Saturday, May 30, 2020

Of Riots and Racism…

I went to the emergency care center, because I was having chest pains. That was when I was first told I might be dealing with an anxiety disorder. I first noticed the pains as I sat to read the Brunswick News and found myself engrossed by the front page story about a baby boy, Antonio Santiago, who was murdered in broad daylight, shot while the mother took him for a stroll. We were in the national spotlight then too. 
I played the scene over and over in my mind in a futile attempt to make sense of a senseless act. I tried to switch gears to my work, but try as I might, my mind was caught in this loop, every few minutes jumping back to the infanticide. 

I do remember looking out the large window pane of the coffee shop and noticing the bluest blue sky I’d seen in some time. The vibrant green leaves of the trees swayed, betraying the invisible sea breeze that swept through them. I imagined it had to be a perfect day out. I’m sure it was, but when I stepped out, my body was numb, my inner anguish occupied the whole of my senses. My body was trembling and I could not catch my breath. 

I went home and collapsed on the floor, feeling the weight of my body with each gasp of air. I do not remember how long this episode lasted, but I eventually caught my breath and my chest pain dulled.

I told my wife that, while I was only in my twenties, I feared I might be having heart issues. My paternal grandfather had passed away at fifty-three from a massive heart attack. So, I’ve always been concerned. Yet, I also have the propensity to be a worrier, a quality from my maternal roots; so, I told myself not to be a hypochondriac and just ignore the pain. It was probably just a figment of my imagination. My wife wasn’t buying the line I was feeding myself and, after seeing me grab at my chest one too many times over the next couple days, she told me to stop being so stubborn and get to a doctor immediately. So, I went. The shortness of breath seemed to worsen as soon as I made it into the waiting room. 

My heart was fine, and other than having slightly high blood pressure, I was perfectly healthy. The doctor told me to go see my primary doctor, as my issue was probably anxiety related and a more long term solution should be sought in consultation with a physician who knew my background. I was in luck. That physician was my older brother, but, realizing I was not dying, it took me a few months before I explored the issue a bit deeper. 

Yet, with every national tragedy, I’d feel my chest tighten. 

Since 2013, I have come to realize that I have been dealing with anxiety all my life. I went to see my brother, and my condition was no shock to him. He diagnosed my with panic disorder and anxiety (I am sure he would have more accurate terminology, but that is what I remember). He helped me develop an action plan, and I’m glad to say I now know how to manage my anxiety and rarely experience panic anymore. I now treat my mental health much like my dental health. Every day I choose to exercise mental hygiene and every six months to a year, I see a counselor to make sure I’m not missing any build up. I usually get the thumbs up that my regular care is working and move on. 

What happened on that beautiful September morning as I read the paper is something I know is happening again. At least I am more prepared this time around. At least I have the tools this time to prevent a panic attack, a phenomenon that used to leave me on the floor wondering if I was actually dying. As I read in horror the story of little Antonio, my sympathetic response system heightened my stress enough to uncover my lurking anxiety such that it was expressed in a tangible, physiological response. I had denied my anxiety any outlet for so long that it came out sideways. The panic attack that day shook me to the core. 

As I read about George Floyd’s final moments, I had to take quick action to not be drowned by panic. Even so, my heart hurts, or, at least my chest. I can feel it. I’m not panicked, but I’m extremely upset. 

As George Floyd struggled for breath, he cried out for his mother...his deceased mother. For a grown man to call out for his mom for rescue, he has to be desperate. For a grown man to call out for his deceased mom for rescue, he has to be broken. These officers did not just murder him. They terrorized him into fear and broke his spirit. Then they killed him in front of the world. 

I’m undone. 

But, I am no where near feeling what my black friends must feel. How so many of my black friends are still holding it together as much as they are is beyond me, not to deny their real pain and the brokenness that is hidden by the wall of social media. I can only pray that grace would carry me beyond my breaking point, as it must be for them. 

At the risk of seeming to get off topic, let’s talk about the Corona Virus for a moment in order to talk about breaking points. Trying my best to set my personal feelings aside, I must, at very least, admit my surprise at how fragile our resolve has proven to be. While this enemy does not discriminate, we have taken it upon ourselves to politicize the virus. We have protested calls for precaution. We have blamed anyone and everyone.  


For lack of a better word, people feel “oppressed” by COVID-19 or at least by those they think are responsible for not responding how they would like to the pandemic. I’m not above being upset over everything that has happened. I’m not above wishing this never happened. In fact, I do not want to invalidate what we are all feeling. I may not agree with how some respond, but I will never condemn anyone for hating our situation and mourning all the losses we have had, both of life and of livelihood. 

The virus has caused a blunt, dull, gnawing sense of fear. It has revealed our fears and has made us vulnerable. So, we tear at each other. I’m even willing to forgive irrational behavior, because we all have our breaking point. What would it be like to always feel this way? We have to move on. We cannot live in fear forever. It’s just too much of an emotional drain. Isn’t that our argument?


This is what the black community has said to us about racism for decades upon decades. They cannot live with the nagging fear any more. Something must give. And many white people have just said, “I’m sorry, but what can I do?” We signal for the black community to get back in their lane. We do not want to share their burden. So, we pretend we have nothing we can do. They have told us they cannot go on forever, but now that racism has caused irrational response, we act like we cannot understand why in the world some would riot. 

Hell, we think we can overcome a virus with pure American resolve or delusion. We think we can tell a virus to go away by sticking our fingers in our ears and yelling, “la, la, la, la, la” , but we cannot deal with the disease of racism? One is outside of us. One is a matter of individual and collective will. But we will tell an actual virus, “No,” before we tell a disease of the heart “no”?

One may kill our body. The other will kill our soul. 

My point is this: we have all learned recently how horrible it is to have an ongoing threat loom over our lives. We want to deny it a place, if only by the most ineffective means of ignoring its reality. The threat of COVID-19 has made us act irrationally., with protesters threatening police in front of government buildings. But, the black community is just supposed to live with the threat of racism and play nice, because “we live in an imperfect world”?  And if they act in a way we do not approve, we just say, “This won’t solve anything.” 

Come on!
We can do better than that.

Maybe we do not have to approve, but we can offer something better than parental finger wags and patronizing moral platitudes. 

I know my words are harsh. Not all will feel they are ignoring the issue. I know. I am so glad many of us are speaking out, some of us as a continuing effort and some of us for the first time. Don’t be offended if you don’t have to be. But, I’m angry, and I’m angry with my own sin. I’m not just speaking out. I’m speaking in. I have caught myself saying, “that makes no sense,” when, in fact, while it is not justifiable, it is understandable. I’m just uncomfortable. Plain and simple. I hope voices such as those of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Killer Mike find purchase for the black community in their pain. As for white people, we should leave it to those leaders. As for us, we have to ask, “Can we do better to prevent such conditions?” That is the question Dr. King asked us all those years ago. It still hangs in the air. 

Deep breath. That is a technique I use.

Let’s continue. 

I know what it is like to live with constant anxiety. Yet, my anxiety is a disorder. It has no external cause. It’s conjured by my mind that has to remain constantly disciplined to remain in tact. The fear and anxiety of the black community is real. My fear is irrational, and by telling myself such, I save myself a lot of grief. But, a black person cannot do this, lest they risk their lives by doing the very thing that saves mine. If they pretend their fears are unfounded and let their guard down at the wrong time, it is over. We have proof. 

Living in constant fear takes a toll on the body. I was told I had to get over my constant fear, lest I continue to damage my mind and body. So, I do. But, our black friends cannot. Until the external problem is resolved, the inner conflict will persist. 

Only when white people are freed from hate and prejudice will black people be freed from violence that inevitably swells from such hate and prejudice. Our salvation is their’s. Maybe you are like me and do not allow racism in your life. Or, at very least I should say, you work, like me to find it where it lays in hiding and attempt every chance you see it to root it out. That is good, but not yet good enough. I have to work to root it out of my culture as well. 

I have low grade pain in my chest today. I know why. A young black man was hunted down in my local community where I serve as a pastor and was shot with buck shot. He was rounded up by circling vehicles, one man even hopping in the bed of the truck with his weapon to get a better vantage point like I did when I would hunt rabbits growing up. Ahmaud was hunted like an animal, and I cannot imagine his human fear, realizing his life was coming to a violent end. A black woman was shot in her bed as her home was mistakenly raided in Kentucky, the only other state I have called home. A black man in New York was threatened by a white woman who used his skin color to incite conflict, putting his life on the line, because she felt called out. And, in Minnesota, a black man begged for his life, called out to his deceased mother, and was robbed of breath as he was being terrorized, and this is just another wave.

How can we tell the black community to calm down and catch their breath as the waves keep crashing in on them? My father was a lifeguard, and one lesson he taught me early on was to be wary of a drowning victim. As they struggle for their life, they will often irrationally attack those who try to aid, clawing to get to the surface. The black community is catching wave after wave. Drowning in hate is ever much drowning as is drowning in water. 

And you want to know something that breaks my heart: I get to choose to feel this pain. My anxiety has taught me that I can often choose when and where I hurt. Since I’m not black, I have the luxury of waking up each morning and choosing to care or not. That is a terrible privilege, and, make no mistake. It is privilege. 

I do not condone riots, but, if I lived in such fear every day, I might give into the fear. Some of us could not even handle masks and social distancing, and so these people threatened action, as they wore military style gear and carried rifles. But, we just scoffed at them. Oh, look at Bubba trying to act all big and bad. I am afraid that racism has taught us to be afraid of angry black people, because we do not see the anger as human, as we do Bubba's. Bubba is just being Bubba, but that black man better calm down, because he is making me uncomfortable. 

If we condemn riots, then let us act to end them. Let’s end them by tearing down the conditions that cause people to act irrationally. Deny racism its place. Protect your brothers and sisters in their distress. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. asked of us decades ago. We have had enough time to consider his plea. Now, let’s respond. 

Demand justice.

And, do not let up. Things may seem to get back to normal for those of us who do not live in this fear all the time. It will be easy to lose our resolve. As I said, it is thin for many anyway. 

If chest pain is all I can count on to keep me focused, I do not want to be healed of my pain. I will chose to hurt and know that is not enough. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Theology of Why I Can’t Just Shut Up (about racial injustice)

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?

Many of us are asking, "What can we do about the tensions in our community?”

Many Christian leaders in my area and all around the nation have been calling for deep self-reflection in light of the current tragedy that has struck our hometown. As I look at my own indignation, I realize there is much still needed to be worked out in my own heart as it pertains to my own brokenness. I suspect that will always be the case. 

Indeed, in Matthew 7, Jesus calls out the hypocrites who would try and remove a speck from their brother’s eye while having a plank in their own. I am not so sure racism and injustice is a speck in the eye of our community (as much as it is a deep wound), but I take the point. Virtue signaling means nothing if your life is not active with removing your own investments into injustice, as well as with working to repair the pains of those in need. 

So, I heartily agree. We have to start with ourselves. We cannot give what we do not have. If we do not allow God’s grace to move through us, then how can we extend grace outwards? In fact, if we try to “fix” others, and we do not see our work, not as our own, but as an offering of God's grace through us, then all we are doing is assigning blame and guilt and acting superior when we ourselves are just as blameworthy and guilty.

Having said all of this, it is simply not enough to stop with ourselves. 

I wonder if, for some, the call to “work on yourself” might sound like the ticket needed to say, “Well, who am I to speak out for the pain of others? Who am I to call out for change? Who am I to act as if I have any right to speak?” Can some simply use this as means to remain uninvolved?

I do not believe for one second that this is what these pastors have in mind, but I have been tempted many times by this sort of thought myself: Give up on speaking out, because it causes so much of a stir, and I hate when others are disappointed with me or find me foolish. 

Oh, how I have felt so foolish in ministry. I must confess: Almost every time I am on the Navajo Reservation, I think to myself, “What right do I have as a White Christian to teach the Native Americans anything? Has not horrible injustices befallen these people by others just like me?”

Indeed they have. But, I have to ask, am I out there for the same reasons?

I do not go to “fix” people. I do not go, because “my way” is better. I do not go because I am worthy. I do not speak because I have what it takes. I am humbled to brokenness each time, and I pour myself out knowing how foolish I feel, because it is where God has sent me. It is what I am called to do.

And I feel foolish each time I come home and try to explain what our government has done and continues to do to the Native Americans. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, "That just can't be right. Someone needs to let congress know." Trust me. They know, and they keep upholding the policies that cause the problem. 

I have been told many times, as I have spoken out for racial injustice over the years, that I should worry about myself and not imagine I have some superiority to tell others in my community what they should do.

I don't feel superior. I feel broken. I feel guilty. I feel a need to confess and to repent and to do all I can to right the wrongs that, perhaps we did not create, but continue to be upheld by our culture and government. 

What I want to say is that as a minister, I am keenly aware every week of my inadequacies as I stand before the congregation to speak. I already know I do not have the right. I do not need to be reminded. But, I have to speak out anyway, because God makes His self known through His people. If no one speaks up, how will we hear? I speak, not my words, but, as best I can, I speak upon His. 

I am not worthy, but I am called.

I actually reached out to one of my pastor friends, after he posted on social media about the need for self-reflection, to make sure I was correct in my assumption that he was not just asking us to stop calling out for public repentance. If he was, I was not going to try and correct him, but ask him where my thinking was going wrong, because I feel Scripture demands something more. 

His words rang so true. He said that the very reason he was calling for much self reflection is exactly because those of us who have been silent for a long time must begin to speak up, and we will not be able to do so without doing some really tough work. 

What I hear now from these pastors who are calling us to self-reflection is that becoming the people who can rightly speak up means we have to be the people who put in the hard work of self-denial, confession, repentance and so forth so that we can clearly understand what it is we are demanding when we do not speak from some pedestal, but as one amongst the crowd, just as guilty, but wanting redemption and reconciliation. 

So, let us not let the message to remove the plank from our own eyes to be taken out of context, as justification for not speaking out. Instead, as this pastor friend is pointing out, we simply cannot have one without the other.

There are two sides to any coin: 

Working to be a moral individual without caring for others is religious preening. 

Speaking up for others without facing one’s own moral failings is mere virtue signaling. 

I wonder also, if the idea of repentance for a community of people is simply too foreign for the American Church. In the Old Testament, calls for national repentance, for community change, were much more the norm than individual reform. I wonder if our individualism has lead us to make our faith too much about ourselves as well. 

Let’s look at a couple of Scriptural examples of what God requires of His people, not just as individuals, but as a community:  

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

In Ancient Israel, and the Ancient Near East in general, the people lived in tribal societies that centered around a Patriarch. Patriarchy created major blindspots in the governing systems of the day, leading to oppression. In Patriarchy, the eldest living male was responsible for the protection and provision of all in the house. His land was the source of their income. What crops they grew and what herds they raised would secure the whole family. All in the house would find their care given to the father and he would dispense that care as he saw fit. 

There was no military in the early days of tribalism. The men in the household and allies from other households, under their own patriarch, were the military. So, if you needed to fight a battle, the father was lead charge. There was no police, no judges or jury. If you were wronged or did wrong, the father was in charge of your justice. Either vindicating or punishing you, depending on the case. There was no private wealth. Your inheritance was held by the father. So, your protection and provision literally belonged to the patriarch. Your entire life was tied to him.

So, what happened if the Father died. Easy enough for the sons. They would inherit and take charge, and, then they would have the care of the house under their charge. 

Now, what do orphans and widows and aliens have in common in Ancient Israel: each had no connection to a Patriarch. Think about what these titles imply and this is obviously the case. 

What if a woman or child lost all the men in the house to something like war or famine, like Naomi and Ruth? As a woman or orphan, if there were no men left, you were left destitute, just as we see in the Book of Ruth. Only if another man was willing to take you in did you have provision and protection. While men always had access to their father’s wealth and land, women, orphans, and aliens did not (Men could lose their land in hard times too, but there were laws that would return the land to the family after a time).

So, who are the orphans, widows, and strangers the Bible keeps telling us about? Why are they oppressed? It is because their cultural and governing systems did not have adequate measures to care for them like it did for men.  

So, in the Bible, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger are figure types. When God tells us that our faith should lead us to seek justice for the orphan and widow and stranger, He does not just mean orphans and widows and strangers. He was speaking in terms the ancients understood. These were the leading figures of the oppressed, marginalized, and forgotten…

God is a God for all the oppressed. 

Sure, many times orphans and widows and strangers are in need today, but, in our nation, they can go on to become millionaires with the right conditions. That was not the case in Ancient Israel. So, in our nation, who falls through the cracks? As God demands:  "Defend the oppressed," we have to figure out who that is, and, then, we must do it. 
 If we do not believe anyone is systemically oppressed in our society, as has been told to me many times lately, then we somehow find our nation more just than Theocratic Israel, the Nation of God, ruled by God, Himself. Even as their King, God was saying there was work to be done to fix injustice. Our nation has done so much for so many, perhaps creating better opportunity for an abundant life than ever before, but I am sure we have not created the perfect Kingdom of God here quite yet, have we?

 It is not enough that we are individually moral people. No. God demands we cry out for the needs of others, that we speak truth to power. 

Let us look to one more example before we are finished. It is a long passage, but, trust me, it is worth considering. It is quite shocking to find a God who is angry with a people who seek after Him day-to-day, but He is. We must see why:

For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression… (Isaiah 58:2-9a)

Israel is described as a people who personally seek God’s face and favor. The religious individuals are trying to be moral in their personal lives. “Day after day they seek,” and God detests this, because, as a public, they are hateful to one another and they ignore the needs of the oppressed: “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers…Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

Let me just make this clear: This is a nation whose individuals often seek after God as part of a personal religion, but God is angry at them, because, on a national level, they mistreat each other and wrong the oppressed. Think about that...

 God’s favor is not upon them in their religious worship, because they have not yet realized that love for God demands love for neighbor. It is not enough to personally care, but the people must act for restoration. Then, and only then, will there be healing in their nation. Only then will their light rise. A people cannot be truly moral, until they learn to love one another, until they work for justice and reconciliation. Our nation will continue to struggle, as long as we do not have the courage to live in public ministry that works for social holiness. 

I do not cry out because I am not guilty. I am. I do not cry out because I am superior. I am not. I only cry out, because the justice of God demands it. I cannot be silent. I cannot simply be happy with my own redemption. I must care that others suffer and many because of silent Christians. They suffer as I spend all my time “working on myself”, concerning myself with my individual morality. That is not enough. God demands our social holiness as the people of God. 

Do I feel foolish? Yes.

Do I know some will think I am a virtue signaling, preening idiot? Yes. Many have already told me think so very recently.

Do I need to work on myself? Let me count the ways. 

Do I know God still wants me to speak up and to act? Of this, I am most certain.