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.

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