How Should We Respond to Racial Injustice?: some suggestions for this moment

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The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have added to the stream of cases, particularly over the past year, raising questions about systemic issues of racial disparities in the implementation of justice in our nation. Along with the well-known cases of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York, these recent cases increase the sense that something is deeply wrong in our nation in relation to racial justice.  This is a complex situation that touches on many elements, including law enforcement, educational opportunities, employment possibilities, and more.

I have talked with many individuals over the past weeks who are trying to understand what happened, what this means, and how we should respond as Christians in the face of these challenging times. As a pastor of a multiethnic church here in Milwaukee, I believe that the strongest witness happens when we journey together across our diverse backgrounds into a learning process that involves listening, healthy reflection, and taking action together for racial justice. Regardless of your opinions on the above matters, as followers of Jesus Christ we must approach these issues based upon God’s Word in Scripture.

A clear biblical response to this situation is to grieve. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” We should mourn with the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, who lost loved ones in ways that are just wrong.  Regardless of our ethnicity, we should mourn together as one with the African-American community who senses things are deeply wrong in our country. Regardless of our politics, we should mourn over our own city which ranks so highly in ethnic segregation, poverty, violent crime, racial disparities for incarceration, and more. A healthy biblical response is to grieve over this situation that is shaking our nation.

As we grieve, we must also raise a prophetic voice for righteousness and justice. The Old Testament prophets critique the authorities of their day again and again for failing to bring justice into the courts of law. It was the prophet Amos who spoke judgment upon Israel for failing in this regard. He said, “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7). God has a concern for justice and righteousness coming together in the public square. While we know no human being or system can ever fully represent God’s pure justice and righteousness, we still have a responsibility as God’s people to call authorities to pursue the ways of righteousness and justice in our public realm. Where there are questions of a miscarriage of justice at any level, the people of God must move beyond party politics to seek righteousness and justice for all.

At the same time, we must also bring the love of Jesus Christ into our prophetic voice. Jesus was the one who revolutionized the broken human tendency for wrongs endured to swiftly become wrongs inflicted. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:43-45). Even as we stand up for righteousness and justice, as hard as it is, we must not enter a cycle of vengeance where violence is added to violence. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy of non-violence on civil rights advocacy is unparalleled in our country, once wrote, “We have, through massive nonviolent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony.” Violence will not create a community of peace.

In the midst of this, we must stand together across the normal human dividing lines with prayer. The only hope for us as the church and the nation is to move into the dream of God described in Revelation 7:9, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” The starting point for this is prayer; our ongoing conversation with the living God together. Prayer is not a meaningless aside from meaningful action, but is an essential activity for any movement hoping to bring good. When we pray, we humble ourselves together before the living God. When we pray, we see ourselves and the world more clearly. When we pray, we enter into praise of a great and good God. When we pray, we begin to confess the sin and brokenness that grips us and others. When we pray, we are moved to call out for God’s power to be poured into a world that deeply needs Him. Prayer is where true unity and transformation begins.

So, please join me in prayer. Pray for the families who have lost loved ones in painful and violent ways. Pray for God’s guidance and protection over those who are protesting and those who seek to maintain order. Pray for the pastors and community leaders around our nation, who seek to forge a new way forward that is constructive and meaningful in these very dark and trying days.


For more on this topic you may want to take a look at:

Pastors Forum on Race in America and Resources for Digging Deeper

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Two weeks ago my friend Kurt Owens reached out to me about joining a panel discussion of pastors from The Milwaukee Declaration discussing race in America in light of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. With the killing of George Floyd this past week, the discussion feels even more important than before. We will join a few other ministry friends—Peter Borg, Kurt Boyd, Jay English, and Beverly Rehfeld—for this panel discussion today, Thursday, May 28, at 11 AM via Facebook live here.

As part of previous gatherings for the Milwaukee Declaration we assembled a “Next Steps” guide of resources for furthering the conversation. I am including that here with some updates for more recent resources:

If you are interested in continuing to learn more about how race and racism have defined life in America, and in our country’s churches and denominations, consider watching the following movies or reading the books listed below.

Movies
Drama
Amistad (1997)
42 (2013)
Hidden Figures (2016)
Just Mercy (2019)
Selma (2014)
Twelve Years a Slave (2013; WARNING–due to Hollywood’s most accurate portrayal of slavery, some scenes are inappropriate for children)

Documentaries
Milwaukee: 53206 (2016)
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 (1987, 1990)
13th (2016)
The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (2006)
The Making of Milwaukee (2006)
Slavery By Another Name (2012)

Books
By Dr. King
Strength to Love
Why We Can’t Wait
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

Milwaukee and Housing
Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee by Patrick D. Jones
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Race and Inequality
Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas Sugrue
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Race and Faith
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Edward Blum and Paul Harvey
A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow by David Chappell
White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White by Daniel Hill
The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings
Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice by Brenda Salter-McNeil
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson
Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity by David W. Swanson
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby

Learn more about the Milwaukee Declaration and/or sign the Declaration here.

Jemar Tisby on “What is the Color of Compromise?”

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Yesterday I traveled down to Wheaton College to hear Jemar Tisby deliver a lecture, “What is the Color of Compromise?”, as part of a series hosted by the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. Tisby is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and one of the primary drivers behind The Witness, a black Christian collective that engages issues of religion, race, justice, and culture from a biblical perspective.

If you have not read The Color of Compromise, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It is one of the clearest presentations of the historical account of how the Christian church, no matter the geographical location, contributed to the racialized narrative in the USA. It is not an easy read, but if we want to understand the tensions within our nation around race and move toward biblical justice, such hard work is necessary.

While Tisby’s lecture is not yet uploaded, I’m including my own notes from the lecture here.

The Color of Compromise is:

  • Green – for the greed that sustains racism
  • White – for white supremacy within the church
  • Red – for the blood that accompanies that greed and white supremacy

Green

  • “The being of slavery, its soul and its body, lives and moves in the chattel principle, the property principle, the bill of sale principle: the cart whip, starvation, and nakedness are its inevitable consequences.” – J. W. C. Pennington
  • commodification of the person as property to be bought and sold; reducing the image of God and the value of human life
  • “Some people say slavery was America’s original sin. I would suggest something else. Slavery was America’s original symptom. America’s original sin was greed.”
  • Olaudah Equiano‘s story about being pulled from his sister in his work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.
  • Politics and economic gain set the direction in the country, not faith
  • The discussion of reparations has caused a lot of consternation
  • “You cannot have a serious conversation about racial justice without talking about economic justice.”

White

  • White supremacy is built upon a narrative of racial difference
  • Racism never goes away, it just adapts; the movement from overt racism in slavery through segregation/Jim Crow era to covert racism in the civil rights era up to the present
  • This is not really about the amount of melanin in one’s skin, but about the creation of system of racial difference with idealized “whiteness” at the top and “blackness” on the bottom; everyone else is in-between
  • Whiteness in this sense obscures ethnicity (even for white people), creates “blackness,” and maintains power through violence
  • The Second Coming of the Ku Klux Klan (1915) [Tisby talks about three iterations of the KKK in his book] – spurred by D. W. Griffith’s epic film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), it led to a rebirth of the KKK specifically linked with white Christian nationalism by William Joseph Simmons

Red

  • The greed of racism linked with white nationalism was enforced through violence upon the body
  • “But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me
  • The story of the lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert and the history of lynching in America
  • The story of Recy Taylor, gang raped by a group of white men

What Do We Do?: “The Fierce Urgency of Now”

  • Clip from Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s “I Have a Dream,” speech with the line “the fierce urgency of now…now is time”
  • The ARC of racial justice: awareness (head)  / relationship (hands) / commitment (heart)
  • Awareness:
  • Relationship:
    • Have relationships with people who are different than us
    • Incarnation of being together
    • However, relationships alone will not change systems of injustice
  • Commitment:
    • Find out who your local District Attorney is; find out their platform; and push for reforms in the realm of justice
    • Find out about voters rights and promote the vote
    • Look at your own institutions – schools, workplaces, churches, organizations – and see how you can be a voice for racial justice
    • We don’t have a “can do” problem but a “want to” problem

You can also watch the chapel message Tisby delivered yesterday morning at Wheaton College, “Do Not Despise the Prophetic Voice of the Black Experience.”

Standing with Christians in Northeast Syria

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As we watch the tensions unfurl in northeast Syria, we need to stand with Christians in that area.

While we can debate the wisdom of foreign policy decisions within our current administration and the shame of turning away from the Kurds who were the tip of the spear in our military endeavors against ISIS, we cannot ignore that turning a blind eye to this situation is forsaking our brothers and sisters in Christ.

If you are confused by the current events in northeast Syria, take three minutes to watch this basic overview from the BBC.

Farah Najjar reports (“Civilians displaced in Turkey’s Syria offensive fear for future”):

There are nearly five million people in the northeast region, including hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians who fled government-led offensives in other parts of the war-torn country, according to local officials.

The population consists of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, as well as Syriac Christians – many of whom have been quick to offer a helping hand to those fleeing the border areas.

Bassam Ishak, a Christian leader and President of the Syriac National Council of Syria, was recently interviewed by NPR about the situation (“Christian Leaders Say Turkish Invasion Of Syria Raises Risk Of ‘Genocide'”). He indicated that forty to fifty thousand Christians live in the area under attack. Continuing, he said:

“The attacks are widespread….They are targeting residential areas in Qamishli, where people of all religious backgrounds live. We think this is a message to the Kurds and Christians there to leave, so Turkey can move refugees there. We think it’s a form of ethnic cleansing.”

A friend on the ground who works with Kurdish refugees in a neighboring country told me this week that they are preparing for another 500,000 refugees to flood into their area.

Another friend who pastors in a neighboring country told me that the continuing exodus of Christians from the Middle East is related to instability caused by war, economic difficulties that particularly affect minority Christians, and targeted persecution. This is not a new situation, but something that I have called attention to for years.

May God keep us prayerful for our brothers and sisters, for prayer is always powerful and necessary. May God make us generous toward our brothers and sisters, for there are tangible needs that they will face.  But may God also raise us up as advocates for our brothers and sisters, that we might call those with power to uphold the cause of the weak and the oppressed.

Emanuel, Charleston, Forgiveness and the Future

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Last night I had the chance to view Emanuel, a documentary directed by Brian Ivie (The Dropbox), about the shooting on June 17, 2015, at Emanuel A. M. E. Church in Charleston, SC, in which 9 people died. I attended with one of my sons, and we participated in a talk-back after the movie to reflect and process what we had seen.

For me, the movie highlighted three things that are part of my own journey and also things I hope to continue working on:

  1. The power of forgiveness – The documentary focuses largely on the power of forgiveness in the lives of those who lost loved ones through this trauma. On the one hand, there is the power of forgiveness to release the one who inflicted wrong into the hands of God but also the power of forgiveness to release ourselves from bitterness. This is no simplistic journey, but overall I felt the film did a good job of showing how there is spiritual strength that gives us the ability to forgive, but also how everyone processes forgiveness differently and according to different timelines. As followers of Jesus who live in light of God’s forgiveness through the Cross, we know the power of forgiveness. As Célestin Musekura says: “Because of this divine act, the Christian model of forgiveness stresses the granting of unconditional forgiveness to those who cause injury, pain and suffering in this life.”
  2. The need for racial healing – At various points during the film, attention is given to the racialized history of Charleston and the United States. Charleston served as a hub for the slave trade in colonial America and South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union in what led to the Civil War.By interspersing these hard realities, we are reminded of the need for racial understanding and healing in the midst of the contemporary moment in our nation. From Ferguson to Baltimore, from Oakland to Milwaukee, we cannot ignore that slavery, “America’s original sin,” has left a legacy of racial inequality, pain, and violence that cannot be ignored. We need to take steps forward both in facing into the realities that are here, as well as cultivating both personal and institutional healing of racism.
  3. The importance of stopping racial violence before it starts – While the documentary did not directly address ways to stop racial violence before it starts, it hinted at the reality that a wayward, lonely young man found a narrative of white supremacy that filled the gap of meaning and belonging in his life. This grabbed my attention as I considered afterwards how we might work intentionally on stopping racial violence before it starts. Where are those at the fringes of society who find belonging in sickened narratives of prejudice, injustice, and violence? How do we find them and interrupt their stories with grace, love, and shalom from God? While not easy to address, it is vital that we work as a society, as the church, and as Christians to overcome both the fruits and the roots of racial violence.

For the past six years, I have worked across racial lines with other pastors on developing ways to make a difference in our city through The Milwaukee Declaration and other organizationsEmanuel reminded me that in stepping forward with this work there is great challenge and greater hope, great darkness and greater light.

Just this morning I came across an excerpt from journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes‘ recently released account of the atrocity in Charleston in her book Grace Will Lead Us Home.  There, Hawes relates how after the atrocity, Reverend Kylon Middleton, an African American pastor and husband of one of those killed, was invited to a historically white congregation to preach.

Middleton had grown up in this city, a divided one, and knew well the significance of a black pastor in a white pulpit. He approached with a ready step. When he got there, he beamed. “I never imagined in a million years coming to Second Presbyterian Church!” Sunday, he noted, remained the most segregated day of the week.

But why? They all served the same Christian God, the same one who’d brought them all together here tonight.

“Faith becomes the equalizer!”

In many ways, this was the most important change in race relations to come from the shooting. Friendships and familiarity had been born, especially within the Holy City’s largely segregated churches.

May God give us grace to step forward with such grace before more violence happens and before wounds overflow into riots, that we might meet at the foot of the Cross where healing, humility, understanding, and forgiveness can be found.

 


 

Emanuel is in theaters for a limited time. If you want to see it, there are still showings for Wednesday, June 19.

Six Pastoral Reflections on the California Synagogue Shooting

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This past Saturday, a 19-year-old man opened fire in a synagogue near San Diego, Chabad of Poway, killing one and injuring several others. This past fall, a similar shooting occurred at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, taking even more lives.  Since Saturday’s events, I have been reflecting on how we should think about and respond to this situation as followers of Jesus. Let me offer six basic responses here.

1. Lament – Paul the Apostle encouraged the early Christians to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). One of the greatest gifts we can offer to another person in grief is to sit with them in mourning. This was, in fact, the best gift that Job’s friends offered him in his distress. Let us, too, mourn with those in mourning and, as opportunity arises, share comfort with those in mourning from the overflow of comfort we have received in our own lives (2 Corinthians 1:4).

2. Rebuke hate – As Christians we follow a Savior who brought God’s grace and truth and embodied God’s love to the world (John 1:14; 1 John 3:16). Because of this, we cannot countenance hatred, whether within us or others, whether toward other Christians or those who do not share our beliefs. Anti-semitism, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and even more mild forms of prejudice have no place within those who name Christ as Lord. Valid disagreement about beliefs do not give us permission to hate, whether passively or actively, those with whom we disagree.

3. Be a peacemaker – In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). We can be peacemakers because, as the Apostle Paul wrote of Jesus, “he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). James, that advocate for faith manifesting in good works, exhorted early Christians, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). We have an amazing opportunity in the midst of strife and danger to actively move forward as people marked by Jesus’ peace.

4. Advocate for change – Gun deaths in the United States surpass that of other nations, not just in numbers, but in percentage of our population. While I have many friends who are strong gun-rights activists, I have also talked with others, from gun shop owners to those who have lost loved ones to gun-related deaths, who agree that something needs to change in the legal processes by which guns are purchased and regulated. As Christians, who value the dignity of each human life made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and seek to be peacemakers (James 3:18), we must advocate for better gun legislation.

5. Look to ourselves – Early reports indicate that the young man accused of this shooting was a church attendee at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church just twelve miles away from the synagogue he terrorized. While the pastor of that church has appropriately distanced the congregation from this egregious event, all of us who follow Jesus must enter into a time of self-reflection about ways in which our own faith or congregational life might, even inadvertently, give rise to such hatred. God’s grace is sufficient for us to face into hard truths about ourselves. Peter tells us that judgment begins in God’s household (1 Peter 4:17), so we should humbly pray, “Search me, God, and…see if there is any offensive way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24).

6. Pray – There is always power in prayer. God has given us the gift of prayer that we might reach out relationally to Him but also so that we might reach out to the world through Him. Every action listed above requires great wisdom, compassion, perseverance, and strength. The best way to move forward with all of these actions is from the foundation of prayer and trusting God with the results. There is not an either/or that must exist between prayer and action. Ideally, prayer and action fit together as two parts of the Christian response to any calamity. Certainly we can agree with the Apostle Paul: “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Ajith Fernando, “Six Biblical Responses to Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings”

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I first heard of Ajith Fernando when he was the morning Bible expositor at Urbana ’93, which I attended when I was a college student. Since that time, his writings have continued to be an influence in my life and ministry, whether his books The Supremacy of ChristReclaiming Friendship, or Jesus Driven Ministry.

When the bombings occurred this last Sunday in Sri Lanka, after reeling from the devastation of these events, I wondered to myself, “What does Ajith Fernando, as a native Sri Lankan, have to say about all of this?” Thankfully, it did not take long for Christianity Today to reach out to Fernando, whose important reflections are posted on their website under the title: “Six Biblical Responses to Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings.” I would encourage you to read the entire article, but here is a quick summary.

I have thought of at least six necessary responses from Christians to what has happened:

1) Lament Loss
Christians must join the nation in lamenting and mourning over our losses. Protestants have been somewhat lacking in espousing a theology of groaning (Rom. 8:23) that opens the door to lament (though that seems to be changing)….In addition to Easter time, April is New Year in Sri Lanka and most Christians have cancelled their usual festivities because of what has happened.

2) Condemn Evil
The Bible is loaded with condemnation over the wrong that takes place in a nation, and the ministries of the prophets are a good example of this. Where possible and appropriate, we need to strongly condemn—with no reserve—the barbaric acts that have happened. Like the prophets, we may also need to denounce the failure of our national leaders to take appropriate steps to protect the people in response to intelligence reports.

3) Alleviate Suffering
Part of the Christian answer to the problem of evil is action to alleviate suffering, as people made in the image of a God who works. The Bible is loaded with advice to care for those who are wounded and vulnerable. We must look for opportunities to help. Some of these are more formal projects done in an organized manner by groups—Christian or general community efforts….Visiting people in the hospital, donating blood, transporting the needy, providing meals, keeping people in our homes—these should be standard Christian practices which become part of the Christian lifestyle.

4) Leave Vengeance to the Lord
In our hearts we must apply the principle of God’s “holy-love” as we think through the situation. The Bible is clear that our holy God punishes wrong. The reason we are to “never avenge [ourselves]” is because we “leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19)….We must let justice take its course. But even if it doesn’t take place on earth, we know that it will at the final judgment….

5) Don’t Bear False Witness
The Bible is severe in its condemnation of false accusation and harming the innocent. Racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice often comes from lumping large numbers of people alongside a few radical members of the group they belong to….in Sri Lanka, for centuries we have lived harmoniously with Muslims. I often feel that my Muslim neighbors are better neighbors to me than I am to them. If we lump all Muslims under the category of terrorist sympathizers, we do many of them a huge injustice which is abhorrent to God….

6) Pray
While it may seem foolish to spend time praying during a crisis when there is so much to do, this is the most powerful thing God’s people can do in a national crisis (1 Kings 19). We need to mobilize individual and corporate prayer among Christians. Leaders must take the lead in calling for prayer….