Review: Becoming a Just Church

just church

Becoming a Just ChurchAdam L. Gustine. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Develops the idea that the pursuit of justice for Christians begins in and flows out of their communities as they learn to practice God’s shalom in every aspect of their church life.

There is a great deal of discussion about the pursuit of justice, particularly in public settings in some Christian circles. The problem is that these conversations are often “echo chambers” preaching to the converted while significant portions of the church is either indifferent or even hostile to these conversations. They are relegated to “justice teams” or even forced to begin their own “parachurch” organizations. Some question their gospel fidelity. Adam Gustine thinks this won’t change until justice, which he equates with the shalom of God, the wholeness of life shared by all of God’s people, flows through and out of the life of our local congregations.

The first part of his book develops an ecclesiology for justice, a way to think about justice in the church. The four chapters in this section first of all focus on what it means to be “the people of God,” thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and practicing justice, not as an outreach strategy, but as a way of loving God and one’s neighbor. Gustine challenges us to think as exiles in American culture rather than natives and that the church is meant to be a prophetic alternative to the American way of life. That alternative way of life is a mañana way of life that allows a vision of God’s future for his people to shape the way we live in the present, kind of like demonstration garden plots. Finally, along the lines of gardening, he invites the church to pursue the flourishing of the physical communities in which we are situated. Perhaps the challenge here to our commuter, big box model of “doing” church, is that he envisions a parish model in a particular place where we worship and live.

Part two of the book then looks at the practice of justice in the warp and woof of congregational life. First of all, Gustine talks about what it means to be a church that includes and empowers the “low ground” people in a “high ground” world (referring to the reality that in most places, those who have means and power live above flood-prone low ground areas where the poor live). He challenges us to radical hospitality that welcomes the “other,” whoever that may be in our setting, talking about the food pantry “guests” who had a hard time truly sensing they were full participants in his church. He believes that the practice of justice must be integral to our discipleship efforts, and critical to this is helping people to gain awareness of their own social location, and think of the kingdom implications of their particular place in society. Finally he contends that justice ought shape worship, moving us beyond the “Pleasantville” of “just praising the Lord” to confession, repentance, and lament, expressions rarely heard in most white evangelical contexts, but much more common elsewhere.

The book concludes with a conversation on power, a critical issue in the practice of justice in churches. He engages with Juliet Liu and Brandon Green, two other pastors of churches who have joined him in the pursuit of “just church.” Then in his epilogue, acknowledging that he hasn’t discussed “public justice,” Gustine briefly gestures toward some of the tangible ways the pursuit of public justice in his own South Bend, Indiana community has flowed out of his congregational life.

Gustine puts his finger on an important issue, that we put “doing” before “being” far too often, in this case the “doing” of public justice without “being” just communities, places where the kingdom is setting things to rights across the cultural barriers of class, and gender, and ethnicity and status in our own communities. Indeed, we often are trying to care for a community as disparate collections of individuals, a bunch of “I’s” doing our own justice “thing” rather than a “we,” a people.

Currently, the evangelical church is deeply divided about justice, often along secular political lines justified by a veneer of scriptures we hurl at one another. Sometimes, these divisions even find their way into local congregations. Becoming a Just Church offers a path for a church to come together as a “third way” people, not beholden to political and theological outlooks of the left or the right. Discussion questions allow for group use and the author has also developed a companion Just Church Vision Retreat set of resources that church leadership teams may use in conjunction with the book (information about this pops up when you visit the publisher’s website for the book).

Gustine mentions the lament of Carl F. H. Henry over nascent evangelicalism’s neglect of justice back in 1947 when he wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (reviewed here). Seventy years later, we are still wrestling with an evangelicalism deeply divided around issues of justice. Might it be that the practices Gustine commends, pursued in local congregations, offer a way forward? Finding that way forward seems crucial to me–I’m not sure the American church has another seventy years to fritter away.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Welcoming Justice

welcoming justice

Welcoming Justice (expanded edition), Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018 (original edition 2009).

Summary: A renewed call for the church to pursue Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community” even in a day of increased white nationalism and polarization.

When this book was first published in 2009, the first African-American president had been elected. Nine years later, the vision of “beloved community” that appeared to be on the horizon, now feels like a distant memory. Charles Marsh, in his new preface acknowledges the current circumstances in the events in his home town of Charlottesville where Heather Heyer, simply standing in solidarity against the demonstrations of white nationalists, died when struck by a vehicle driven into the crowd by a white nationalist from Ohio.

Yet Marsh, and his co-author, John M. Perkins, a leader in Christian community development work, have not given up on the vision of Dr. King. Both believe that despite appearances, there is a movement of God afoot toward “beloved community. In alternating chapters, the two authors share why they are still hopeful, and what they believe needs to happen.

Marsh leads off with the contention that the Civil Rights movement lost its vision and cohesion as a movement when it lost its connection to a church-based and gospel based vision of “beloved community.” At the same time, he sees movements, like that which Perkins has led at Voice of Calvary, continuing this gospel-based vision in its focus on relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation. Perkins, however, contends that the church, to realize such a vision, needs to give up its captivities to culture which has so divided it. He makes the fascinating observation that the neglect of outreach to a white underclass has made them open to the counterfeit community of the Klan. The challenge is to forsake the dividing lines of our captivities to reach out across those lines in the power of Christ.

Marsh then writes of the need for true conversion in our lives, a conversion that is always personal, even as it has social implications. He movingly recounts his first encounter with Perkins as a student staying with his segregationist grandmother. Perkins answer came not in an argument of what was wrong with segregation, but to send a gift of blueberries from his garden as his gift to her. Marsh in reflection writes:

“The existence of a compelling Christian witness in our time does not depend on our access to the White House, the size of our churches or the cultural relevance of our pastors. It depends, instead, on our ability to sing better songs in our lives. True conversion is always personal, but it is never sole about the individual who experiences God’s love and knows the good news of salvation. True conversion is about learning to sing songs in which our life harmonizes with others’–even the lives of those least like us–and swells into a joyful and irresistible chorus” (p. 78).

Perkins responds with stories of the young men and women he has the joy of working with, and the hope this gives him for awakening. He doesn’t speak of programs but of loving people, those of his own community, and those who come to learn, and then go and pursue a vision of community development across the country. Marsh in turn writes about the inner life of silent embrace of the gospel of the kingdom that sustains the practice of peace over the long haul. Perkins writes the final chapter calling for a re-building of our cities, interrupting the brokenness of our cities as churches re-assert their own love of the places and people to which they are called, forming the character of their young.

The question I had as I read this in the light of the present time is how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful. I think the difference between them and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose Between the World and Me I reviewed yesterday) comes down to the former’s belief in the gospel of the kingdom. Perkins knows the violence against blacks as well, or perhaps even better than Coates, growing up in Mississippi. He was beaten and thrown in jail unjustly by police. Perkins has experienced the power of the love of God in his own life, and devoted a life to loving his place and pursuing reconciliation. What he and Marsh describe seems to be illustrative of the parable of the mustard seed, where small, seemingly insignificant efforts, like Perkin’s work in Mendenhall, not only bring local healing and reconciliation, but spawn movements of people committed to King’s vision of the beloved community. Perhaps the real question is not how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful, but will we forsake our cultural captivities and join them in their hope and embrace God’s movement toward “beloved community?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Healing Our Broken Humanity

Healing our Broken Humanity

Healing Our Broken World, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill (Foreword by Willie James Jennings). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: In a world with deep racial, gender, national, and political divides, the authors propose nine formative practices churches can pursue enabling the church to have a healing presence in the world.

We live in the midst of a world with terrible brokenness, pretty much wherever we look. Hostility between ethnic and racial groups. Violence against women. Gun violence. Political discord. Relational brokenness. The deep ache so many who sense that life just isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Often our churches, even when they seem to be thriving, reflect the wider divides and brokenness of the surrounding society.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill have seen all this in their respective communities but are not in despair. Out of their experience of working with various church groups, they believe there are nine practices that both offer a roadmap for transformation, and enable God’s people to be a transformative presence in the world. These are:

1. Reimagine Church as the new humanity in Jesus Christ
2. Renew Lament through corporate expressions of deep regret and sorrow.
3. Repent Together of white cultural captivity, and racial and gender injustice, and our complicity.
4. Relinquish Power by giving up our own righteousness, status, privilege, selfish ambition, self interests, vain conceit, and personal gain.
5. Restore Justice to those who have been denied justice.
6. Reactivate Hospitality by rejecting division and exclusion, and welcoming all kinds of people into the household of God.
7. Reinforce Agency by supporting people’s ability to make free, independent, and unfettered actions and choices.
8. Reconcile Relationships through repentance, forgiveness, justice and partnership.
9. Recover Life Together as a transformed community that lives out the vision of the Sermon on the Mount.

Willie James Jennings, in his Foreward, emphasizes the importance of implementing these practices in diverse communities. He writes, “The crucial matter today for Christian discipleship is not what you practice but who you practice with.” In the practical suggestions Kim and Hill offer, the practices themselves take people into the diverse community Jennings commends. In “reimagining church” groups using this book are encouraged to serve other groups in your community and visit Christians from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In “renewing lament” groups are encouraged to gather for nights of shared lament with a mix of genders, ages, and ethnicities. In “repenting together,” groups are encouraged to spend time among the marginalized, and then reflect on what the Spirit is convicting them to repent of, and then form accountability groups to act in ways that express changed hearts, In the chapter on “relinquishing power,” the authors challenge people to stop organizing all-white male slates of speakers or panels at conferences and other events.

Each chapter grounds these transformative practices in biblical principles illustrated from the authors’ personal ministry experiences. Each chapter concludes with a number of practical suggestions that might be implemented by a small group working together. These include both study and action items. I would observe that this is not a chapter-a-week book for groups to read. If a group seriously engages each chapter, they probably need to take a month to several months on the action steps in each chapter. Often the action steps direct to other readings or studies.

That makes the questions at the end of the book for groups a bit puzzling. They seem to assume a single week of discussion on each chapter. The “nine practices accountability form” in the second appendix suggests that groups might study through the nine and begin to shape their lives around the various practices. My sense is that a group that is serious about pursuing these practices and living them out ought to think in terms of a year to several years of working together.

Actually, that could be quite an experience that moves far beyond socializing, a dip into scripture, and prayers that life would “go smoothly” that characterize many small groups. The challenge to lament is likely foreign to most in majority culture, but common among ethnic minorities. Practicing hospitality that goes beyond those “like us” would be transformative in many communities. Finding ways to seek and advocate justice, particularly for those who may not be part of our communities, will open us up to people we might not otherwise meet. The subtitle of this book speaks of “revitalizing the church and renewing the world.” These practices have the potential to do just that, if we dare.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Infinite Hope

Infinite Hope

Infinite Hope, Anthony Graves. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Summary: A first person account of an innocent black man wrongly found guilty of murder, leading to eighteen years in prison and twelve on death row until he was found innocent and released.

A terrible murder has taken place. Six people have been brutally murdered, and then set on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence. A distant connection arrested for the murder implicates you as his collaborator, even though he barely knows you. You have an alibi, spending the time with your girlfriend, and among family, miles away from the murder scene. You are arrested, read your Miranda rights, but refuse an attorney because you think this is all a bad misunderstanding that can be cleared up by simply telling the truth. You are subjected to intense questioning, kept in prison without bond, monitored by prison guards, and other prisoners for making incriminating statements. The district attorney intimidates the murderer to testify against you even though he has previously admitted that this was a lie. Your alibi is intimidated with the threat of criminal charges. Crucial evidence is withheld from the defense team. You are convicted of murder, and sentenced to be put to death by the state of Texas. You spend twelve years on death row, and eighteen behind bars.

If you read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (review) and still weren’t convinced that stories like Walter McMillian’s was an exception, or cannot happen in America, perhaps this story of Anthony Graves might persuade you. In this book, Graves narrates the story from the side of the falsely accused, describing his arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing, the ordeal of living on death row, and how he was finally exonerated and his subsequent activism. It is an honest, raw account. He describes his increasing sense of desperation as he realizes that telling the truth isn’t enough, that the prosecutor (eventually charge with prosecutorial misconduct) will not stop at anything to convict him, and the agonizing wait for the jury’s verdict and sentence. He describes deplorable prison conditions, the unlikely friendships, and a brutal murder on death row. He recounts prison protests, and lockdowns, and periods of solitary confinement, and the terrible struggle to keep up hope. Twice he was given execution dates. He recounts the heartbreak of watching his sons grow up and not be able to be there for them.

He challenges us to grapple with the realities of living on death row:

“Like most Americans, I hadn’t given much thought to death row before my arrest. The writer and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean famously said that support for the death penalty is a mile wide but only an inch thick. She meant that the death penalty’s many supporters rarely investigate the basis of their own beliefs. As I walked into Ellis One Unit, I didn’t know what to think. People typically focus on the death part of a death penalty sentence. What they don’t tell you is that life on death row is a torture all its own. I had no idea that I’d be living in a six-by-nine-foot cage, or that I’d do my business in a steel toilet in plain view of male and female officers alike” (p. 112).

There are also the people who keep on believing and fighting, from overseas correspondents to Nicole Casarez, part of his legal team who doggedly investigated his case as a journalism teacher and former corporate lawyer. A mother who never stopped praying and encouraging him. And finally, when his conviction is overturned, a new prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, who has the integrity to listen to her investigators, who told her that Graves was innocent.

Graves recounts his own growth, as he writes the memoirs that form the basis of this book, as he reads extensively from the prison library (he includes a list of formative books for him at the end of the book), and watches fellow prisoners go to their deaths. He becomes a legal expert on his own case, which forms him into the advocate he is now for criminal justice reform through the Anthony Graves Foundation.

Graves writes of others he believed to be innocent, and his case is certainly among a growing list of those under death sentences who have been exonerated. Surprisingly, Graves doesn’t make a big deal of his race, although racial bias is clearly evident in the narrative of his experience. Yet his case raises questions of how many innocent people have gone to their deaths. Given the number of such cases, and the racial bias in many of these cases, one has to ask whether, in the matter of death sentences, there is equal justice for all, and if not, in Bryan Stevenson’s words, “Do we deserve to kill?”

As important as these questions are, it is also important to note, and end on, the determination of Anthony Graves, his family, attorneys, and friends. Corrupt officials took away his liberty but they did not take away his hope. That hope for exoneration, for justice turned a young man trying to figure out his life into an advocate for justice for others. That hope led him to confront, at his disbarment hearing, the prosecutor who wrongly tried to have him executed, and forgive him. That hope gave us this raw and yet grace-filled narrative of wrongful conviction, life on death row, and vindication. Infinite hope, indeed.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Myth of Equality

the myth of equality

The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A white pastor explores the reality of white privilege from the perspectives of both American history and the gospel of the kingdom and how white Christians might pursue justice.

We all like to believe the best about ourselves.Most of us want to believe we are a society where everyone is equal. Most of us would like to believe racism and racial injustices are a thing of the past. And most of us, if we are white, squirm a bit when we hear the phrase “white privilege.” I can imagine some who are reading this composing arguments as you read for what you want to say in the comments section.

Ken Wytsma is a white pastor who believes Christians need to have honest conversations about these matters if we are to contribute to healing the racial divides within our churches and society. He speaks of a conversation with a young, white landscaper who has worked hard to build his business and didn’t think he’d enjoyed privilege. Wytsma recounts their dialogue:

“I asked him in what part of town he did most of his work.

‘In the suburbs,’ he said,

I then asked where, specifically, he did his work.

‘Mostly in people’s backyards,’ he answered.

I asked him when he did most of his work.

‘Well, during the day, of course,’ he quickly retorted.

I asked if I could pose one more question, and he said yes. So I asked him how he got most of his business.

He responded, ‘I put flyers in people’s doors and sometimes knock at houses where I think there’s a particular opportunity I can offer them.’

Having gathered all this information about his business and how his work functions, I asked, ‘If you were a young man of color in those mostly white suburbs, is it possible you would be received differently by some of the potential clients?’

. . .

He nodded, and I could see from the look on his face that he finally understood white privilege. White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It means that if you are a person of color, simply by virtue of that, your life might be harder.”  (pp. 25-26)

Wytsma’s book is broken into three parts. The first, titled “The Story of Race” explores the history of race in America through several historical lenses. He considers the history of immigration and the emergence of white supremacy. He steps back into European history and explores the roots of racism in Shakespeare, philosophy, colonization, and post-conquest treatment of Native Americans. He explores the history of slavery in the U.S., and the failed post-Civil War effort of Reconstruction succeeded by the rise of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, political strategies of the Republican party to win the White south, and the war on drugs. The concluding chapter in this section is on the Great Migration to northern and western cities, and how redlining practices shaped these cities long after they were outlawed. He mentions the FHA/HOLC maps from the 1930’s that “graded” neighborhoods for the purpose of granting loans, with “D” areas in red, and deemed uncreditworthy. (Here is the map of my hometown of Youngstown; I grew up in a “C” or yellow area, but it was still part of the “white west side” and indeed, most Blacks lived in the “red” areas of town).

Part two focuses on theology as Wytsma considers “Equality and the Kingdom of God.” He speaks tellingly of all the “off limit” subjects in our “authentic” churches and how they reveal our conflicted loyalties between “empire” and “the kingdom of God.” He explores our truncated gospel, and how we leave out justice, not realizing that “justice,” “righteousness” and “justify” derive from the same words. To be in right relationship or justified with God and to be in right or just relation with neighbor are part of one gospel of the kingdom. He discusses what he calls our “salvation-industrial” complex that reduces salvation to how many have prayed a “sinner’s prayer,” a metric that can translate into enhanced donations for a ministry. This becomes a very individualized experience that fails to reckon with what it means to be incorporated into a new humanity that transcends all human-made divisions and national boundaries.

In Part Three, Wytsma outlines how we begin to address white privilege. He describes how implicit racial bias can shape our thinking, whether in an interview or a police stop.and how this may be overcome. He challenges our Christian conference complex that is often pervaded by white speakers from the platform, and other ways we simply don’t recognize people of other ethnicities and give them a place at the table, or even yield the table (or podium) to them. Finally he speaks of the steps we may take to open ourselves to the other, and even find ourselves in the other–listening and learning, lamenting, confessing, and laying down our privilege to raise up others.

What I appreciate throughout the book is that the point is not shaming or laying guilt but helping us understand and wake up to something to which we may have been oblivious. Wytsma helps us follow his own journey of understanding. Along the way, he helped me see that to attempt to deny or defend privilege is to carry a heavy burden, and one that isolates me from the manifold riches of a diverse community of believers. Recognizing privilege, honestly facing and lamenting the way it has hurt others, and laying it down as a gift to others, to bless others and share that privilege with them is liberating.

We are also facing a major demographic challenge as a nation, in which people of color will be in the numerical majority by 2050. It is one that faces white Christians with a challenge and an opportunity. Will we try to hang onto something of which others are desperately seeking a share, or will we both enrich, and allow ourselves to be enriched by brothers and sisters whose skin color is darker than ours? Instead of fearing what we might lose, might we consider both what we may give and gain?

 

Review: Forgiveness and Justice

forgiveness and justice

Forgiveness and Justice, Bryan Maier. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017.:

Summary: Interacts with other models of forgiveness from a biblical perspective, proposing that healing through trust in the justice of God precedes forgiveness, which can only occur where there is sincere confession and repentance by the offender.

This book changed my thinking about forgiveness. Like many, I’d come to believe in the therapeutic value of “forgiveness” even when the offender has not confessed to wrong-doing and repented of it. I can think of situations where this counsel didn’t ring true. There had been great offense, and while individuals wanted to forgive, the refusal of the offender to acknowledge the wrong, and in some cases continued the wrongful behavior, leaving a deep sense of grievance that “forgiving” could not address.

This book helped me understand why. First of all, the author, basing his discussion in scripture, focuses on a more careful definition of forgiveness, which isn’t “letting go” or reframing the offense or having greater empathy. Fundamentally, he argues that forgiveness, as God forgives, is not about our feelings, but about the offender, and can only occur when the offender confesses to the wrong, and repents from it.

How then are we to deal with the deep feelings of anger, hurt, and grievance. Maier observes that we tend to make the decision that it is good to get rid of these, and he would say, “Not so fast.” If there has been real offense, and in many cases he deals with as a counselor, profound abuse, these may be warranted feelings that stem from a deep sense of wanting to be vindicated. We should not try to reframe these hurts. Maier argues that it is the God who is just who vindicates and that healing starts with trusting in the justice of God, that we need not seek vengeance, but trust God to deal with the offense. He argues that it is precisely this about which the imprecatory Psalms are concerned and encourages their use by counselees.

He also proposes that as we begin to trust in the God of justice we find healing, before we forgive, and that in fact this prepares us to forgive. For one thing, realizing that the offender faces God’s justice if they do not repent may in time move us to pray for that repentance. That in turn raises the important question of how will we respond if they do repent.

Part of this has to do with discerning genuine repentance, something we can never fully assess. He suggests several indicators: 1). No demands, even requests for forgiveness, 2) A willingness to assume responsibility, and 3) A willingness to pay off the debt over time, realizing that trust is not restored instantaneously.

All this also means that repentance does not necessitate an instantaneous response of forgiveness. While this may be desired, the person offended must truly be ready for this and the offender must not expect or demand this. Clients should not be pressured into premature forgiveness.

I appreciate the care Maier shows in handling of scripture as well as in recognizing the seriousness of offenses like abuse and sexual assault and the need for victims to legitimately protect themselves from further harm from offenders. Moreover, this book seems to me to give a better account of unresolved feelings of anger than the “let it go” school. It acknowledges the role of God in healing, and also the very real concern for justice that is sometimes minimized in forgiveness teaching. And it helpfully focuses on when and how real forgiveness of the other may take place in a way that reinforces healing for both parties rather than compounding the problems between them.

I would highly recommend this work for all pastoral and clinical counselors, and for anyone who is wrestling with having experienced deep wounds at the hands of another. You may have heard the Lord’s teaching of “forgive as I have forgiven you” and struggle to do this, particularly when the offender has made no attempt to acknowledge the wrong done. This book unpacks what biblical and not merely therapeutic forgiveness looks like and the ways of healing that prepare us to truly forgive.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Just Mercy

just mercy

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014.

Summary: A narrative of the author’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative, representing death row inmates and other prisoners–people of color, the indigent, mentally impaired, and children–not always served well by our justice system.

Bryan Stevenson, a young black man from a poor community in Delaware, was on the fast track to a successful legal career as a Harvard Law student. All that changed after an internship in Georgia with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), working with death row inmates, discovering that often one of his greatest gifts to them was simply listening to their stories. After graduation, he returned to work with the SPDC. One of the first cases, that he carried over into the new organization he eventually founded was to represent death row inmate Walter McMillian.

His investigation of McMillian’s case revealed a travesty of justice. McMillian was arrested months after the murder of a young woman killed at a dry cleaners. The main “witness” for the prosecution was mixed up in bad dealings with a white woman with whom McMillian, a black man, had made the mistake of having an affair. Ralph Myers, the witness, could not pick out McMillian and McMillian, in fact, had never met Myers. He was accused of forcing Myers to drive him to the cleaners in his “low rider” truck, where he murdered the woman. McMillian’s truck was only modified into a “low rider” six months after the murder. At the time of the murder, McMillian was at a family gathering miles away, corroborated by numerous family and friends. Nevertheless, he was found guilty. Because of a quirk in Alabama law, the judge reversed the jury recommendation, and sentenced him to be executed on Alabama’s electric chair.

Much of the book is Stevenson’s account of his efforts to appeal this verdict. In doing so, he encounters death threats, and a pattern of concealment of exculpatory evidence, including evidence that Myers’ testimony was coerced by the state. As you read, you find yourself shaking your head at the resistance of the justice system to admit its error, and do the right thing, and in fact the efforts of law enforcement and prosecution to send a man to death who clearly could not have committed the crime. His only crimes were being poor, black, and offending social norms.

Interwoven with the story of Walter McMillian are the stories of many others. He recounts the growth of the new organization he formed, the Equal Justice Initiative, not only in representing death row inmates but other indigent and mentally impaired clients, including those sentenced as adults while children. Often, these clients had lacked the resources for good legal representation that would have led to lesser charges, juvenile rather than adult sentencing, or even provision of mental health care that was needed. He notes the great cost society bears for all of this, even while prison privatization brings a windfall of profit to a relative few. He observes:

One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.

“. . . Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.

Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in prison. We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment” (p. 15).

Stevenson is not denying that in many cases crimes were committed. Rather, his contention is that justice has neither been equal, nor has there been mercy. In many cases, the race, economic status, and mental capacity of defendants deprives them of good legal representation, even while law enforcement and prosecutorial bias makes convictions all but inevitable, and often for far longer terms than crimes may warrant. Furthermore, given some of the egregious errors in capital cases that result in the innocent being sentenced to death, and in many cases executed, Stevenson raises the question, “Do we deserve to kill” (italics are the author’s).

This is not an easy book to read. Stevenson describes a world different from my own experience. I’ve served on juries and been impressed with the care given to instruct us on “innocent until proven guilty.” I know people in law enforcement and prosecutors who are honorable people. And yet, I consider the evidence Stevenson and others like Michelle Alexander present, and realize that the world I have experienced is light years away from the experience of some of our fellow citizens. In practice, we do not afford equal protection under the law for all of our citizens, at least not in all places around our country. We must ask if long prison sentences and mass incarceration of non-violent offenders really makes sense.

There is a lot of talk about American greatness going around. Our system of justice, at its best is, I believe, one of the great things about our country. When we pledge allegiance to the flag, we conclude with the words “with liberty and justice for all.” It seems to me that if we love the flag, and the country that flag stands for, then we cannot ignore cries for justice like the ones in this book. It is what we have pledged ourselves to.

Just Mercy is the 2017 Buckeye Book Community selection. Seven thousand first year students at The Ohio State University have received and are discussing this book. The author will speak on campus Thursday, October 26, 2017.

Review: Embrace

Embrace

EmbraceLeroy Barber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: An extended reflection on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and God’s invitation to embrace the difficult places, people, differences, and callings involved in bringing his peace and justice into a divided world.

Many of us who are followers of Jesus feel ourselves to be “strangers in a strange land.” As people who have experienced the life-giving shalom of new life in Christ, we are disturbed to witness the deeply divided public discourse in our country that reveals hostilities between political parties, between racial groups, between rich and poor, between natural born citizens and immigrants. As people who look forward to God’s new city, the new Jerusalem, we grieve the devastation of decaying cities, of polluted water and air, of unsafe streets.

Leroy Barber offers in Embrace a series of reflections on Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I  carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you to will prosper.”

Barber speaks as a black pastor who has worked extensively in Christian community development work. He sees in these verses a call to embrace that will lead to the healing of our cities: an embrace of the place where we are, an embrace of the “difficult people” in our lives, of difference as a gift of God, He invites us into the hard work of change that lays down privilege to serve. He bids us to settle in for the long haul.

For the baseball fan like me, he challenges us to recognize and embrace the sacred spaces of the other–a favorite sport, television show, and to create new traditions in our Christian communities that honor those spaces. He calls us into the embrace that grieves injustice and advocates on behalf of those who are on the receiving end of injustice. He calls us into the difficult choice to offer the embrace of forgiveness to those who hurt us deeply as did families and friends of the Charleston Nine did with Dylann Roof.

Probably for many, he could have stopped there but he concludes with a chapter on Black Lives Matter, addressing ten myths about this movement. He writes, “I am not requesting that you agree with everything you have read about Black Lives Matter. I am advocating for a listening ear, healthy dialogue, and love. This is where loving hard people–including our enemies–begins to take shape in our hearts. Can you love and disagree? Can you love and honor another’s humanity in spite of the differences?” It seems in this that Pastor Barber may defining something of what “embrace” looks like between whites and blacks.

I feel in writing so far I haven’t captured the “winsomeness” of this book. Leroy Barber’s personal stories, but even more, his embracing manner makes embrace across the divides and challenges he speaks of, not easy, but compelling. He helps us see that this is the arc of the biblical narrative, the arc of the ministry of Jesus, and the arc of joy for many like him who have dared to embrace. He helps us envision, and believe, that this could be the arc of our own lives as well.

 

 

Review: Onward

Onward

Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015.

Summary: Written by a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, this book describes an agenda for a post-Moral Majority church, centered around both cultural engagement and gospel integrity.

I found this a heartening book in many ways that articulated, at least in the words of one denominational leader, the journey the Southern Baptist Convention has been on over the last few decades. Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a frequent contributor in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Christianity Today and First Things.

Moore writes about what a church that has had Bible Belt roots and Moral Majority political clout does when these conditions no longer hold. His contention is both that the church needs to reconceive its cultural engagement, and use this opportunity to reaffirm its gospel integrity. He begins by affirming the importance of the life of the kingdom not only in its “not yet” dimensions but rather in the present. The kingdom must be first and he calls us to “be pilgrims again, uneasy in American culture.” He contends that the true culture war must be first to embody the life of the kingdom in gospel communities. He argues for  mission that preaches both justice and justification, reconciliation both between people, and between people and God and these two must not be pitted against each other. He then focuses on three particular issues he believes need to be emphasized in this effort to bring together gospel and culture: human dignity, religious liberty, and family stability.

In a chapter on Human Dignity, he begins with a statement of the dignity of black lives, and argues for a Whole Life dignity perspective, within which he advocates compellingly for continued pro-life engagement around issues of abortion and euthanasia. In discussing religious liberty, he freely invokes the Baptist history of separation of church and state, and argues for the liberties of all religious peoples, while acknowledging that in our present context, gospel integrity will be increasingly “strange” and not always supported. I loved his concluding statement in this chapter affirming, “We are Americans best when we are not Americans first.”

The chapter on family stability particularly struck me as one that might surprise some. One the one hand he is uncompromising in naming the sins of fornication and adultery rather than deploying euphemized equivalents and arguing for chastity rather than mere abstinence. On the other hand, he seeks to extend compassion to those wounded by today’s libertarian sexual ethics, acknowledges the need for stronger support of the abused, speaks of the connection between poverty and family instability, and argues that living wages are important for these families. He affirms the role of church as family for all, not just for couples with children. At the same time, he has some challenging comments about young couples waiting to marry because of economic considerations, that ends up leading to moral compromise. He’d contend that we are never ready for marriage, economically or otherwise!

His concluding chapters speak about the vital importance of speaking with both conviction and kindness, and for the fact that the hope for the American church is in the transforming power of the gospel, that leadership is not genetically inherited and the next “Billy Graham” may currently be an alcoholic, or come from another part of the world. God has ways of breaking out of both liberalism and legalism and raising up new generations.

Moore can turn a phrase and one has the sense that this was material adapted from oral speaking. At the same time, it felt at times that the organization could be tighter. Reading this felt like listening to rambles, albeit very engaging rambles, around a theme.

It is heartening to me that this book can be published by a Southern Baptist publishing house. It reflects a pilgrimage from a segregated, culture warring church focused on personal rather than social ethics to a church that is beginning to wrestle with what it means to hold justice and justification together. True, some of the material on questions like the environment, gun violence, economic justice and more are still very cautious, and I suspect most Blacks would like to see them go even further on issues of race and confronting the history of racism in this country. Yet the fact that these issues are talked about in the context of the dignity of all life and the gospel of the kingdom by a Southern Baptist leader is an encouraging sign and one that I hope will encourage similar conversations throughout the American church.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Review: Educating for Shalom

Educating for ShalomEducating for Shalom, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2004.

Summary: This collection of essays and talks written or given over a 30 year period traces Nicholas Wolterstorff’s journey of thinking about Christian higher education, the integration of faith and learning, and his growing concern that education result in the pursuit of justice and shalom.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is an emeritus professor of philosophical theology at Yale, having previously taught on the faculty at Calvin College, a Christian college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The collection of essays and presentations that make up this collection were written or given over a 30 year period and chronicle how Wolterstorff’s conception of the task of Christians in higher education to connect faith and learning has changed over this time period.

Several of the essays in this collection chronicle that journey, giving the broad strokes of Wolterstorff’s emerging understanding. In essays like “Rethinking Christian Higher Education”, “Teaching for Shalom: On the Goal of Christian Collegiate Education”, “The Project of a Christian University in a Postmodern Culture”, and “Autobiography: The Story of Two Decades of Thinking About Christian Higher Education” he traces this journey. He began with the conception of his mentor, William Harry Jellema, of a Christian humanism concerned with applying Christian thought to the high culture of Western art, literature, and philosophy. As he went on to pursue graduate studies, this shifted to an academic discipline perspective, that immersed itself first of all in doing good work tackling original problems in the discipline and trying to think Christianly about them. Perhaps the watershed moment in Wolterstorff’s life was when he spent time in South Africa, and later among Palestinian Christians and became aware that education that does not eventuate in a concern for justice and human flourish–shalom is the best word to sum this up–is a sterile and barren enterprise.

Wolterstorff does not stop there. He also considers the question of what social practices contribute to the ethical formation of students who act for justice and shalom. He asks what moral dispositions incline students to act on intellectual convictions and how these moral virtues are developed through the educational process, a project James K.A. Smith has picked up in books like Desiring the Kingdom. Wolterstorff’s essay on “Teaching for Justice: On Shaping How Students Are Disposed to Act” is the clearest exposition of his thinking.

The remainder of the essays in one way or another explore how a Christian world and life view inform academic inquiry. He has a couple essays on Christian engagement with psychology, which seem somewhat dated being concerned more with the Freudian, Jungian, and Skinnerian approaches of the 70’s and 80’s than today’s cognitive and neuroscience based approaches. A couple essays explore the distinctive contribution of Abraham Kuyper to faith and learning. “The Point of Connection between Faith and Learning” explores the very different premises of the Christian who believes in regeneration and the materialist who believes only in empiricism. Yet both encounter the world through sensory data, the point of contact. In the other essay (“Abraham Kuyper on Christian Learning”), he contrasts Lockean rationalism, and its evangelical counterpart of evidentialism with Kuyper’s emphasis on the relationship of subject and object in any science–an anticipation of postmodern criticism by one hundred years.

Several other essays are also worth noting. He explores the contentious issue of academic freedom in religiously based institutions of higher education, noting that academic freedom is very different from freedom of speech. He also notes that those at religious institutions are free to advance views that would not be permitted in the secular context and thus that religiously based institutions may religiously qualify academic freedom, and religious faculty may in fact enjoy greater academic freedom in such contexts. In “Should the Work of our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College” he argues that physical work and creation of things should not be considered inferior to ideas. The collection closes with Wolterstorff’s fundamental agreement with Fides et Ratio and a call for Christian boldness in the world of ideas.

While Wolterstorff writes on Christian higher education, these essays are also of great worth for Christians working in higher education in the secular context. They are closely and well-reasoned works that demand careful attention and in return force one to think more deeply about what is meant by terms like “integration” or even “shalom” or “human flourishing”, all of which are bandied about. Equally, Wolterstorff paints an expansive and rich vision of the academic calling at its best.