Friday, December 5, 2014

We Can't Breathe

Why are we gathered here in Harrisonburg, VA tonight?

We are here this evening because on July 17, 2014 a NYC police officer killed Eric Garner, a 43-year old unarmed black man, with a choke hold that had been banned for over 25 years, but  not outlawed.

We are here because a grand jury decided to not go forward with a trial after hearing in which a prosecutor confused the jury rather than push for an indictment. There was clearly enough evidence, enough to present to the grand jury for two months!

We are here because the entire nation saw the police kill unarmed Eric Garner on youtube!

We are here because in the four months that we waited for justice for Eric Garner, more unarmed black folks have been killed by police officers around the nation and not one of them has been held accountable for their actions. Instead, they have received leave time with pay. It’s as though they are rewarded for their behavior with paid vacation.

We are here because the failure to indict demonstrates yet another unjust bias in a system that is already stacked against African Americans.

We are here not only because of Eric Garner. We are here because last week they failed to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, and while we were still trying to catch our breath in Ferguson, they failed to indict in NYC, and not long into our shocked gasp over the NYC failure to indict, our hearts are choked by the news that charges against an officer were dropped after he shot and killed 7-year old Aiyana Stanley Jones while she was sleeping on the couch in her house.

I am here because as Garner said in his final words, “I. Can’t. Breathe.” And we haven’t been breathing well for a long time: As Franz Fanon said "When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”

We rally because our children can’t breathe. I have two boys. Two black boys. Someday those black boys will grow up to be black men. After a jury acquitted George Zimmerman of killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, I wrapped my arms around my boys and squeezed their brown bodies tightly. After the grand jury refused to indict any police officers for killing John Crawford who carried a toy gun sold by Walmart in a Walmart store, I wrapped my arms around my brown babies as tightly as I could. After a grand jury refused to indict Darren Wilson, I squeezed them tighter and feared to ever let them go. Upon news of the grand jury failing to indict Daniel Pantaleo I wanted to squeeze them tighter, but I knew I could not, because I’m already squeezing them too tight, trying to protect them from a problem I cannot control, a problem that is not. their. fault.

We are here because we cannot squeeze the breath from our children trying to protect them from professional law enforcement who are supposed to be protecting them and us. We cannot teach them to be nice enough, pleasant looking enough, well spoken enough, smart enough, at home enough to guarantee that they are safe in a society wherein 7-year and 12-year old children can be killed on the couch in their sleep, or at a park while playing, by law enforcement professionals who face no accountability for their actions. We cannot speak well of safety in a society that will not hold professionals accountable for unjustly taking lives that look too dark or too big or too different!

We are here because a black teen is 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white teen.

We are here because we want to live in a society in which our laws protect the value of all lives.

We are here because all life matters.

We are here to say something that should not need to be said: black. lives. matter!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Pearl of Great Price

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—  not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ." —Galatians 1:6-7

I once spoke with a white pastor who claimed that colonialism wasn't all bad.  After all, it introduced him to Africa.

He explained, "I grew up in a racist home.  I didn't know that the N-word was a bad word until I was in college.  So when I left the denomination of my youth and later joined my current denomination something amazing happened.  The church appointed an African leader to oversee my work.  So now, I, a southern white boy who learned to be racist, am accountable to an African, who I must call regularly, for guidance and discipleship.  Without colonialism that wouldn't be possible."

I looked away keeping silent for a few moments while I collected my thoughts.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  I wanted to take care with my words, because we were at a gathering where others were listening.  I was incensed, but I knew that he was very sincere in both his confession that he was a recovering racist and that he was grateful for the presence of African authority in his life.  He had just shared with me a precious gift of self-disclosure a truth in which he found personal redemption.  But it was not his personal narrative that bothered me as much as did the cosmic significance he was ascribing to it.

In essence, he was trying to persuade me that his journey towards personal redemption was worth the world-wide devastation that colonialism wrought.  His comments forced me to wrestle with these questions:  How much was the gospel worth?  Was it worth the European "scramble for Africa" which subjugated people from the Cape of Good Hope to the Ivory Coast?  Was it worth the violent destruction of family systems and cultures who were told that in order to be saved they must achieve some measure of European civilization?

I've been confronted with such questions before in different contexts.  In my study of  Christian missions, I have read from missionaries who espouse riding on the coat-tails of U.S. imperialism in order to gain access to people who have yet to hear their version of the "good news."  I have met missionaries who champion the idea that they have "civilized" impoverished people of color.  I have engaged mission agencies that recognize the reality that many of the people and programs they support propagate white supremacist attitudes and actions.  Yet, they maintain that they must continue for two reasons:  The Church must be in mission and the mission trips they support significantly enhance discipleship.  As I've stated elsewhere, there can be no doubt that mission is vital to the life of the Body of Christ.  Without mission, the Church cannot hope to abide in God as God's Spirit moves throughout the world creating a Church in the Spirit's wake.  But I am concerned that too many white U.S. Christians believe that to become the people that they desire to be, they must immerse themselves in foreign cultural situations that provide them with opportunities for service and knowledge, regardless of the cost.

While the racially oppressed bear the brunt of the great price of colonialist practices, participants in oppressive institutions and systems pay a price as well.  James Baldwin once wrote, "Whoever debases others debases himself."  White people who participate in racist systems unaware may gain cultural experiences, linguistic skills, and transformational memories, but they gain no capacity to resist the debasement of their own souls.   That's why it's problematic to see mission trips as a positive tool for discipleship so-long as support for white supremacy persists in any form.  In other words, the problem with racism isn't primarily one of prejudice—personal attitudes and questionable intentions.  The problem with U.S. racism is the maintenance and support of institutional and systemic white supremacist power. 

Soong Chan-Rah argues in his book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, "We are quick to deal with the symptoms of sin in America, but often times are unwilling to deal with the original sin of America: namely, the kidnapping of Africans to use as slave labor, and usurping of lands belonging to Native Americans and subsequent genocide of indigenous peoples. … This original sin of racism has had significant and ongoing social and corporate implications for the church in America."  Moreover, white Christian denial of the social and corporate implications of US America's original sin should  provoke Christians of every hue to ask, "What exactly are white US Christian missionaries exporting?"  Can people baptized into the waters of white supremacy and communing at the table of racial division mature as Christian disciples while participating in activities that reinforce the very racist notions that justified African slavery and American Indian holocaust, namely that "we gain from helping them?"    

This is not good news.  Killing, stealing, and destroying is not God's mission.  How can the gospel be good if it results in such a horrific history?  The only logical answer is to argue that colonialism is not the good news, because colonialism produces domination, destruction, and disconnection.  In whatever way the good news of the Beloved Community took root in colonial contexts, it did so despite of, not because of, colonialism. 

After I recollected my thoughts, I turned back to the white pastor, who I felt was seeking my reassurance that indeed he was not a racist and that the price of the Gospel was worth the loss of millions of lives and the deconstruction of essential social structures.  I replied, "I refuse to accept that the rape of a continent, the devaluation of ancient cultural creations, and the murder of millions was worth the good news that you just shared with me, that you have the opportunity for redemption through your relationship with your African leadership."

He nodded.

Since that day I've noted more occasions when white Christians excuse racism, imperialism, sexism, or colonialism because the gospel was advanced.  My question is, what is this version of the gospel that is worth the lives of millions and the loss of incredibly rich cultures?  It is not the good news that Jesus preached to the poor, the hungry, or the persecuted.  It is instead good news for the rich, the privileged, and the powerful.  Instead of a gospel that requires the rich man to sell all that he owns, this costly pearl requires great cost to the dis-empowered and the disinherited.  This is not good news, it is bad, very bad. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Unless Christian Mission Dies *but keep reading...

"Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." —John 12:24

Last week people all over the world, and especially in the United States, commemorated Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a Dream Speech." Children in public schools reflected on their own dreams of the future.  Many teachers challenged students to consider how racism affects people's lives today.  Others gathered to hear President Obama speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a paradoxical symbol of U.S. racial progress as well as the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military force in the world.  This troubling juxtaposition reminded me of King's integrated dream that, in addition to racial harmony, insisted on an end to U.S. violence and material poverty.  In a 1967 sermon to Riverside Church in Harlem he preached:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, "So what about Vietnam?" They ask if our nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
As an U.S. Christian missiologist, King's words haunt me, because too much of what passes for Christian mission today involves Christians participating in international travel to serve the world's desperate, rejected, and angry while neglecting to speak clearly to some of the greatest causes of economic desperation, racial rejection, and military violence in the world today—our literal next door neighbors, multi-national corporations and government.  Unless this neglect ceases, the concept of Christian mission will implicitly endorse destructive values of U.S. American empire.

Last Spring I posted a blog in which I called for a moratorium, or a stoppage, on Christian mission.  I suggested that the roots of U.S. American Christian mission were rotten.  My point was, and is, that the concept of U.S. American Christian mission conceived by European Christians and practiced by middle class white U.S. American Christians today is fundamentally flawed.  From this inherited Western perspective, U.S. American Christian mission is widely understood to constitute  international ministry to foreign people.  While recently some missiologists and mission agencies have sought to adjust strategies to emphasize that their missionaries often gain more than they give, U.S. American Christians have largely inherited a set of mission strategies that thrive on optimistic views of globalization and the assumption that United States Christianity is worth exporting globally.

Historically, imperialist missionaries to, and from, North America also believed that their version of Christianity was worth exporting.  Beginning with Columbus, the entire practice of Christian mission, and the agencies that supported it, came from empires: Spanish, French, and British. The strategies of these agencies advocated for the salvation of souls at the expense of human bodies and their bio-regions. Under the authority of these imperial regimes Christians enslaved, commodified, and culturally colonized the Americas.  It was a miracle that any of the enslaved, coerced, or captured communities converted to Christianity.  For the next five centuries, missionaries colluded with governments and agencies to triumphantly win souls and civilize foreign nations under the unofficial mandate of the white man's burden

The effects of globalization have transformed, what George Tinker called, Missionary Conquest from a cooperative endeavor between Christianity and commerce, sometimes missionaries and military, into an exercise in technological, economic, religious and cultural exportation.  Christianity and commerce allowed for the exploitation of Africans, Indians, and North America's soil.  Missions and military led to the physical and cultural genocide of diverse North American Indian populations.  Vine Deloria, Jr commented, "If the same energy would have been focused on correcting the ways of white Americans, teaching them to practice rather than preach Christianity, the fate of the Indians might have been far different."   Though some mission agencies—even less local churches—see their international ministries as providing discipleship opportunities rather than soul saving and economic development, one questions, "Why do middle class U.S. American Christians insist on spending so many resources on international ministry when many of the problems—economic inequality, racial oppression, and social instability—they encounter around the world have roots in the very globally exported values that emanate from their own U.S. neighborhoods?"

Most missiologists and students of world Christianity like to acknowledge that the center-of-gravity of the Christian world has shifted to the southern hemisphere.  According to Gordon-Conwell's center for the Study of Global Christianity, the United States ranks first in the number of missionaries "sent out."  The fact that Palestine sends more missionaries per one million than any other nation and Latin Americans and Africans send missionaries to the U.S. has not changed one foundational assumption that many U.S. Christians make regarding mission:  U.S. Christians believe they must 'go' to international places to heed God's missionary mandate. 

By valuing international ministry over local ministry, U.S. Christians have devalued local regions, place, space, and land.  It’s no coincidence that U.S. Christians have trouble valuing the land when Christian missionaries participated in removing the very first nations peoples who believed that  North American land was sacred.  Thus, if we are to be faithful in missionary practice, then we must begin to see that every Christian is sent from God’s commonwealth rather than the United States of America.  This understanding makes all of us missionaries and the very local spaces in which we find ourselves missionary spaces.

The concept of mission, as inherited from European Christianity must be put to death.  Tweaking and adjusting strategies to acknowledge post-modern critiques simply will not do.  U.S. American churches must recognize that mission is more than international ministry that seeks to be incarnational and sensitive to contextual issues.  Mission is the very essence of church community in its local part of the world.  In this way, mission is always local.  To engage in local ministry, then, means to clearly represent the gospel to our suburban, rural, and urban neighbors.  To be truly incarnate, this gospel must be embodied in local contexts, in time and space, in soul and soil. 

This means that the very neighborhoods from which U.S. churches send international ministers need incarnational ministers who will invite corporate executives, professional politicians, and other American dreamers into discipleship in the Beloved Community.  These mostly white middle class neighborhoods are bastions of anxiety and fear.  Such high anxiety levels have led them to worship safety and security.  In turn, these suburbanites have authorized an increase in the military-industrial complex and fueled a prison-industrial complex that is rarely challenged.  Instead, the U.S. budgeted over $682 billion for military expenses in 2012 to sponsor two wars and various other endeavors.  Domestically, the U.S. budgets $6.8 billion to the Bureau of Prisons to deal with the largest prison population in the world, a disproportionate number of whom are racial minorities.

The segregation of U.S. schools and churches also demonstrates that the U.S. has not resolved long legacies of racial oppression.  In 2012 the public school system in the U.S. was as racially divided as it was under Jim Crow segregation 50 years ago.  Preachers continue to quote King's statement that "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."  Christian ministries troubled by this division are often distinguished from "missions" as urban ministries, which explains in part why I stress that traditional mission is "international ministry."  Urban ministry is mission too.  So long as international ministry alone is defined as "mission," then Christian churches will struggle to see mission as a vital part of their local ministry and churches will too infrequently address issues like racial justice and seek authentic cross-racial connections with fellow citizens. 

Those who champion globalization as connecting the world, too faintly note the quality of these new connections.  U.S. budgets and race statistics daily demonstrate the inequalities present in global connections. The world is not flat. It is indeed a spiky hierarchical world in which a small percentage of the world's population have access to a majority of the world's resources.  The oligarchical nature of U.S. society mirrors the material disparity that we witness around the world in which 20% of U.S. households own 85% of the wealth compared to 20% of the world's population owning 80% of the world's wealth.  As former industrially viable U.S. cities like Detroit declare bankruptcy I wonder how U.S. apostles of globalization can persist in their confidence about the idea that God backs globalization, no matter how nuanced their argument.  That some formerly disconnected communities can now engage in micro-entrepreneurship and are gaining access to digital banking does not mean that globalization is neutral in the world economy.  Power remains the name of the game.  With all of the aforementioned problems endemic to U.S. Christianity, it is appropriate to ask, "What about U.S. Christianity is worth exporting on a global scale?"

U.S. Christians who economically benefit from globalization, are either blind or apathetic to the problems with globalization in its various forms.  Traditional mission advocates who present globalization as benign or neutral can do so because their projects are enhanced by the prospect of globalization.  In the Christian world, international mission agencies are most readily equipped to engage a globalized marketplace, because they are the part of the Christian world with the most experience with multinational ventures.  But the border crossing made available to the world's privileged population has rich temptations that  allow the powerful to avoid just regulations and peacebuilding values.  Robert Reich explained the implications of globalization in his important text The Work of Nations:

“As borders become ever more meaningless in economic terms, those citizens best positioned to thrive in the world market are tempted to slip the bonds of national allegiance, and by so doing disengage themselves from their less favored fellows.”

Reich, Robert B. The Work of NationsPerhaps Reich's quote can help us understand why middle class U.S. American Christians insist on spending so many resources on international ministry when many of the problems they encounter around the world have roots in values that emanate from their own neighborhoods.  If he is right, then there is little incentive for missionaries who can thrive on this global scale to continue to struggle against provincial peers who question their motives and call them to account for their historical transgressions with more than a wordy apology.  It is a reality that raising funds for a short-term mission trip to Haiti is much easier and more effective than raising funds to teach suburban cosmopolitan consumers that their lifestyle is disproportionately a key cause of global climate change.  Resources are much easier to solicit for the international than the domestic scene.  It makes sense why in the heart of global capitalism, where exporting goods and values grows GDP, those who thrive on the world market favor the distant stranger over the long-term neighbor. 

This favoritism for strangers over neighbors, the preference for international over local, must die.  Unless U.S. Christian mission dies, it will remain a purveyor of white upper middle class values.  Such values are its roots.  Replanting this brand of mission in new soil is not the answer.  The notion of mission that I have described must die, so the church can be reborn in the West.  U.S. Christians must begin to see that loving their neighbors, the people nearest them, is a challenge that will have global blessings.  It's not that urban and rural poverty, or international disaster should be ignored, rather U.S. Christians must re-engage our U.S. suburbs, U.S. multinational corporations, and U.S. state and federal governments.  For one crucial way to bring good news to urban, rural, and international contexts is for missionaries to invite upper middle class U.S. Americans to repent of their militarism, materialism, and racism and participate in the Beloved Community.  As addicted consumers void of the spirit of simplicity, idolaters of security ridden with anxiety, and disciples of discrimination who know not their neighbor, they need to be transformed by the gospel, especially since they will likely export their values across the textured topography that is our global reality.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Brennan Manning, A Graceful Life

“My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.” —Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

I needed to hear the words Brennan Manning wrote in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “good news for the bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out.”  I trust that many Christians did.  I needed someone to tell me I was loved.  I mean really loved.  I needed to know that if I failed out of college, embarrassed my family, and became every negative thing US society portrayed black men to be in the 1990s, that someone would love me anyway.  I needed to know that even if I didn't live up to all that it meant to follow in the steps of Jesus that God would accept me.  I suppose it's only those who have their proverbial  "ducks in a row," those who've "got it all together," and are "destined for greatness" who don't.

But I did.  I was falling apart.  I hadn't lost faith in God, but I was convinced that God had lost faith in me.  Why wouldn't God have lost faith in me, everyone else had.  It was my senior year at an Evangelical Christian liberal arts college.  I was a leader of Bible studies, community activities, and well liked, when I received news that I would be a father.  As a middle-aged man today, I know that many people rejoice over such news.  As an unwed father at an Evangelical Christian college, however, I believed I had nothing to celebrate.  At least that's what my years of Evangelical Christian camp, Bible studies, and higher education had taught me.

I had committed what felt like the "unforgivable sin."  Of course, it was not the unforgivable sin, but at an institution that had students sign life-style statements upon which they agreed not to "smoke, drink, dance, or chew" sex was the most significant of things we contractually agreed not to do.  Still, there were levels of sexual transgression. It was one thing to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, many Christian college students did that.  But those who had babies soon disappeared or were covered in shame in efforts to discourage anyone else from getting the faulty impression that we believed in "cheap grace" or the kind of grace that allows people to commit grievous sins and get away with it.  And by get away with it, they meant to be loved, received, welcomed and embraced.  Such a sinner couldn't receive the good gift of unmerited favor without understanding that grace was costly.

Evangelicals, I learned, loved the idea of "costly grace" that they found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship because of it's affirmation of Christian obedience to the cross of Christ.  They also loved Bonhoeffer because he lent some theological sophistication and validation to their form of spirituality that was often cast as unlearned and anti-intellectual.  In Bonhoeffer many believed that they got an authoritative theologian to validate their holiness codes and their justification for enforcing them.  I lost my role as a leader on campus, some students who knew sent me emails telling me that they no longer wanted to hear anything I had to say.  Administrators looked for ways to discipline me and fix my behavior.  I gained a new set of friends, friends whose choices, behavior, or looks had left them on the periphery of our Evangelical college campus.  Shunned and ashamed, I never quite understood why the college chaplain permitted me to preach a sermon in chapel.  I wonder if he had read The Ragamuffin Gospel as well...

It was around this time that I discovered Brennan Manning.  His words shook the very foundations of my faith.  If everything he said was right—and it certainly made more sense in light of the God who "demonstrated his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners Christ died for us."(Romans 5:8), than the gospel of grace by merit that I heard everywhere else—, then I too could receive grace.  I struggled to accept Manning's interpretation, in spite of my insatiable desire to believe the words he spoke so powerfully:

"The God I’ve come to know by sheer grace, the Jesus I met in the grounds of my own self, has furiously loved me regardless of my state-grace or disgrace. For His love is never, never, never based on our performance, never conditioned by our moods-of elation or depression. The furious love of God knows no shadow of alteration or change. It is reliable. And always tender.”  

It was just a few days after my first son was born, on Father's Day, that I received my first words of grace for being a father.  A woman boarded a bus late one night while I was living in Chicago, but she couldn't find enough change for the ride.  She may have had the change, but the bus driver didn't seem interested in waiting around long enough to find out.  The woman looked tired, dressed in very tight champagne room attire that could have doubled for the thrift store's version of sexy clothing or the uniform of a struggling woman trying to piece together a living on the city streets after dark.  Whatever her clothes signified, her caked on multicolored make-up didn't make her appear to be doing very well.  I rose up from the back of the bus and decided to give her the extra change she required and a CTA transfer I had in my pocket.  As I walked away from her, she asked me, "Are you a Father?"  I turned and nodded shamefully.  To which she responded in gratitude, "Happy Father's Day."

There we were, two ragamuffins on a bus trying to make our way home.  I like to think that as we both sat there in our states of societal disgrace that Brennan Manning would have affirmed that we experienced a moment of grace that God never intended for either of us to go without.  She didn't need to perform to receive the gift.  I didn't need to be a married father for her to wish me well.  We gave grace.  We received grace.  It wasn't cheap, it wasn't particularly costly.  It was simply grace, the only kind there is, the only kind there has ever been, the only kind there will ever be—freely received, freely given, unmerited favor.

Brennan Manning died this week.  He is, no doubt, resting like a beloved child in the arms of the One whom he called Abba.  I am struck by how deeply the news of his departure has affected me.  Perhaps it's because I can think of no other writer who was able to convince me that the words of the Sunday School song, Jesus Loves Me, might actually be true.  But I think it's more because I fear that his was a rare voice; one that dared to proclaim to Christians that value appearances over authenticity, reputations over mercy, and purity over God's passionate love for all, that unmerited favor is really as free as the word grace implies.

Thanks for loving me with your ragamuffin good news, Richard Francis Xavier Manning.  The message of your life was a means of grace for me.  Rest in Peace.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why Ben Carson is Incorrect about being PC

"Speak out for those who cannot speak."—Proverbs 31:8

Ever since Ben Carson spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast with President Obama present, February 7, 2013, it has felt like open season for columnists to turn their frustrations and rage towards politically correct language and all things liberal: climate change, affirmative action, diversity, etc... 

Victor Davis Hanson, for example, is one of the more recent critics.  Last week, Hanson's editorial, "When Racial Preferences Become Payback" argued that the politically correct language game that now speaks of "climate change," once upon a time "global warming," points to a problem in liberal agenda items.  That is, they are making it  impossible for true diversity to thrive.  In his view, political correctness is so (purposefully?) ambiguous that it hides contradictions.  When he turned his focus to political correct language concerning people groups, he concluded, "It is well past time to move on and to see people as just people."

I live for the day when people are seen just as people.  The problem here is that Hanson assumes that because President Obama, and other high profile racial minorities, have achieved notable places in US society then racial discrimination against minorities is a thing of the past.  Of course, he's right that these individuals can no longer be seen as tokens given the number of successful minorities in plain view.

But it is a popular fallacy, and a fallacy only, that minority status is determined by population size.  In truth, minority status has everything to do with power and almost nothing to do with population size. And he's just wrong when he implies that class never factors into preferences.  Not only does class factor into preferences, higher income people often receive preferential treatment, if not for the mere fact that, by definition, they have more access to resources.  And contrary to the opinion of some who cry out against so-called "reverse-racism" most special programs exist for impoverished people on all sides of the color line rather than for those singled out solely for their racial identity. 

Still, in a nation that disproportionately criminalizes African Americans—as Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow—, a nation that can indefinitely incarcerate people on suspicion of illegal immigration (See Arizona), and where police can shoot unarmed minorities and keep the media away (See Flatbush protest), the issue of of diversity training, or better-yet "cultural competency," is very important. And even more, we must continue to press for laws that insure civil rights for minorities. In the 2012  national and local elections many states tried to make it more difficult for minority districts to exercise their voting rights (even right here in my own city of Harrisonburg, VA).  

We need legal protections for all people because the worst discrimination is systemic and institutional. Laws can't stop people from disliking minorities, but laws can protect the less powerful from an even greater deterioration of their quality of life.  

If liberals are ambiguous, then it's even truer that comments like Hanson's hang their arguments on tenuous connections.  Attacking the language of climate crisis, climate change, or global warming has almost nothing to do with racial preferences, except that people like Hanson try to make some connection between political correct language and a hypothesized liberal conspiracy to hide a destructive agenda.  Language is only a game when it doesn't describe a reality but obscures it.  There are legitimate problems that need helpful language to describe them, that's true of systemic/institutional racism and our destruction of the environment. Ultimately language has less to do with political correctness than with the need to search for language that will lead us to better solutions to the problems we face.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Requiem for Missions

He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” —Mark 16:15

I am calling for a moratorium on missions.  That’s simply a fancy way of saying, stop.  It’s time to lay to rest our mission strategies and ideas.  Stop traveling the world in the name of Jesus.  Stop planting churches in foreign mission fields. Stop sending our children on short-term missions trips.  Stop fixing houses.  Stop. I realize this is a strange call for a professor of missions to make.  But I’ve never shied away from being strange.  After all, the Bible calls Christians a “peculiar people.”

To be clear, this call has little to do with being strange and everything to do with the good news, or the gospel.  For too long, Christian missions in North America and coming from North America have either indirectly ushered violence into societies or have been a direct cause of it.  Take Christopher Columbus for example: the Italian explorer for the King and Queen of Spain was sent as a Christian missionary to find a new path for trade in commerce.   Here's a passage from his journal:

"Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith."

I'll save my comments about his Islamophobic speech for another post. Instead of reaching India, Columbus found a people of whom he reported, "would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion."  In 500 years time, Christian missionaries have moved far from physically enslaving the objects of their missionary zeal. Coming from a capitalist culture, US American missionaries too often define a successful missionary trip as one that makes better capitalists of the people they seek to convert.  In other words, our Christian missionaries try to make people in distant lands slaves to the global economy just as we overly indebted US Americans are.

Cultural violence and economic enslavement sound nothing like good news to me.  So until Christian mission activities can really declare that we have good news to share, then we need to stop.

I’m not the first and will not be the last to make this call.  Howard Thurman, the twentieth century African American Christian Mystic, said that Christian missions is “the very heartbeat of the Christian religion.”  And so it is understandable when he complains that the missionary impulse is “an instrument of self-righteousness on the one hand and racial superiority on the other.”

Similarly to Thurman, it’s not the concept of missions that I object to.  Rather, it’s that missions have become vessels of self-righteousness, racial superiority, Western expansion, environmental terror, and global capitalism.  Mission means to be sent and Christians follow a God who is a sending God which means that God’s people must be a missionary people.  So the question is, "How then shall we live?"  I propose that we live by the following values for our Christian practice:

1. God is already at work.  God sent Jesus and left the Holy Spirit which is ultimately why we aresent as well.  God sent first and the Holy Spirit is moving throughout the world making a church as Spirit moves.  We are those who partner with the Spirit in declaring the Good News that God is making peace, justice, righteousness, and joy a possibility right here, right now!

2. Local mission is the only mission.  You are in a missionary space in the place you stand.  By valuing foreign mission over local mission, Christians have devalued local regions, place, space, and land.  It’s no coincidence that Christians have trouble valuing the land when Christian missionaries participated in removing the very first nations peoples who believed that the land was sacred.  But if we are to be faithful in missionary practice then we must begin to see that every Christian is sent from God’s commonwealth, not the United States of America, which makes the very local space in which we find ourselves a missionary space.

3. Every moment is a missionary moment.  Likewise, we do not wait to go on a mission.  If we are truly citizens of God’s reality, then while we live between now and the last days every moment is a missionary moment.

4. Good news should really sound like good news.  If the people who hear your good news don’t believe it is good news, then perhaps it is not.  If the people you encounter cannot declare that the news you bring is good, then don’t declare that it is.

5. Not all poverty is degrading.  We have a tendency to define poverty and wealth by capitalist standards that value material wealth over relational wealth.  In other words, we US American Christians imply with our values that we are sent from the United States, rather than the commonwealth of God

6. Promote partnerships not programs.  Paternalism, or the belief that we know better than the people we are in ministry to (and we usually think of ministry to people rather than with them), will rarely if ever meet the mark of loving our neighbor, because love implies a reciprocity in which the object of our affection has the opportunity to declare his or her needs and desires.  Programs are constructed for, rather than with people.

I’m sure we could add more, but we need to start somewhere and these six values are a good place from which to start.  It's time to lay the old values to rest and begin again.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Hope Beyond Hope

I Peter 1:3 "In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope"

I just heard news that a young person who used to attend our Washington, DC youth group took his own life.  As you can imagine, I am saddened and deeply troubled.  In addition to my profound sadness, I am infinitely enraged at the conditions that too many young men, who live perpetually with their backs against the wall, endure.

We used to preach and teach that all the kids in our program had a living hope and a future.  But, I can only imagine that the circumstances of their lives told them a different story every day.  They lived with failing schools, the threat of police violence, family members in prison,  health issues and no health care...  Back in the day the kids weren't all smiles.  Still, when we would talk about the future, I remember seeing their faces light up with hope.  But, today this young man's smile can only seen in pictures and in the minds of those who will choose to remember him.

It's difficult to refrain from asking why would any young person would choose this response to the circumstances of their life.   Aren't there other alternatives?  Apparently, this young man didn't think so.

It's not often that I hear about an urban youngster taking his or her own life.  Unfortunately, I hear more often that their lives were tragically taken, either by disease, prison, or violence.  Out here in the suburbs, however, I don't hear much about urban youth at all.  It is in such a disconnected society, as ours, that creates a context in which this ultimate expression of despair is made possible.  Can we Christians proclaim a hope that does more than pay lip service to a positive future for people who have the courage to struggle against injustices everyday?  Can that hope be more than hot air in a four-walled sanctuary tucked away from the cares of the world? Rather, can it be a tangible manifestation of God's vision— a vision that transforms the circumstances in which too many urban boys, girls, men, women, students, employees, homeless, hungry, immigrants, veterans, find themselves?  If not, then we must find a hope beyond hope!