdini act that too many evangelical Christians perform with alarming regularity. What does such an “orthodoxy” mean when it matters?
And this is why Evangelicalism—safe far away from the cliff of “liberal” theology—has backed its heels onto the opposite cliff of complete irrelevance to the residents of Ferguson, who want to know if God remembers them, loves them, or cares about them at all. Does God the Judge answer the cries of the disenfranchised, the poor, the weak, the fatherless? Is there a hope of justice for mothers and fathers bereft of their children playing in the park, or husbands and fathers choked to death on city sidewalks? Have we no answer for them?
We do if we are not escapists. For the escapist cries out and recoils at the sight of words like “oppressed,” “poor” and so on. He’d rather not think about such things, which is an indication that we have unwittingly conceded such concerns to the dreaded “liberals” again. Those words are their—the liberals’—words, and the people they describe are their—the liberals’ people—and the issues that affect their people are not our—the evangelicals’—issues. So words like “poor,” “oppressed,” and “marginalized” become shibboleths for entry into “our” camp and once inside we mustn’t use them lest we fact McCarthyite suspicion and inquisition. But all of this is escapist drama because such people and such problems really do exist in the world we inhabit.
And it won’t do to take another escapist turn by arguing in so many words, “It’s all their fault.” Blaming others rather than offering solutions has been the way of sinners since Adam blamed Eve. The principal benefit of blaming others is we don’t have to examine ourselves or risk ourselves. We don’t have to face any complicity—whether our own or our forebears. We get to pretend “all things are equal,” the world is a blank slate, that we’re each self-made without any legacies, inheritances, or entitlements. This blaming others is, by definition, escapism—turning away from the unpleasant truth to dull the trauma with banal half-truths or full truths loosely grasped. We become unreal. And our religion in the hands of escapists becomes unreal too. I want my religion back! I want the balloon string in my hands, tied around my writs, that I might feel its pull again and feel the upward possibility of the Truth!
Reclaiming evangelical Christianity from escapist tendencies is vital because it’s the truth that actually helps you to help other people. Not until we face the truth about ourselves and our situation can offer biblical solutions to hurting people.
We know this well enough in evangelism. Think of that family that mourns the death of a loved one lost eternally in their sin. That loved one has gone on to a Christless eternity of agonizing judgment. Do you know what happens contrary to all gospel reason in far too many “Christian” funerals? The minister will preach that lost soul right into heaven though everyone there knew him to be without Christ and without hope in the world. And the family members tell themselves that their loved one is in “a better place” (as if Hell could ever be better than earth!). That’s the kind of thing they told themselves while he was alive. They kept saying the person was okay, that he was going to get it together, that he had made a profession once a long time ago at a camp long grown over by weeds. They took the escapist route of denying the truth of a fast-approaching Hell. They chose not to think long about Hell because they didn’t want to think of their loved one going there. More selfishly, they didn’t want to face their own lack of love, faith and hope as “evangelists” who didn’t evangelize their dearest family members. Rather than face the pan they fled to a dream world where everyone has time and everyone will be okay. They were not truthful and so they were not helpful.
The same is true of so many evangelicals who refuse to look into the unpleasant things of racism and the systemic injustices facing people today. They’d rather stick their ostrich heads into the hole of their “orthodoxy” than take a long look in the light at this country, our history, our present realities, and those “others” that cry out for help. The sad fact is that you can’t expect help from them–not even the “blows of a friend”–if they are unwilling to be honest and to bring their theology back down into this world. Dr. King once said the most disappointing thing he encountered during the Civil Rights Movement was the sometimes indifference and sometimes opposition of white evangelical Christians. He’d imagined that once the justness of the cause touched the hearts of his fellow Christians that they’d come out in support. It never happened on the scale he’d hoped, though some did join the movement. If Dr. King found disappointment, then perhaps we should expect the same. And like him, we should continue to press our cause until the real world dangers and difficulties are acknowledged and addressed by all people of like precious faith.
Keep praying. Keep pressing.
How are things since we’ve last written? Are you doing well in class? How are your friendships? Catch me up on your life outside the protests. I assume you have one! You’ve heard it say, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, “All protest and no play makes Niecie a bitter girl”! Don’t forget it.
I thought about you as I read this morning’s paper. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the death of Franklin McCain. Now if you’re going to continue the struggle, you’ve got to know something about those who have gone before you. McCain was one of the “Greensboro Four,” the four young men who in 1960 began the sit-in movement at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. February 1 will mark the anniversary of the actual sit-in, which caught on like fire and spread throughout the country. Those sit-ins—and the disgraceful way those students were treated—pricked the nation’s conscience and began the slow sawing of segregation’s legs. In just six months the Woolworth’s lunch counter desegregated!
I hope this encourages you. You and your friends have a lot in common with McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond—the other three who sat-in that day. First, they were college freshmen, just as you are. Never underestimate the power of students to change the world—from Soweto to Tiananmen Square to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and others during the Civil Rights Movement. You stand in a proud tradition as you and your classmates take to the streets to protest the injustices of the police and criminal justice systems.
Second, they suffered indignities during their protests too. I remember the sense of shame you wrote about in your last letter, and the anger. These students at sit-ins had ketchup and mustard smeared over their heads and clothes, were sometimes physically beaten and bashed, were jeered and mocked, had their drinks—when they could get one—spat in, were called all kinds of names and labeled “troublemakers,” and on top of all that arrested and carted off to jail. Peaceful protest has always drawn violent and unsympathetic reaction from those in power or with advantage. You really shouldn’t feel ashamed, though. The shame belongs to those who mistreat you as you peacefully call for justice. The end of the shame will come, as it did with McCain and others, as you keep your head up and persevere to victory. The dignity is won in your demeanor, not lost in your defeat.
But this all got me to thinking about why a peaceful call for justice and fair play should ever draw such visceral and ugly reactions from people—especially from people today who all the while claim they believe in justice and equality. Such reactions make more sense in 1960, when hate is the official civic religion of the country, and bigotry was not only socially accepted but reinforced and rewarded. Up through the 1960s, whites were as imprisoned in racial dogma and practice as African Americans. If they broke ranks, they were forced back in line with a well-placed “Nigga lover” or worse. But that was the 1950s and 1960s, and one wonders why so many react so swiftly and angrily today when the social mores have changed so much and the equality of persons is taken for granted by so many.
There’s a university professor, a philosopher named J. Budzizewski, who some years back wrote a little book called The Revenge of Conscience. It’s an excellent book you should pick up. Here’s one of the things that really stuck with me when I read that book nearly 15 years ago: The conscience doesn’t act the way people tend to think it does. Most people think that once the conscience is pricked, it automatically moves us to do what is right. But J. Bud (that’s what some people call him) shows that actually the conscience sometimes double-downs. Instead of leading to repentance and contrition, it takes “revenge” by suppressing the knowledge of righteousness and pressing deeper into the problematic behavior. And I think that understanding of the conscience helps to explain some things.
The reaction you got from some people at the silent vigil strikes me as suppressing the conscience on racial justice issues and driving head long into the behaviors that demonstrate racial injustice. The name calling, racial slurs, threats and intimidation suggest their consciences were pricked and rather than repent they sought a kind of revenge. I think some people protest too much at the mere mention of racism or that somebody somewhere might be a racist. I would never say that everyone who disagrees with us about Ferguson, Garner, etc. is a racist; but I would also never say that none of them are. The truth is in the middle, and I fear a lot of pricked consciences that react in strong opposition would be better served if they’d stop and ask, “But why am I so angry? Why am I responding as if personally attacked? Why am I being disagreeable when I simply disagree?” They might see that they feel implicated because they should feel implicated for some of the attitudes, thoughts, words and actions that are upon closer inspection racist.
Don’t forget that participating in these protests isn’t simply about your conscience; you’re trying to stir the conscience of others too. There’s a great line in the new movie Selma where Dr. King makes this very point. He’s not worried about awakening the Negro’s conscience, but white America’s. Don’t forget you’re doing that, and don’t forget that’s dangerous business. People don’t like it because people don’t really like to look deep into themselves for the ugliness that may be there.
But ugliness is inside us all—including the ugliness of racism. Racism is a stubborn stain. Reminds me of your momma’s scrambled eggs. When we were kids, she used to fix breakfast for the rest of us children. We had a cast iron skillet that we used to fry most anything in. That skillet weighed about 300 pounds, and we always knew when your momma was fixin’ breakfast because she could slam that skillet on the stove—boom!—and it felt like the whole house sunk a foot into the ground. She’d scramble eggs so hard that they’d stick right down into the metal of that pan! Man, Lou Ferrigno couldn’t scrape the eggs out of that skillet when your momma was done!
Racism is like your momma’s eggs. It gets fried right down into the metal of the human heart. And you can’t scrape it out with sheer force. The last pan we’d wash after your momma finished cooking breakfast was always that iron skillet. We’d finish all the other dishes then leave the skillet in hot sudsy water to soak. Only a good long soak would bring that egg up out of the pan. You could see it loosening and waving like sea grass up from the pan. Once it softened and loosened we could take a Brillo pad or a dish rag and smoothly wipe the dregs from the pan—but not until to that thing soaked.
The human heart needs to be soaked in love for a long time before racism comes out. And the best love is the love of God in Jesus Christ His Son. Gospel love conquers racism and renews the conscience. But that love ain’t cheap, Niecie. It cost the Son of God his life, and it will cost you and me a great deal too. The thing about soaking is that it takes a long time and a lot of hot water! That’s the thing about the gospel, too. In our spiritual growth and sanctification, some things take a long time and a lot of hot water before God boils it out of us. Then when you consider you’re trying to soak a nation’s conscience—well that can take a while and a whole lot of prayer. And that time and hot water are the difference between trite Christian platitudes pretending to be gospel and real gritty gospel ministry.
Some of the people you face in these protests don’t know what’s happening to them. They know they’re angry, but they really don’t know why. They know they feel things, but they don’t know where they come from. And sometimes they know the things they feel and say are not right, but they can’t bring themselves to face it and deal with it. So it’s easier to blast you and the other protestors, to stereotype and lump everyone together as “looters” and “rioters,” to shift the blame by pointing the finger at other issues in the Black community, or to ignore it altogether. Your goal is to keep at it until they deal honestly with you, which won’t happen until they deal honestly with themselves. So don’t be surprised by the vitriol. Holding a mirror to a man’s conscience is an invasive and spiritually violent act. We don’t like it even though we need it.
Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay at it. And be sure to have a life beyond the protests.
Your loving uncle,
P.S.–Does your momma still fry those hard eggs in that black skillet?
A Letter from My Niece
Wassup Uncle Thabiti?
How’s it going? How are Aunt Kristie and my cousins doing? It was good seeing y’all over Christmas. I gotta say, I miss y’all already. I need more time with my cousins because I can’t believe how big they’ve gotten! The girls are young women!
With all the people around Granny’s house, we didn’t get to talk like I wanted. But I want to tell you again how much I’ve appreciated getting your letters. They’ve been helpful in some ways as I think through things. But just hearing from my big unc’ has been the best part!
Especially over the last week. It’s been really rough. First, momma found out last Tuesday that she might have cancer. Three days after Christmas. That just rocked us. There’s a lot of testing to do still, but already this feels life changing. Momma is in good spirits. She says she doesn’t feel sick. But you know momma. Even if she did feel sick she wouldn’t tell you. She’d just keep working and cleaning and fussing about everything! We’re trying to keep it together with prayer and thinking positively about things. We have our moments. But the hospital has been full of visitors and the doctors and nurses have been great. I know you’ll keep praying for us.
And if news of momma’s possible cancer wasn’t enough, I had the worst experience at our New Year’s rally for justice. We planned a silent vigil on New Year’s Eve. We wanted to bring the New Year in remembering those who lost their lives this past year. And we wanted it to be peaceful, so we thought a silent vigil that focused on both the officers who lost their lives in NY and Florida and those killed by officers would keep things balanced and quiet.
Things started well. We marched down Main Street with candles and signs. We tried to work on the slogan stuff you were suggesting, but right now we’re still using “Black Lives Matter” and “End Police Brutality.” We added “Police Lives Matter” and “Respect the Police” for this rally. Everything was going fine until we got down to City Hall. It was around midnight when we got there, and we didn’t think about the tons of people who would just then be hitting the street from their parties and stuff.
As you can imagine, things took a turn. As more people flooded the street from the New Year’s parties, they began to slow down at our vigil, then stop. Some were respectful, dropping their voices and even nodding in approval. But then people began to comment. Some were saying things like “F- the police!” Others then joined in with “F- Mike Brown.” Before long what started as a peaceful silent vigil turned into an ugly shouting match with drunk people staggering around and a lot of people getting in each others faces.
But the worst part was some of the racist things that were said. We were called all kinds of names. “Black monkeys.” “Nappy-haired B-.” “Go back to Africa!” One man in his 50s shouted, “Black lives only matter if they’re picking my cotton!” He called us “obsolete farm equipment.” One girl about my age went on with “Nigger” this and “nigger” that. It was bad enough being called that, but the way she spat the words was filled with the iciest hate. The mocking in fake “black voices and slang” was relentless.
The police stood by and watched. Except for a couple of them who looked like they were laughing at us and telling jokes of their own.
I don’t think the worst part was the name calling, though that was bad enough. The worst part was I didn’t know what to feel or how to respond. I was so mad I could’ve hurt somebody. But then I was so scared that they would hurt us at any moment. I was ashamed that I was afraid. But I couldn’t help it. When that girl my age called us “nigger B-,” fear shot through my body like lightning! I froze when I heard her voice. When people came up into our group, kicking over candles and knocking over signs, I didn’t know whether to run or to kick back. But if I kicked back, I don’t know what would have happened or what the police would have done. And this morning I woke up still burning mad and still feeling ashamed.
That’s the worst part. The shame. I feel like I did that time when I was six years old and wet myself in school and my mom had to come pick me up. I felt like I was standing there in my own urine, running down my leg wetting my stockings and dress, unable to stop it with my legs clinched at the knee or to cover it with my hands, alone while the faces of the entire whole world made fun of me. It’s so shameful. I feel ashamed because people treated us that way. And I feel ashamed that I didn’t respond to them. I should’ve said something—anything. But I took it. I froze. And when some of the people with us began shouting back, I felt ashamed at some of the stuff they said. I just feel like I wet myself with my own shame, then had the dirt of other people’s hatred thrown on me, and just muddied all over from the mix of the two.
Why do they hate us so much? What did we do to deserve this? What’s wrong with us that people can’t accept us? I hate white people. Since they hate us so much, I’m going to hate them right back.
Please keep writing back, uncle. I wish you were here. Love,
I hope this letter finds you feeling better than you did when you last wrote to me. I hope the Lord has comforted you by His Spirit and helped you process all that’s been happening lately.
How is your mom? What’s the latest from the doctors? We’ve been praying for her and for the family there. I called her the other day and asked how she was coming. She said, “These doctors can’t kill me. They’re trying, but I ain’t letting ‘em.” That’s your momma!
I’m sorry to hear about the silent vigil, which ended with way too much talking and shouting, it seems. I want to write a lot more to you, but maybe it’s best to pass along one lesson I’ve learned growing up a generation ahead of you. It’s this:
There’s nothing wrong with you and me. The problem is in the racist.
Don’t ever forget that, beloved. Whenever you’re tempted to think, “What’s wrong with me?” when encountering racist people, know that that’s the wrong question. We all have our problems, but God making us who we are isn’t one of them. If people have a problem with your brown skin and want to make all kinds of irrational conclusions about you based on it, it’s really their soul that’s sick. Not yours.
I can’t emphasize this enough, Niecie. One of the wicked effects of racism is that the attitude of the racist sometimes worms its destructive way through the heart and mind of those being mistreated. We can—and very often have—internalized the attitudes of others and that’s led to all manner of self-hatred and self-destruction. When that happens, the racist wins the most significant battle. You cannot let the racist win this way. Let them have a thousand laws or revert to the 1950s if they want. But never let them have the pleasure of so thoroughly defeating you that you begin to believe about yourself what they say about you. Never.
The problem is the racist and their heart of hate—not you. And that’s why you must never hate them. Returning hate can feel so logical, so natural a response to what you’ve received. And you can feel so justified because you’ve been mistreated. But it creates a vicious cycle, an unending loop of barbarity between people. Racists are to be pitied and loved, resisted and instructed, but never hated. Don’t let them pass that along to you. Be angry about injustice without forgetting what you’re demanding—that everyone—the racist included—be valued as someone made in God’s image. I know it’s difficult to see dignity in persons spewing irrational and abominable hatred, but that’s the burden we bear as a people who through suffering should see the value of humanity more clearly than some others perhaps do. It feels like a heavy tax, and it feels hopelessly unfair, but it’s the only way to retain your own dignity and protect it in others. That’s your twin goal; don’t let hatred make you forget it.
I will write more soon. But right now, don’t let hate win. Hate is wrong. It’s sinful. Fight real hard to love, forgive and continue. And know that you momma, your uncles and aunts, and a whole bunch of friends love you with an everlasting love.
Wishing I were there,
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