Archive for June, 2015

David Loved Jonathon

// June 25th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

This past Sunday was rough.  I am pleased to see so much happening in the wake of the events in Charleston.  Seeing Confederate flags removed in Alabama and initiatives to do the same throughout the South is encouraging.  However, there is so much more to do than change the racist décor.  While we endeavor to keep the quest for racial justice in our hearts and minds, it is also important to celebrate a milestone for justice in another community.  Sometime before our Sunday service, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision affirming same-sex marriage as the law of the land.  This is good news.

Unfortunately, just as with our continual struggle to live into racial equality, there will still be work to do even if the ruling goes our way.  Many states, including Texas, have already said they will resist.  I can’t see anyone seceding over it, but they’re not going to go into this new day willingly.  We won’t truly have equality until hearts and minds are changed.  That is church work.  Sadly, the Church has been mired in a single question, a question promoted by those who would oppose same-sex marriage in any case: What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

I’m not sure that’s the best question, but it so happens that the lectionary god, which I suppose is just God, has given us the story of David grieving the death of Jonathon, in which he says that he loved Jonathon more than a woman.  This passage is often lifted up as evidence of a homosexual coupling in the Bible, providing a biblical warrant for same-sex relationships.  I admit, I think it’s a reasonable case and I don’t think it’s the only one.  However, as with all things Bible, it is much more complicated than that.

Please join us at Church in the Cliff, 11am Sunday, as we talk about those complications and how those complications render the question moot.  More importantly, let’s (hopefully) celebrate a great stride toward justice.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

A Response to Charleston (preached Sunday, June 21, 2015)

// June 22nd, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I’ve been trying to figure out why the events in Charleston this week have affected me as they have.  Yes, it’s a tragedy.  Nine good people are gone from this world.  But let’s face it: this happens every day.  Every day, our news cycle is filled with death.  I become immune to it just like everyone else.  There might be a moment of outrage, a shake of the head, maybe a tsk tsk at whoever is to blame.  But we get over it.  We move on.  Lest we become mired in cynicism and hopelessness, we distract ourselves with cat videos or cooking shows or the new Cajun-Vietnamese restaurant that we just can’t wait to try.  These strategies work.  They make us feel better, but they never dispel the hopelessness.  They just set it off to the side.

This is white privilege.  We can set things off to the side.  We can choose to be outraged for a moment and then not be.  Our lives are not on the line.  We can set an entire people off to the side, a whole community, which is exactly what we do.

The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863.  It effectively ended slavery in the United States.  And yet, slavery continued in the state of Texas until June 19, 1865, which is now celebrated all over the United States as Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, the day that slavery really ended.  There is some contention over why it took two-and-a-half years for the Proclamation to have its effect.  Some say the messenger was killed on his way by horseback to Texas.  It was a dangerous time.  Some say that white slave owners simply didn’t tell their enslaved captives the news, which is probably true.  Why would they?  Some say that Northern generals held back the news so that Texas could provide a couple of more cotton harvests with free labor.  All or none of these may be true; the Internet is not entirely trustworthy.  But one thing we know: 250,000 black people enslaved by white people had to wait for two-and-a-half years to be free.  Whatever the reason, the end result is the same: white people prospered while black people suffered.

Black life in America is a life of waiting.  Two-and-a-half years to be free – that on top of centuries of kidnapping and murder, being bought and sold like a mule.  I listen to songs from the civil rights movement and I cannot believe how current they are.  “We Shall Not Be Moved.”  “We Shall Overcome.”  “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.  Hold on.” These songs should be relics of a fight well fought and ultimately won, but we can dust them off at any time without fear of anachronism.  Langston Hughes called it “a dream deferred.”  Reverend King said, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”: “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”  Perhaps more hauntingly, he described “forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’”

We have raised the defense of King’s nobodiness to a pernicious art form.  Watch the news cycle any time racial justice is at stake.  Whenever a white person has appeared to act wrongly to a black person, check your social media.  Never read the comments, but sometimes read the comments.  We should know who is out there and how ideas become pervasive in our culture.  The Internet allows us to share information at such a rapid rate.  Coupled with the 24-hour news cycle to which a terrifying number of people are constantly glued, ideas move from suggestion to fact, from “could be” to “definitely” in the blink of an eye.  An idea is floated by bobbleheads then repeated until it becomes truth.

It’s called “shaping the narrative.”  We withhold judgment until the facts are in.  We get more and more information.  We hear from witnesses.  We listen to recordings of 911 calls and from cellphones that just happened to be on at the time.  We want to know who the characters in the narrative are.  What is their background?  What was their family like?  What were the immediate circumstances under which they entered our story?

All of this effort purports to be in service of the truth, but it is really in search of one truth: it’s not really the white guy’s fault.  We will feign ignorance until we can find a way to know that it wasn’t his fault.  We will lament that there was no video, until there is.  When there is video, we will determine why video doesn’t tell the whole story.  This document of reality is suddenly insufficient.  We pornographically analyze it frame by frame.  This is an aggressive move.  This is motion in his peripheral vision.  Threat, threat, threat.  Fear, fear, fear.

Y’know what I never see?  This kind of effort brought to bear in the service of proving a black person’s innocence.  It doesn’t happen.  Ever.  All we hear about black people is how big they are.  Their previous crimes.  Their suspicious behavior.  How rude they are.  Why don’t they respect authority?  Why don’t they comply?  Why don’t they sit down and shut up like a good Negro should?  To be black in America is to be guilty until proven innocent, to endeavor to be deemed, in the words of my grandmother, “one of the good ones.”  The black tax is in full effect.

It may seem obvious that this latest incident is the worst of the worst.  All suggestions of racism pale in comparison to the clear racist hate crime, the white terrorism, the assassination in Charleston.  Well, maybe not.  Fox News immediately ascribed fault to Christian persecution, even though Dylann Storm Roof passed twenty other churches on his way to Emmanuel AME.  Not one Republican presidential candidate cited race as a potential factor in this crime.  Even so, it is easy to dismiss this tragedy as the act of a singular, disaffected lunatic.  His actions take place in a vacuum without a broader context.  They certainly do not reflect on his white culture.  They did not derive from a broader social location.  They take no account of the confederate flag flying over his state.  He takes no comfort in a society that glorifies racism and treason from the principles of equality that bind this nation together.  He takes no notice of the ways that we regularly, consistently, compulsively diminish the cessation of black lives in America.  No, he was a just a lone actor, disconnected from any broader implications.  Therefore, we need do nothing but shake our heads in dismay.

President Obama is criticized for politicizing these deaths.  How does one politicize an action intended to spark a race war?  How is that possible?  In what way is a shooting intended to terrorize black people in the last place in which they felt safe, in the home church of a state legislator – in what way is that not a political act?  Sit down and shut up, black people.  You know what happens if you don’t.  What they mean is trying to harness a political will to do something about gun violence in America.

This is the fourteenth time Obama has had to stand up during his presidency and lament the tally of a mass shooting.  Nine people this time; twelve in a movie theater; twenty children and six adults in a school.  You know you are at the depth of evil when you can’t tell what’s worse: twenty kindergartners killed because they were defenseless or nine black people killed because they had come too far.  And, yes, the fact that I had to find some way of characterizing the reason for their deaths is a whole other level of wrong because nothing adequately explains what happened.  There is nothing that could make sense of these acts.

That is the secret of the media life cycle of these stories.  They are so horrible that we can’t fully make sense of them.  We are fed little tidbits that call our outrage into question.  Michael Brown stole cigars.  Trayvon Martin was suspended for marijuana.  Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun.  Dajerria Becton was mouthy.  Is that even a crime?  Mouthy?  I’m not a lawyer, but I question the mouthiness statute.  Oh, well.  The cop probably had a hard day.  Or felt threatened.   Or knew something was suspicious.  Might as well shoot somebody dead and work out the details later.

The events in Charleston are different – civilian perpetrator with a racist ideology – but they are only set aside by our constant dismissal of every other event.  We dismiss the vicious wrangling of a 15-year-old girl.  We dismiss the shooting of a 17-year-old boy by a white man who stalked him in the dark.  We dismiss the shooting of another 17-year-old boy by a cop who feigned an assault.  We dismiss the shooting of a 12-year-old boy by a cop who didn’t even bother to let his car come to a stop before firing and then neglected to provide even basic first aid for several minutes after they knew he was not a threat.  A child lying on the ground bleeding to death and no effort to save him.  By the time Dylann Storm Roof walks into the church in Charleston, what guideposts does he have to tell him that black lives matter, that these lives are precious in the eyes of God?  Honestly, if the national narrative around black lives is to be believed, I can’t think of a reason he should care.

As Christians, that is not our narrative.  Every life matters, but, in particular, the lives of the disenfranchised, the outcast, the different – these lives matter most to God.  In America, black lives matter most because black lives have been systematically excluded and devalued and destroyed for 500 years.  The Christian narrative is one of welcome.  The Christian narrative is one of hospitality.  The Christian narrative is one of justice.  I know it may not seem like that because of the pervasive attacks on an inclusive, compassionate, welcoming Christianity, but I promise the Good News of Christianity is hope for the hopeless, new life for those who have been beaten down.

If that promise is to be fulfilled, Christians need to act right.  The pernicious effect of the narrative surrounding racial justice is twofold.  Those who are inclined not to care about black lives are able do dismiss any events.  They are either completely understandable or completely unfathomable.  The perpetrator is either fully humanized with complex, nuanced motivations that are to be pitied, but understood, or fully distanced so that it bears no resemblance to any sort of recognizable humanity.  In any case, this person does not live where we live.  On the other hand, those who are inclined to care about these injustices are worn down.  Racism and gun violence seem to be intractable problems in America.  As Mike Yard said on the Nightly Show, “Let’s be real.  If they didn’t change gun control laws after Sandy Hook, what makes you think it’s going to happen now?”  I’ve seen friends online, committed liberals, state unequivocally that gun control is a dead end.  They won’t waste any effort on it.  And we’ve got a black president, so racism is over.  For those who care about justice, there seems to be no path, no way forward, no hope.

Perhaps I am naïve – and maybe naïveté is what we need now – but I think there is a way forward.  The first step is to absolutely, unequivocally refuse to accept the narrative that the small things don’t matter, that they are somehow justified or reasonable.  Only by paying attention to the smaller slights do we see the larger pattern of racism and injustice.

Second, we must act politically.  Reverend Pinckney was a state senator who fought tirelessly for the people of his district and the people of South Carolina.  He worked to eliminate poverty, police brutality, and racial discrimination.  Make no mistake, this was a political assassination.  It was not only an attack on the last place that black people might feel safe in a world that seems to want them dead, but an attack on black political power, an attack on the will to change the material circumstances of black people in America.  Some of those who now send their condolences promote the same system of white supremacy through the more civil avenues of voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts that suppress black political power.

Finally, we need more black friends.  I know it’s a cliché.  When people say or do something racist, they simply say that some of their best friends are black and suggest that whatever racist thing they just did is forgiven or accepted or even supported by their black friend.  It’s all good!  But I think we need more black friends.  I really do.  Not just Facebook friends, but real friends.  Go to lunch.  Talk about TV or kids or aging parents or the terrible manager you work for.  It doesn’t matter.  Get together and talk.  Sooner or later, something will happen: a shooting, a city council meeting, a pool party.  It doesn’t matter.  Sooner or later, there will be a crisis with racism at its heart.  Without a relationship to facilitate honest conversation, we’ll have no role to play.  You can’t support someone through tragedy or celebrate in victory without the wellspring of a relationship to sustain us.  Crisis is no time to start.

To be the body of Christ is to be bound together in the heart and mind of God.  Though their lives on this earth have ended, their presence is still with us, sustained by the memories of their loved ones, the love they shared with their community, and God’s faithful, abiding grace.  We cannot change what happened to them, but we can redeem it.  We can commit ourselves to seeking a better path, to being agents of healing and transformation, to tear down the divisive structures of power that say that some lives don’t matter.  Let us abide with one another as God abides in us.

 

Preaching to the Choir

// June 19th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I was supposed to talk about David and Goliath this week, about how we read it as children and how we need to read it as adults.  There are themes of abuse of power, the cost of a warrior culture, the providence and protection of God.  It’s a great story.  I would have been clever and provocative.  But something happened this week.

Nine people were praying together in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and someone sat with them for an hour and then killed them.  As depressing and awful as that is, I have been even more disturbed by the lifecycle of the story that we see play out time and time again.  They were black and he was white.  He said clearly that he was there to kill black people.  Yet, we see justifications, minimizations, dismissals.  We see the takeaways evolve in response to the questions we are willing ask: more guns, less drugs, an isolated incident, really.  As a society, we are willing to consider any possibility other than the simple fact that they were killed by a racist with easy access to a gun and a society that practically cheered him on until the act itself.  I’m going to talk about that.

I know that this is a progressive church.  I don’t have to convince anyone that racism is bad or that we need fewer guns in the world.  However, I am convinced that if we as white people do not actively work to confront this racist system of power and the tools of violence that are its ultimate expression, then we might as well pull the trigger ourselves.

Honestly, I’m not sure what I’ll say about it.  It is such a large and intractable problem.  Maybe I’ll just read Martin Luther King’s eulogy after the Birmingham church bombing that took the lives of four black children; it is eerily applicable.  Maybe I’ll show slides of every perceptive meme that has crossed social media or videos of two people struggling with the job of doing comedy in the face of tragedy.  Repeating smart things that others have said might be my best course.  Or maybe I’ll just scream and weep and cover myself in ashes, take my place with the dead.

I am sure of this: if we don’t start talking about it now, we will be ill-equipped when it inevitably happens again.  My black brothers and sisters in ministry have been emailing and posting on social media desperate pleas for white churches to talk about racism and violence, to refuse to let this tragedy stand without redemption – again.  I cannot ignore their cries.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we try to find the hope to heal this deep wound.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

I AM Anarchy

// June 5th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

(Warning: Some of the video links in this message contain strong language.  It’s okay.  The Apostle Paul did it, too.)

The teenage years can be confusing and awkward and mine were no exception.  I made questionable hairstyle choices – some things never change! – and thought that Ronald Reagan was the Messiah – thankfully some things do change!  At the same time I was extolling the virtues of the Star Wars missile defense system in one term paper, I was writing another on anarchism.  Just as I was compulsively, voluntarily attending a conservative, suburban, upper-middle class, fundamentalist Baptist church, I was devouring every bit of subversive music and underground literature I could get my hands on.

By the time I reached adolescence, punk rock had officially been declared dead, but the New Wave included some of its descendents, which sent a kid like me looking back into the brief history of it.  And to a kid like me, who knew nothing about anything, the Sex Pistols seemed like the real deal.  Anarchy was their anthem.

In the song “Anarchy in the U.K.,” Johnny Rotten sneers, “I am an antichrist/I am an anarchist.”  He claimed the title of antichrist because he was so bad and dangerous.  He was an anarchist!  However, he really is antichrist because he’s a joke, a poseur.  Or maybe the joke is on me because he cops to it in the song: “How many ways to get what you want/I use the best/I use the rest/I use the N.M.E (New Music Express magazine)/I use Anarchy.” He packages teen angst and political rebellion as a commodity.  He’s writing jingles for Anarchy, Inc., and getting rich in the process.  For him, anarchy was just a venue for his own vapid self-interest.  Jesus, on the other hand, was the real deal.

It has taken me thirty years to resolve the apparent contradiction between my rebellious instincts and my Christian faith.  I now know that the Christianity I was taught as a kid was as much a commodity as the music I bought.  It propped up the status quo, made the world safe for those who had plenty.  But when I read the Bible now, I see a Jesus who fought the status quo.  He really was dangerous.  He vigorously opposed the Roman Empire.  He attacked the familial institutions of the honor/shame culture in which he lived.  He called people to the personal transformations that would bring about equality and justice, not because they were compelled to do so, but because their hearts were opened to the people around them.  It might be anachronistic to say that Jesus was a utopian anarchist, but I’m not sure it would be wrong.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about a God who warns us about power and its abuses, a Jesus that attempted to bring down a society, and our calling as Christians to continue that work.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

BPFNA Peace Breakfast

Our friend LeDayne McLeese Polaski from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America is in town in  a couple of weeks for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly and is sponsoring a Peace Breakfast.  She explains:

On Thursday, June 18,  BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz will host a Peace Breakfast in Dallas! We hope you’ll consider coming.
In addition to a full breakfast, music, and the chance to gather with fellow peacemakers from around the country, we’ll have some fabulous information and resources to support YOUR work of peace rooted in justice.
Local pastor Gale Paul will share information about her church’s experience using fairly traded coffee and snacks from Equal Exchange — and we’ll have free, fair chocolate and coffee samples.
Seminarian Judith Myers who was part of the Justice at the Border trip we sponsored earlier this year at the El Paso / Ciudad Juarez border will offer a personal reflection on the trip.

We’ll have a keynote address on The Church and Immigration from Jesús RomeroDirector of ISAAC, The Immigration Service and Aid Center.

You can register here: http://www.bpfna.org/events/2015/06/18/peace-breakfast-at-the-cbf-general-assembly.1426081

We would LOVE to see you!
— LeDayne