Dear American Church

Jesus wasn't white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew ...

I gave this message in spoken form at my local church yesterday, but I’m resurrecting my dusty blog account to include the written text here.

It’s been a deeply disturbing couple of weeks. I have had that steady feeling like someone punched me in the gut, knocked the wind out of me, and I haven’t gotten back a full breath. Watching George Floyd lose his breath has made it hard for me to breathe as well. I’m very troubled:

Firstly, by the pain of black people in America, whose story in this nation began and has progressed very differently than mine as a white person. This is not a new injustice. Our nation is just beginning to take in the seriousness of the wound. As Will Smith has been quoted saying, “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” I think a grown man, pinned to the ground and unable to breathe, crying out for his momma is probably a deeper metaphor for many black people’s journey than we realize.

But I’m also troubled by our inability to respond in such a way that we are not offending someone. I feel for black Americans. I also feel for the thousands of good and courageous police officers whose reputations are being tainted and whose motives are being questioned. I feel for the public servants trying to govern in an effective manner. I don’t want to add to anyone’s pain.

You know what my consolation is?

Jesus. Offending people was not an unusual experience for Jesus.

The sobering part is that the people he angered were people like you and me. Church folk. Pharisees. The older brother of the prodigal son. People like Saul before he became Paul – a man who kept the 10 commandments flawlessly but simultaneously promoted racism – despising Gentiles and violently killing Christians.

But then he met Jesus. And that’s when everything changed.

All of this is why I’ve primarily just raised my voice in prayer, lamenting and clinging to the safety of the throne of God as the one place I know I can feel confused and confident at the same time.

And yet, while we know there is a place to be hidden in Christ, the transformation that occurs in His presence means we are also compelled to venture out of the prayer room and into the world as His hands and feet and likeness. To raise our voice and speak with that throne-centered conviction. Consider the words of MLK as he wrote in a Letter from Birmingham Jail:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

It’s in this letter that he also confessed his struggle to sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happening in Birmingham, just as we can’t sit idly by in Wasilla, Alaska and not worry about what happened in Minneapolis, and across the nation, and around the world. As you’ve probably heard, it was out of this context that Dr. King famously wrote one of our favorite MLK Day Instagram quotes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Or as the Apostle Paul said: if one part suffers, every part suffers with it. There is no us vs them right now… there is just one big multi-colored us.

We love MLK for his non-violent efforts. Do we also love him for the way he challenges and chastises the church? As I imagine our modern American capital “C” Church reading the excerpt above, my worry for many of us is less about how convicted we would be by Dr. King’s strong tone and more about how likely his words are to be interpreted along the lines of various political frameworks.

It’s amazing how quickly the pain of African Americans is overwhelmed by our political allegiances, and how quickly it reveals our emphasis on the kingdoms of men over our hope in a kingdom that Jesus said was not of this world.

“This world…” looks at the current racial tensions and picks a side of any given event: defund the police, or look at the looters destroying our cities, or Donald Trump is heartless, or Joe Biden is clueless. But the church is called to cut through the politics and put the attention on the suffering of the oppressed, the injustice that breaks the heart of God, and the hope of Jesus our peace, who has destroyed every dividing wall.

Like many of you, in my lament and in my personal repentance, there have also been moments of great encouragement as I feel our national conscience awaken and watch people begin to lean into traditionally avoided, difficult, but crucial conversations. It’s also given me room to reflect on my own experiences within the bigger story we are all a part of.

Growing up in Alaska, having black friends was no easy accomplishment – less because of any personal bias and more because there were only twelve such people in the State (give or take). When Marisa and I moved to Kansas City, we lived with some friends on the East side of Troost, a street that historically served as a clear racial dividing line and presently serves as a not-quite-but-largely-the-same racial dividing line, as is the case in so many cities across America. Suddenly finding white faces was no easy accomplishment in my neighborhood.

And I began to learn: one of the most transformational experiences we can have when it comes to combating racism is to simply live alongside people who do not look like us or have the same life experience we do. To follow the natural growth of empathy.

When we moved to Boston, I studied education while working as a teacher in a school that was extremely diverse – made up primarily of students of color. We did home visits for every student in the school before the first day of class, meeting each family in their own space, and I began to see the layers of the hardships my students faced long before they opened a textbook.

I learned about the achievement gap, which refers to the significant difference of academic performance between kids in low income communities and those from more affluent communities. I soon learned that it was less of an achievement gap and more of an opportunity gap. It was less about these kids’ intelligence and much more about their access to a decent education that could develop that intelligence.

I began to realize that this is what systemic racism looks like. You don’t have to dig very deep into our history to understand why this is the case. Let me temporarily veer from my personal story to our national one.

More than 12 million Africans of all ages, shackled in the bottom of ships, were sold into a lifetime of forced labor defined by nonstop violence and strategic dehumanization. It was written into the fundamental law of the land that slaves would count as three-fifths a person. Once slavery was finally made illegal, we went through Jim Crow laws – this notion of “separate but equal” – which, as we know, was anything BUT equal. Many black citizens didn’t even have the right to vote until 1965, which for many who will read this, occurred in your lifetime.

Our nation has made progress in eliminating some of these institutional forms of racism, which needs to be remembered and celebrated. However, these are significant wounds that our nation was built upon, and the fallout continues to influence society today. I know everyone has their own statistics they like the use, and everything else is fake news, but let me give you just a few numbers, and then you can go find other sources to combat them if you’d like:

    • In the United States, the median wealth for white households is nearly 7x greater than for black households.
    • The black unemployment rate has been consistently twice that of whites over the past 60 years.
    • Even though black people make up 13% of the population, they represent about 40% of the prison population.
    • And none of these even touch on the more implicit, more controversial statistics around racial profiling.

The problem is, while these may be accidental consequences, this was not an accidental system. It was a structure that was intentionally created to oppress one race for the economic benefit of another. And as a dear friend of mine in South Africa has said, when something is constructed so intentionally, it must be confronted, deconstructed, and rebuilt with the same intention.

When we moved to Lebanon, I met regularly with a friend who was a Syrian refugee. He wanted to learn English and I wanted to learn Arabic, so a couple times a week we had coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts (yes, you read that right) and conversed about all things life.

One week I was particularly annoyed by the visa issues we were having, realizing that we may need to go on a trip and reenter the country just so we weren’t overstaying our required limit. I complained for a good while to my patiently-listening friend before realizing how horribly the complaints coming out of my mouth compared to his current circumstances. He had been told to take up arms against his countrymen in a war he doesn’t believe in, fled across the border to another country where he has no legal benefit, and was now a stranger on the earth, unable to find any place to call home.

It was the quintessential example of #firstworldproblems.

But what I was feeling at that moment wasn’t just guilt. I worked hard to get where I was. I sacrificed a lot. Probably a lot of us feel that way about some of the complaints we hear people make about the notion of “privilege.”

No, it’s not about guilt. In that moment, it was simply me being made conscious of the fact that as a middle class, white, American male, I have advantages my Syrian friend simply doesn’t. I have protections and opportunities that he doesn’t. And how I steward that wealth is vitally important.

Furthermore, as a middle class, white American male that follows Jesus, the way I steward my riches matters even more. This is why Paul, writing from a prison cell much like MLK, boasts in his weakness and is loud about his internal wealth and the need to properly spend it. This is why James wrote that teachers would be judged more severely than their students. This is why Jesus himself explained, “to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

If this makes you uncomfortable, know that it makes me uncomfortable too. But one of the core tenants of privilege is the ability to opt out of the pain when it gets uncomfortable. That is not an option that black Americans have right now, and one of the most dynamic responses we can make is to stay in the pain with them. After all, we’re imitating the Jesus who paused at Lazurus’ tomb to weep. To mourn with those who mourn. To empathize without providing a quick explanation or a dismissive answer.

So let’s bring it back to that Jesus.

 Does the world know that the Church, as the representation of Jesus, cares about stopping racial injustice?

In the words of one black person’s recent commentary, it’s a matter of how we use our words:

  • You keep saying: “it’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop.”
  • Try saying: “it’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has to stop.”

It’s a matter of our emphasis. Our priority. The stress of our words on people instead of property.

You may think this just is the ridiculousness of having to be politically correct. I would argue that it is more about our ability to see human beings made in the image of God rather than vague issues deserving of our personal political or sociological bents.

Andy Stanley, a well-known pastor out of Georgia, challenges us that it is not good enough to not be racist right now. We must be anti-racist. He compares it to how we address child abuse. You don’t see someone abuse a child and think, “well I’m not a child abuser.” No, you’re going to be anti-child abuse. You’re going to confront it. You’re going to oppose it. You’re going to evaluate the system that allowed it to happen, tear it down, and rebuild a more just system.

I fear that the Church – remember, that’s us – thinks it is a healer of the national divisions when it has often served as the creator of even greater divisions. I fear that the Church’s voice in this nation is much more known for its political alliances than its likeness to Christ, His kingdom values, or His love and commitment to the marginalized.

A few years back, some friends and I completed what is called a 360 evaluation of one another. We had a list of character traits like humility, courage, kindness, etc., and we rated each other on each of these traits. (I understand that this idea sounds delightful to some and horrific to others.)

In the 360 evaluation, I remember one of my friends rating me very low in the character trait of servanthood. It shocked me. After all, I’m a phenomenal servant. Probably the best servant there is. I serve extremely well.

Regardless, the point wasn’t even about whether or not it was true of me. The point was that it was true of the way my friend experienced me.

Initially, I was hurt by the feedback. I wanted to defend myself, and I had a list of reasons to prove why my friend was wrong about me. But as I showed a willingness to listen, and my friend showed a willingness to help me understand, we gutted it out and talked it through, and it became a moment of great significance in building a more trusting friendship.

We embraced the tension as a creative force rather than something to be afraid of.

The point is, there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how other people experience us.

So how does the world experience the Church?

What does our voice sound like to the world?

Again, with all the caveats of “fake news” and with all the freedom to go find conflicting statistics, here is some research on how Christians are currently perceived in America.

  • In a survey completed by the Barna Group, the church is seen by society primarily from a political lens. Everyone agrees on that. The problem with that is that the gospel does not fit neatly into any political platform.
  • The greatest disparity is between evangelicals who see themselves as caring, hopeful, friendly, encouraging, and generous (hovering around 60%) and non-Christians, who see evangelicals demonstrate many of these same traits at a rate of less than 10%.
  • Or how about the 0% of evangelicals who view themselves as racist, versus what we are demonstrating to non-Christians, 1 out of every 5 who sees us as racist?

Are you ready to get more uncomfortable?

  • In another Barna Group survey completed in 2016, Evangelicals were found to be more likely than Liberals, Conservatives, and people of no faith to say that racism is mostly a problem of the past, not the present. Given the current state of our nation, does this concern us?
  • When asked whether people of color are often put at a social disadvantage because of their race, Evangelicals as a group were more likely to say “No” than either Democrats or Republicans. My friends, this should not be.
  • When asked whether churches were part of the problem when it comes to racism, black people were nearly twice as likely to say “yes” than were white people. What are we demonstrating as a church that makes others feel this way about us?
  • When asked in 2018 about the growing number of newcomers from other countries, 53% of white evangelicals called them a threat to American values while 53% of black evangelicals called them a strength to American society. Why is there such a wide disparity among the opinions of white and black Christians?

I know many of you have an immediate political explanation for these statistics, to which I would simply say: I don’t think that is okay.

When our instinct is to focus on a political answer rather than a Kingdom answer, our priorities are in the wrong place. When our intrinsic response is one of defense rather than compassion, we have lost our way. Our Jesus is drifting from the center of the Gospel to the fringes of our personal preferences.

Again, I’m not saying these insights are a perfectly accurate depiction of who we are, but might they be an accurate depiction of how we are coming across? Might they be an accurate depiction of what we sound like to the world?

I don’t think the answer is found in a self-obsession with how other people view us. We’re the church. We’re always going to be weird. Paul said the cross that looks like the power of God to us looks like foolishness to other people.

Nevertheless, we should be obsessed with how accurately we are representing Jesus to the world.

Just yesterday morning I read these words from Beth Moore:

The current state of American Evangelicalism is what we get when the gospel is reduced to an entrance exam instead of a whole way of living, serving, loving & self-giving. The point of discipleship & Bible study is to grow in relationship with Christ and in resemblance to Christ.

American Evangelicalism needs to file a missing person’s report. We have lost Jesus.

That we have somehow managed in the middle of a global pandemic and a worldwide outcry for justice in America to consume ourselves with theological armchair debates over critical race theory and the like is a testimony of how far we have shifted from Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

Is it possible for us to unwed ourselves from political allegiances and get back to our true calling? I want to believe that it is. And while I think a compelling, biblical case can be made for a Republican OR a Democratic platform (as well as just about any other), frankly, I’m tired of that discussion, and based on the Jesus I read about in the Gospels, I think He probably is too.

Hear me out: I am under no pretense that this is straightforward. Issues of social justice, such as how to effectively combat racism, are complicated, and outworking actual solutions rather than just criticizing from a distance is even more complex.

What is not complex are the fundamental tenets of Jesus, which he stated in great clarity: Love God and love your neighbor. Everything else about our faith hangs on these two pegs.

Let’s make sure the world hears the same emphasis from those of us to claim and aim to represent Jesus on the earth.

I defer once again to the words of Dr. King:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.