Review: The Heritage

the heritage

The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of PatriotismHoward Bryant. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Summary: An account of black athletes in professional sports, from the path-breakers whose very presence was political, to the athletes of the ’70’s onward whose success tempted them to just play the game, to the recent clash of patriotism and protest that has led to a new generation of athlete-activists.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest of the numbers of blacks dying in police-involved shooting, his act was the latest of a long line of black athletes whose presence, and whose advocacy asserted that they were far more than mere bodies, employed for the pleasure of largely white audiences and the profit of white team owners. When Kaepernick could not get another position when his contract expired, he joined “the Heritage”–a long line of black athlete activists who could not settle for simply “playing the game” in the face of the injustices faced by his people, and often suffered the consequences from acting as people with voices and minds, and not merely bodies to be employed for sport.

Howard Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN, chronicles this history in The Heritage. He traces the beginnings of the Heritage in the lives of Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens (who went from US Olympic glory in Hitler’s Germany to poverty and bankruptcy), Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in baseball, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali who lost three years in the ring for his refusal to be drafted on religious principle, the 1968 raised fist protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Curt Flood, whose refusal to accept a trade led to free agency, but also resulted in his being blackballed from baseball.

Things changed in the 1970’s in what Bryant calls the “greenwashing” of professional athletes. Beginning with stars like O.J. Simpson, who received huge contracts and endorsement deals, a new generation of black athlete came on the scene who “just played the game” and took the money. Perhaps they invested it quietly in causes that uplifted the communities in which they played, or grew up. Bryant focuses on three as representative of this period: Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, who in an interview described himself as “Cablinasian.”

In sports as so much of American life, everything changed on 9/11. The citizenship rite of the national anthem was replaced by elaborate patriotic displays: singing police officers, fly-overs and veterans salutes, huge flags on the fifty yard lines. First responders and those in the armed services became heroes who were recognized in some form at every game. A kind of undifferentiated hero worship failed to grapple with a more nuanced reality of some real heroes, many decent, hard-working people, and some bad apples–just like in most of society. Bryant also cites evidence that this was staged by the military, rather than being simply an honest, spontaneous gesture of sports team. Teams profited by tax money spent for these displays, which were seen as good recruiting tools. An American public indulged these displays, perhaps guilty over treatment of returning Vietnam vets and the fact that most of us were at the mall while a small percent were fighting our wars in far off places.

Bryant argues that this set up the clash between black athletes protesting injustices in policing, and a wider American public. What began as an effort to call attention to ways a country wasn’t living up to the values represented by the flag clashed with the patriotism displays that had become commonplace in the nearly twenty years since 9/11. Some efforts were effectual. When players at the University of Missouri threatened to refuse to play because of issues of systemic racism, a university president was ousted. LeBron James could wear “I can’t breathe” jerseys with impunity, being at the top of his game and flush with endorsement deals. But a quarterback at the end of his contract was blackballed because he took a knee, a respectful symbol of praying usually reserved for locker rooms or end zones and his action was characterized as unpatriotic and an insult to soldiers. People who wanted Kaepernick to just play the game failed to observe that the game itself had been co-opted for political purposes in an unqualified endorsement of both police and military (and unspoken in all this were the ongoing wars in which the military was engaged).

This is an uncomfortable book perhaps most of all because it raises the issue that black athletes’ value continues to be their bodies, and that while they may be rewarded well when they excel in physical feats, the powers that be will continue the attempt to silence them when they use their voices and minds to speak for those who do not share their fame and expose the ways as a nation we fail to live up to our principles.

It also raises the issue of the ways we’ve changed as a country since 9/11. A simple citizenship rite at the beginning of a game has become wrapped in a celebration of both safety and military forces, and the use of their power to keep a fearful nation safe. Instead of celebrating the shared liberties of an empowered people, we’ve come to celebrate the power of the state. We’ve traded “peanuts and cracker jacks” for “shock and awe.”

I suspect I’ve probably made some people mad simply because I reviewed this book and haven’t done the white thing of pushing back with all that is wrong with it. I guess I’ve come to a place where I want to understand why a talented quarterback chooses to throw it all away by a simple gesture (actually unnoticed for several games) that for the life of me looks like prayer. I find myself wondering why such a humble gesture is so threatening that despite the fact that no law was broken, a combination of media, public opinion and even presidential power was brought to bear to suppress it. I find myself wondering what this gesture threatens. I wonder…


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

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: A fictional narrative of a Georgia slave, Cora, who with another slave escapes the plantation, and through a series of harrowing experiences, and the existence of an actual underground railroad with trains and engineers, escapes to the North.

The Underground Railroad has received critical acclaim, winning a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. This is a very good book, portraying the brutal realities of Antebellum slavery on cotton plantations, the brutalities of slave owners, overseers, patrollers and night riders, and slave hunters. The character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter, is among the great evil characters of fiction. The protagonist, Cora, is a resilient, even fiercely determined character who will murder more than on of her potential captors, even while both angered and motivated by her mother Mabel, who escaped while she was a little girl and never was caught.

Cora agrees to escape the Randall Plantation with Caesar when Terrence Randall, a tyrant, takes over for his deceased brother.  Caesar has learned from a sympathetic merchant of an underground railroad that will take slaves to freedom. At the last minute, another slave, Lovey, joins in, but is soon captured while Caesar and Cora, who fatally bludgeons a young man attempts to hold her, escape and contact the station master. What they find is an underground railroad that is no metaphor but a vast subterranean rail network with rails, trains, and engineers, built by those engaged in the fight against slavery.

Their flight takes them to South Carolina, where they hide under assumed names in an “enlightened” town educating them for citizen, but with underlying sinister motives. Ridgeway shows up and Cora escapes, but Caesar is taken. Cora arrives unexpected at a closed down station in a North Carolina town on a freedom crusade of lynchings and house searches. Reluctantly, Martin and Ethel Wells shelter her, running a terrible risk. In the end Ridgeway finds her and takes her into Tennessee, where she is rescued by Royal, a militant version of Harriet Tubman. One of Ridgeway’s men is killed, Ridgeway bound and left to die, and they escape to a utopian Freedom Farm in Indiana. But will they be safe even here?

The plot is interrupted by “flashbacks” that fill in content, but felt like an interruption. But the feature that worked the least for me was the railroad. This aspect of the book had a magical realism feel, and just didn’t work for me, but then I’ve never been a fan of this technique/genre. It seems that the main function of the railroad was to get Cora to the next scene of action, where the real interest and the strength of this narrative lay. We see the courage of station masters, to be sure, but the actual journey, the risks run by slaves, and in many cases, rescuers like Tubman seemed to be minimized, even though the title suggests a focus on the railroad. I also found the decisions to stay in South Carolina, and later Indiana, somewhat implausible when all slaves knew their only chance of safety, especially from figures like Ridgeway, was Canada. I might have liked some documentation of sources for the portrayals slave conditions and race hatred, and some comment on what was based on fact, along the lines of what Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

All in all, the  plotline, strong characters, and portrayal of slavery and race hatred make this a good and important work. I think it could be more powerful if it portrayed the efforts of the historical underground railroad. But the portrayal of slavery and racism in this book is important to our nation conversation. To meaningfully, say “never again” we must understand to what we are saying “never again.”


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: Race and Place


Race and Place

Race and PlaceDavid P. Leong (foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Looks at how geography and place serve to perpetuate racial divisions and injustice and how the church may begin to address itself to these geographic forces and structures.

In many discussions about the continuing legacy of racial divisions and injustices in our country we focus on structural problems in our justice system, our political life, and in our economic life that perpetuate divisions. What is often less obvious is that place and geography places an important role in these structural divisions and in the perpetuation of racial discord in our society.

David P. Leong writes this book to open our eyes to the ways that our geography, particularly our urban geography helps perpetuate structures of racial division. The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Leong lays out terms, including a discussion of place and colorblindness. What I find him arguing here as much as anything is that we are “place blind” and we do not see how place and race interact. He traces this in part to a docetic theology that spiritualizes life and doesn’t recognize physical places as an essential aspect of life–that our embodied existence is lived in a place.

Part two looks at how patterns of exclusion work in our geography and how this plays out in education, housing, and our transportation patterns. He talks about our freeway systems as facilitating a suburban exodus. I was surprised that he did not talk about how freeways changed our urban landscapes, isolated neighborhoods and reinforced racial separation in many cities. This was surprising to me because he writes about Detroit, including the wall at Eight Mile Road, yet does not talk about how freeways also changed the urban geography of the city. He also addresses what he calls “return flight” and the resulting phenomenon of gentrification which perpetuates geographic isolation as poorer (and often racially distinct) populations are often displaced when an urban area gentrifies.

Part three addresses the phenomenon of relocation often advocated by the Christian Community Development Association. The author is part of one such community in the Rainier Valley area of Seattle. He explores the postures and practices involved in avoiding a kind of imperialism by sinking roots into a community, by practicing radical hospitality, and engaging in neighborhood renewal through a ministry of presence.

I think the strengths of this book are its analysis of the ways place and geography perpetuate racial divisions and inequities, and in the author’s story of the hard work of nurturing a racially diverse church community in urban Seattle. At the same time it seems that its primary solution to these problems of place is relocation and incarnational ministry. Perhaps in the very long term such communities can transform an urban environment. Yet I wonder if this is only a very small part of addressing the structural problems that sustain racism, even in terms of urban geography. It seems that there are issues related to law enforcement and the justice system, banking and financial services, business and commerce, the location of employment opportunities, fostering quality educational opportunities and more that this book leaves unaddressed, apart from acknowledging them.

Perhaps this calls for a much longer book, but even more an aware presence in these communities. It seems that this is what the author wants as he writes:

“As you witness these oppressive systems at work in your own neighborhood and reflect on these personal tendencies in your own life, I hope you’ll never look at another freeway, public school, or suburban home the same way again. Beyond those new ways of seeing, I also pray that you’ll be disturbed with our complicity in these problematic walls of hostility, to the point of further study, research, and lament.”

Leong’s book does this and something more. It shares the story of a community that has started looking at these things, not clinically from the outside, but as a hospitable and learning community from the inside. Over time, that may be far more significant than one more grandiose solution imposed from the outside.


Review: The Post-Racial Church

The Post Racial Church

The Post-Racial Church, Kenneth A. Mathews & M. Sydney Park. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011.

Summary: A survey of the teaching of the Bible that concludes that racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic Christian communities are integral to the message of the gospel.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States marked both how far the nation had come and the work yet to be done to come to terms with the issues of race in our society. The election just past underscored that there is a significant journey yet to occur in the life of an evangelical church that split radically along racial lines in its choice of candidates.

Might it be that the church is listening more to political discourse than to the teaching of its scriptures which serve as its rule of faith and practice (at least in theory). For those who wish to redress that balance, this is a good introductory survey written by a multi-ethnic pair of authors, a Caucasian male (Mathews) and a Korean-American female (Park). What these authors do is survey the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation showing successively that God is the creator of diverse peoples (Babel was God’s way of saving diverse nations from themselves by dispersing them), that God chose a particular people to bless all peoples, that even then, inter-marriage did occur (just look at the lineage on the human side of Jesus), that Jesus’ ministry was one that cared for the prodigal, that held up the Samaritan and that anticipated the gospel to the nations. From there the authors show how the gospel preached was one of reconciliation not only to God but between Jew and Gentile. The confrontation between Paul and Peter confirms that the ideal was table fellowship, not just some “spiritual” reconciliation but real hospitality. All this anticipates the worship of the Lamb by every tribe, race, people, and tongue.

Along the way the authors dispel the flawed treatments of scripture used to justify racial separation such as the “mark of Cain” and the “curse of Ham.” They deal with the question of intermarriage, and the flawed construct–even from a biblical point of view–of race. They uphold the ideal of multi-ethnic worship in multi-ethnic churches while not insisting every church must be this way. They talk of Christ’s self-sacrificing work, and how this calls for similar servanthood in entering into the hard work of reconciliation.Toward the end of the book, M. Sydney Park shares her own narrative, which reflects a conversion not only to Christ, but from her own racism that was a product of the racism she experienced as a Korean-American.

The book includes “Thought Provokers” at the end of each chapter that encourage readers and groups to apply the chapter content to their lives and congregations. This makes the book a good resource for ministry teams, leadership teams or others within a church who are asking how their church might reflect the multi-ethnic people of God which the gospel both heralds and creates. The combination of biblical content, challenge, and space to consider makes this an ideal resource for those taking the first, perhaps uncertain, steps toward trying to think and act biblically around questions of race and ethnicity.

Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (with an introduction by James M. McPherson). New York: Vintage Books/Library of America: 1991 (originally published 1852).

Summary: Stowe’s classic novel depicting the evils of slavery, the complicity of North and South, and the aspirations and faith of slaves themselves.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and it’s author the one who Abraham Lincoln reputedly greeted as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” While much has been written of and imputed to this book, one thing that I think Stowe herself would denounce is the idea that she wrote this book to embroil the nation in war.

What then did she do? First of all, she wrote a novel with memorable characters, evocative scenes and a plot line with the right mix of pathos and triumph. Of course there is the title character. More recently, “Uncle Tom” has become an epithet for blacks who sell out to the white system, but this seems an unjust reading of Tom whose faith leads him to serve, to evangelize, and when ultimately necessary, resist his white overlords. There is Eliza, whose memorable flight to freedom across the ice flows of the Ohio River keep the reader’s rapt attention. We have the evil Legree, who epitomizes the worst of slaveholding, as well as the consequences of a heart hardened and given over to evil. The death of Eva pulls at the heartstrings, drawn out over a couple chapters. The plot line of Tom’s sale for the debts of the Selby’s, his descent to New Orleans and the temporary rest of St. Clare’s liberal household, the nadir of conditions under Legree, followed by redemption and the closing of several circles leads the reader through an expose of the different dimensions of slavery while drawing to a climax and satisfactory conclusion.

She writes artfully, if not with subtlety. She interposes humorous chapters with grievous ones, and moments of rest, such as the reunification of George and Eliza among the Quakers with stories of mothers and children being parted by slave traders. She challenges Northern sensibilities as well as southern ones. St. Clare’s dialogues with prim and abolitionist-proper Ophelia reveal the hypocrisies of northerners who would end slavery but want little to do with Blacks as co-equals. Her struggles with Topsy expose to her her lovelessness. On a structural level we see the complicity of Northern politicians in passing fugitive slave laws and bankers whose practices of lending helped perpetuate the economics of slavery.

This is what makes the simplistic comment that this book made, or helped make the Civil War, while probably meant as a jest, an unfair charge. Yes, Southerners vigorously defended themselves against the claims of the book, claims which Stowe subsequently documented, demonstrating that, if anything, her portrayal was restrained. I think Stowe’s aim was not to condemn, except for those like Legree, but to encourage slaveholders who had their own doubts of the justice of slavery. Her portrayals of both the Selbys and St. Claire reflect the ambivalence of slaveholders who saw the evil of the system of which they were a part. What is more striking to me, perhaps because I live in the North, is that Northerners ignored her critique of their own hypocrisies and complicity in regard to slavery, and gave heed to the voices that inflated their sense of self-righteousness.

The book is not without its problems. It indulges in racial stereotypes that are offensive to the modern reader. And it seems to participate in the hypocrisy of celebrating the spirituality and humanity of blacks and yet suggests that perhaps it indeed is best to free them, educate them, and send them back to Africa, when in fact blacks were here before the Mayflower and had as much a claim to this country as do whites.

At the same time, Stowe does a radical thing in this book. She portrays Tom as a black “Christ figure” to a racist nation. She does something similar to what Jesus himself does with Jewish religious leaders in using a despised Samaritan as the model of a good neighbor. She exposes her readers to the reality not only of the humanness of blacks but of their spiritual brotherhood with others who would identify as “Christian,” which would have been much of America, North and South. We are forced to deeply identify with the offense of treating as a piece of property to be disposed of as one would wish, one who we would call “brother.”

This is a book that, with all its flaws, is part of the cultural history of a nation, and, I think, should be on the reading list of every literate American. It continues to raise questions for us of how we will act when what is legal may not be just. It helps us understand the power of systems of injustice, and yet the personal choices both those with power and those without may make to resist injustice. It is a book to make us search our own souls.

Review: America’s Original Sin


America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores our nation’s deeply ingrained history of racism and particularly the challenges facing white Christians in bridging these racial divides.

“The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”

The author of this book contends that this sentence, in a 1987 issue of Sojourners, was the most controversial sentence he ever wrote. The controversy behind that statement supports the thesis of this book, that racism is America’s “original sin,” a part of our beginnings as a nation that we have wrestled with throughout our national existence, but never truly repented of.

Wallis begins with his own story of growing up in Detroit and working with Butch, a black man who opened his eyes to two very different Detroits and two different realities–for example “the talk” that all black parents have with their children when they learn to drive that white parents do not have with theirs. This concerns how to act if stopped by the police, where to put one’s hands and so forth. He considers Ferguson, and Baltimore, two cities riven with turmoil after police-involved shootings of black men as parables revealing the racial fault lines in the American story. He then reviews our past history and current demographics and events to show that our attitudes around race are indeed our national “original sin” that only profound repentance can heal.

The next chapters explore the nature of true, rather than superficial, repentance, and that this means for the white community to which he writes a “dying” to our whiteness as we recognize the “white privilege” we have enjoyed. I suspect that for many this may be some of the most controversial material. I find this language uncomfortable. I grew up in a working class neighborhood and didn’t feel terribly “privileged” compared to more affluent people in the suburbs ringing my city. It was not until later years that I understood blacks had been red-lined out of our area of the city and I had the benefit of attending one of the best city schools with over 95 percent of the students being white. I began to realize the privilege that I had enjoyed in a racialized society. It also separated me from blacks in my city, made them an “other” who were treated differently in retail establishments, by the police and more. Real repentance means, even though I didn’t choose this “privilege,” to acknowledge that I have benefited from a sinful division of people, to not hold onto or idolize “whiteness” and to begin to intentionally seek a very different future.

The place, Wallis contends, where we begin, is the church, still a highly segregated entity. It means listening to different ethnic voices, and submitting to leadership from ethnicity other than one’s own. Another important place to begin is in the policing of our communities, where police move from being warriors to guardians and where police become integral part of the communities they protect and serve so that both they and their communities affirm both that black lives matter and that blue lives matter. It begins with advocating for restorative justice rather than a new form of Jim Crow justice with differential incarceration rates for the same crimes depending on one’s race.

Dealing with the sin of race extends to our immigration policies. Until our recent election cycle, there was a growing conversation in the evangelical community supporting immigration reform. Reading this post-election seemed like reading from a different world. Even the chapter title, “Welcoming the Stranger” seems foreign. Wallis then concludes the book talking about “crossing the bridge to a new America.” One of the most compelling passages for me was the interaction Wallis had with a group of fifth graders in a Washington, DC public school, who asked Wallis why Congress seemed afraid to change the immigration system. He writes:

     “I paused to consider their honest question and looked around the room–the classroom of a public school fifth-grade class in Washington DC. I looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children. Then it hit me.

     ‘They are afraid of you,’ I replied

     ‘Why would they be afraid of us?’ the shocked students asked, totally perplexed. I had to tell them.

     ‘They are afraid you are the future of America. They’re afraid their country will someday look like this class–that you represent what our nation is becoming.'”

Re-reading this passage, I think of a Sunday School song I grew up with, admittedly one that indulged in some stereotypes about skin color for which I apologize, and yet that represented the underlying gospel values of my white evangelical congregation:

“Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.  

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Wallis’s quote challenged me with the reality of whether we will love all the children of the world that God is gathering in our country, or fear them. Will we see that fifth-grade classroom as the realization of our deep gospel values, and strive for churches that reflect this in our love and our life. Or will we remain racially separate, hiding behind walls of fear, saying that it is OK for Jesus to love these children as long as they are somewhere else in the world.

Wallis contends we stand at the approach to a bridge between the racist America of the past and a different America that values “all the children of the world” in our midst. His book is an invitation for white evangelical America to walk the way of repentance and cross that bridge rather than walk away from it. I’m reminded that God does not forbear forever. If we miss this chance, dare we presume there will be another?






I had the opportunity to attend two Martin Luther King Day celebrations because the choir I sing with performed at both of them. There were many speakers, including community and state leaders, other singers, youth speakers, quotes from Dr. King and more. I was reminded both how far we’ve come on the road of racial reconciliation, and how far we still have to go. But there was one word that stood out in my mind.


I was watching an interpretive dance group and one of the songs talked about “shackles” (I believe the song was “Shackles (Praise You)” by Mary Mary. Certainly the image of shackles is a powerful one in the African-American experience, particularly harking back to the fetters or bindings that were used to restrain slaves at various points, as well as work gangs of prisoners. To talk about being freed from shackles is a powerful image of the hopes and aspirations of blacks–to be able to move about and live and work freely.

It occurs to me that there are two kinds of shackles. One kind are those imposed upon us by another, often unjustly. It may be the shackles of a trafficked person or slave. It may be economic shackles of limited opportunities. It may be the shackles of prejudice and limiting stereotypes. It may be an abusive and manipulative relationship.

There are also the shackles we knowingly or unknowingly place on ourselves. It may be the shackles that come from bad decisions. It may be shackles that come from an addiction that started out as curiosity until it overpowered our judgment. There are the shackles of our compulsions, our needs for control.

I wonder if often we are restrained (a form of shackles?) from efforts to remove the shackles of injustice because at least some of those who would be released also have shackles of the second kind.

I see some problems with this:

  • Shackles are shackles. Whatever the source, they restrain and restrict the full expression of a human’s dignity.
  • No matter the source, shackles are difficult, if not impossible to loose without help. We usually can’t break the hold of a shackle by ourselves.
  • When someone is in shackles, invisible fetters extend to those around them. The prejudiced person is not free to encounter the real person against whom they are prejudiced. The family of the addicted live lives indelibly marked by the shackles of the addicted one.
  • Even privilege is a form of shackle that binds me to a life that misses the gifts of those on the margins.

One speaker spoke of how far we’d come in electing a black President. Yet the years since that election have been fraught with new expressions of racial hatreds and tensions. The shackles of our problems with race as a nation are powerful and not easily broken. Do we need, as a nation to cry out for help from one greater than our nation, greater than the sum of us? I’m reminded of the declaration of Jesus when he began his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19a, NRSV)

Might it be that an important part of Martin Luther King Day is to remind us to cry out for release of the things that shackle our lives, whether imposed by others or by ourselves? Might that not lead us to a greater urgency, and a greater mercy with the things that shackle others. If we know in ourselves the despair of shackles, the longing for freedom, and the joy of liberation, should we not then do all we can to bring “release to the captives”? And wouldn’t that be, at least in part, a realization of Dr. King’s dream:

“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.”


The Month in Reviews — December 2014

One last look back to 2014! I finished and reviewed a number of books in December, heavy on the religious side because the books tended to be shorter than the third volume of Teddy Roosevelt’s biography or the Jeff Shaara account of the fall of Vicksburg which took longer to read. This month’s books included both a theology of racial conflict and reconciliation from an Asian American perspective and a novel set in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. I reviewed a new book on the life of C.S. Lewis looking at it from the light of life crises Christians might face. In the thought-provoking category was a new apologetic approach by Universe Next Door author James Sire, and Ken Bailey’s take on the nativity story in the form of a play. Maybe one of my “last reads” from 2014 will make your “to be read” pile in 2015. So here’s the list with links to my reviews:

1. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, by Scott Bader-Saye. This is a thoughtful book on the ways fear can hinder us, how various entities exploit our fear, and how we might live with courage and faith in a fear-filled culture.

Culture of FearCrisis of a ChristianChain of ThunderEastern Orthodox2. C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, by Gregory S. Cootsona. This book takes the unusual approach of considering what we might learn from the life of Lewis as we confront life crises related to coming to faith, confronting challenges to faith, and facing the ultimate crises of suffering and death.

3. A Chain of Thunder, by Jeff Shaara. The fall of Vicksburg is the subject of this historical fiction account of this turning point of the Civil War. Shaara helps us understand what seige warfare was like for both armies and for the civilians of Vicksburg.

4. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, by Andrew Louth. This book gives us an outline of Eastern Orthodox theology as it shapes the practice of Eastern Orthodox worship and life.

5. The Cross of Christ, by John R. W. Stott. John Stott considered this his most significant work and it is indeed a model of rich theological reflection that explores the nature and significance of Christ’s atoning work.

Open HeartsGospel MarketplaceCross of Christ

6. The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas, by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak. The authors explore the relevance of Paul’s Mars Hill message in Athens to communicating the Christian message with faithfulness and relevance in our own day.

7. Open Hearts in Bethlehem, by Kenneth E. Bailey. This play will revise your ideas of what happened in Bethlehem and our “no room in the inn” narrative.

8. The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul, by Therese de Lisieux. The “story” here is one of Therese’s intense love for Christ from childhood to pleading with bishop and pope to enter the cloister to her death at 24.

Saint ThereseApologetics beyond SeeingColonel Roosevelt9. Apologetics Beyond Reason, by James W. Sire. This book maps a different apologetic approach from most rational apologetics, arguing for “signals of transcendence” throughout creation and in literature that point us to God, if we will see this.

10. Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. The third and final installment of Morris’s biography covering the last decade of Roosevelt’s life, how difficult it was for him not to be president, and his harrowing journey down the River of Doubt.

11. Freshwater Road, by Denise Nicholas. Set in small town Mississippi in Freedom Summer, this novel narrates the journey of a young black woman from Detroit and the choices she must make to face both her own family story and the vicious, entrenched racism of the South in the 1960s as she runs a Freedom School and seeks to prepare local residents to register to vote.

Peace CatalystsRacial ConflictFreshwater Road

12. Racial Conflict and Healing: An Asian-American Theological Perspective, by Andrew Sung Park. The author explores the reality of painful experiences of racism using the Korean concept of han and develops a theology of seeing rooted in the Korean concepts of hahn, jung, and mut that envisions a new reconciled community.

13. Peace Catalysts, by Rick Love. The author, who leads an organization committed to “just peacemaking” between Muslims and Christians maps the biblical principles and practices that an individual, organization or community can take to pursue peace.

The Christmas holidays afforded some extra time to curl up with a good book, a warm drink, and some good music. I hope you have opportunities like that in the winter months ahead. If you read one of these let me know what you think. And if you find something else good, I’d love to hear about it!

Review: Freshwater Road

Freshwater Road
Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is the Freedom Summer of 1964. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner have gone missing. Celeste Tyree, a black student at Michigan who grew up in Detroit has gone to be a voting rights volunteer in Mississippi at the urgings of her white boyfriend, J.D.

The novel takes us inside the realities of Sixties racism in Mississippi. The town to which Celeste is assigned has had a lynching within the last five years. While training in Jackson, she is harassed while distributing leaflets and arrested for littering. En route to Pineyville, where she will work, her male driver, Matt, is stopped, searched and beaten by the Highway Patrol while she cringes in fear inside the car. Early on, the home she is staying in on Freshwater Road is fired into in the beginning of the night. She is clearly not welcome.

This is also a kind of Freedom Summer for Celeste. She left for Mississippi without telling her father, Shuck, except by letter which arrived after she left. In the course of the summer she confronts the complicated relationship between her mother and father and has to decide how she will cope with a revealing letter from her mother Wilamena.

Equally, she faces the choice between fear and leading a civil rights effort among the residents of Pineyville, working with the courageous children who attended Freedom Schools and the adults who attempted to register to vote. The tension of the novel increases as events move toward the group of six’s attempt to register to vote.

The book chronicles a journey into adulthood that not only faces the reality of racial prejudice but also the flawed human nature within her own community. Confronting domestic violence and marital infidelity and the limits of what people sometimes are able to do about these things faces her with choices about how she will deal with her own complicated family life.

This novel worked at several levels for me. It opened my eyes further to the vitriolic racism that is a recent memory for many blacks, and still a present reality. It also gave an account of flawed and courageous people facing hard realities. While there are themes of sexuality and violence, these are handled with restraint. Indeed, the narrative “voice” of this novel had a quietness and steadiness that allowed the unfolding tensions of the novel to create their own drama. I understand this is the author’s first novel. All that I read here suggests an author of great promise.

View all my reviews