Let the ancient prophets speak: Frederick Douglass

The history of my faith, by which I mean both the people of my faith and my personal faith, is to readily see the errors of the history of my faith while insisting we have moved beyond those most egregious evils.

This is a centuries-old habit of self soothing. We recognize the wayward ignorance of our ancestors and venerate the prophets they rejected while doing exactly as they did: We resist suggestions of defects in our cherished ways, defend the infallibility of our certainties, and scoff at living prophets who name our faults.

But if our finely tuned capacity to dismiss and discredit our contemporary critics numbs us to their corrections, the prophets of old still see, still speak.

The ones who decades and centuries ago saw and named this repeating cycle of soul-destroying religion,

this refusal of even the possibility of systemic sins,

this resistance to the disruption of treasured “institutions,”

and all of this under the cover of false unity and so-called standing up for God and country,

those prophets whom we celebrate now that they are safely dead and unable to see us as we are,

still they see us, still they speak to us.

Frederick Douglass in a speech at Finsbury Chapel, May 12, 1846:

But you will ask me, can these things be possible in a land of professing Christianity? Yes, they are so; and this is not the worst.

I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the great sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. While America is printing tracts and bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the gospel in foreign landsthe slave not only lies forgotten, uncared for, but is trampled underfoot by the very churches of the land.

What have we in America? Why, we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed “institution,” as it is called. Ministers of religion come forward and torture the hallowed pages of inspired wisdom to sanction the bloody deed.

I have found it difficult to speak on this matter without persons coming forward and saying, “Douglass, are you not afraid of injuring the cause of Christ? You do not desire to do so, we know; but are you not undermining religion?” This has been said to me again and again…but I cannot be induced to leave off these exposures. I love the religion of our blessed Savior. … It is because I love this religion that I hate the slaveholding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America.

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

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Blessed are the people from $*ithole countries

Eight years ago today a devastating earthquake split Haiti open, a disaster whose impact blew my mind when I saw it a full 16 months later. My words below were shaped by my trips to Haiti, by the strong people I’ve met there, and by my friends who live among and for the Haitian people. And by the words of Jesus.

H2

In recent months I’ve commented on only the silliest Trump moments, unwilling to be baited into the muck. But I know and love too many people in and from Haiti and Africa to just roll my eyes today. The spirit in the words spoken by the President about these people is an anti-Christ spirit. This is not surprising. It’s the same spirit that inhabits many of his words and actions over many years.

I’m not easily offended by bad words or frank talk about third world countries. I’m just sure of this: It’s not the spirit of Jesus who grows angry when people around him are concerned about caring for people from “$*ithole countries.”

It’s not.

My feelings aren’t hurt. This is just Sunday School 101. The spirit that births anger at compassion for people from lands scarred by poverty and war and exploitation and disease – the spirit that curses the presence of the vulnerable and the unclean is another spirit, and it’s one that opposes Christ.

There is no left-wing conspiracy here. I’ve not been hoodwinked by fake news. I’m a conservative-by-the-standards-of-the-world Christian pastor who simply believes Jesus when he tells us that Donald Trump’s mouth speaks the overflow of his heart. If I’m judging, I’m judging as Jesus told me to judge. I’m judging the plain fruit, not anyone’s interpretation of it.

I’m not seeking converts to my opinion, and I’m not shaming anyone for their vote. I am, however, indifferent to the ongoing protests that there is some truth other than the one that is in plain sight. And what an age of absurdity we live in that it feels odd to comment on what’s in plain sight because it so often seems like trying to apply reason to insanity.

So tonight I’m just voicing my small resistance to the insanity, if only to remind myself that sanity still exists. And to say out loud that the people from $*ithole countries are my people. And more importantly, they’re God’s people.

Bondye wè. Bondye tande. Bondye Bon.

H1 H3 

Buechner on X-mas and “your own business”

X is the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter of the word Christ. Thus Xmas is shorthand for Christmas, taking only about one-sixth as long to write. If you do your cards by hand, it is possible to save as much as seventy-five or eighty minutes a year.

It is tempting to say that what you do with this time that you save is your own business. Briefly stated, however, the Christian position is that there’s no such thing as your own business.

-Frederick Buechner
from Wishful Thinking

Romans 13: You keep using that text. I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Respect Authority. Romans 13.”

This has to stop. As a blanket, dismissive response to any and all protest or critique of government, king, and country, it has to stop. When you pull that reference out of context and use it to label as sinful anyone who doesn’t bow to a given authority or symbol of authority, you do violence to the text and to God’s people.

If you disagree and insist on holding to that generalized understanding and use of Romans 13, consider and be prepared to reconcile it with the following:

  • Paul himself, the author of those words, resisted government authorities and defied Roman and religious laws often enough that he wrote words that you probably have on your mirror or desk or bumper sticker or living room wall from prison. You don’t author four books of the New Testament behind bars if the intention of seven verses you wrote to folks in Rome was to require unqualified yielding to all laws and customs of king and country.

  • Jesus violated the patriotic, legal, and religious norms of his day so frequently that he was rejected and despised and, well, killed for it. You can’t strip Jesus down to a spiritual fairy tale and remove him from the legal and patriotic context in which he lived. He was a real man angering real people by not following their customs – customs which existed primarily to show respect and submission to human authority.

  • Exactly no one I know when having this conversation has ultimately held to this position: “Yes, I believe we should always respect and submit to and obey ruling authorities no matter what they do to, ask from, or demand of us.” There is a line of conscience and injustice for all of us; the appropriate drawing of that line is a matter of reasonable debate, but this haphazard invoking of Romans 13 suggests that any such line is sinfully rebellious. I don’t think most who use it that way actually believe that, and I don’t believe such a claim holds up to the weight of the Bible as a whole.

  • This broad application of Romans 13 has been one of the primary weapons against the growth of self-determining government (democracy) for centuries, because such a reading of Scripture easily dismisses even non-violent resistance of human authority (read: voting against an incumbent power) as rebellion against God.

  • We all look around at various ruling authorities in the world every day and hope and pray good people can resist them and free themselves from such oppression. We thank God for and sing hymns about successful revolutions.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands came to be because a group of people decided to no longer be subject to their ruling authorities. We now call them our Founding Fathers. The original American heroes. Celebrating their decision and its successful implementation by means of war is the center of all American patriotism. That it happened a long time ago makes it no less subject to Romans 13. Now we turn around and accuse people who do not appropriately honor on our terms that authority-rejecting revolution and the nation it birthed of not respecting and and being subject to God-appointed authorities. This is a blatant inconsistency.

King George

After the Declaration of Independence was read in New York City for the first time, a crowd of budding Americans headed for the statue of King George in Manhattan. They pulled it down and later melted it into 42,088 musket balls to shoot at British authorities.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands actively defies this universal application of Romans 13 and has done so for well over 100 years. Right or wrong, regime change is central to U.S. foreign policy, and the heart of our approach to regime change is encouraging, funding, and arming local peoples to resist, oppose, and overpower their governing authorities. We’ve done it on every continent but Antarctica and Australia. Recently. To assume Paul’s words uniquely apply to U.S. citizens but not others is not only ethnocentric, it is a terribly poor interpretation of Scripture.

  • Because of that last fact, demanding that people submit and show respect to that flag and the government for which it stands in uniform ways that you approve of actually demands they show allegiance to an entity actively defying the very principle that compels you to demand their allegiance in the first place. (I know, writing that makes my head hurt too, but it has the doubly painful quality of being true.)

I’ll stop there, though this list could continue. None of this means Paul’s words in Romans 13 (or other biblical instruction about governing authorities) are wrong or useless. It means they have a context and meaning that fits in the big picture of Scripture and isn’t determined by our current patriotic sensibilities. The Bible always demands a level of understanding and care that simply isn’t present when we turn texts into oversimplified weapons against those with whom we disagree.

One of the particular errors involved here is that we are allowing the human authority itself (and popular opinion that human authority has helped shape) to define respect and submission instead of letting the full counsel of Scripture and the lived examples of Scripture’s players form our understanding of those concepts. The assumption that the Bible’s and the world’s definitions of respect and submission would be the same or that the Bible is demanding we swallow whole the definitions of submission and respect given to us by human authority runs counter to the clear teachings of the Bible (instructive and modeled) in numerous other texts.

This isn’t an invitation to debate any particular protest, so please don’t do that here. This is a plea to use real care when handling the Scriptures – care for the Bible itself and care for the people you are using the Bible to accuse and dismiss. I know (almost) no one is purposefully misusing the text, but this is dangerous ground for people who love the Scriptures.

I’ve been memed: a short word on dismissing people you don’t understand

We’ve been traveling and otherwise occupied since Saturday, so I’ve missed a lot of the heat over the national anthem protests. As I glance through my timeline, I’m discovering that a lot of people I know and love – friends, former teachers, mentors, etc. – seem to be closed-book indignant about and dismissive of a deeply held spiritual conviction of mine. Most of these folks are Christians. Most don’t know I have this conviction; it’s not one everyone holds, and it hasn’t seemed fruitful for me to advertise or advocate widely for it. But it’s a conviction absolutely rooted in my faith, my reading of the scriptures, and my being convinced that Jesus is King and that my whole self belongs to him. 

I think most of these people, because they love me, would be willing to sit and listen to me explain my conviction. I think most probably would disagree with me, but I don’t think any of them would respond to me with dismissive memes or decide to “unfriend” me in real life (or request that I “unfriend” them) or suggest everyone boycott me or accuse me of being an ingrate or conclude that I hate America or the troops. 
I’m not prepared to dive into this debate more deeply at the moment. I do request this: if because you love, like, or respect me, you would afford me the courtesy of listening to my deeply held conviction instead of assuming any of those things I listed about me, please extend that same courtesy to those you don’t know. Disagreement is fine. Concern, confusion, of course. But I’m not the only neighbor Jesus was referring to when he told you to “love your neighbor as yourself”. When Paul urges you “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought,” your opinions and convictions are included in that admonition. When he instructs you to “in humility consider others better than yourselves,” he means be humble and to actually assign higher value to people whose convictions you disagree with and don’t understand than to yourself. He simply can’t mean anything else if he means anything at all. 
So at the very least, by the mercy of God I beseech you, stop reacting to one behavior you don’t agree with by posting dismissive, punitive, indignant memes and words that reduce other people who you don’t understand to cliches or the worst version of who you assume they might be. Whether you know it or not, many of you have done the same to me. It’s extraordinarily rare for me to say or write something like that. So please know I’m fine. Lots of folks have been insulted and reviled far longer and with far more venom than I have, and it’s good for me to occasionally sit in that space in this very small way. But I share that you’ve done that to me because it’s true and because I think it would matter to you. And I want it to matter, not because I’m deeply wounded or need any sort of apology, but because I think it matters just as much when you do it to my brothers and sisters who you don’t know and you don’t understand. 
I’m still learning what this means in fits and starts and through regular rebellion, but I’m convinced that Jesus continues to stand and urge me and urge you: Love your neighbors – and your enemies – in the same way that you love yourself. Pray for them and bless them, not condemning, condescending prayers, but with the same kinds of prayers and blessings you pray for your friends. For your kids. For yourself.

Twenty years and twelve

The nineteenth of September will forever link two people who never heard of each other and who lived very different lives. Twenty years ago on this date Rich Mullins died in an accident on an Illinois interstate. He was 41, a year younger than I am now. Twelve years ago my Mamaw died peacefully right in front of me. She was a few weeks shy of 93.

rich1     cecil-estelle-2-2.jpg

Below are some words I wrote a couple of days after Mamaw passed in 2005. My writing and some of my perspective has changed since then, but the heart of these words has not. Both of these people shaped my life in ways I’ll never shake, one from a distance, the other up close and literally from within.

I miss them both a lot.

A good day to die

Eight years ago, back in my single metrosexual almost-North Dallas days (I don’t really know what metrosexual means, but it makes my early 20s sound more exciting, don’t you think?), I got some sad news. My friend Brad and I walked into his apartment and were greeted by a message from Brad’s roommate, a big red-headed guy named Pape (which is illogically pronounced “Poppy”). Scrawled barely legibly on a scrap of paper was this note:

your dad called – rich mullins died

Both the news itself and something about its delivery were startling to me. Why would God let Rich Mullins of all people die now and why am I finding out from a stupid note like this? Silly questions, of course, but those were my initial reactions. Strangely, though I don’t remember doing it, I apparently stole the note and kept it (sorry, Brad). I only know this because I ran across it as I was shuffling through a box of miscellaneous evidence of my pack-rattery during one of our recent moves. If I had a little more energy, I would dig around for it and scan it instead of retyping the note above. The possibility that it’s in one of the 22 boxes still stacked in our garage just barely persuades me that such an effort is completely unnecessary.

Anyway, as I think I’ve said somewhere before, Rich is one of the only people I never knew who I genuinely feel like I miss. One of my first blog posts ever alluded to this. It’s okay if you think I’m weird. I just listen to him sing and read his words and feel like he knows me better than a lot of people who actually know me. I feel like he knows life the way I know life; knows Jesus the way I know Jesus; knows failure and ache the way I know failure and ache. I think lots of different people who live very different lives feel that way about the guy, and I think that says something meaningful about the residue of his life (a phrase he’d probably like).

My point here is not to gush endlessly about Rich. I’m not writing about Rich and the day he died because Monday marked eight years since he crossed over. Not really. I’m writing about him and the day he died because Monday, eight years after Rich died, I held my grandmother’s (Mamaw to all of us) hand as she made her own crossing. After a long life in this realm that we see and smell and touch and hear and taste, her lungs quit breathing and her soul slowly vacated the broken-down body it had inhabited for nearly 93 years. My cousins David and Jesse were also at her bedside, and Amy and David’s wife Linda stood behind us as we did what we could to help escort Mamaw from here to There.

AT MamawI don’t really know what those moments were like for Mamaw. She was still and peaceful – obviously more comfortable than she’d been in the days (years, really) prior. She didn’t speak to us or acknowledge our presence in ways that we could see or hear. That had ceased the night before, when several of us had spent time with her before the medications sustaining her body were pulled back. In moments Amy, my Aunt Molly, and I will never forget, Aiden sat on a stool by Mamaw’s bed and poured three year-old tenderness all over her. Writing about it would fail to convey the ways in which his reassuring words, soft hands, and sweet smiles created life all around a dying woman.

But Monday morning was quiet. We touched her and spoke to her in whispers. Though she didn’t physically respond, I sense she was more alive than ever, as the her that was slowly became the “new her” with each fading breath. She wasn’t gone, and the shriveled shell on the bed didn’t define her. It never really did; it just appeared to. Dying just sealed the deal, finally divorcing her eternal identity from the physical confines of flesh and bone (and arthritis).

Mamaw was ready for this, and she had been for some time. In some ways she’d been ready since that day in 1982 when Papaw went on ahead of her. Most days her readiness was dignified and patient, tempered by her love for all of us and her faith in God’s curious wisdom. Other days it was less steady, driven by the frustration of pain and immobility or a deep ache to be with her Cecil. I understand and love her for both. She was faithful and sure; she was tired and fragile. I’m 63 years behind her in this journey, and I get all of that.

But I don’t think she was the only one who was ready. Tonight I talked with my cousin David, and he described a keen awareness in those final moments of Papaw waiting for her, pleased as punch that the three grandsons who could get there were by her side. David didn’t see a ghost or hear any voices; he just knew Papaw, and he knows Papaw was on hand for the big event. I wonder if we are too inclined to discount ideas like that, maybe because we’re skeptical of what we can’t see and maybe because years of powerless religion have convinced us that all the supernatural stuff happened a long time ago.

They tell us a “cloud of witnesses” continually surrounds us, apparently looking on with anticipation as we run the race marked out for us. This moment was the end of Mamaw’s race, but it was a meaningful bend in the course for the rest of us. I think David is right. I think Papaw is in that cloud — he’s probably the designated cloud farmer and janitor — and I think he’s ecstatic to have Estelle join him in keeping an eye on us. I know she is thrilled beyond all imagination to finally be with Cecil and Jesus.

Tonight I was struck by the realization that Mamaw and Rich left us on the same date. It may seem insignificant to everyone else – old folks die and famous musicians seem to have a strange and disproportionate tendency toward fatal accidents. I don’t theorize that there is some deep, divine meaning in the coincidence. I mean, these people never heard of one another. Rich smoked and cursed. Mamaw was a true, old school Southern Baptist who shocked the world when, in her last weeks as her health deteriorated, she answered a group of church folks visiting her in the hospital who asked if they could pray with her with an emphatic, “Hell yes.”

There seems to be no connection between the two but the day they died. Well, that and this: they loved a guy named Jesus desperately, and they lived their lives to follow him as best they knew how. Neither had it all right, this living as a Christian. Rich probably loved his liberty (and nicotine) too much at times. Mamaw may have been a bit too committed to certain religious traditions (like being Southern Baptist). They were both humanly flawed and incomplete. They were both heroically devoted and faithful.

So, strange as it may seem, I wonder if Rich was in that cloud that greeted Mamaw on Monday. Maybe it was his eighth birthday party and he wished for a widow to be rescued into eternity. Maybe Papaw caught him smoking in his corn field and promised not to rat him out if he’d make that wish. And maybe those wishes really come true on the other side. Who knows why September 19 is such a good day to die, but it’s two-for-two in my book.

Whatever the story, Mamaw is home — with a chain smoking vagrant named Rich, a jolly Texas logger and farmer named Cecil, and that guy named Jesus whom she followed to the end.

Mamaw, I’m glad you finally made it, and it was an honor to sit next to you on your way out. Oh, and if you’re “looking on,” go easy on the ones like Rich. I know they seem like ruffians, and maybe you never expected to see them up there, but don’t lobby to get the rules changed or anything. Some of your grand-kids are taking the same route those hoodlums took. We weren’t allowed to tell you that before, but all those secrets are history now, aren’t they?

Mamaw2_1

Estelle Belle Geldard Hatton
1912 – 2005

 

The leader of the free world

On Saturday I wrote about my deep concerns with the president’s choice to not name the particular evils of white nationalism, neo-Nazism, and the alt-right movement. Two days later, he did that. I’ve spent 24 hours reflecting on all of this, sincerely eager to root out my own biases and see the good in Trump’s decision and his words. And the words are good; refusing to acknowledge that would be, for me, obstinate cynicism. Despite my strong reservations about Trump’s character and leadership, I am daily praying for him, hoping for wisdom, goodness, and mercy. So I’m sincerely thankful for something other than a continuation of the void that stretched from Saturday to Monday morning.

And yet: the void. His refusal to be specific for those two days, certainly set against a backdrop of some history I mentioned on Saturday night (and a lot I didn’t), will remain troubling for me and for many others. I won’t belabor the reasons why that mattered so much, but it did. It does. And if you still don’t think it does, I plead with you to spend some time sincerely listening to people of color explaining why it matters. There are many who are as theologically and socially conservative as you who are happy to do so. Don’t just watch CNN or FOX and let the divisions grow deeper. Have a conversation with a real person.

And, of course, since Monday morning we’ve had multiple head-shaking presidential twitter moments that torpedoed most of the patience and trust Trump surely aimed to buoy with his more specific statement. [Literally as I wrote this, Trump walked back to his Saturday language.]

Wait, don’t leave. I promise I’m not going to do a twitter play-by-play. Who has the energy for that at this point?

I mention those tweets because of what they reveal about the striking contrast between Trump’s spirit over the last 24 hours and the spirit of Heather Heyer’s father, Mark. If you haven’t already seen this short video, please pause for three minutes and watch it:

That, folks, is your leader this week.

As I said when I tweeted this video Monday evening: This is other-worldly forgiveness. I’m a father to two daughters. This isn’t natural. It’s supernatural, the power of the cross among us.

Mark Heyer is reminding me that it’s safe to love and forgive, that it’s safe not to hate.

Despite my many years of relative political ambivalence, I think it’s a shame that the President of the United States is not only not modeling that same spirit, but he’s undermining his own words about hate and unity. The difference between what the two men have lost since Saturday is unquantifiable, yet one is angrily focused on his own mistreatment while the other is courageously modeling redeemed humanity.

As Mark Heyer points to the self-sacrificing Jesus of the cross and forgives the white supremacist who murdered his daughter, the president tweets about how he is being picked on by his “truly bad” enemies and then shares with the country a picture of a train emblazoned TRUMP running over a reporter two days after Heather was run over by a car. I mean, good grief, man.

So here’s my confession: it makes me kind of want to hate Trump. Just a little, but it’s there.

See, that’s our cycle. That’s my cycle. Even when it’s love or tolerance or grace we say we value, all it takes is a little hate to make us want to hate. Maybe all it takes is a little them…a little of the other who isn’t like me, who I don’t like, who I don’t understand.

But here is Mark Heyer, undone by the murder of his child yet unmoved by the hate that killed her. Here he is, an old man in a food pantry t-shirt on his front lawn, acting like the leader of the free world.

People need to stop hatin’, and they need to forgive each other. And I include myself in that in forgiving the guy that did this. He don’t know no better. I just think of what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Lord, forgive ’em. They don’t know what they’re doin’.

Thank you, Mr. Heyer, for reminding me that as I labor to oppose evil in the world and call the the Church to purity in her allegiance to Jesus, my first audience is me.

Silence is political

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today in Virginia, which is to say in America, various white supremacist groups paraded around advocating for Nazi nonsense. One of them drove into a crowd of people and killed someone. There’s no need for me to report the news. You know.

A few weeks ago I started an essay explaining why, as a pastor who for a decade mostly avoided politics, I decided to start talking and writing publicly about politics in some very particular ways. I’m writing that essay because I think my shift in thinking and behavior merits some explanation for those who haven’t already tuned me out because I’ve gotten “too political”.

But today brings into sharp focus one of my reasons: I simply cannot ignore the experience of people I love who are not white who have been damaged and deeply discouraged by the politics of the last year.

Let me be clear: This is not because I feel guilty.

This is because, in my particular case, I am hearing wise, sane Christians who aren’t white – many of them as theologically conservative as Trump’s white evangelical base, some demonstrably more so – articulate the impact of this political phenomenon on them and their communities. And as a follower of Jesus, I must listen. And as I listen, I’ve been compelled to care about their experience as much as my own.

Today put on display what many outside the white evangelical mainstream have known far longer than I have known it: silence by well-meaning members of the Church who would never march in a Klan rally or use the n-word emboldens those who do and generally communicates indifference or approval.

In this particular case, when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, the overwhelming majority of black and other non-white evangelicals said, “What the hell?”

My goal here is not to shame anyone for their vote, but if we’re sincerely interested in how to love those brothers and sisters well now, it’s fair to know how so many felt about the election and how they view the Church’s response today.

If you think they were overreacting, today proved otherwise.

If you aren’t sure how, take two minutes to go watch David Duke as he proudly wades through a crowd dotted by Nazi and Confederate flags and t-shirts bearing Hitler quotes and happily declares that the crowd is there to “take our country back” and “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”. Go look at how easily white nationalist Richard Spencer used Trump’s particularly non-particular response to today’s events to further lay claim to legitimate power.

These people have been emboldened by the election of Trump because they believe he is promising to give them their (white supremacist) country back, and they are here to take it.

But they’re just the fringe lunatics, right? Trump shouldn’t be unfairly saddled with an association with them, should he?

Well, let’s ask him.

In response to violence incited by assault-rifle carrying white supremacists,

In response to defiant, open advocacy for the kind of evil that a generation of Americans fought a six-year global war to put down,

In response to a man driving his car into a crowd of people and murdering a woman,

In response to those people openly associating their actions with a fulfillment of the promises of the elected President of the United States, Donald Trump tweeted this:

This and the equally generic statements he made later are not just woefully insufficient, they are strategically unspecific. The moment was ripe for Trump to speak simply and clearly: “The racism the so called ‘alt-right’ espouses is evil. I reject it top to bottom. And I reject the support of anyone and everyone who clings to this particular hate.”

His choice to speak more generally cannot be attributed to Trump’s style or a penchant for diplomatic language in response to evil or people he desires to condemn.

It seems unnecessary to document this, but Trump regularly and specifically targets those he clearly rejects with language that is anything but diplomatic. He is historically and notoriously not content to just say, “everyone who does wrong is wrong” when he has some particular wrong or enemy in his crosshairs. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is “very weak” and “disloyal”. Republican Senator Ted Cruz is “bad” and his campaign did “very sleazy and dishonest” things. The “failing New York Times” has a “sick agenda”. The media as a whole is “the enemy of the American people”.

But in response to today’s events, we get a willful refusal to name white supremacists, the alt-right, or any of its leaders or to distance himself from them even as they specifically hail him as a trailblazer for their movement. And this is not new. Trump has long avoided clearly repudiating openly racist groups who support him, a decision that can’t be anything but intentional after so much time. And lest we forget, this movement built its momentum and message on a platform provided by a man Trump chose and has kept as one of his top two advisors.

There really are only two possible explanations for this: either he does not reject the ideology of these groups as evil or he is unwilling to use words to separate himself from them and their support.

Either option is a very big deal.

We have a sitting president unwilling to clearly disavow the ideology, actions, or support of brazen, violent enemies of my brothers and sisters of color. It does not matter why.

I never wanted to get political, but I literally have no choice anymore. If I remain silent about Trump’s complicity in the evil that has plagued us as a people and tormented black Americans for centuries, I am simply choosing another kind of politics – the politics of silence in the face of evil.

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. –Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor

Wounds, yet visible above

woundsIn preparing for my Easter sermon last week, I came across a brief mention by N.T. Wright of what, prior to now, has been for me a very small and overlooked detail of the Easter story: when Jesus appeared to his friends after his resurrection, the wounds from his suffering were still visible.

This matters, not just for an Easter narrative, but for us in understanding our own wounds. Christians are prone to make much of the fact that, upon our deaths, we’ll be healed, rid of all of our current sufferings and ailments. But in our eagerness to dream of freedom from our aging, failing bodiesbodies many of us tend to despise for reasons related more to our human condition than any particular sufferingwe often conclude that we will no longer see or have record of the scars we’re accumulating along the way.

Maybe. But if that isn’t true for Jesus, why would it be true for us? What if there is a good, maybe beautiful, reason for the possibility that we’ll carry signs of our wounds with us beyond the grave? What if this is good news about the trauma and grief we accumulate along the way? 

Wright offers this possibility:

All we can surmise from the picture of Jesus’s resurrection is that just as his wounds were still visible, not now as sources of pain and death, but as signs of his victory, so the Christian’s risen body will bear such marks of his or her loyalty to God’s particular calling as are appropriate, not least where that has involved suffering.

What we do now with our lives and our bodies and what we bear in this life—yes, even in our bodies—is not just how we fill the space until the end. We are not just toiling to make the best of things, to mitigate the damage, to hold on, to pass the time. Even in our most crushing disappointments, defeats, and failures, we are building a lasting reality.

None of our suffering is in vain. None of it is wasted or worthless. All of it is seen, and it will be fulfilled and completed in God’s future.

Is life still painful at times? Absolutely, sometimes beyond what we can bear ourselves. Paul says that as long as we are alive, we are “carrying around in our bodies the reality of the brutal death and suffering of Jesus.” So any suggestion that we should be free of the pain is wishing in the dark. But he also tells us why: “…so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” And that is the best of all trades; in the death of our efforts to insulate our lives and our comfort, we find the life that is really life.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; bewildered, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

Everything we build, even when we have no idea we’re building anything at all, and even in our deepest sadness and suffering, will have a place in the eternal Kingdom. Our hardest days won’t merely be memories. They will be markings of Resurrection victory over brokenness and loss and even death.

Little black boys and black girls…little white boys and white girls

I’ve been fascinated by the life and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since the fifth grade. Over the years I’ve watched, listened to, taken classes about, and repeatedly shared his sermons and speeches and letters. I’m no expert on either, but I’ve developed a deep appreciation and affection for both Dr. King and the movement he shaped and led alongside so many other brave men and women.

So MLK Day is always a mixed bag for me. I’m thankful for any opportunity for Dr. King’s powerful words to reverberate again through our culture. I’m also reminded of how much of the struggle remains almost fifty years after his murder.

As a 41 year-old white man, I don’t always know how to think and speak and write about issues of race, ethnicity, power, privilege, and justice. My struggle is not a function of not having thoughts or opinions; it is a function of an understanding of the limitations of those thoughts and opinions and the limitations of my own experience.

So I’ve tried (and often failed, then tried again) to listen more than I speak or write. This, I’m convinced, is key to any individual or collective progress in these important areas. We must decide to be people who listen first, listen second, listen third, and then speak when our listening has given birth to empathy and wisdom.

Amy and I also have tried to help our kids see the world through the eyes of people who experienced and still experience challenges and struggles our three haven’t and never will face. We’ve tried to raise them not to be “colorblind,” but to actually see, understand, and appreciate difference.

I’d like to share just a bit of the fruit of that, and I know in doing so I risk a couple of things. I risk looking like the white guy who thinks he’s done something heroic by giving his kids a bit of exposure to black history. I also risk being the parent who wants you to see how enlightened and amazing his kids are. I don’t know how to avoid either of those perceptions, but I’ll just ask for your grace and trust that neither of those motives are in my heart.

And I want to share in spite of those risks because I want to remember and to remind you that it matters that we do this. It matters that we tell our kids about our own failures and change and growth. It’s important that they know that there is sin and shame and pain and blood in their history, but that they are not bound by any of it.

I want to share in spite of those risks because I want to remember and remind you that they’re listening. They’re listening and they’re becoming.

My 14 year-old son Aiden’s thoughts on MLK Day:

I came home from a reading and discussion of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and when I opened our front door, I heard his voice echoing from the living room. Amy and the kids were watching “I Have a Dream” as we always do on this day. Ella watched it three times in a row and drew the scene.

 

So much of Dr. King’s dream is still a dream, but not all of it. Some if it has come true and is coming true. I’m praying that our kids and your kidsthat you and I will continue to be the “coming true” as much as it’s up to us.