What is my Responsibility as a White Christian in the USA?

This is a question I ask myself often. What does active faith look like in this particular time and place? Justice has always mattered to me, but my understanding of it has changed substantially over time. Growing up, my biggest hero’s were Harriet Tubman and Robin Hood. My fairly simplistic (and flawed) moral code could be summed up thusly: those with power should leverage it for the benefit of those with little or no power.

Around age 13 or so I stopped believing God. To understand my world better, I began studying atrocities. The Holocaust, the Irish Potato Famine, the North Atlantic Slave Trade, the Trail of Tears, the Rape of Nanking… these events led me to two conclusions:

1. Atrocities supported my hypothesis that God is not real

2. These terrible capabilities sit in the hearts of nearly all people

It provoked me to ask myself: Do I possess the courage required to fight evil at any cost?

The desire in my heart for justice and to be on the side of the righteous did not die with my faith, but it got twisted. In attempting to set my own standards much of my moral compass became compromised. What didn’t change was my belief that racism and oppression are evil. But make no mistake: I’ve said things and behaved in ways that are unquestionably prejudiced or biased. My heightened awareness of mankind’s history of racism, oppression, abuse and prejudice didn’t alter the fact that my entire life is one of default power and privilege.

I grew up in a world of systemic racism which both benefited me greatly and kept its sins largely invisible from me. Right now, I think of my growing awareness on this issue along the same lines as I do sanctification: it is an ongoing process in life rather than a place one arrives. Undoubtedly, some of the very things I write at this moment will embarrass me when I look back on them in the future, but I must have the humility to make imperfect progress. Unfortunately, I can’t get “there” without being “here.” So I must humbly ask for grace I don’t deserve.

The topic of race and justice in the USA has only risen in importance to me during the process of transitioning from an atheist to a Christ-follower and reading what the Bible says about how His people should treat and love others. I also find myself embarrassed that those who continue to pay the highest price in a society designed for me find themselves in the position of explaining and revealing to me how it benefits me and costs them.

I struggle with the number of indifferent white Christians in the USA who point at “progress” and council “patience” to people who have spent generations being oppressed, marginalized, silenced, beaten, killed and shackled by (predominantly) WHITE Christians. I have heard with my own ears the argument by white Christians about how they didn’t have slaves, or support Jim Crow laws, etc. It’s not their sin, after all.

I think of Jesus, who we believe took OUR sin and laid it on himself. Then he looked to the people who called themselves His followers and asked them to do the same thing.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 ESV)

I don’t believe that any white person in America can really say they aren’t tainted by the sin of racism. We have benefited from privilege at the cost of the marginalized and that feels out of alignment with Luke 9:23 (and the rest of the Bible). I struggle to believe that we won’t have to answer for our complicity-I don’t believe God will accept the excuse that we were insulated or unaware. How can we be for the things God is for and calls us to (both in the New Testament and the Old) in the US right now without seeing and knowing?

I don’t know if there’s a “right” answer to the question, “What’s my responsibility as a White Christian in the USA?” But I do know I will keep asking the question, seeking God’s answer, and attempting to align myself in thought, word and action to His Will. I work to make a difference and to be an ally. I pay attention to my words and actions as I seek to grow more aware of my privilege and the presumptions inherent in belonging to the dominant culture. And I remember that even in this place, I have a privilege many in my community do not. I have the privilege of choice. At any point, I can opt out of being an ally. I can say I am weary and need a break. If the road gets hard, I always have the option of retreating into a culture of whiteness and choosing not to stand or speak in difficult places. It is not a privilege I want to exercise but it is a choice I get to have. And as a white Christian in the USA, I believe God cares deeply about what I choose and why.

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Father Edwin Leahy (Catalyst Notes)

Father Edwin Leahy is impressive, although he doesn’t think so. There’s some videos below that explain a lot of what he has done and what his work is. Some of his insights as he spoke:

  1. Racism is America’s original sin.
    1. White people in power knew what they were doing, starting in the 1800’s, to neutralize black males who were now free, and that neutralization continues today.
    2. Most of the students he is responsible for at his all boy school are missing fathers. They need help discovering and amplifying their voice.
  2. Be quiet and listen. Folks in the community will eventually tell you what they need.
  3. Tell people, ‘God loves me to the cross. But also, love others.’
  4. Recognize attitudes versus the vastness and vagueness of “culture.”
    1. Whatever helps or hurt my brothers and sisters helps or hurts me.
    2. Tend to their hearts.
    3. Create community.
    4. Create leadership opportunities.
    5. Accepting the Other and where they are.
  5. Be okay with arguing; sometimes provoke fights. It’s not okay to stay comfortable.
  6. Remember: the orchestra tunes to the first violinist.
  7. Develop listening skills.
    1. People will teach you how you can best be of service to them.

He said, “I wasn’t called to be successful, I was called to be faithful.” A great joy is seeing boys who graduated return as fathers with their kids.  They are designed to be a community that bears one another’s burdens. He told a story of an expelled student who was a Junior and he never left. He sat outside his office for two days and the Father told the other boys, “No, he’s out.” The next morning, the kids hid him. During attendance, they’d call his name as absent when he was there and then stopped. They spent the year avoiding each other and his Senior year the Father welcomed him back.

Why is there a fence around this school in downtown Newark? It marks off holy ground in the middle of a city in struggle. Like Moses, in the middle of the ordinary we encounter the extraordinary. Remember: Not all fires destroy; some fires ignite us.

Just a little bit about Father Edwin Leahy and what he does.

Remember…

Bryan Loritts: Multi-ethnic Cultural Engagement (Catalyst Notes)

Bryan Loritts is the Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Church in Silicon Valley, California, a published author and the President of the Kainos Movement. He began his time by stating that multi-ethnic cultural engagement is challenging but necessary. Consider I Corinthians 9:19-23, “or though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” What Paul is talking about is contextualization: the gospel doesn’t change and isn’t open to interpretation but the delivery is. Without the gospel, contextualization is compromised.

Bryan helped to put together a book called Letters to a Birmingham Jail, which includes the entire letter from Dr. King to the churches in Birmingham. He laments the evangelical passivity. Bryan points out that all great examples of teaching and preaching that pastors learn in school are written by middle aged white men; where is their voice? And why is the church silent when deaths happen? The only thing worse than hatred is indifference; when we fail to grieve with those who grieve. Is that the Church that Christ called us to? Yet this is what happens when our relationships aren’t multicultural.

People begin to brew in their bitterness, he said. He referenced Ephesians 6:12, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” and challenges us in responding to each other this way. People, bitter over their experience with the church or white America, also fail to engage. At the least offense, they want to take their ball and go home. He said, “Thank God that he doesn’t judge and condemn us the way we do our white siblings!” It is harm on all sides.

There is a call in the Church for redemptive impatience. This is different than passive! It is patient and aggressive. When we look at revelations we see a diversity in the people in God’s presence. Bryan reminded everyone that if you have a problem with diversity, you’re going to have a problem with heaven. Paul knew that this wasn’t a vertical gospel, focused only on you and those like you looking towards God. We are called to love our neighbor as we love our self. To give this some context, in Jewish culture hate is detachment. Therefore, if you say you love God yet are indifferent to the suffering of your brothers you are missing the point. We are call into a community of the beloved, we a robust orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Relational intentionality is important. Your sanctuary is your dinner table; you need to invite people in. You can’t ask of others what you aren’t doing yourself, you cannot lead people to where you aren’t. Therefore, multiethnic cultural engagement is important. Homogenous churches become racist because your biases become entrenched in your systems and structures. We need people with differences in perspective to keep this from happening. How do we know it isn’t happening in most of the church body? When people get shot our disparity of response tells us we are disconnected. If you don’t see your brother in their death, you don’t mourn, you don’t protest, you don’t seek justice.

Paul says, “I have become…” This is the discomfort of change, where you lay down your rights and your preferences for the other. Bryan says that black folk who are successful necessarily learn the “I have become…” but this is not a requirement of white folks. At no point are white people force, out of necessity, to become. It is worth remembering the ultimate I have become is Jesus Christ: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11

Eugene Cho: Uncommon Fellowship and Samaria (Notes from Catalyst)

Eugene Cho (aka NOT Francis Chan) was amazing. Founding and Lead Pastor at Quest Church as well as the founder of One Days Wages, this is a man on fire for God and people. He started his time with us in John 4:1-10:

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

He highlighted the fact that it said, “Now he had to go through Samaria.” First, let us remember that Jesus didn’t have to do anything. It’s also important to understand that there was a long and complicated history had led the Jewish people and the Samaritans to this point in time, at which they were completely divided. That meant that while it took 3-4x longer to travel around Samaria rather than just pass through it, concerns around cleanliness and safety practically make it a requirement for a faithful Jew.

In fact, we can get a feel for the sentiment when we consider the most common prayer of gratitude prayed by Pharisee’s in public at that time. They would give thanks to God that they were made Jew and not Gentile, free and not slave, man and not woman. We can see this prayer specifically addressed in a revolutionary way through Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Eugene Cho talked about how we, as a church love to TALK about our “Samaria” but that it is a totally different thing to walk through Samaria. He used the example of exercise. The idea of exercise is engaging and we can read and talk about it to such an extent that we can become very knowledgeable in the topic. But it’s a very different thing to know how to run a marathon well, what you need, etc. than to actually train and run for a marathon. Must people don’t want to do that. When it comes to us and our Samaria, we need to not just talk about it, but live with it in the very core of our very being, resting in the truth that all people are created in the image of God. If God’s grace is sufficient for you then you must believe that it is sufficient for the Other.

In truth, some of the most difficult people to lead to Christ are actually Christians. In the story of the Samaritan woman, as well as many other stories of miracles and healing, Jesus stops. He looks in their eyes. He shows them he sees them. Consider the story in Luke 8:43-48:

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

Jesus, as Eugene Cho pointed out, didn’t need to ask who had touched him. He knew. But this is where he shows us that he is a King who stops and looks into the eyes of his people and meets their needs. His people were the rejected, the sick, the poor, the oppressed and the suffering, and his ministry was impactful because he didn’t draw lines to divide people; he crossed them to build community.

If the Church fails to be like Christ, it loses it’s impact. In our current times where communities, cities and countries exist in such divisive states the Church oftentimes remains homogenous and therefore ineffective. This is hardly surprising. We don’t become a different person on Sunday; it’s a reflection of who we are and the relationships we have Monday through Saturday. Consider the following infograph that he referenced:

black-friends-white-friends

From the perspective of the white person we see that they, statistically speaking, create an environment were the “Other” is generally not truly included or understood. It would certainly be challenging for the friend who is the only black friend to feel truly comfortable being their authentic self. It is also challenging to gain a true depth of knowledge regarding the complexities of race through the perspective of so few minority individuals. The end result of these homogenous environments is an inability to see or recognize the systemic issues that are faced by people who aren’t white.

But there’s an even bigger problem. Sometimes in those environments the idea of systemic racism is called into question. Isn’t it, they say, really a sin issue? And Eugene Cho’s response to this question is, “Of course.” BUT when sinful people gather together, they will create a culture that eventually includes systems and structures that are relevant to them and which benefit them. This is why racism is and continues to be systemic; we continue to operate in lives that are largely segregated and hardly reflect the uncommon fellowship that Jesus calls us to and models.

So what do we do? We confess to one another. We confront the places where we aren’t reflecting the Gospel. We speak Truth, we dismantle systems of oppression and segregation, we reconcile ourselves as individuals and communities. This will be a testimony to the power of the Gospel and it’s ability to transform us today. As we consider what this looks like for each of us in our lives, I want to return, as Eugene Cho did, to the story of the Samaritan woman. In this account we see what can happen when we pause, see another and meet them where they are. In this story, her encounter led her to join missio dei:

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” John 4:39-42

How Do You Love Others

In class, we watched a video like so many other videos I’ve seen shared in the news or on social media: it captured another negative encounter between police and black lives. This time, it was of Dejerria Becton, a black girl who was fifteen years old. The video, I found out when researching, was made by a white boy who was friends with many of the kids at the pool party. He noted that the cop would yell at his black friends while completely ignoring him. It reminds us yet again of the inherent bias against one race to the benefit of the other by those in power. Where white children are taught to trust police officers and go to them in times of trouble or concern, black children are provided a very different lesson on how to interact with cops. The question was asked if I love Dejerria Becton, or any of the other black women who have been murdered through state sanctioned violence, as much as I love my sister or mother. The answer is no; proximity plays a huge factor in the psychology of relationships, of who we feel closer to or further from. But I do love her as I love humanity, and I lament any time where a person is not in possession of dignity. I mourn the injustice we see perpetuated against her, and I grieve the hurt on all sides that results from encounters like this.

It is a core belief of mine that God intended for each person to be in possession of human dignity: to be worthy of respect and treated with compassion. I lament whenever I see or learn of a person who has had their dignity stripped from them; when through actions or words they are told that their value is not the same of others around them and that they deserve to be treated as less than human. This is what we do when we target one population instead of another, when we use language that de-humanizes, when we say that released prisoners have serve their time but they are never treated that way. These things I lament.

I mourn, and I believe God mourns, when there is injustice. Deuteronomy 10:18 says, “He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.” Do we not take a people and make a clear majority of them orphans and widows through our “justice” system? I feel I have a sense for where God’s heart would fall on this issue, and what kind of reconciliation he seeks so that there will be justice for the marginalized. This is because God is not an unjust God.

Lastly I grieve; I grieve for the suffering inflicted on Dejerria, I grieve for the man who felt he was entitled to treat others in the manner he did. I grieve for all the children who cannot be children because their bodies are viewed as a threat purely because of the color of their skin. I grieve that our society cannot benefit from the true gifts that a massive percentage of our population might be able to offer, that we cannot be a community in commune, because we are too busy imprisoning people who have no reason to be behind bars.  I grieve because there’s people out there who would tell Dejerria, “you’re lucky, it could have been worse,” and that there are people who see this and still insist that there haven’t been systemic issues over race for fifty or more years. And this grief ends with me being angry that Dejerria doesn’t feel loved by all the people in her community. That this is the brokenness that we work to reconcile.

So, I move towards loving Dejerria and any of the other black women who have been murdered through state sanctioned violence, not the way I love my sister or mother but the way I love a fellow creation made in the image of God: as no more than myself or less than myself. I love them as a critical part of a community that is not whole without them in it. I love them deeply.

The Process of Discernment

About a year or two ago, I had this idea, this burning vision, that I was trying to understand. It mobilized me so much that I wrote people, met with organizations and even pursued a grant. But then I had this sense of not now, not yet. Today I remembered that vision and asked myself, “Had I just misunderstood it?”

You see, this vision was this big room, and each Cincinnati neighborhood was represented by the a 8′ tower that looked like a building. There’s 52 neighborhoods in the city, and there were 52 pillars in this vision, laid out in a grid pattern, so as you walked through it, almost as if you were walking the a city.

Each tower had the name of the neighborhood and a couple infographs telling the story of racial and economic disparity through the decades. On the other side of the towers (in the “windows”) were pictures of people from the neighborhood as well as the places they took pride in or that served as the heart of their community. Lastly, there’d be some kind of audio that would share people’s stories, but only if you were close to their “neighborhood.”

On the other side of this installation, we’d have a video sharing a few stories of what it’s like to be in Cincinnati and some of the big obstacles we are facing.

So, that was the vision. Today I suddenly recalled that vision and thought about where God has put me, in a role where it is possible for me to potentially engage with people across the city, possibly from every neighborhood. And as I work through the classes I’m in right now and ask myself what this vision meant, I’m beginning to wonder if the dream wasn’t some massive project for me to create, but instead it was a visual expression for what my path would look like. This vision was meant to be a means of education: to reveal the HUMANITY that exists in every single neighborhood (give them faces), to recognize our successes while also opening our eyes to places of total failure. To stir hearts to become reconcilers in this city (not necessarily the same as peacemakers).

I really don’t know yet but I do feel as if I’ve gained some kind of understanding around all of this. It’s as if a fog is lifting and I can discern shapes and movement but none of the details.