Really? In 2016?

Death ThreatI wrote a few weeks ago about my colleague Phil, driving home from a day on campus, only to be stopped by police, forced to lie on the ground and be hand-cuffed.

On Monday, two black women with ties to the ministry I work with had profoundly scary experiences. Charlene, our Director of Black Campus Ministry, was taking care of the yard of white friends of hers when a policeman pulled up and without warning pulled a gun on her, suspecting her of breaking and entering. We have a new crime to add to “driving while black” and “walking while black.” Now there is “taking care of your friend’s property while black.”

I was at the same table in leadership meetings less than two weeks ago with Charlene. I find myself shocked and angered that she was within one false move, or even a nervous twitch, of possibly losing her life. I can vouch that this would be the loss of a wonderful life and gifted leader. I find myself wondering if the police would have given a second thought if it was a white woman in the same setting, or even if the police stopped, whether the response would have been as aggressive.

Sure, I know the dangers police face. My city is grieving the loss of an exemplary officer who died in a hail of gunfire last week. The alleged shooter was a middle-aged white man, suspected of arson. Yet I cannot find in this justification for the terror my colleague faced.

The other instance is even more insidious. Christena is an African-American professor at a distinguished seminary. She spoke at a national conference sponsored by our organization in December and is an author of a book on racial reconciliation published by the publishing house that is part of the organization for which I work. On Monday, she received the death threat reproduced in this post. I apologize for the vulgarity but I think these things need to be brought into the light rather than be hidden in the darkness.

This stuff happens in America. It happens to people I care for. I’m not sure I know what else to do at the moment except to use my “privilege” as a white man to name this evil for what it is–the demeaning of persons who exist in the image of God simply because of the color of their skin. I’m angry because these are sisters in the faith who love the same God and follow the same Jesus I do. I cannot remain aloof from what they are experiencing any more than I can say my foot is not a part of my body.

There has been a lot of push back, particularly in conservative white circles around the BlackLivesMatter movement. Truth is, it is messy. The anti-police rhetoric is not helpful, even if it is wrong that my colleague had a gun pulled on her while tending a friend’s lawn. We cannot raise up one group by demonizing another. But the truth is, ever since we brought the first African slave forcibly to this country, we have been saying Black lives don’t matter. When we said Blacks are just three-fifths of a person, we said their lives don’t matter. When we red-lined Blacks into confined areas of our cities, when we lynched them, we said their lives don’t matter.

When we remain aloof or silent when friends and colleagues like Phil, Charlene, Christena and others are demeaned and put in danger, we act as if their lives don’t matter. I cannot do that any longer. The lives of these, my brothers and sisters in the faith matter. And because they represent so many others who face such indignities, even in 2016, I think it is time for whites, believers or not, who believe in the dignity of their lives as “created equal, with certain inalienable rights” to say their lives matter. At least it is time for this old white guy to say “Black Lives Matter.”

Review: The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity

The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity
The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-chan Rah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something wrong with much of American evangelicalism in its current form. Many churches are declining. We have moral scandals. Evangelicalism continues to splinter into weird offshoots like the emergent church and various other post-modern expressions. And many quarters of society hear the term and revile us (I say “us” because theologically this is where I would truly locate myself) because of our over-identification with conservative political stances and indeed for becoming a pawn of conservative interests.

Soong-chan Rah writes that it is not evangelicalism that is on the decline, but rather white evangelicalism that is culturally captive to Western cultural values. Not only is there rapid growth of churches taking place throughout the non-Western world, but because of the immigration of so many of these people groups to the West, they, in many cases, are bringing with them a vibrant evangelical faith, and the churches they are establishing are among the most rapidly growing.

The book consists of three parts. The first describes the captivity of the white church, observing our individualism that makes the gospel and the Bible all about me; our consumerism and materialism that Christianizes affluence; and our continuing racism evident even in Christian publishing circles. On this last, he tells the sad tale of a publisher of Vacation Bible School materials who themed one such set of materials “Rickshaw Rally”, using all sorts of stereotypical and demeaning Asian stereotypes. When criticized, the publishers responded that the Asians shouldn’t take themselves so seriously. In particular, there is the presumption in all this of white privilege–the propensity of whites in organizations and churches to simply consult other whites and do things without consideration or consultation with other cultural groups.

In the second part of this book, Soong-chan Rah explores how pervasive this captivity is as manifest in our church growth and megachurch strategies, the Emergent church, and in our cultural imperialism, our unthinking export of Western ways of doing things around the world. He praises Bill Hybels for his recognition that the Willow Creek model had failed to produce fully-orbed Christian disciples of Christ. And he scathingly criticizes the Emergent church movement as young whites dissatisfied with boomer evangelicalism who are simply creating young white churches reacting against the worst of the previous generation without engaging a broader cultural mix.

He goes on in the third part of the book to prescribe an alternative, which is that the white, culturally captive church needs to learn from and humble itself before the cultures from the Majority world and learn from them. He proposes that we learn a theology of suffering from the African- and Native American churches. He believes the immigrant church can teach us approaches to holistic evangelism from their experience of addressing comprehensively the needs of their own immigrants coming to the west. And he believes second generation people can serve as “bridge” persons between the West and the rest as those who in some ways are in both, and neither, of these cultures–the culture of their parents, and Western culture.

This is a challenging and blunt book which it needs to be. When, in one of his examples, a dying congregation accepts a bid by a white congregation for half the price being offered by a Korean congregation, one recognizes that niceness just won’t cut through the fog and the chains of the captivity he is describing. I believe Rah is spot on in his diagnosis of white evangelicalism and the way forward.

My only question as I read this book is whether the author and those leading the vanguard of this “next evangelicalism” are aware of the dangers of new forms of cultural captivity and privilege to which they could fall prey? Perhaps this is implicit in the incisive critique of these realities in white evangelicalism, but it was not stated. The truth is, these are human conditions present in every culture, not simply white conditions. Culture shapes every form of Christianity, either ordinately or inordinately. Ordinately, this is a thing of beauty as the mosaic of Christians from around the world come together to create a beautiful, God-composed work of art. Similarly, positions of power and influence may be used to effect great good and great service, yet also may be warped to new forms of privilege.

My own hope is to see the dawning of a multicultural evangelicalism where we learn from and humbly submit to each other (beginning with the submission of white churches), and guard each other from hubris and the pitfalls of cultural captivities of every sort and the temptation to privilege in all its forms. May we not simply exchange captivities but move to a greater freedom for all the children of God!

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Privileged, Persecuted, or Participating?

As I wrote in yesterday’s blog, I was part of an online symposium on the theme of “The ‘End’ of the University”. Each of the groups (representing faculty and others meeting on eight different campuses across the Midwest) were encouraged to write responses. This is not one of those but a personal reflection on one aspect of Dr. Santa Ono’s presentation. One of the aspects of the changing university landscape he addressed was the increasing diversity represented in the student enrollment as well as faculty and staff of any public university in this country. By 2040 or sooner, Caucasians will be in the minority, and already are in some parts of the country. Universities are incredibly diverse places ethnically, in terms of social class, in terms of gender and sexual orientation, in terms of political persuasions, in terms of countries of origin–and in terms of religious and worldview beliefs. As part of a group of Christians considering our response to these changes, it seems to me that we could (and do) make one of three responses.

end-ono1

The first is to try to hold onto being the privileged majority. Indeed, as I’ve been involved in multi-faith discussions on the campus where I work, I’ve found that others still regard Christians, and particularly Caucasian Christians in those terms. At one time this was most definitely so, particularly before the Civil War, and even in many respects up until the upheavals on campuses in the mid-1960s. Much of the perception of this ‘privilege’ I think comes out of our political scene up through the Bush II years and the close alliance between some segments of the Christian community and the party in power. Vestiges of this sense of privilege may be reflected in our expectation that Christian holidays be recognized on public calendars, that prayers be a part of public events and in the “Christian nation” rhetoric we use. What is most troubling to me is that privilege seems to be utterly antithetical to those who follow the Jesus “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant….and became obedient unto death.”

The second is to take the stance of the persecuted minority. This is not to say that persecution is not a real option for Christians. In many parts of the world today Christians are in prison, tortured and killed for their faith. They deserve our prayers and our advocacy. But we should not confuse our present situation in the US with theirs because in so doing we demean their suffering and faithfulness. Certainly, people speak pejoratively of Christian belief and particular groups of Christians. But I’m not certain that this is any worse than some of the speech I hear inside the Christian community about others. In some cases groups have been denied access on campus because of their faith stance. Faced with this, I’ve advocated against such decisions as inimical to the freedoms of all students, not just Christians. But again, I think it is demeaning to call this persecution. Many Christian student movements around the world don’t have “access” and yet have great impact. Furthermore, I think this stance leads us to an attack/defense mentality that turns others into adversaries to be defeated rather than those who differ with us to be engaged who even have the possibility of changing their beliefs.

I would advocate for a third stance, that of participating members in the university community, who seek its welfare and consider themselves co-participants in the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty, ideals to which every university aspires. One of the things that this means is that I treat others who are in this same community by virtue of their student, faculty or staff status as equal co-participants in that endeavor. I think this means that we co-labor to make the university good and safe places for everyone present, not just for us. As Christians, we should care deeply that internationals on our campuses are not exploited, that adjuncts receive a just wage for their training and contribution to student learning, that no one should be bullied because of their orientation. We should be among those advocating that the children of all our citizens be represented proportionately in our student bodies, not just the children who enjoyed the advantages of the best schools, and college prep tutoring.

Many of our student and faculty groups actually receive substantial benefit from the university community and we should consider how we are “paying it forward” (in good Woody Hayes terms!). I would hope that we are known among administrators as people who make the university a better place, not as headaches or as isolated groups meeting off in a corner of campus. I would also advocate that we be people who not only forthrightly speak of our own faith and desire that others embrace it but eagerly listen to the dissenting views of others and engage in respectful conversation that promotes understanding and enriches everyone in the dialogue.

Above all, I think this means loving the places where we work. I am neither a graduate of nor an employee of The Ohio State University but people who know me swear I bleed scarlet and grey. It’s not just about sports! I believe when God calls us to a place, he calls us to love the place and its people as mattering deeply to Him. I don’t know how we can possibly give ourselves to the pursuit of goodness, truth and beauty without that love.

[As with all my posts, the views expressed here are my own and reflect neither those expressed in the Symposium nor held by the sponsoring organization or any other entities.]