A question for those who won’t say #BlackLivesMatter

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Two years ago, the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to ISIS. Christians living there became targets of persecution. ISIS would mark their homes and businesses with the Arabic letter ن (N, for “Nazarene”) and give them four options: leave, convert, pay a “protection” tax, or die.

The world responded—Christians and Muslims together—by saying #WeAreN. People wrote the Arabic letter ن on their hands. They changed their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter. They stood up in solidarity with this one persecuted group in one corner of the world.

So tell me: did you object to saying #WeAreN two years ago, the way you object to saying #BlackLivesMatter today? 

Did you respond, “All lives matter!” then as you do now?

Did you argue that it’s unfair to single out one group for concern, as if saying #WeAreN somehow minimizes the value of other groups—some of whom, in the case of Iraq, arguably suffered more at the hands of ISIS than Christians? (Pro tip: google the term “Yazidi.”)

What meaningful difference is there between saying #WeAreN in solidarity with those in Iraq and saying #BlackLivesMatter in solidarity with our black sisters and brothers in America?

If none of you took #WeAreN to mean and no one else matters, why do you take #BlackLivesMatter in this way? Why do you assume it means what it categorically does not mean, and ignore all evidence to the contrary? Did you listen to those who started the movement before you drew your conclusions about it?

Is there, perhaps, another, deeper reason you don’t want to say #BlackLivesMatter?

Are you afraid of what these words will force you to acknowledge—that racism is still very much alive in this country?

That you really don’t want to give up your power and privilege? (I know I’d rather not give up mine, if I’m being honest.)

That you don’t really want to “value others above yourselves,” as the apostle Paul once put it?

That you’re not prepared to face the implications of living as if black lives truly matter to us?

If you were one of the millions who said #WeAreN two years ago, but cannot abide saying #BlackLivesMatter, how is that not the very definition of hypocrisy?

What if ALL we did was tell our kids the story?

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Years ago, during an ill-advised—and short—career in youth ministry, I found myself teaching a junior high Sunday school class.

The denominationally approved curriculum didn’t exactly light a fire under my kids. (Not to worry: it wasn’t an Episcopal curriculum!)

One day I realized none of them were able to say why they were Christian, despite having been baptized and confirmed in the church. None could articulate the gospel story, much less tell David from Abraham.

I felt like I was losing them a little more every week. And I came to believe that, as one evangelical leader famously said, it’s a sin to bore kids with the gospel.

So I chucked the curriculum and simply started walking us through the story of the Bible.

Read the rest on GrowChristians.org.

You did this.

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You did this.

If you’ve spent these last eight years relentlessly demonizing the current occupant of the White House—questioning his religion (as if it should matter), doubting his citizenship, making thinly veiled racist jokes—you did this.

And no, this isn’t about being a partisan shill. I disagree with President Obama on a great many things.

If you only listen to voices that reinforce your existing bias—all while complaining about everyone else’s blind spots—you did this.

If you cheer for obstructionists who care little about finding common ground—whose sole objective is to torpedo the other side—you did this.

If you’ve demonized “outsiders”—immigrants, Muslims, gays—if you’ve perpetuated false stereotypes, refused to acknowledge their humanity, treated them as little more than a punch line to a crass joke—then you did this.

You may be shaking your head, wondering how we got to this point, where a misogynistic, xenophobic, neo-fascist demagogue is now the presumptive nominee of a major political party.

But you shouldn’t.

When gatekeepers grow their empires by preying on people’s fears, convincing white evangelicals—who happen to be one of the most disproportionately privileged groups to ever walk the earth—that we are under siege, then Donald Trump is what we get.

If you nurse a persecution mindset long enough, Donald Trump is what you find waiting for you at the end of the road.

When you perpetuate the rhetorical violence of the culture war—when you live and die by an “us vs. them” mentality—then Donald Trump is your future.

When you teach people to be perpetually outraged, Donald Trump is the only logical outcome.

When you encourage your followers to marginalize, stigmatize, and demean people because of where they come from or who they love—Donald Trump is your standard-bearer.

Already I hear some evangelicals asking, “How did this happen?”

Was there any other possible outcome?

As if choosing fear over love—and teaching our followers to do likewise—could ever lead to a different result?

Trump is not some strange aberration who suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He is a reflection of us.

You did this.

We did this.

God help us.

Photo: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

ISIS, genocide, and the real test of who we love

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If you’re a politician, condemning ISIS is about as risky Lois Griffin’s “9/11 was bad” campaign speech.

Still, there is something remarkable about the resolution that passed Congress this week—one of the few things to pass Congress lately, much less with bipartisan support—and the declaration made by John Kerry, accusing ISIS of genocide.

Both statements mentioned a number of groups who’ve been persecuted by ISIS: Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, and others.

Take Christians, to start. What ISIS has done to them is beyond horrible. The Christian community in Mosul—which goes back centuries—is no more. Some fled. Some were killed.

 

Then there are the Yazidis, a small ethno-religious minority living in the northern part of the country. Their treatment at the hands of ISIS has been, if anything, even more brutal. They weren’t given a chance to leave. There are mass graves filled with the bodies of slain Yazidis. I have friends who have seen them, who have stood over the remains of slain Yazidis and wept. In addition, thousands of Yazidi women and girls were sold as sex slaves.

Then there are Shia Muslims. They’ve been targets of ISIS, too. In fact, the majority of ISIS’ victims are Muslim.

It’s normal to be drawn toward those we most easily identify with.

But the real test of our faith is not how well we love those who are most like us, but how we love those who are least like us.

Are we able to do what the religious expert in Luke 10 could not? Are we able to see those who are different from us as our neighbor? Are we able to call them by name?

The religious expert could not even bring himself to say the name Samaritan.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Not just the neighbor who looks like you. Not just the one who shares the same faith as you. (Jews in Jesus’ day almost certainly didn’t think of Samaritans as sharing the same faith.)

The true test of our faith is how well we love “the other.”

Jesus didn’t just say, “Love your neighbor.” He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, the measure by which you love yourself—by which you love your own “tribe,” whoever that may be—that’s the measure by which your love of “the other” will be judged.

Do we really love “the other”? The outsider? The one we can relate to least? The one we are most likely to write off, dismiss, and marginalize?

Imagine a church that did not just speak up for the suffering of its own people, but for the suffering of those who aren’t even part of this body.

Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / CC BY

So this is what being a “Christian blogger” means…

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Yesterday, John Pavlovitz was blocked by the Christian Bloggers Network on Facebook.

For those who don’t know, John is a popular Christian writer whose posts go viral with appalling regularity. (No, I’m not jealous at all.) The Christian Bloggers Network is, well, pretty much what the name suggests: a place where thousands of Christian writers like John and me to share our content with each other.

Facebook groups can play a big part in building an audience—every blogger’s biggest challenge (followed closely by what happens once you’ve managed to get an audience). The right group, with a little bit of timing and luck, can generate thousands of new readers for your blog. I was lucky enough to have this happen to me when the Unapologetically Episcopalian FB group shared my post on why I love the Episcopal Church. (I still owe them a cake.)

Now, these groups are not public property. Their admins are perfectly free to decide what flies and what doesn’t on their pages.

In the case of the Christian Bloggers Network, one of its two admins has shared the view that progressivism is a “self-imposed mental disability,” so it’s not surprising they don’t take kindly to some of John’s content.

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Yet, it is the Christian Bloggers Network, after all. Not the Conservative Christian Bloggers Network. Or the Evangelical Christian Bloggers Network. Or the Everyone But Progressive Christian Bloggers Network.

Interestingly, they didn’t stop at blocking John. They’ve deleted almost every post sharing his content or asking why he was blocked. (See one example below, which got taken down within minutes.) They’ve offered no explanation that I’ve seen—either publicly or privately to John.

(Update: they’ve blocked me as well. Yay!)

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Now, if you’ve read John’s blog for any length of time, you might have noticed there’s a pretty consistent theme to his writing. It might be summed up as this: Christians, don’t be jerks.

John has written about depression, doubt, what (not) to do if your kids come out, how we use the Bible as a weapon, and how we treat those who leave the church. In every case, his message is basically: be kind.

This, apparently, is anathema.

Which begs the question: what does pass as Christian, according to groups like this?

Labeling Catholics as Satan worshippers? That’s acceptably Christian, it seems.

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Peddling end-times hysteria? (Never mind Jesus’ teaching or the 0-for-who-knows-how-many-times-now record of end-times prognosticators.) You better believe that’s Christian.

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I don’t even know what this is, but apparently it’s Christian…

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Jesus wants to make you a millionaire? Oh so Christian.

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To be fair, the admins at the Christian Bloggers Network may or may not agree with any of these posts. Yet each of them was posted to their page, and none have been taken down.

But telling parents of gay kids to love their children no matter what? That’s not Christian, evidently.

Proclaiming peace to your Muslim neighbors? Not Christian.

Asking other Christians to “radiate the kindness and humility of Jesus” to those who are struggling with faith? That’s SO not Christian.

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Photo: John Pavlovitz FB page

The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the real reason we’re having this debate

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So, we’re suspended.

Or not.

Plenty of commentary has already been written about what the primates did, what impact it could have, and what’s in store for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. (This is probably one of the more helpful summaries I’ve read, BTW.)

Some have questioned the primates’ selective application of punitive measures—penalizing Episcopalians for their decision to bless same-sex marriages, while neglecting to penalize Anglican church leaders who have promoted state-sanctioned persecution of gays in countries like Uganda—contravening Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. (I’m pretty sure he DIDN’T say, “Unless they’re gay, ’cause gross.”)

But let’s not retread those paths. That ground has been well covered already. Let’s talk about the real reason we’re having this debate. Sometimes it gets obscured in all the bluster, finger-pointing, and Twitter wars.

In his address to fellow primates—moments before the vote was cast—Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry cut to the heart of things:

Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.

That’s why we’re having this debate. Whatever side you may be on, that’s why this conversation is so important. That’s why some of us feel called to open our arms—and our church doors—to those of other orientations and gender identities.

The question we’re all wrestling with is this: What does it mean to be Jesus to the LGBTQ community? 

It’s not about trying to appease culture.

It’s not about craving public approval.

It’s not about being afraid to take a stand that might be divisive or unpopular. (Have you seen what’s happened to attendance figures since the Episcopal Church began moving in this direction?)

Whenever a church or denomination takes an affirming stance, the response is always the same.

Their motives are questioned.

Someone accuses them of “cultural capitulation.”

They’re labeled “cowards.”

No, really.

The possibility they might have other motives for rethinking long-held convictions isn’t even considered.

And to be fair, at times proponents of the affirming view have opened themselves to this line of criticism—for example, when they frame the debate as a matter of being “on the right side of history.”

History be damned. This is about being on the right side of people.

For Christians, this is about being on the side of Jesus—or rather, being on the same side of people that he is on.

Presiding Bishop Curry’s statement calls us back to the real reason for having this debate. He understands what some on both sides have missed.

Curry went on to say: 

While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

We may disagree with one another on sexuality. Some will celebrate same-sex marriage, while others see it as an unacceptable compromise. But let’s never forget why we’re having this debate.

It’s not about accommodating cultural whims. It’s not about being afraid to take a stand. It’s not about pleasing the crowd or making the church seem more relevant or palatable. (Again, see the Episcopal Church’s attendance figures.)

This is not about cultural capitulation. It’s about asking, “What does it really mean to love my neighbor?”

The real question for us to wrestle with is whether this might be the 21st-century church’s “Gentile moment,” a moment when God does something new and extraordinary and unexpected in our midst—like he did two thousand years ago when, to everyone’s surprise, he declared “unclean” Gentiles to be “clean,” without requiring them to renounce their Gentile identity first. (It was this last bit that came as a particular shock to first-century Jewish believers.)

The question to ask is not, “Where is the culture moving?”

The question to ask is, “Where is God moving”?

We may not all agree on the answer. Indeed, it can be dangerous to even ask this question. People I know have been lost friends for asking it. They’ve lost jobs. They’ve been estranged from their families. None more so than members of the LGBTQ community.

But whether or not you draw the same conclusions that many in the Episcopal Church (and other Christian traditions) have, please don’t misunderstand what has prompted this line of inquiry.

To say that it’s capitulation or cowardice is to presume authority to judge someone else’s motives—to judge others in precisely the way Jesus forbade.

Worst of all, to write it off as cultural capitulation is to miss the bigger question:

Where is God moving in this?

Image: Lift Every Voice: Freedom Ride 2015

Giving and receiving light on Epiphany: what can we learn from a band of pagan foreigners in a Jewish story?

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At first glance, it seems odd that Matthew is the only gospel to record the events we commemorate on Epiphany: an unknown number of foreign visitors (no, there aren’t necessarily just three of them, they aren’t just “wise men,” and they’re almost certainly not “kings”) arrive to herald a toddler in Bethlehem.

It’s odd because Matthew’s gospel is the most distinctively Jewish of the four. It presents Jesus’ story through a more nationalistic lens than the others. Matthew’s Messiah is sent, it would seem, “only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Matthew is steeped in Jewish tradition. Even its arrangement—consisting of five main sections or “books,” each building up to a major sermon or discourse from Jesus—mimics the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

Matthew takes pains to connect Jesus to the Jewish story, quoting regularly from the Hebrew prophets. The author bristles at the idea that Jesus did away with Jewish law, portraying him instead as the fulfillment or culmination of everything it taught. Even his movements read like a reenactment of Israel’s ancient story: there’s an escape to Egypt, a sojourn in the wilderness, the giving of the law from a mountainside, a Passover sacrifice.

What are pagan foreigners doing in such a story?

I can see why it would be tempting to recast them as something more palatable or generic—as “wise men” or “kings,” for example. But in Matthew they are magoi. This is the Greek word from which we get our word magician. In ancient times, it often referred to priests (or adherents) of Zoroastrianism, a religion predating Christianity by centuries.

It is possible that Matthew included the magi to emphasize their “submission and capitulation to a greater power,” as theologian Ian Paul put it. This would not be out of character for a story with nationalist overtones such as Matthew, having a group of pagan foreigners pay homage to a Jewish king.

But the magi serve as more than subjugated vassals in Matthew’s story. They actually do something quite significant. They delegitimize the very power structure of Roman-occupied Judea. They’re like the child pointing out that the emperor—in this case, Herod, client king of Judea—has no clothes.

Think about it. The magi arrive at Herod’s palace and ask for his help locating “the king of the Jews.”

No wonder he was mad.

Later, they defy Herod’s orders—and in doing so, they help save Jesus’ life—by returning home without revealing to Herod the identity of his toddling rival.

The magi traveled a great distance to pay homage to Jesus. Whether they saw him simply as a human king or as something greater (either is possible, given the context), in some meaningful way they placed their hope for the future in his hands. Stranger still, God returned the favor. By including the magi in his story, God-in-the-flesh put his very life in their hands.

In addition, the magi help to bookend Matthew’s gospel in a most appropriate way.

At the beginning of Matthew, the nations come to Jesus, in the form of the magi. They find welcome there. They offer something of value, more than just the gifts they carry. At the end of Matthew, Jesus commissions his Jewish disciples to go to all nations and serve them by sharing—and enacting—the good news about him, far beyond their narrow borders.

This, perhaps, is the most Jewish thing of all about Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus’ ancestors were always meant to be a “kingdom of priests,” sharing God’s light with the other nations. Their restoration alone was always “too small a thing” in God’s eyes. Salvation and renewal were gifts meant for the whole world.

They are gifts we share.

By starting with the magi and ending with a commission to serve all nations, Matthew shows how God’s people can fulfill God’s vision for the world: by refusing to be a group that exists solely for its own benefit. By sharing the light that has illumined our own hearts with the rest of the world. But also, as the magi teach us, by learning to see something good in those who are not like us—by learning to receive the gifts they have to offer, just as Jesus received gifts from a band of foreign priests.

This Epiphany, may we share and receive light with and from those around us—including and especially those we may be tempted to write off as “outsiders.”

Image: “The Magi” by Henry Siddons Mowbray

How Ed Dobson changed the course of my life

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I had just graduated college, and I didn’t know what to do next. I’d spent four years earning a degree in political science, thinking I would go off to Washington, D.C. and join the front lines of the culture wars.

But one year during college, I got a taste of the action, working for a conservative religious lobby a few blocks from the White House. After that, I wasn’t sure I wanted another taste—for many reasons, one of which I wrote about here.

It was a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who showed me another way—or at least, helped me to imagine another way.

After graduation, I had a job offer from the lobbying group I had worked at two summers before. That’s when I read a book called Blinded by Might by Ed Dobson (co-written with Cal Thomas). Ed was the pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids and a former assistant to Jerry Falwell, chief architect of the Religious Right.

Ed argued that he and his fellow Christians were wrong to get sucked into the culture wars. We were wrong, he suggested, to automatically assume God was on our side.

Ed was bold enough to say what most of us didn’t want to admit: our activism was less about building the common good and more about accumulating power for ourselves. He urged the church to relinquish its addiction to power so it could become the church again.

I still have Ed’s book, along with a letter James Dobson (no relation to Ed) wrote, attacking him for challenging the infallibility of the Religious Right. (It should be noted that Ed’s personal views at the time were not much different from the other Dobson’s. Instead, the two differed on something bigger: the mission and identity of the church.)

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Ed Dobson’s book and James Dobson’s response

Ed’s book convinced me to give up what would have been a self-serving career in politics. I opted for seminary instead, partly so I could buy more time to figure out what to do with my life. I spent the next three years studying theology at a school across the street from Ed’s church.

I only met Ed once, when I thanked him for writing his book. But his influence helped reset the trajectory of my life.

Ed died last week after a 15-year battle with ALS.

Having spent the better part of those 15 years in Grand Rapids, I’ve followed Ed’s journey from a relatively short distance. His journey did not end when he walked away from the Religious Right. It did not end when he was diagnosed with ALS. It did not end when illness forced him to retire as pastor of Calvary Church.

Ed kept going. He kept exploring. He kept pursuing Jesus. He once spent a year trying to live exactly as Jesus did.

Ed did things most evangelical pastors would not. He joined hands with the LGBTQ community to fight AIDS—at a time when most pastors offered them nothing but hate and condemnation. He worked to bridge the racial divide in the church and beyond.

When evangelicals leapt on Rob Bell for his controversial book Love Wins, Ed refused to take pot shots at the pastor he had once mentored. Instead, he responded simply by quoting Jesus’ words in Luke 9: “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”

When Ed’s son came out, telling his parents, “I’m gay, I still love Jesus, and nothing else changes,” Ed responded, “We still love you, and nothing else changes.”

As his ALS progressed, Ed’s “parish” shrank in some ways—in ways that might seem important to some. But it grew in other, more significant ways. Ed ministered to people on a more intimate scale. His shared his story to encourage those who were walking through their own darkest valleys.

All things considered, the book Ed wrote in 1999 is probably one of the smaller parts of his legacy. But I would not be where I am today if not for that book. I would not have been given such a powerful example of how to live like Jesus, if not for Ed’s story.

As one of Ed’s sons shared on Facebook recently, “There’s seven billion people on this planet, and [Ed] loved every last one of them.”

Rest in peace, Ed. Great is your reward.

Photo credit: Ed’s Story

The racism that killed Tamir Rice is more than just a “police problem”

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“You can get away with murder. You can shoot a child in an open park. You can lie about the incident. You can refuse to cooperate with investigators. You can, if a Cuyahoga County prosecutor and grand jury are to be believed, escape indictment even when the entire episode is captured on videotape.”

— Goldie Taylor, The Daily Beast

  —//—

Police shot Tamir Rice within two seconds of arriving on the scene. 

Two seconds.

It wasn’t enough time to meaningfully apprehend the situation. It wasn’t enough time for officers to apprehend the true nature of the (nonexistent) threat. It wasn’t enough time for a 12 year-old child to apprehend whatever commands police allegedly shouted just before a bullet tore his flesh.

As Charles Blow writes in the New York Times:

Take a moment and time yourself giving three commands, imagining a response from Tamir and making the decision to shoot. Maybe it can be done in less than two seconds. But to my mind, it strains credulity.

The police shot a child in an open park and lied about the circumstances.

This alone should have sent the case to trial.

Police showed utter disregard for Tamir as his life ebbed away. 

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Tamir lay on the ground bleeding for four minutes.

The officer who shot him did nothing to render aid.

When Tamir’s 14-year-old sister came running to him, she was pushed to the ground, handcuffed, and thrown in the back of a police car.

Again, Charles Blow:

She could not reach him. Her arms could not cradle his body and plead for him to hang on. Her hands could not stroke his cheek, and she could not whisper hopefully, “It’s going to be O.K.” Her eyes could not gaze into his and say what sisters are able to say without saying anything: “I love you.”

Police murdered Tamir Rice, watched his life ebb away, and treated his justifiably disconsolate sister like a criminal.

And they got away with all of it.

That’s because the racism that killed Tamir is more than just a “police problem.”  

Officer Loehmann said he believed Tamir was a real threat. He said he thought Tamir was a 20 year-old male, not a 12 year-old boy.

Loehmann may have genuinely believed all of this—but that doesn’t excuse his actions. It only proves they were tainted by racial bias.

In a 2014 study, police officers were shown photographs of children, told that each was suspected of a felony or a misdemeanor, and asked to guess their age. According to the Washington Post:

The officers overestimated the age of black felony-suspected children by close to five years, but they actually underestimated the age of white felony-suspected children.

Another study, also reported by the Washington Post, found that officers were quicker to shoot black subjects, armed or unarmed.

Officer Loehmann saw a threat where there was none. He saw an adult male where there was a child. He took all of two seconds to decide to end that child’s life.

The reason? Skin color.

We live in a country where mostly white open-carry demonstrators can flaunt their military-grade assault weapons in public—without fearing the police. Yet a black child gets shot for carrying a toy gun (in a state where it’s legal to carry real weapons in public).

There is only one rational explanation: racism.

Police are more likely to view someone as a threat—even a child—if they are black. They value that person’s life considerably less if they are black. (It says something about our country that Dylann Roof is alive today and Tamir Rice is not.)

It would be tempting to think of racial bias purely as a “police problem.” But it’s not. The same study that uncovered bias in police officers found just as much bias in ordinary white people. People like me.

We’re just as likely to overestimate the age of black male youths.

We’re just as likely to prejudge blacks.

We might like to think we would have responded differently if we were in Officer Loehmann’s shoes. But the terrifying truth is… many of us would not have.

“Implicit racial bias” is far too soft a term for what we’re describing here. Racism is a form of violence. Violence is blasphemy against the image of God in another human being.

It’s time for us to confess our racism, to confess how it has tainted our perspectives and behaviors, to renounce the violence and blasphemy we have wrought. It’s time to say #BlackLivesMatter and mean it. It’s time for us to begin the long, slow process of learning to see the world differently.

And then it’s time for us to get out of the way.

Because we cannot dictate the solution to a problem of our own making. 

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It’s not easy for me to hear words like these. But I need to hear them anyway. Far too often, people like me have tried to dictate how others should respond to the injustices they have borne.

I’m not Timothy Loehmann, but I am tainted by the same racial bias as he is. I benefit from the same system of white privilege that allowed him to walk away without answering for his crime. I am part of the problem.

I’d like to be part of the solution, too. But it’s not up to me to decide what that solution looks like. To paraphrase James Cone, a system that enslaves does not get to decide when and how slavery is abolished. A system that shoots 12-year-old black children doesn’t get to decide how to reform itself. The oppressor does not get to decide how to right injustice.

The true test of our willingness to combat racism is our willingness to relinquish power, to give up control—to submit ourselves to those we have oppressed, to let them lead the way and decide the answer. I suspect we may not all like the results. Oppressors—and those who benefit from unearned privilege—do not part easily with their monopoly on power.

Until we do, however, more Tamir Rice’s will die. And more police officers will get away with cold-blooded murder.

Halfway out of the dark… yet?

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It’s appropriate that winter solstice falls near the end of Advent, even if it’s a reminder of how our celebration of Christ’s birth got wound up in the pagan festivities of ancient Rome.

It’s appropriate because Advent is a symbol of what we observe in the sky: today, we’re halfway out of the dark (to quote a certain Doctor Who Christmas special). The night has not yet lost its grip on the world, but its power is waning every day. Our redemption is not yet complete, but it has begun.

Not that it feels like the night is losing its grip. It will be a long time still before the sun feels warmer on our skin and the days longer. Some nights, it’s hard to believe we are headed out of the darkness at all.

I wrote pretty much the same thing this time last year. In 2014, there was no shortage of heartbreak to make us wonder if the night would ever recede. A brutal war in Gaza. The persecution of religious minorities in Iraq. Systemic racism claiming victims such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice.

This year, the examples have changed. But not that much, really.

A brutal war in Syria, along with attacks in Paris, Lebanon, and San Bernardino.

The persecution of refugees fleeing violence.

The unbridled hostility toward Muslims in our own country.

Systemic racism claiming still more victims while the rest of us shrug: Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, the nine martyrs of Charleston.

It’s hard to believe the night is receding when serious contenders for high office stoke the fires of xenophobia, when professing Christians talk glibly about packing heat so they can take down “those Muslims,” when the only answer the world can muster to the scourge of violence is… more violence. (You’d think after 10,000+ years of human civilization…)

It’s hard to believe the night is receding when our racism is laid bare—racism we foolishly thought we’d dealt with. It’s hard to believe our redemption is near when we continue to exclude those who are different—those who don’t “conform” or tick the right boxes. When we zealously rebuild the “dividing walls” our savior tore down. When we blatantly ignore the teachings of Christ in favor of self-preservation and self-protection.

But that’s the mystery of redemption, isn’t it?

If our redemption feels as though it’s a long time coming, the question we should ask is not, “What’s taking so long?” or “Will it ever come?”

The question we should ask is, “What am I doing to bring it about?”

Redemption is God’s business. Only he could initiate it. Only he can bring it to fulfillment. But after securing our redemption with his death and resurrection, Jesus did a strange thing.

He left.

He entrusted the still-incomplete work of redemption to a fledgling band of followers.

He said to those left behind, “You will receive power.”

Those followers began thinking of themselves as the “body of Christ”—the physical, tangible manifestation of their redeemer.

Redemption has not stalled. God has not stopped dwelling among us. His presence has simply taken on new form: us.

At Christmastime, we celebrate our redemption in the form of a helpless baby. But we should also learn to see redemption in the form of our own hands and feet. God has entrusted his project to us… and we’re not doing very well with it, are we?

That’s the thing about redemption: ours is tied up in the world’s.

If it feels like God’s redemptive plan for the world has stalled, perhaps we should ask whether it has stalled in us.

Are we still committed to being the hands and feet of Christ—the physical, tangible manifestation of our redeemer—which, by the way, means hands that are outstretched and open, not clenched in a fist?

Are we still committed to putting the good of the other over the preservation of ourselves?

If not, then what we are seeking is not redemption.

There is a way out of the dark. The night will recede. But only when we choose to become the agents of redemption that God has called us to be.

Photo: Icy Morning Glow by Sonja und Jens on Flickr