Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Ongoing Force of History

Two years ago, I first heard a reference to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Jacksonville where a series of restaurants, apartments, and an upscale grocery store were being built. Unfamiliar, I joked about it at the time, "Is that a real place or just some developer's ploy to attract white people who wish they lived in New York?"

It wasn't until recently that I learned that the neighborhood wasn't named as a marketing gimmick, but was actually a historically-black neighborhood that in 1950 numbered 5,000 residents, but had shrunk to 60 by 2010.

And its depopulation was no accident.

In my own neighborhood there's a series of streets that are tucked away and almost invisible unless you are looking for them. These streets are poorly lit, abandoned by city maintenance, and all dead-end after a block or two when they run into overgrown chain-link fences that back up to I-95.

That, too, is no accident.

In Jacksonville, and many other cities all across the country, the development of the interstate highway system wasn't taken on merely as a public works project, but also as "blight removal". And oftentimes, the charted course was designed to wind and weave roads through predominantly black neighborhoods, scattering the populace and cutting communities into pieces.

In 1954, the Fuller Warren Bridge was opened, which connects I-95 across the banks of the St John's River. The location of the bridge sent a message. The north bank construction traced directly through the Brooklyn neighborhood, not only displacing a significant portion of the population, but also providing an eight lane barrier to separate what remained of Brooklyn from wealthy, white Riverside to the west.

But, why does this matter?

The past is the past. I wasn't on City Council. I didn't work for the DOT. It's not my problem.

It matters because folks who were raised and look like me have the ability to whitewash history. Folks like me can make jokes about where the name Brooklyn came from without having to know the real history or the real people who lived there. It matters because history is an ongoing force of cause and effect. It matters because history has explanatory power, but if we don't know history, we rely on false narratives.

Let me give some examples.

This is the famous Norman Rockwell painting "The Problem We All Live With" depicting Ruby Bridges, the young girl who desegregated New Orleans' public school system.

This painting and the story it tells feel old to me. It feels distant. It is from another era altogether.
But, today Ruby Bridges is only 62 years old. My parents are older than her. She was only 31 when I was born! To her, I promise you, it doesn't feel like a vignette out of a history book.

This is not history as an abstract concept. This isn't ancient legends told around a campfire or tales recounted in a college lecture hall. Many of the "histories" that are happening all around us are much more recent than we would like to admit. And many of them are invisible to us if we don't go out of our way to learn them.

Further, these historical impacts and deficits are passed down to each generation. Their effects carry on to the present. In the 1940s, the federal government participated in two blatantly racist housing programs. First, the Federal Housing Authority created a system called "red-lining" and successfully pitched it to the mortgage industry. Under this concept, literal red lines were drawn around black neighborhood on maps and companies would refuse to approve mortgages within them. As a result or this policy and ongoing forces of housing segregation, home ownership became basically impossible for most African Americans.

Later, the GI Bill was passed for soldiers returning from World War II and gave disparate benefits to black and white soldiers. Many of these benefits were related to the ability to purchase homes or land. Over time, this meant hundreds of thousands of white soldiers were able to purchase property from which black soldiers were excluded.

Those laws and policies have long since been repealed, changed, and disavowed, but their impact remains. Today, the average white family has 16 times more wealth than the average black family, and the most substantial way wealth is passed down a family line is property ownership. So, while these policies are no longer the law of the land, their consequence is and has been etched into our modern reality.

Finally, the ability to avoid this history is not only a prime example of white privilege, but will lead us down false paths. If I do not know history, including how that history impacts the present, I will come up with alternate (and false) explanations for the reality around me. History helps explain how Brentwood, my neighborhood, became the hood. It's a story influenced by Jim Crow and highways and medical incinerators built next door and government policies and economic suppression and educational disinterest on the part of the city, but if my knowledge is divorced from all that history, I might just assume there is something faulty about "those people". And recent opinion polls will tell us, this is the explanation favored by many Americans.

Racism and prejudice thrive when we don't know history. Ignorance reigns victorious when we don't know history. Empathy is hindered when we don't know history. And true unity and justice (more on this next time) are impossible if we don't acknowledge and learn from history.

So, if we are to be a people who are about the truth, it is essential that we be a people who know our history.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Modest Proposal: Benedict Arnold High School

(The following is satire. Please do not take it literally, but I do ask that you would take it seriously.)

Good citizens, patriots of the highest order,

I write to you with a demand that we, the American populace, celebrate our shared and valued history, our unique national story of origin, and the men, flawed though they may have been, who made this country great. My proposal is simple. With the burgeoning population growth, our district would be well served to commission the construction of a new high school.  It is my humble suggestion is that this school be designated Benedict Arnold Senior High School: Home of the Redcoats.

Just imagine the benefit to our student population as they gather at this new institution, cheering on their red-clad compatriots on the field, gaining a new appreciation for Revolutionary history in front of the Arnold statue guarding the entrance, and mastering the lesson that all loyalty is relative.

Now, of course, let me address the elephant in the room.

Yes, Benedict Arnold was a complicated figure. Some say he was a "traitor" who sought to destroy the young United States. Some say he was a dastardly double-crosser and not the type of man we should honor by naming a school after him.

But, these voices are, in truth, dangerous. Benedict Arnold, nay, Brigadier General Arnold as I shall henceforth recall him, is an important figure in the history of this great nation. We would not be the country that we are without him. How dare we would consider sanitizing history by not honoring a figure like the General! How dare we deny a figure so integral to America!

Those who would seek to silence, to forget, to gloss over General Arnold, they are the problematic ones! They are the real traitors!

So, yes, we can encounter some of the ambiguous aspects of this man, but let us consider his deeper motives. Let us consider that being British is how he was bred. We cannot expect him to suddenly turn his back on his own! Let us consider that he was a devoted family man who fathered eight children! Let us consider that he was a product of his time!

"Tradition, not treason" as I like to say!

I know some may get caught up that General Arnold sought to kill American soldiers, that he sought to do so on behalf of an enemy army, and that he tried to hand over West Point to the British, but look at all there is to value in such a man, namely: loyalty, patriotism, and protection of a way of life.

We need to teach our students about loyalty. We can do this by acknowledging General Arnold's missteps, but we can also do so through an examination of his life in context. He served in not one, but two armies! What valor! What loyalty! The General's loyalty can be seen that he did not merely trade sides to the Redcoats at no cost, but rather negotiated a payment AND an annual pension in exchange for his services. This man was bought, but not easily. He was a man of loyalty.

We need to teach our students about patriotism. General Arnold fought for the nation that he believed in and though, yes, that nation was not the United States, and while yes, they were defeated, is it not ultimately more patriotic to fight on behalf of a losing cause that one believes in. Just think of our fellow honorees Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who we have named many schools after! (Not that we could ever draw a parallel between these situations. That would be absurd). Brigadier General Arnold fought for his nation(s)! A patriot without equal!

We need to teach out students about protecting their way of life. Protecting our traditions (tradition, not treason, right?). More than 40 million Americans identify as having British ancestry. How can we not celebrate their cultural lineage? Do we not speak their language? Do we not eat their delicious cuisine like fish and chips and . . . baked goods. General Benedict Arnold, though born in Connecticut, knew nothing of a United States of America as you and I do, what he did know was Great Britain and how dare we penalize him for simply protecting his own way of life! How dare we withhold memorializing him because he dared to preserve his culture!

Yes indeed, we all make mistakes and all have parts of our past we might not want highlighted, but in the midst of it all, let us not forget our heroes. Let us not forget our turncoats either. So join me, will you not? Three cheers for Benedict Arnold Senior High opening soon on Jefferson Davis Memorial Parkway!

Hip hip . . . .


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Gospel According to Kendrick Lamar

An old friend of mine works for a radio show that covers the intersection of Christian faith and culture. She recently invited me to share some thoughts about Kendrick Lamar and I was happy to oblige. You can read the piece here and hopefully I'll have some new content in this space coming out soon.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Can We Talk About Safety?

When is the last time you played a board game or computer game?

Swam? Danced? Traveled by car?

I ask because I'm thinking of your safety.


You see, the odds of dying while playing a board game or computer game are 1 in 100,000,000. The odds of dying while swimming are 1 in 1,000,000. The odds of dying while dancing are 1 in 100,000 and the odds of dying when behind the wheel are 1 out of every 6,200 licensed drivers.

Yet, there is a major conversation going on in our country based on the safety risk posed by refugees. The theory goes: Islamic extremists will sneak into the USA as refugees and then commit terrorist acts.

But, let's hold this claim up to scrutiny for a moment.

What are the odds of being killed by a refugee terrorist?

1 in 3.6 billion.

Let me say that again.

You are literally 36 times for likely to die while playing Scrabble than at the hands of a refugee.

You are 36,000 times more likely to die doing the chicken dance at Cousin Carol's wedding.

You are 580,645 times more likely to die driving to see Hidden Figures at the multiplex this weekend.

My point here is not that you shouldn't drive or dance or swim, because believe me, everybody would benefit from going out to see Hidden Figures tonight. My point is that we risk our safety all the time. Risks that are statistically far greater than those found within the existing American refugee system.

And what do we take those risks for? Often for nothing more than our own convenience, efficiency, or comfort. Driving a car is not a requirement of livelihood, but we do it because we weigh the risk and we value getting to the grocery store faster rather than the alternatives. Yet here, we stand with literally tens of thousands of people, most of them women and children, dying, but our "safety" is apparently more important than their lives. But, Scrabble, that's worth the risk.

*    *    *

If you consider yourself a follower of Christ, this next section is for you.

We serve a God who is jealous. This is not to say He is jealous like a six year old at his friend's birthday party looking at a pile of gifts, but that he is jealous like a husband watching his wife sleep with another man. He's not shy about using that exact illustration. Anytime the people of God chose to elevate some other value over His values, He calls it idolatry. When we do that, we are worshiping something else and something false.

And while I think the theological implications and directives of how Christians should treat refugees (along with all marginalized groups) are quite clear , I would rather drill down a little deeper into one particular idol I see rampant in the American church: Safety.

Christian radio bills itself as "safe for the whole family", 81% of white evangelicals voted for a presidential candidate who promised to "Keep America Safe Again", and I personally have had Christian leaders tell me they carry guns when they come to my neighborhood for protection. The problem of this all, of course, is that safety isn't a Christian value.

In fact, Christian values have led me to do a whole slew of things in my life that aren't considered "safe". I have friends who have been shot for Christian values. I have friends who have sold all their possessions and moved overseas for Christian values (even to Muslim nations). I have friends who are citizens of other nations that daily risk their safety just by identifying as Christians.

So where do we, the American Church, get off claiming any right to safety?

This idol of safety plays out in a myriad ways. Here's just one that I've seen repeatedly. The single greatest deterrent to college students coming and interning at our ministry hasn't been cost or travel or schedules, it has been middle and upper-middle class Christian parents, who declare it too unsafe for their kid to spend the summer in the hood.

This is the same idol that causes us to declare refugees to be unsafe (even though the existing vetting process is intense and no one who wanted to cause harm to America would ever choose the refugee route when far easier options exist).

It's the same idol that lead us in the past to deny the Imago Dei of Jewish refugees and turn them away.

It's the same idol that is behind so much rhetoric about undocumented immigrants.

When we elevate safety as a Christian necessity, we turn our back on our God.

*    *    *

Tim Keller has said that there's not a problem with fundamentalism. It all depends on what your fundamentals are. And if one of your fundamentals is a man dying on a cross for his enemies, that ought to drastically impact the way you see and live your life.

Jesus Christ wasn't concerned about safety for Himself or His Church.

He's a Husband desperate that His Bride would turn away from her idols and come running back to His forgiving arms.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Cross and the Arch

Above is the cover from the upcoming issue of the New Yorker. It is poignant. It is well crafted. It is all too true. Not just of St. Louis and our current challenges, but true all across the nation. When I first saw it posted on Twitter, I enlarge the picture and stared at it for a few seconds (which in Twitter-time is the equivalent to hours). I appreciated it and I was saddened by its accuracy.


Below is a revised version of the picture I saw the next day. I reacted similarly to it.

When viewing this image, there are a couple of possible reactions.

One is the view the picture and want to dismiss it as trite and overly simplistic. I think this is false.

The cross of Jesus Christ isn’t a mere symbol of religious devotion or Polyanna, kum-ba-yah optimism. The cross is an instrument of death. It is a tool of capital punishment. It is an artifact of the actual, historical killing of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Cross isn’t weak or trite, it is costly. Specifically the cost of death and shed blood.

The Cross, in its brutality, in its savagery, in its torturous death-bearing, is about much more than convenient “solutions” and upbeat worship songs. It’s about much more than man being brought close to God (though this is essential!). It’s even about much more than the fact that, as Tim Keller puts it, I’m far worse than I’d ever imagined and far more loved than I ever dared hoped.

The Cross is about the tearing down of walls. The tearing down of the wall of separation between man and God. The tearing down of the wall of our guilty status before a righteous God. The tearing down of the wall of hurt and pain and brokenness from our past. And the tearing down of the walls between ethnic and racial groups.

Hear Paul in Ephesians 2:11-22:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Without launching into a full exegesis that would fill dozens (hundreds?) of pages, I can say this, the Cross is about healing ethic and racial divides.

Is that all it is about? No.

But that is exactly and primarily what the above text is talking about. Two groups of people. Separated ethnically, culturally, religiously, and socially being brought together under the headship of and by the blood of Jesus Christ to become one, unified people.

A humanity that strives together. That mourns together. That prays together. That worships together. That considers the other better than oneself. That sacrifices for one another. That listens to one another.

The Cross is the answer. The costly Cross where Jesus died so that the dividing wall of hostility would be torn down.

But there’s one other way this image could be interpreted. Another way to interpret it is indeed simplistic. Too simplistic. It looks at the bridge of the Cross and it relates, “Yes! Jesus is the answer. Now let’s host a joint worship service with a church that doesn’t look like ours. Let’s get lunch with someone of another race once a month and pursue genuine friendship. Let’s buy Lecrae’s latest album.”

And you should do ALL of those things. All of them. Seriously, go do them!

But, as you do them, don’t believe that will “fix” it. In Divided By Faith, a book I have discussed extensively here, the authors refer to a belief many Christians cite that the authors call “the miracle motif”, which simply is that if everyone became a Christian, all racial and ethnic problems would cease.

Once again, to limit this to paragraphs rather than dozens (hundreds?) of pages, I will only touch on the main points here, but personal relationships and church fellowships won’t erase the problem. The problem didn’t develop overnight, nor will it be healed overnight.

There are hundreds of years of history to reckon with first. There is the reality of systemic injustice to be wrestled with and ultimately deconstructed. There is the fact that the relationships and friendships I recommended above are really, really hard.

The solution isn’t just around the corner, but it is present with us. Jesus Christ cares about injustice. Jesus Christ cares about tension. Jesus Christ cares about division.

And He died to heal it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Things That Aren't Helping

I've spent the last 36+ hours in somewhat of a stupor.

I'm going to keep this brief for reasons stated below.

But, as the events of the past few days have unfolded, I've continually returned to a mental image that I can't shake. I almost tear up every time it pops into my head (And for those that know me, "almost tear up" is the equivalent of weep uncontrollably for most folks. I don't emote sadness well.) This is the image. It's me hugging every black young man and boy I know and just repeating to them, "You matter. You matter. You matter."

Because right now, it seems like a lot of voices are telling them the opposite. And for the rest of their lives there will be people who, with a look or with a tone or with an epithet, will reinforce this destruction.

I want so badly for them to know the truth. That they are made in God's image. And that means no matter what, they matter, they count, they are precious.

I want them to know that by faith they can become His sons and live in an identity so strong that no man can bring them down. Ever.

But, that's not what I want to say here.

As I've read responses, tweets, blogs, and so forth, I've noticed some common themes that I can definitively say are unhelpful. Here's a few.

Majority Culture and the Need to Speak

I realize the irony that I am a white, college-educated man saying this, and that's why I intend to keep this blog short.

White folks, this is a time for us to keep our mouths shut. Or at least more shut than open.

That doesn't mean do nothing, what it means is: LISTEN! It means if you're going to speak let it be 1. After you've listened and 2. Preferably to ask a question so you can listen some more. At the bottom of this post, I've linked to the thoughts of a number of African American brothers and sisters who we ought listen to.

It's time to listen, pray, reflect, and as led repent.

Black on Black Crime References

I know the statistics. But . . .

1. Black people protest black-on-black crime constantly.
2. I've never heard a white person complain about white-on-white crime.
3. This argument is used again and again as a smokescreen.

Please don't bring this up.

Individualism

(I am going to make a generalization. It is just that, "general", not all folks)

In general, most white folks seem to be reacting to Ferguson based on the individual case. In general, most black folks seems to be reacting to Ferguson based on the cumulative impact of it and similar incidents throughout our society.

I would challenge majority culture folks to seek to "trade eyes" with some people who experience America differently than they do.

Denial of Systemic Injustice

Many people are blind to systemic injustice, this is a chance for them to learn about it.

But, many are outright denying there is any such thing. This is hurtful to those who have been victimized. And terrible theology.

In Genesis along with Romans and everywhere in between the Bible's description of the Fall is TOTAL. It is not just that our relationship with God is broken. It is not just that our relationship with other humans is broken. Every single relationship was vandalized and broken by the Fall and this includes systemic relationships. Sin is present in these systems. Injustice is present in these systems. To deny it is to deny sound theology.

I know that's an bold claim. But I also know a lot of people who are denying systemic injustice also care a lot about orthodoxy. I'm just a brother trying to make sure we preach and teach the Word accurately.

"Facts"

Appealing to "the jury has spoken" and the "facts of the case" is not helping. The previous two topics explain why.

Confirmation Bias

It seems a lot of us are being led by our political leanings, our cultural solidarity, or personal history. Last week I wrote about our Kingdom loyalty, but also, I'd ask that we would all consider whether or not we are guilty of hearing what we want to hear. Or at least what best fits our preferred narrative.

Apathy

Just ignoring it, waiting for the news cycle to move on. That doesn't help.

If you're reading this and your blood is boiling right now. I want to thank you. Thank you for caring enough to read this far. For not clicking to little "x". And I want to invite you to challenge me. Ask questions. Call me out if you think I've lost my mind. I'm willing to listen. I'm willing to have a conversation. I'd love to talk.

I promise I won't yell.

This is my list for now.



Here is a list of helpful points of view for those who are looking to listen (in no particular order):

Pastor Eric Mason: Blog
Pastor Efrem Smith: Blog
Professor Cristena Cleveland (She's really great): Blog
Rapper Derek Minor: Blog
Austin Channing: Blog
Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile: Blog
Rapper Lecrae: Blog

And some Twitter accounts to follow if you're so inclined:

@MrMedina
@Lecrae
@prophiphop
@efremsmith
@MrSwoope
@ThabitiAnyabwil
@bcloritts
@CSCleve
@LeonceCrump
@AmIshoBaraka
@AlvinSanders1 (I do not endorse his Big Ten sports related tweets however)
@drantbradley

May the God of peace (shalom) lead us all forward.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Love for the Immigrant


"Do not oppress an immigrant; you yourselves know how it feels to be immigrants, because you were immigrants in Egypt." Exodus 23:9

This is a topic I have thought about a lot. This is a topic I’ve written a lot of blog posts in my head about. This is a topic I want to be very careful with.

As I seek to be careful, a few clarifying notes, I am writing to those who identify as followers of Christ. I am writing to those who believe the words of the Bible. I’m writing in the hopes that we, as the body of Christ, would be a people who can listen, who can empathize, and who can seek to be consistent.

And I’m hoping to keep this brief.

I have the least confidence in that last hope.

I won’t be taking a single policy position. I won’t mention any politicians or political parties. I have three key words: Command, Image, and Kingdom.

Command

The verse quote above is not a proof-text (meaning, the process by which one grabs a verse out of context and uses it to prove their view). You can “prove” almost anything by prooftexting. Seriously, I’ve had conversations about Bigfoot where prooftexting was used. It’s not a good practice.
On this topic, however, the Bible is chock full of references. It’s not an ancillary topic.

In Scripture, the plight of the immigrant (possibly, alien, sojourner, or stranger depending on your translation) is deeply tied to the concept of justice. And the topic of justice is also by no means a sidenote. Some have termed there to be a group called the “Quartet of the Vulnerable” in the Hebrew Bible, it is made up of the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the immigrant. God’s people are commanded again and again and again to show particular care, compassion, and love to these groups.

Don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. Follow this link to take the “I Was a Stranger . . .” Challenge, which walks through 40 key Biblical passages dealing with the immigrant.

Image

To be human is to be made in the image of God. This image has been vandalized by sin, no doubt, but it remains. All humans, no matter their moral state, no matter their nationality, no matter their religious beliefs, and no matter their legal status still retain the image the God.

This means that the immigration issue in the United States of America is first and foremost not political nor economic, but theological. If it’s about people, and people are made in God’s image, we must train our minds and hearts and heads to see it that way.

This is about people. This is about image bearers. That doesn’t mean we will all agree. That doesn’t mean we will all be thrilled with the outcome. But it does absolutely rule out certain types of speech, thought, and posts on Facebook.

Don’t insult God. God made people. God put his image in humankind. When we malign other persons, we malign God.

Let us all strive to speak of God’s beloved creation as just that.

Kingdom

In two parts: as we assess important policy and human implications, let us all strive to ask ourselves, “What Kingdom am I living for?”

If our views are fueled by fear or by economics or by nationalism or by some view of racial superiority, let’s seek to check them.

All of us need to do this. (About every issue and decision too, not just hot-buttons.)

The reality is, if you are in Christ, your life is hid with Christ on high. Your life and your well being here matter to God, but His Kingdom is Supreme.

There’s a Kingdom called the United States. There’s a Kingdom called Economic Security. There’s a Kingdom called Self-Preservation. There’s a Kingdom called My Family.

All of them need to be secondary to the Kingdom of God.

Let us all ask ourselves, “Who is on the throne in my heart?”

(By the way, even if we prefer the American Kingdom, the numbers might not be what we expect.)

Second, Acts 17:26-27 reads, “From one man [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of us.”

I believe God is sovereign over all things. Including the above. Immigration is a discipleship issue. God is moving and directing and placing people. He has placed millions of people in this country from all different backgrounds and nations. Perhaps he has placed them here to be discipled. Perhaps he has placed them here so that some of them might “reach out for him and find him.”

When they reach out, will we be a people who reach back and invite them to know Jesus?

    *    *    *

I sincerely hope all that I have written above is marked by humility. If anything written strikes you as flippant or sarcastic, I ask your forgiveness. I desire that anyone reading this would read carefully, prayerfully. I don’t claim to know that much, but what is written above about Command, Image, and Kingdom is a hill I’m willing to die on.


It’s that important.