Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ferguson: Think Biblically (A Panel Discussion)


It's time for Christians to have productive conversations about racism.

Recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City exposed the open wound of racism in our society. Unfortunately, far too many followers of Jesus have allowed political pundits to dominate their thinking on this issue. And many white evangelicals continue to deny the need to address racism both in America and in the church.

In the midst of this, I've been doing my best to speak logically, compassionately and Biblically about the need for Christians to openly discuss racism and racial reconciliation.

On Tuesday, December 9th, it was my privilege to participate in a panel discussion at the Moody Bible Institute called "Ferguson: Think Biblically". This event was hosted by Moody's African American student group, "Embrace". I shared the stage with Moody Bible Institute professors Clive Craigen, Ernest Gray, and Angela Brown. You can listen to the entire event below (After introductions, the discussion begins at 13:43):


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Don't Be Color Blind


Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't expect this to happen when 1,500 people gather for worship.

It shouldn't be dangerous. But on this particular night, the service ended with the congregation huddled in the basement fearing for their lives. You see, while they were listening to sermons and singing songs, an angry crowd gathered outside. Eventually, 3,000 white residents of Montgomery, Alabama surrounded the church and threatened to burn it down. Why? Among the worshipers were a small group of people known as "Freedom Riders". They tried to peacefully protest segregated Greyhound buses and bus stations throughout the south. They received a violent reception when they arrived in Montgomery by bus the day before.

Huddled in the basement, one of the speakers picked-up a telephone to call for help. But he didn't call the police. He didn't call the Governor of Alabama either. They probably wouldn't have responded. As bricks smashed through the basement windows and tear gas drifted in, Martin Luther King Jr. called U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help. After a night of negotiation with authorities, Kennedy finally secured the safe release of the parishioners and the Freedom Riders around 4AM.

You may have slept through history class in high school, but God loves history. Even a casual reading of the Bible reveals the rich history of Israel, the Jewish people and the early church. Clearly God values history, and wants us to learn from it.

In order to fully understand the deep racial divide in America today, we must follow God's lead and consider the history behind it. Rather than re-taking high school history, let me give you a few relevant highlights.

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation didn't really end slavery. After almost 250 years, slavery was finally abolished in the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment on January 31st, 1865. At that moment, approximately 4 million people were suddenly released into a society that didn't want them. To make matters more complicated, 90 percent of the slave population was illiterate. Just imagine the challenge facing these battered families. After almost 10 generations of forced labor in brutal conditions, few had marketable skills outside of farm labor. Due to the color of their skin, none of them would be able to assimilate into an unwelcoming culture. It should come as no surprise that the Ku Klux Klan was launched in 1865 as well.

As if that wasn't bad enough, hope was dashed in the form of broken promises. Union General William T. Sherman issued a bold "Field Order" in January of 1865 that would allow freed slaves to occupy up to 40 acres of abandoned farm land on the Atlantic coast. President Andrew Johnson swiftly overturned that order less than a year later.

So there they were - 4 million black people with absolutely nothing in a country that viewed them as less than human. If only the justice system would persuade white Americans to accept these former slaves as equals. Unfortunately, it did the opposite.

Homer Plessy was a man ahead of his time. 27 years after the slaves were freed, Homer represented a group of individuals in an act of civil disobedience. They attempted to peacefully protest segregated rail cars in Louisiana. After purchasing a first class ticket, Homer walked onto a "whites-only" car and took a seat. His subsequent arrest ultimately resulted in a landmark 1896 Supreme Court decision. Plessy v. Ferguson established the "separate but equal" doctrine for society. It officially legalized the separation of black and white America. And the whole "equal" part was never realized. Instead, a series of Jim Crow laws systematically oppressed African Americans for another 69 years. 

So where do we fit into this story? While Martin Luther King Jr. was desperately pleading for Robert Kennedy's help in the basement of that Montgomery church, my dad was a 10 year old kid sleeping peacefully in his Minneapolis bed. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, dad was just two months shy of his 14th birthday .

Legalized segregation and discrimination simply wasn't that long ago.

So isn't it possible, or even probable, that the racial injustice that was woven into the very fabric of our continent for over 340 years could still persist in society today? Of course it is.

That's why I cringe whenever I hear someone talk about being "color blind". This seemingly noble proclamation denies the stark historical reality that black and white America developed within the same borders on distinctly different paths. One group established the government and mainstream culture. The other struggled to survive being shut-out of both.

This painful story isn't a scar to dwell on. Rather, it's a clear explanation for our current racial divide. And an opportunity for us to make the next chapter redemptive.

Progress requires spiritual answers. It also demands the good works described by James, the bold cross-cultural conversations modeled by Jesus, and the defense of the oppressed called for by God through Isaiah. If you choose color blindness, you choose stagnation. You choose historical ignorance. And you deny the culturally diverse reality that God created. Instead, choose to be empowered by history. Only then can you effectively be the Gospel in the midst of our divided culture today.


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Thursday, December 4, 2014

You Might Be Wrong About Ferguson, and Racism


Does that title make you uncomfortable? Good.

Human nature leads us to people we trust for information. We all tend to create a small circle filled with experts that share our worldview. They think, act, and vote like us. They probably look like us too. This mutual admiration society feels good, because we agree on most things.

Unfortunately, this is a dangerous environment. It breeds an "us vs. them" mentality, and promotes a limited intellectual approach to life. Those truly interested in pursuing wisdom and knowledge will deliberately examine diverse perspectives before drawing conclusions.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in partisan political discourse. And Christians should never fall into this trap. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with favoring political parties or positions. But all too often in America today, white evangelicals view society first and foremost through a political lens. I'm pretty sure I don't need to remind you that Republicans and Democrats aren't in the Bible. Neither is America.

This cultural flaw among my fellow white Christians has been highlighted by what started in Ferguson, and is spreading around the country. I've been shocked and disheartened to watch many of my white Christian friends clinging to conservative political pundits for Ferguson analysis. They repeat rhetoric on social media that they heard spouted on radio stations and websites that depend upon their energized base to generate revenue. Basically, these pundits are telling you what you want to hear so you'll keep reading, and they'll keep making money.

Followers of Jesus, we cannot succumb to this flawed thinking! Instead, we must lean on Biblical truth and seek wisdom from our diverse community of believers. Let's do both here.

While many Bible passages could be shared related to the spark that ignited in Ferguson, let's just focus on the Greatest Commandment: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Instead of pretending that I know more than you about this portion of Scripture, I'll just ask you to consider a few questions:

  • Are you loving your African American neighbor if you dismiss their concerns about racism in America? 
  • Have you asked your African American Christian friends how they feel about Ferguson? If not, why not? 
  • If you don't have any African American friends, are you falling short of what Jesus expects of us in the Greatest Commandment?
  • Have you asked your Pastor what the Bible teaches about racism and justice? 
  • Have you taken the time to understand an African American perspective about Ferguson by reading any blog posts or articles from African American pastors?

My prayer isn't that you would agree with me about racism, or about Ferguson. It's not about me. My prayer is simply that you would open your heart and your mind to loving your African American neighbor. What's the first step? Listening. Did you realize that many attorneys and African Americans are legitimately questioning whether the grand jury proceedings were just? Have you heard that many prominent white Christian leaders are calling for the church to acknowledge and address racism? Did you know that many of the statistics about black families and violence are incomplete and often misrepresented?

I'll do my best to help you find these thoughts. I've complied a short reading list of some thought provoking articles about Ferguson written by Christians. I challenge you to read them with the Greatest Commandment in mind:



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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bloggers, Keep Writing


"I wish all of those bloggers would stop writing about Ferguson and actually start doing something to make a difference."

I've heard complaints about bloggers before. But this one made my skin crawl.

For whatever reason, some find it annoying that the internet created a platform for average people. Sure, there's lots of noise out there. But I celebrate the fact that publishers and periodicals are no longer necessary for ideas to be exchanged. I've found that some of the most impactful pieces come from those who don't have a resume that includes formal publication. What could be more American than empowering the individual to have a voice in society?

But the idea that writing doesn't constitute action is misguided, historically inaccurate and just plain wrong.

Sure, a solider could easily destroy most writers in a fist fight. Great speakers could energize a crowd more quickly than an author. But writers armed with ideas have sparked revolutions, established governments, captured hearts and changed the world. 

Let's not forget the influence of Homer's Illiad and Odyssey. Imagine a church without Martin Luther's 95 Theses. Then there's that little pamphlet by Thomas Paine that fueled the flames of revolution in America. And our Constitution probably wouldn't have been ratified without a series of essays known as The Federalist Papers. Or how about that brilliant letter scribbled on scraps of paper by Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham jail. It motivated an entire nation to seek justice for the oppressed. And were it not for the inspired words of Moses, the Prophets and the Apostles, I might not be a follower of Jesus.

I could keep going, but you get the point. 

So bloggers, keep writing. I need your commentaries and thoughts to better understand the cultural tensions behind Ferguson. Your words enable me to leave my circle of friends and learn from diverse perspectives. And your efforts propel all of us toward a better society.



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Friday, October 17, 2014

What NOT to Say to People with Adopted Children


Filters make life better for everyone. Particularly when they're applied to your thoughts.

Just think about all of the outrageous things you almost said. The jokes that seemed funny in your mind. The questions you thought were appropriate. The ideas that didn't seem so stupid at first. Gratefully, that invisible filter in your brain prevented these outlandish things from actually making it to your lips.

But, have you ever noticed how many people don't seem to have any filter at all?

My wife and I discovered this uncomfortable epidemic after having a bunch of kids. I shared some of the hilarious and outrageous questions we've been asked in a recent post on the subject. And it was a blast laughing along with others who shared similar experiences in the comment stream. However, in the midst of this, I discovered that there's another type of family that has it worse than we do. Who is it?

Families that adopt children.

Even though my wife and I haven't adopted any kids (yet), I'll gladly dive head-first into this one. Consider my list below a public service announcement on behalf of those who adopt. Oh, and special thanks to Pastor Jason and Sue Kreider, and blogger Jeni Flaa for their contributions to this list of things not to say to those with adopted children:  

  • "Can't you have your own babies?" Yes, you read that correctly. Not only is this question hurtful and offensive, it's just plain weird. I mean, do you really want to know about another person's ability to conceive? You know, all the intimate details about sperm, eggs, and a uterus. I didn't think so. 
  • "Everyone I know who adopted, got pregnant." The last time I checked, there's only one way to get pregnant. You'll also be hard pressed to find anyone who chose adoption as a fertility strategy. Of course, God has worked some amazing miracles for couples who were previously unable to have kids. But let's not forget that adoption is an intentional choice. For some, it's a calling. Reducing adoption to a superstitious child bearing strategy devalues kids, and the families that adopt them. 
  • "Are they your real kids?" Nope. The real kids are locked in the basement. But don't worry. I see what you're doing here. You're trying to ask whether the kids you're looking at are biologically related to the parents. Fair enough. Just remember that in adoptive families, kids aren't divided into "real" and "adopted" categories. They're all just "my kids". 
  • "His birth mom must have been on drugs or really young." Sadly, our culture has created a strange caricature of parents who make an adoption plan for their child. Sure, some choose adoption due to addictions or young age. But not everyone. Many people make mature decisions for the future of their children. Bottom line - any assumptions about motives will be hurtful. Don't forget that in open adoptions, kids have a relationship with their birth parents. So your premature conclusion about their parents would be offensive at best. 
  • "Where did you get him? How much did he cost?" Walmart had this great deal on kids. Really cheap. Want one? Anyway, you've clearly got some legitimate questions about adoption, and this child. First, I'd suggest consulting this resource for some better vocabulary choices. Then, take some time to consider personal boundaries. It's typically considered abnormal to ask complete strangers about their personal finances or ethnic background.  
  • "Are the birth parents going to try to get them back?" Again, this question firmly fits into the "off limits" category for strangers and casual acquaintances. But, it represents a legitimate fear for those who don't know much about adoption. The media loves to share heart wrenching stories about birth parents returning to demand custody of their kids. While these situations are tragic, they're actually quite rare. When it happens, the agency and/or lawyers that made the adoption happen didn't do their jobs correctly. That's why it's so important for those seriously considering adoption to know adoption law. And spend time investigating agencies and attorneys.  
  • "Did you cheat on your husband?" Yes, a real human being actually asked this question. Out loud. To a complete stranger. Why? Because the race of the child didn't visibly match the race of the parent. There's really nothing else that can be said here. Just let all of the awful ignorance soak in, and move on to the next point. 
  • "Are you raising them white?" Even though my wife and I haven't adopted any kids, adoption is closely connected to our family story. My mom was adopted. At that time, interracial adoption was virtually unheard of. Today, we've gratefully reached a point where interracial adoption is both acceptable and commonplace. However, this bluntly stated question is jarring to some. Confusing to others. Ultimately, the intent is to determine whether a child's ethnic and cultural background will be honored. The good news is that many families who adopt are sensitive to this issue, and take time to instill a proper sense of ethnic identity. But, we'd all benefit from some more sophisticated and sensitive language when asking this particular question. 
  • "How will she learn to speak English?" Wow. There's so many layers of ignorance here. Keep in mind that someone said this to a white couple with a Korean infant. Sadly, it appears that some people think language is assigned genetically by race. And that adopted babies acquire language differently than biological babies. Wow. 

Sometimes, the best thing we can do is laugh about questions like these. At the same time, it's blatantly clear that our society has a warped view of adoption. It's my prayer that posts like this will creatively raise awareness, and motivate Christians to take orphan care more seriously. When that happens, more kids will get the love and support they deserve. And the rest of us will be spared from hearing these weird questions.

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Random White Guy's Vision for Racial Reconciliation


Complainers are annoying. But we need them.

Most people would rather ignore problems. It's less stressful. And more fun. But throughout history, the consistent laments of various people groups have forced humanity to finally address injustices. So in that sense, complainers are irritatingly necessary.

Over the last few years, I've been intentionally annoying about racism.

As a 35 year old white guy, I really shouldn't care about race issues. My passions in this area are admittedly accidental. After moving to the South Side of Chicago, it became impossible to ignore racism. So I started writing.

I've expressed my frustration about the apathy of white people. I've explained why we can't ignore racism. I basically proved that racism is an issue using only two words. But in the end, I keep getting the same question:

What do you suggest we do about it?

That's a fair question. So I'm going to cross the fine line between lamentation and leadership. While complainers identify and expose problems, leaders try to solve them. This is my attempt to speak constructively into one of the most important problems of our time. It's also my call for Christians to lead this cultural change. The unifying power of the Gospel has fully equipped us for the challenge.

I'm not a student of racial reconciliation theory, nor am I an expert on race relations. But I'm a white guy who has lived for a number of years in a black community. This experience has provided me with a truly unique perspective of both sides of the racial divide. 

So, how can followers of Jesus foster racial reconciliation in America? Here's my 12 point vision: 
  • Remove the phrase 'color blind' from your vocabulary. While the idea of being 'color blind' sounds nice, it's actually incredibly counter-productive. Why? It forces the subscribers of this perspective to intentionally ignore cultural differences. While all people share common ground as human beings, we also have dramatically different cultural experiences. And cultural variety is a good thing. I can confidently tell you that whites and blacks in America have distinctly different cultural experiences. If you don't agree, you've clearly never spent meaningful time with people from another race. And ignoring these differences by being "colorblind" is unhelpful at best. More likely, it's ignorant and insulting. Let's celebrate our cultural differences rather than pretend they aren't there.
  • Acknowledge that racism happens among and between all races - There are racist white people. There's also racist African Americans, Latinos and Asians. In fact, anyone who has studied cultures around the globe knows that racism isn't uniquely an American problem. It's a human problem. And this particular point is an obstacle for many white people when talking about race. While racism is experienced much more frequently and severely by minorities in America, this doesn't negate the fact that white people have experienced it as well. So, when white people raise this point in conversations about racism, it would be best to simply acknowledge the point and move on. Remember that acknowledging the existence of racists in every ethnic group isn't a commentary about the proportion or severity of the problem therein. 
  • Move On from "It's Not My Fault" - I've heard many white Americans say things like, "My ancestors didn't own slaves, so this isn't my issue." Others say, "I wasn't alive during legal segregation, so I didn't create this problem." Still more proclaim, "I'm not a racist, so this isn't my fault." While all of these statements may be true, they aren't helpful. Regardless of whether your ancestors were slaves, slave holders, segregationists or civil rights activists, you're left with the mess. We're all living in the consequences of a long history of institutionalized racism in America. We can choose to either absolve ourselves of blame, or be an agent of change. Why not determine to make our society better for our children?
  • Set Aside Politics - Everyone should exercise their civic duties. But let's stop making political party affiliation a litmus test for faith. Nothing divides us more as followers of Jesus than partisan politics. Embarrassingly, black and white Christians continue to stare at each other in disgust across the political aisle. Stop it. Now. Are we really in a place where we've put politics ahead of faith? I hope not. Let's start focusing on the Savior that unites us, rather than the political issues that divide us. I'd like to believe that unity in Christ may even serve to foster some civil political discourse among believers of different races. Maybe we'd even find some new common ground. 
  • Have an uncomfortable, yet gracious conversation. Many white people are scared to have serious conversations about race. Why? They're afraid of being called a racist. Or unintentionally offending someone. That's why everyone needs to extend an abundance of grace when talking about racial issues. And we need to stop feeling offended so easily. Enter conversations about race expecting to be uncomfortable, and prepared to be hurt. At the same time, assume that others aren't intentionally making you feel that way. Their honest dialogue is likely born out of curiosity, ignorance, frustration, fear and a wide variety of other sources.
  • Re-integrate Neighborhoods - It's an embarrassing phenomenon. It may have happened on your street, just like it did on mine. We call it "white flight". Many neighborhoods across the South Side of Chicago used to be predominantly white. When African Americans began moving into the area in the late 1960's, white people fled as quickly as possible. Hence the name "white flight". When it's time for us to move, we should explore all neighborhoods. Consider moving to an African American neighborhood with beautiful homes and wonderful people. Wouldn't it be a powerful witness if followers of Jesus made it normal to cross cultural boundaries when buying a home?  
  • Dare to stay - It didn't used to bother me. But now the phrase makes me shudder. Whenever people in a suburban area start talking about their neighborhood "going downhill", they aren't usually talking about crime. They're typically talking about diversity. As African Americans, Latinos and Asians move into a community, white people leave. Someone has to break this pattern. Why shouldn't it be Christians? In fact, since white people are the ones fleeing residential diversity in America, I believe we have the responsibility to reverse the trend. When diversity enters our neighborhoods, we need to stay.
  • Don't Assume that diversity within a congregation is the answer. It's naive to assume that the presence of diversity automatically eliminates racism. We also can't forget that there are some areas where diversity isn't practical. What do you do with the rural community in South Dakota that's primarily white? Should they feel guilty for their lack of diversity? What about the African American congregation on the South Side of Chicago? Should we expect people to drive for hours just for the sake of diversity? That isn't practical. Instead, Christians from all cultural backgrounds should prioritize cross-cultural friendships. Casual acquaintances at the office don't count. Make the effort to invest time in a real friendship with someone that doesn't look like you.
  • Drop the 'Savior Complex' - This one is delicate. So let's dive-in head first. Black, Hispanic and Asian people don't need white people. At least not any more than white people need them. So let's get our minds out of the colonial era, and into the 21st century. Why? The 'savior complex' is a dangerous ideology that creates a false sense of superiority shrouded in good intentions. Dare to consider the opposite approach. Find a mentor of a different ethnicity. Study a Black or Hispanic theologian. Join a church with Black leadership. Bottom line - strive to be the student instead of the teacher. 
  • Honor Cultural Differences - My college anthropology professor was quick to teach us that normal is relative when examining cultural traits. It's a simple, yet profound truth. That means that almost all cultural attributes aren't a matter if right and wrong. They're a matter of traditions and norms. Food, family relationships, holidays, and child rearing can be dramatically different when comparing ethnic groups. So accept that your way isn't the only way. Then celebrate this truth. Maybe you'll even learn something. 
  • Do Good Together - Concerned about disagreeing on issues? Worried about cultural differences? Forget about it. Just start by uniting across cultural boundaries to address universal problems. And do so in the name of Jesus. Every community battles poverty, violence, dwindling resources, marital problems and a more. Think of the good we could do in these areas if we simply worked together! And our unity in Christian service would speak volumes to a culture divided by race.
  • Acknowledge the problem - Recent data indicates that most white evangelicals don't want to talk about racism. As I've written before, problems cannot be solved by ignoring them. This is certainly the case with racism. All Christians must accept that it exists, and that it's a problem. Our churches need to clearly acknowledge and speak against racism from the pulpit. Furthermore, sermons should be regularly preached about Biblical justice. Nothing can be accomplished until we stand in agreement that racism still exists, and that it's a problem worth confronting.

We know that God loves justice. We also know that the road toward racial reconciliation will be hard. May God grant us the courage to lead the journey.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Two Words that Prove Racism Exists in the Church

It blows my mind that people don't see it.

After almost 2 weeks of protests in Ferguson, African Americans across the country continue to shake their heads in frustration. Another unarmed black teenager was killed. The media is focused on the bad behavior of a few protesters, the details of the shooting, and the character of the victim. But as Christian blogger Jelani Greenidge eloquently stated, the outcry from African Americans isn't really about Ferguson. It's about racism.

And yet many white Christians still don't see it.

We blame the victims. We dismiss the frustrations of African Americans as hyper-sensitive overreactions. We assume that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively erased racism from our culture. As I've written before, racism isn't gone. It's alive and well. It just looks different today.

Why can't white followers of Jesus see the injustice of racism deep within the fabric of our society? Where's the righteous anger? Why do we ignore its ugly presence in our churches? Perhaps situations like we're seeing in St. Louis are too dramatic for some to believe. 

photo credit: Leo Reynolds
via photopin cc
Fine. Then let me prove the existence of racism among Christians with one ugly, two-word phrase.

I'm proud to work for radio station that's boldly moving forward with diversifying our music. We desperately want to reach across cultures and generations with the Gospel, and music is a means to accomplish that goal. Even though most Christian stations never play Gospel music, we're blazing a new trail. Since a large percentage of the community we serve is African American, why not play Gospel music? So we've lightly sprinkled Fred Hammond, Donald Lawrence and Hezekiah Walker among Chris Tomlin, MercyMe and Casting Crowns.

We've received some great feedback for this subtle shift. However, not everyone is happy about it. Shocking conversations with some of our white listeners reveals the truth about racism in the church. I keep hearing the same disgusting two-word phrase:

"Jungle Music"

Musical preferences are a reality for everyone. But the use of this particular phrase for Gospel music sails past any lines of appropriate language. And it's not a phrase that can be taken multiple ways. Without a doubt, it's a hateful and disgustingly racist thing to say.

I wish you'd stop playing all of that jungle music!
Why are you playing so much jungle music?

Yes, real Christian people in 2014 are saying this. Out loud. To our staff. And I'd ignore it if the incidents were isolated. We've heard this specific phrase multiple times.

So maybe you want to ignore the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Perhaps you'll dismiss the painful stories of racism from African Americans in your own community. But now you've got me. I'm a 35 year old white guy. And I'm telling you that white Christians are calling Gospel music "Jungle Music" to staff at a Christian radio station.

What else will it take for white Christians to feel righteous anger about the existence of racism in our culture?

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