Wake Up, America – Racism is Real

For almost two weeks, the eyes of the world have been focused on the daylight execution of a black teen by a white police officer, the outrage of the African-American community, and the heavy-handed, militarized response of the local police force. With each day that passes, it becomes clearer that the mess in Ferguson speaks directly to the continuing struggle that all of us face – as individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole – as we seek to address the wounds of generational injustice, violence, and race/class hatred.

I have hesitated to write about Ferguson, for several reasons. First of all, I’m a white guy, and the last thing this conversation needs is another white person lecturing about the oppression of black people. No matter how well-intended, white discourse on the reality of racism is fraught with difficulties. Simply put, I will never know what it is like to be black in America.

Another reason I shy away from writing about Ferguson is that it is controversial. Believe it or not, I find it uncomfortable to wade into matters of public debate – particularly those that have taken on a political tone, as this current crisis has. No one in their right mind wants to invite the kind of hate-mail that is inevitably generated by discussions of hot button issues like racism and structural injustice in the United States.

Finally, I have hesitated to write about events in Ferguson, Missouri because to do so would force me to be vulnerable. For me to write authentically about the scourge of racism, I must wrestle with the many ways in which I participate in racism – both structural and personal. To talk about racial inequality demands that I face my own complicity in systems of oppression that go back centuries, but which still have us in their grip today.

This is scary stuff. While most Americans have become increasingly comfortable with the idea that our country once had a problem with racism, it is challenging to confess that we still find ourselves captive to the spirit of race-based oppression. We remember proudly how our country lopped off the branches of chattel slavery in the 1860s, and we glory in the civil rights movement, which cut down the trunk of Jim Crow a century later. But it is harder to recognize that beneath that monumental stump there is a profound root structure of injustice that coils tightly around us as a society. No number of memorials to Martin Luther King built atop that stump will remove the roots that choke our nation’s soul.

The crisis in Ferguson presents white Americans like me with an opportunity to wake up to the reality of ongoing, structural racism in our country. Slavery is formally abolished, and Jim Crow is no longer the law of the land, but the spirit of both are alive and well in our cities: In police forces that target our black neighbors and occupy their streets with counterinsurgency-style tactics; in our cities that are sharply segregated by race and class; in a prison system that disproportionately jails black men; and in all the subtle ways that I as a white person am taught to fear and look down on blackness.

Seeing is always the hardest part. This is why the first of the 12 Steps is admitting we have a problem. The first phase of Jesus’ ministry is to call us to repentance. The first step of the Quaker spiritual path is to stand still in the light, allowing it to show us our darkness. If we are willing to acknowledge the challenge that we face, the Holy Spirit will give us power to change, digging up the roots of evil and planting seeds of righteousness.

Are we ready to see yet? As white people, can we resist the temptation to blame black Americans for the conditions of their oppression? Will we choose to avoid the pitfall of framing this crisis as a question of (other people’s) personal responsibility, rather than being primarily structural – a system that we each bear some personal responsibility to deconstruct?

As a Christian, am I willing to acknowledge that Jesus was executed in public after being accused of insurrection against the state? Am I ready to acknowledge the echoes of the cross in the way that modern-day authorities brutalize my brothers and sisters in Ferguson? Am I willing to bear that cross, in some small way, even if it simply means taking an honest look in the mirror and repenting of the seeds of racism that are present in my own life?

Can You Drink This Cup?

I’ll be honest: Most days, I manage to read the Bible without letting the full weight of its message hit me. I somehow imagine that I can be a follower of Jesus without taking up his cross and drinking the cup that he did. I like to pretend that it’s possible to be a Christian without totally re-thinking my whole way of life.

There are lots of us pretending. Mainstream Christianity often seems to consist largely of attempts to be a good person, learning to follow the basic rules of kindness, generosity, and good citizenship. In this view, a successful Christian is one who stays out of trouble, avoiding the big sins - like murder, fraud, and adultery. This brand of Christianity avoids anything that smacks of questionable behavior. You know: I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with boys who do. For all our talk of discipleship, in practice, popular Christianity often seems fixated on the quest to become a respectable, law-abiding, productive member of society.

But is that really what it means to follow Jesus? The disturbing conclusion that I come to as I read the Bible is that God has little interest in how tidy and respectable my life is. Most of God’s favorite people have been the least honorable, the least polished and popular. Think of Ezekiel, who made a public spectacle of himself and cooked his food on manure. Or Paul, who lived like a vagabond, was regularly beaten by mobs, and landed himself in prison on many occasions. Look at Jesus: the author and perfecter of our faith was nailed to a cross, a manner of execution that Rome reserved for failed insurrectionists. Jesus was anything but respectable!

How did we get to this point? When was Christianity transformed from being a faith of the cross, becoming instead a helpful philosophy of good works and pious beliefs? Since when is Jesus a savior who teaches people to play by the rules, watch our language, and generally to lead quiet, socially acceptable lives? When did the rugged and narrow path of discipleship become a smooth highway to life as an upstanding citizen?

Don’t get me wrong, I like responsible, orderly people. I’m sure you do, too. But the prophets would never be described that way; they were fierce individuals who spoke the very words of God to people and nations desperately in need of a wake-up call. Paul wasn’t president of the Rotary Club; he was a madman for the gospel. Same goes for Francis of Assisi, George Fox, Margaret Fell, John Woolman, and just about any other saints we can think of. The prophetic message of the gospel brings vibrant life and astonishing power, but respectable, predictable and family friendly are not words that I would use to describe it.

What will it take for us Christians to get off of this treadmill of personal piety? What more do we need to move from generic morality to the foot of the cross? How might we be inspired to embrace the discomfort, unpredictability and shame of the path that Jesus walked? Are we ready to experience the kind of discipleship that brings us to our knees in Gethsemane, praying: Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.

This is the kind of discipleship that moves mountains; this unvarnished gospel confronts our deep-seated need to be comforted, to be approved of by others. Only when we let go of being good people are we free to become the fearless disciples that we read about in the book of Acts, who are prophesied of in the book of Joel:

Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Has this moment arrived for you? Is God giving you visions and dreams? Is the Spirit inspiring you with words to speak, and actions that speak louder than words? Are you ready to surrender your self-image as a respectable person, embracing the path that Jesus walked? Can you drink this cup?

Is Jesus “Religious”?

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” – Mark 13:1-2

All my life I just assumed that Jesus is a religious figure, the founder of Christianity. And why wouldn’t I? We Christians are definitely part of a religion, and our practice of Christianity absolutely falls under the definition of religious.

This is the weird part, though: When I sit down and actually read the Bible, I don’t see Jesus behaving in a religious way. Jesus reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees, who were some of the most devout, religious people around. He visited synagogues and broke all the rules from the pulpit. He even had the nerve to disrupt the operation of the Temple, the holiest place in the Jewish world.

The first followers of Jesus didn’t act very religious, either. The Christians who were Jews were thrown out of the synagogues for having such a warped theology. The non-Jewish Christians were viewed by their fellow gentiles as atheists for refusing to pay homage to the emperor and the pantheon of local, national and imperial deities. The early church looked a lot like their Master – turning the religious world upside down and scaring the daylights out of the civil authorities.

And this is where it gets complicated. For Jesus and the first disciples, there wasn’t a neat distinction between the religious and the political. In the ancient world, all of life – religion, politics, economy – everything was mixed together. The Jewish Temple wasn’t just a house of worship; it was also a center of economic activity. Imagine the New York Stock Exchange housed in the National Cathedral. It was like that.

In our culture today, it’s different. We’ve separated out explicit faith in God (or gods) from the day-to-day activity of our lives. Religion becomes an optional add-on to life, a life-enrichment activity like water aerobics or a baseball league. In short, religion becomes innocuous, an auxiliary to the real business of life.

Based on my reading of the Gospels, I believe that Jesus would be even less interested in our 21st-century religion than he was in the rule-following piety of the Pharisees or the imperious injustice of the Sadducees. As off base as they were, at least there was some practical import to their doctrine; what they believed had an impact on the way society operated!

Golden Calf in Metro - Washington PostI have a tough time imagining our modern-day houses of worship as the site for Jesus’ prophetic witness. I think he’d want to be where the action is – in the lecture halls of universities; on Wall Street in corporate boardrooms; on the internet; maybe even in the halls of government! The last place I can imagine him showing up to make an impact would be at worship on Sunday morning. Our services just aren’t relevant to the flow of history anymore.

Then again, Jesus always does defy my expectations. Maybe he would show up on Sunday, to call us back into the path of discipleship with him. But one thing is for sure – he would not play into our spiritualized religious narratives. He would not deliver a sermon on the importance of inviting him into our hearts. If anything, he’d ask us to let him out of our hearts and into our lives!

What would it look like to walk out of the sanctuary with Jesus? Where would he take us? What kind of trouble would we get into? In our culture where religion is often disconnected from action for real transformation, what does it look like to become like Jesus and the early church, who were turning the world upside down?