Monday, July 11, 2016

Jesus, Race, and Culture:

Should The Church Confront Racial Issues?

There is a lot of pressure on the church today (especially upon pastors) to speak to the cultural issues with which we are currently struggling. Part of the issue for pastors is that there exists a multitude of opinion in the church upon these issues and how they should be resolved, if in fact they can be. Most of these differences have not arisen out of theological considerations, but out of political concern. Speaking about politically charged issues is a precarious situation for pastors to say the least, but is it an excuse to avoid the conversations?

Another pressure on pastors is that major sects of the church have historically avoided concrete, political rhetoric altogether, and some, both within and without, believe this is the way it should be. Does the church have a voice in the realm of politics, or does our separation of church and state preclude us from any influence?

Do we have biblical warrant to speak to the area of culture that includes politics?

On a broader cultural scale, recent arguments have arisen in which people are debating whether or not people of various groups have the capacity to understand the feeling, concerns, and overall experiences of another group. Can the church be truly multicultural? Does our message truly create transcultural conversation and healing, or are we doomed to continue to talk past each other, at least on this topic?

Is there any biblical precedence for speaking to each other about our own cultural (specifically ethnic) understandings, and will people be able to hear?

My Alma Mater, Asbury Theological Seminary rereleased a video in which Pastor Lisa Yebuah argues from Paul’s statement to the Church at Galatia (in which he states that in Christ Jesus there is no longer “Jew nor Greek,” v 3:28) that since barriers have been broken by the cross we can begin to hear across old walls. I love this thought. We must encourage the church to have real, authentic conversations so that we all can repent from our old ways and live in newness together. Faithfulness to the gospel recognizes our ability to hear and understand our brothers and sisters, no matter their particular affiliations in other communities.

In my recent book, The Other Side, I speak about learned behaviors and the possibility to overcome prejudice:

For the child, noticing someone else is different is first a matter of curiosity. Negative bias is introduced when this child perceives a negative attitude in those he or she most often imitates. The child does not become malicious at this point. He or she is simply following a basic rule of survival: If others in my community recoil from this type of person, thing, or situation, I should too.
If prejudice can be ingrained at such an early age, we might fear that there is little hope of overcoming our prejudices unless we begin by admitting that none of us are immune to receiving or perpetuating, consciously or subconsciously, negative stereotypes. We do, however, have another mechanism in learning about others that may move us beyond learned biases: an uncanny ability to empathize through the vicarious experience of placing ourselves in another’s shoes. When we have the opportunity to learn of others through hearing their stories and placing ourselves in their shoes, learned biases are diminished if not destroyed, and we learn, instead, to care.

Arguments or mere dialogue concerning the views of others will not get us to where we need to be if they are divorced from the prompting to step outside of one’s own preconceived ideas and into what it might be like to walk in the other’s shoes. Having the gift of “the mind of Christ,” it is possible to consider others before ever considering the needs and concerns of self (see Philippians 2:1-5).

Yet, is there any concrete biblical example of using empathy to promote understanding of the other? Can we use racial differences as a learning tool?

Jesus seemed to think so. In fact, in a very subversive manner, Jesus forces some of the religious elite in the Jewish community to do just that as he taught the parable of “The Good Samaritan,” found in Luke 10:25-37:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

In this text, some of the religious elite of the Jewish community, a community who highly valued their own ethnicity and import of their specific knowledge, confronts Jesus. Specifically, a lawyer, an expert in Torah, challenged this Rabbi, another expert of Torah from another angel, to ask the key to right living.

Jesus expertly draws out of the lawyer the key to right living and challenges him upon it: “Do this (what you just claimed to be right) and you will live.” However, as soon as Jesus challenges him to do only that which the lawyer had already admitted was the ethical way of life, the lawyer begins to make up excuses and counter argues his own point, by asking, “When is enough, enough?”

Jesus then launches into his subversive illustration. He first has the community see themselves in those who encounter a terrible situation. First, a gang on a very well known and dangerous road robs and beats an unnamed traveler. Even though the man is unnamed, it seems Jesus is most likely referring to a Jewish person. Everyone listening would be able to empathize with the beaten man. As the man is lying in road left for dead, two persons of the Jewish religious community pass him by. Again, everyone would have recognized the two well respected people types here. They are feeling the finger of blame being pointed at them.

Then Jesus talks about an “other,” a Samaritan. It is no secret that in this day, there existed a lot of racial tension between the Jewish people and the Samaritans. Why this tension existed is a lesson for another time. From an early age, Jewish people were conditioned to dislike the Samaritans. So, Jesus makes this member of the “out group” the hero. He is challenging racial norms in the day. Here is what they would assume to be a religious mutt acting in accordance with ethical living.

His final question is one that forces the audience to consider empathy, not just of the beaten man, whom everyone feels sorry for, of course. Instead, his question has them consider the three passers by, including this “unworthy” Samaritan. Who among these men did the right thing? In other words, how do you understand their actions? If in their place, what would you do?

The lawyer is forced to answer, and his reply is telling, “The one who showed him mercy.” The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan was right.” Instead, he simple refers to him as “one.”

Jesus was intentionally being political, showing the hypocrisy of the elites in society. (Remember that for the Jewish people specifically; there was no difference between religious leaders and political figures, at least for their own local context, which Jesus uses here.) Jesus confronts their racism and forces them to see the humanity in the other.

No servant is greater than his master, and if Jesus shows us an example of leading through hard conversations concerning race relations and doing right to others, we too must speak of these things. No matter what others in our church say about our right to speak on these issues, no matter what the world believes is possible or impossible for racial healing, we must trust our leader, our King, and the King and head of the church was one willing to break down barriers through hard discussions upon race.

I, for one, choose to follow Jesus. I will listen to my brothers and sisters who happen to come from other backgrounds. I will validate their concerns. I will try and help them see my concerns as well, and together we will serve those beaten up by a world that wants to rob them of their dignity.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Thoughts Upon The Deaths of Sterling, Castile, and Others

This article was originally published in July 2016, almost four years ago. All portions now in bold font are added to update this article for current events. I mention the original post date, because of current reactions in our community to a new video that has emerged of what appears to be Ahmaud Arbery walking around a construction site allegedly moments before he was killed. Some are suggesting that those who have cried out for justice for Ahmaud will have to scramble to "justify" this new evidence. I will not have to make such an adjustment, and I think many who have been asking for justice have felt the same as I have felt for some time concerning the death of men of color under circumstances that do not warrant killing. I present to you now my thoughts from 2016 to demonstrate how I have felt for some time and will add my thoughts to current events at the conclusion of this post.

From July 2016:

43 year old Eric Garner is killed by law enforcement when he is placed in an illegal chokehold on July 17, 2014. His infraction, selling cigarettes illegally. 

What I repeatedly saw over the following days:

The bottom line: If this man were not breaking the law in the first place, this would never have happened. 

This is a bad bottom line. I personally have broken the law on several occasions, many times while having a gun in my possession, and I have never once felt like my life was in danger, even in the presence of law enforcement. 

Let me be clear. I do not under any circumstance condone my past behaviors. Having said this, I have never deserved death for any earthly law I have broken.

For example, (in times past) I have broken the law several times while hunting, either by hunting without a proper license or by hunting over the limit (I no longer participate in such actions, by the way). There have even been times while hunting illegally that I have been stopped by law enforcement, gun in clear view. 

As I saw law enforcement approach, I hid the evidence of my criminal activity, not because I was afraid of the officers, but because I didn't want to pay a fine. I got away with it too. Many times, it even felt like a game, and I have heard many other hunters brag about their run-ins too. Even if I had been caught, my worst fear was the chance of a huge fine, never death. 

Hunting a federally protected bird without proper documentation is every bit as illegal as selling cigarettes without a license. Yet, I was never approached in a hostile manner. The officer did his job, and did not find my infraction. If I had for some reason been killed in this altercation, my fault would have been found, and I am willing to bet not many people would have said, "Oh, well...He shouldn't have broken the law." 

Certainly, no one should ever feel above the law, and we should all expect repercussions if we fail to obey, despite any sense of injustice for being detained, but in many situations, death is unwarranted, despite laws being broken. Bottom line. 

Why is it that I have never been afraid, I wonder. Am I too naive. Or was my assumption that I would only be fined at very worst correct? What makes me different from Garner. I think it's obvious. 

July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling is shot several times at point blank range while being pinned down by two male police officers. While his gun was in his pocket, he was killed for allegedly posing a threat to police. During the video, it is clear that Sterling did not have his weapon in his hand. His only visible infraction was resisting police. 

What I have repeatedly seen over the past few days:

The bottom line: Be respectful. Do not resist any of law enforcement's commands. 

This is a decent bottom line, but again, it is not a line that justifies death. Just like my willingness to break laws, I have felt justified in being obstinate before a police officer. 

In college, I was pulled over for illegally passing in a turning lane. It was late. I was heading home after hanging out with some of my friends and was pulled out in front of by a driver who was either drunk or just a jerk. The driver was weaving and braking in front of me erratically. I decided I should go around and got in the turning lane several hundred feet before I should have. 

The police officer (a black officer) pulled me over. I did not even give him time to speak before I was out of my car yelling about how he let the other driver get away. I never once showed an ounce of respect for him, and remained belligerent until he left. I could have easily been said to have been acting threatening. 

He just rolled his eyes at me and gave me my ticket. If he had cuffed me, I would have deserved it. Not once did I ever consider my life in danger. Not once. I felt free to be a colossal jackass.  

Certainly we should all give the police force the high respect they deserve for doing a job that benefits us all, even while putting their lives on the line, but being a jerk does not justify being killed by another. 

Why did I feel free to behave in such a way without any since of threat? I felt I had the privilege to do so. And I got away with only a ticket that I latter was able to have dismissed. Why am I any different from Sterling? I think it's obvious.

On the following day, July 6, 2016, Philando Castile is shot several times and dies during a routine traffic stop. According to his girlfriend, who was also in the car, Castile informed officers that he was a licensed carrier and had a gun in his possession. As he reached for his wallet the officer panicked and shot Castile several times. 

What I have seen today:

Bottom line: Anyone with a gun should expect an altercation with the police. It makes them uncomfortable. 

This of course applies as well with the Sterling case. Perhaps gun possession does have such ramifications, but this is a debate to be had in the realm of gun control, not justified police shootings. If we as a nation are willing to say it is a RIGHT to possess a firearm, then the presence of such an arm is lawful and should have no bearing in any case, unless the gun is clearly being used in a threatening manner. 

Again, I am a gun owner. I have never felt like this has put me in any danger with the law, because I have a right to my weapon. It has no bearing on my activity, lawful or otherwise, unless I am using it in an unlawful manner.

I have been pulled over and stopped with a weapon in my possession, but I never felt afraid. Why am I any different from Castile? I think it's obvious.

Final thoughts:

In so many cases, not even these arguments can apply. But, many are so willing to try to assign guilt  to the victims, because we can't understand why it should be any other way. It is hard to think things like this can happen, but they do. We cannot ignore this any longer

Over my lifetime, I have considered myself a conservative. Today, however, it is the conservative voices that are stinging the most. I am not betraying the conservative community by looking clearly at these situations and calling them, at least in light of the given arguments, unjust. There are justifiable reasons for law enforcement to use deadly force at times, but these arguments are not those reasons. Don't blindly fight against something that could be used against your worldview, just because it is used as such. Be willing to be thoughtful and nuanced. Decide conservatively, because you believe it is right. Don't decide what is right because it is labeled the conservative view. 

Also, I highly respect our officers. We can call individuals and systemic issues out without betraying our well deserved respect for police.

Having said all of this, I still feel relatively safe today, not despite our police. I still don't feel threatened as many in the black community do. I am privileged in this way. I honestly can't imagine what it must feel like not to have this security, and I do regret this.

On February 23, 20202, Ahmaud Arbery walks into a construction zone and looks around. All news reports say that he did not steal anything at the time. Guess what? Yep, you guessed it. I have done this exact same thing. It is sort of an unwritten rule that no one is going to freak out if a person wants to see a home under construction. I have done it, and have not never felt as if I had done anything wrong. I have even been looking about when a member of the construction crew has showed back up. He did not even bat an eye. I was not chased down by citizens who felt that they were the judge, jury, and executioner. Why am I any different from Arbery? I think it is obvious.

If you think this was a crime...

Let me say this to the Christian community in particular and to Americans in general. It is from the Judeo-Christian foundation of thought upon justice that we have established the ideals of allowing punishment to fit the crime, that no cruel and unusual punishment shall be permitted for any crime. The Scripture applies the code: "An eye for an eye" in the OT. This is because, in this time, ancients often thought crime should be met with a more severe punishment to teach a lesson. Steal from me, and I not only come after you, but I cut your child's hands off. The Bible's law code of an eye for an eye softened the measure of the time by saying the punishment should fit the crime. For a nation, that is still a fairly good rule. Yet, for Christians, Jesus says that while we have heard the Scripture say "an eye for an eye," He commands of His people even more mercy. "When struck on the cheek, turn the other." 

Do not be one of these people who say, "Well, you play with fire, you get burned." That is not who we are. Have the mind of Christ. He was not just being idealistic. He was telling us what God's heart asks of us. 

I am still not convinced Arbery did anything wrong, but, even if he had, the punishment by vigilantes was extreme, cruel, and unjustifiable. I did not have to "come up" with this as a justification. I have felt this way for some time, and many who have been calling out for justice have likewise been of this mind for some time.