Revisiting a 2000 Year Struggle

Blog Crucified With Christ“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I love by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Galatians 2:20
 
That verse is a strong passage that speaks to our identity as believers. But do we know the context in which that verse appears? Sadly, it is a context perhaps very similar to many churches over that last two weeks.
 
The church’s response to the events of the week of July 4 may be reminiscent of the early church. Many don’t understand that the early church was severely stuck in a struggle with racism and prejudice, and it took some serious struggle to see the church move out of that rut.
 
The culture was not stuck in a struggle between two groups: white and black. It was stuck in a struggle between five groups:
  • Jews who thought they were God’s people and thus better than everyone else;
  • Gentiles who knew that the Jews thought that they were better;
  • Freedmen who had bought or earned their freedom from slavery;
  • Slaves who hated the freedmen for becoming free;
  • Women who had even less rights or protections.
Into that culture the church was thrust. As the Gospel message begins to burst forth into Greco-Roman society, the deep wounds of prejudice begin to show up. Paul and Barnabas have been working with the church in Antioch to pioneer a Greco-Roman church plant. Peter comes for a visit, and has his first taste of pork chops and pigs feet. But when his anti-pork Jewish friends make an appearance, Peter moves away from the table.
 
Now, remember this is the same Peter who received a vision from God of “unclean” animals being let down from heaven for him to kill and eat. Out of that vision God taught him that nothing (or shall we say no one) that God has created is unclean.
 
When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, his first words are a startling: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile of visit him” (Acts 10:28). Not really the best words to ingratiate yourself to your Gentile host.
 
But here we are sometime later, and Peter is again struggling with his association with those who were unlike himself. He was quick to back off in order to maintain a reputation among his Jewish friends.
 
I have to wonder if the Gentile believers felt something like my African-American friends during our recent troubled week. More than once I heard people say, “Where is the white church? What do they have to say about these events?” Yet, many in the white church either quietly moved away from the table or ridiculed those who remained seated.
 
Peter was ultimately publicly reprimanded by Paul for his prejudice behavior. It is immediately in this context that Paul writes that about our identity in Christ, and Christ living in us.
 
Sadly, the church has often be complicate in the reconstruction of racial prejudice in the intervening 2000 years, notably with the enslavement of millions of Africans, but also in various ethnic and religious struggles.
 
As believers, we cannot stand idly by and become silent advocates for the advance of racism. Jesus tore those walls down. How dare us take part in their reconstruction, either by our active prejudice and racism or by our silent consent.
 
Martin Luther King, Jr. shared the following in 1967: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
 
Black people are simply saying, “Stop killing us.” Yet, the response they receive, even from much of the white Christian community, is, “But …” if they say anything at all. But is such an effective immobilizer!
 
On Tuesday, July 12, President Bush, at the memorial service for the slain officers in Dallas, shared, “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.”
 
We should weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn. Our hearts should break with those who are broken-hearted.
 
If Christ has been crucified in me then the walls I have used to define my difference from others, to limit the parameters of God’s grace, need to come down. The old way of thinking that allows me to restrict grace to those like me has to be hung on the tree. I need to actively engage in being an ambassador across racial and cultural lines. I do this because it is no longer for me just about “black and white”. It is about living life in Christ, living life by faith.
 
In the next chapter he would write, “There is neither Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). When will we see this oneness in the church? When will we hear the church unified speak for this sense of unity?
 
— Pastor Steve


Time For the Church to Redeem the Racial Narrative

On June 17, people throughout the country were shocked to hear about a 21 year-old young white man going to Emanuel AME, a Charleston, SC church with black membership. The shock was not from his attending this spiritual families Bible study group. The shock was due to the reason for his attendance; sitting through a Bible study with the folks from the congregation before pulling out a gun and massacring 9 believers gathered to learn God’s word simply because their melanin levels were higher than his own.
 
Since then a number of attempts have been made to change the narrative of this tragic event. Some have wanted to make it a story about the need for more gun control. President Obama quickly jumped on the event as another example of his call for stricter gun laws. Yet, the gun that was utilized was not the piece of “military hardware” with high capacity rounds which has been the stated target of tighter laws, but a hand gun that was reportedly reloaded 2 to 3 times.
 
Others have suggested that the narrative is about the persecution and oppression of the church. However, if the issue was simply religious persecution, Mr. Roof could have stopped at any of a hundred other churches he passed enroute to this black fellowship.
 
Others have offered that the real narrative ought to focus on the influence of drugs on young minds. Mr. Root was found to have a history of drug usage, like many of the others involved in mass shootings over the last two decades. However, this again doesn’t address why this particular church was chosen.
 
Sure, some people never want the racial problems of this country to settle, so they strain every episode to make it about race, whether it was or wasn’t.
 
Numerous police shootings over the last seven months have been assigned to “the growing heap of shootings by racist cops”. While different episodes are highly suggestive of negligence or ineptness, there are details in these events that make it hard to determine if these events were actually racially motivated. Yet, there are significant questions about some of these events that raise the specter of racism.
 
This single event, however, removes the remaining shadow of doubt that we have a race problem in America. This event wasn’t about guns. It wasn’t about drugs. It wasn’t event about religious persecution. It was about a white person who acted on a deep-seated hatred of black people. A hatred so deep-seated that he carried the symbols of apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as the slavery Confederacy.
 
Here is what I want to know: Where has the voice of the church been in the developing the narrative on racial intolerance and prejudice? Aside from Promise Keepers movement of the 1990’s and the Mosaic movement of the 2000’s, most churches have remained strangely silent.
 
Worse, yet, are those times when church people have contributed to the false narrative by their poor Biblical scholarship as proponents of black subhumanity or the endorsement of slavery “because it was in the Bible”.
 
Sadly, I belong to a couple of FACEBOOK forums exclusively for ministers, and the tenor in those rooms has often been a narrative of denial — “We don’t have a race problem. People are just making everything about race.” Often the preferred narrative was more one of deflection — “If they weren’t so immoral, or so lazy …”
 
At other times, the church was the principle author of the narrative in the development of social views about race. The were primary agents for the growing anti-slavery movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. The church again stepped to the front as proponents of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. However, at other times the church has seemed to write itself into the background as race issues persist.
 
It is time that we believers wake up. The United States has had a race problem since the rise of African enslavement to cultivate the plantations in the southern colonies. Naively, many in the church have accepted a narrative that said the racial problems have been solved, if not by the North’s victory in the “war between the states”, than by the civil rights activities of the 60’s.
 
Where was the church during the 1870’s when the immediate advancements of the Civil War were lost to passage of southern Jim Crow laws, the establishment of new laws that essentially returned former slaves to the oppression of the plantation? Where was the church during the terrorism of the Klu-Klux-Klan in the late 19th and most of the 20th century? Where was the church in the 1940’s and 50’s when the GI-bill ushered in another era of segregated housing by mandating that GIs may only purchase new homes in like ethnic neighborhoods? Worse yet, why did historically white churches abandon ethnically changing neighborhoods in the urban centers in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s instead of find ways to minister to the changing face of the community? Where has the voice of the church been over the last 50 years? How has the church offered their voice to addressing the issues of ethnic poverty since the war on poverty was waged?
 
But when a young white man walked into an African-American church to ruthlessly murder its members just because their melanin levels where higher than his own, some people were rocked from their slumber.
 
We in the church ought to lead our country toward the drafting of a different narrative, a Biblical narrative of race and unity. It ought to be the kind of narrative hinted at in verses like Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for they are all one in Christ Jesus.” Or Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility …” The narrative ought to reclaim the multi-ethnic expression of a loving and active community of faith as found in the church of Antioch. It ought to introduce people to the eternal “every tribe, every people, every language and every language” nature of Christian eternity in the here and now.
 
In Christ there is only one race. All people are created in the image of God, and the honor of that image must be shown.
 
We got a hint of that as the families of the Emanuel AME slain plainly spoke forgiveness to the murder of the loved ones, instead of returning hate for hate.
 
However, the engagement of the church in developing the narrative shouldn’t be reserved only for times of crisis. The church should be constantly engaged in a growing narrative of multi-ethnic unity, grace and love that can become a sweeping force of societal transformation in our country, and an example around the world.
I am proud to be a part of a church that intentionally seeks to build a community in the midst of ethnic diversity, where people can be judged, not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. Yet, even this church carries the stain of “white flight” of the late 50’s. When our current neighborhood began to change the Elders repented of the sin of their past. They determined to remain in our current location and minister to a changing community. God began bringing together a “family of believers” who chose to worship together because we didn’t look like one another. This week, we are mourning and celebrating the life of one of the first to intentionally cross that racial line and attend “the white church.”
 
God has placed churches like ours in the unique position to demonstrate that different ethnic groups cannot only stop living in hate, but learn to love one another. Through our loving each other, we speak against hate.
 
Yet, we as Christians need to use our voices as well to denounce intentional racism, and call out latent racism. We need to open our eyes to racial gap that is not narrowing as much as we wish it were in our society.
 
I’m finishing this blog this morning in a hotel room in Cincinnati, OH mere blocks away from the Red’s home field. As I sit here I remember hearing the story of Jackie Robinson’s first visit to play Major League ball against the Red’s. The Cincinnati team and fans had demonstrated the reputation of being extremely racist. On May 13, 1947, as the Cincinnati players and fans called out names like “snowflake” and “shoe-shine boy” at Jackie Robinson. The captain of the team, a slight, southerner, wearing #1 and playing shortstop, walked from his position across the infield and placed his arm around the young man wearing #42. Pee Wee Reese just kept his arm on the shoulders of Jackie Robinson. Years later, Robinson would say, “After Pee Wee came over like that, I never felt alone on the baseball field again.”
 
That is the kind of role the church ought to be writing for itself in the ever unfolding racial heritage of this country.
 
It is time for Christians to redeem a narrative that moves us from racial prejudice to racial harmony!
 
— Pastor Steve

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When Anger Sets A City On Fire

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For a week, Baltimore has been embroiled in the chaos of riots, looting, military guards, and angry people. Innocent shop owners were victimized by young people breaking out windows and/or walking off with merchandise, while cars and places of business were being set aflame. People became captives in their own homes for fear of being caught up in the violence if they left that refuge.
 
Yet, the problem in Baltimore is much larger than what is commonly being portrayed as an issue of “racist cops killing black young men”. The powder keg was lit by the unfortunate death of Freddie Gray. However, it is wrong to assume that this death (or any similar recent happening, like Ferguson, MO) is really the event that led to this outburst. The powder kegs have been loaded and compressed over decades.
 
I wish we knew what happened to Freddie Gray, but we do not. We may never know (But someone does, and He will serve justice in due time). But in the meantime, how do we understand this situation, and is there anything we can do to diminish the possibility of its happening again?
 
I have got to ask: Where did all of this anger come from?
 
Some have made a point of emphasizing that when a white young man is shot white people do not resort to rioting. Repeatedly, I have seen a meme of a CNN graphic with data on the “Killed by Cops” racial breakdown in 2014. It shows the following:
  • Whites – 414;
  • African-Americans – 233;
  • Hispanics – 138;
  • Asian – 15;
  • Unreported – 311.
Before going any further, let me make clear that one unjustified killing is too many.
 
However, the fallacy that is purported with this data is – more whites are killed by police than blacks, but whites don’t respond violently. While the actual number of whites killed by police officers is higher, that far from tells the entire story. You also need to consider the demographic data:
  • White, non-Latino – 62.3%;
  • Latino – 17.1% – (just under 1/3 of Whites);
  • African-American – 13.2% (just over 1/5 of Whites).
If you weigh the demographics, and look at the per capita numbers a starkly different picture arises. If all of the population groups were the same, death tolls between these groups would be:
  • Whites – 414;
  • African-American – 1095;
  • Hispanics -483.
In other words, the comparison of blacks-to-whites killed moves from about half the actual to 2 1/2 times per capita. Do you see the problem there? I see how looking into these numbers can be a painful thing.
 
So do we place all of the blame on those “racist cops”? They have become the target of choice. The cops are the easy fall-guy. But pinning the blame on them doesn’t help us really get to the heart of the problem.
 
Blaming “racist cops” doesn’t for starters address the real problem of crime in African-American neighborhoods. While the disproportionate numbers of African-American men in prison does give us reason to pause and question the fairness of the judicial system, can we say that it is the reason that so many black men are behind bars? While we can admit that there is strong data that says African-American men are likely to receive stricter punishment than their white counterparts, does that gives us a full diagnosis? Or shall we blame selective enforcement that targets people of color more frequently than whites? Again, that could be part of the problem.
 
But we have to be more honest than that. We can’t choose to remain unflinchingly blind to the real problem of crime that is disproportionately higher in black neighborhoods. The differentiation in the amount of crimes being committed is not fully explained by racial profiling or unfair prosecution. We do have a problem with black crime — the question that needs to be explored more fully is WHY? What causes young, African-American men to act out in this way?
 
When we dig further here, I think we will also begin to see some of the reasons for the angry responses that destroy African-American young men’s lives. We will discover that finding scapegoats will not help, and taking the time to resolve it will not be found in a quick fix.
 
When I moved to Chicago 18 years ago, I took the time to wander through the city. I noticed that in many African-American neighborhoods houses would be in shambles and streets would be lined with litter. It simply looked like everybody stopped caring long ago. I asked a ministry partner on the southside of the city, why it appeared that African-American households didn’t seem to take pride in their homes and neighborhoods. His response was telling, “They have simply lost hope. When you lose hope other things just don’t seem to matter.”
 
Lost hope! I have never been there. I always could catch a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel (and usually it wasn’t the light of an oncoming train). I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like to see a desperate situation is “as good as it gets.” Yet, I do have an idea of how being in such a situation could make me act out in anger at the system(s) that culminated in me being so desperate.
 
So what has led to this sense of hopelessness within the African-American community?
 
I don’t think we will ever be able to completely catalogue all the decisions and events that have eaten away at any sense of hopefulness that young men of color might have otherwise had. At the same time, I don’t think that we have to go all the way back to slavery and the “Jim Crow laws” of the south for by doing so we run the risk of placing all of the blame on previous generations, and convince ourselves that “blacks just need to get over it.”
 
First of all, consider the effects of systemic poverty. Census data on wages by ethnicity each year since 1967 show a $20,000 gap in median income between whites and blacks present at the start of the period. It has never gotten smaller, and on occasion has gotten larger. During that time period, White incomes rose on average nearly $8,000. However, black incomes only increased by about $6,000. As of 2012 the median income was whites $57,009; blacks $33,321. According the government threshold, an African-American family of 6 with a median income would be below the line of poverty. Add to that consideration that African-Americans live predominantly in the high cost urban environment.
 
Nearly 1 in 4 families in Baltimore neighborhoods in which the riots broke out are in poverty. Needless to say, those are prominently black neighborhoods.
 
Some would offer the advice to just raise the minimum wage. However, the net result could be the further loss of employment by some who currently have some job. Those cities, like Seattle, which have already raised minimum wages have seen the food industry particularly hit by lay-offs as the cost of going out to eat has costed some restaurants needed business. The net result is some of the entry-level jobs that young people used to get into to begin an employment record are drying up.
 
That brings us to the second consideration – lack of jobs. When the economic downturn of 2008 swelled, in some ways those hardest hit by the employment collapse were the young urban men. As adults nearing retirement age were unable to find employment many turned to filling  jobs that were traditionally entry-level jobs for young people. As the unemployment rates dropped to nearer normal levels, young people were left out of the recovery. By 2012 young white men still had an unemployment level of 12%, however, black men 16-30 still had a 25% unemployment rate.
 
As of the most recent estimates in Chicago, African-American young men still have an unemployment rate of 25-28%. But that doesn’t just include the high school dropouts. It includes young men who have completed a college degree, but are unable to secure employment. They are left to wonder what was the use of all of the college expense if it didn’t help them to get a job. I could quickly record a list of numerous young black men who have come through our youth ministry program that are struggling to find employment with a living wage.
 
However, the problem does not originate with difficulty getting a job that pays a living wage. The roots of anger begin much earlier. The course for angry young black man is often established in the halls of urban schools. Urban schools have a remarkably poor record. Try as educators may, the results for urban schools as a whole do not seem to improve. The state by state drop-out rate, for 2011-12, shows black students dropped out of school on average 15% more often than white students.
 
Suburban schools, with budgets that are often much more flexible because of the property values of community residence compared to the values of property in the cities, have tremendous opportunities and are able to secure high quality teachers. The urban poor often have to settle for poorer quality teachers providing poorer quality instruction in poorer quality facilities. Because of the union jobs contract schools, there same struggling schools find it hard to dismiss poor teachers. Many students are so concerned about their own safety that they can’t give their attention to their education.
 
This does not intend to suggest that all urban teachers are terrible. Some urban schools have been able to develop a collection of high quality teachers that are giving their students a great education. Other schools, particularly in some of the worst neighborhoods, have not faired so well. When given the chance it makes sense to leave some of those schools for the relative safety of schools in other neighborhoods.
 
But sometimes, the problem is not as much with the teachers as it is with poor management and oversight at the level of local school Principals. Can it be the best decision to that tell teachers that disruptive students cannot be disciplined because it harms the school’s attendance rates upon which funds are distributed? So teachers are made subservient to class clowns, or worse yet, classroom bullies with no recourse.
 
Even then, if the school gets good teachers and a good Principal, the system is stacked against them. During twelve years as a member of the Local School Council, of which 10 were served as the Chairman, far too often the school would be on a path to improvement only to be sent on a detour by changing curriculum, decreased classroom sizes, and new unfunded or underfunded expectations sent down for to the local level from the educational behemoth downtown or in Washington.
 
The poorer quality of their education then becomes a road block for them getting the highest quality college education. The average 16.9 ACT score for African-American students, compared with the 22.2 for whites, keeps many of them from qualifying for admission to highly ranked academic institutions.
 
If the doors of opportunity will ever open allowing a rush of hope to flood into their hopeless existence, part of the solution will be found in overcoming the educational disparity that currently exists. We need to find means to equalize the funding disparity, but we also need to loose the grip of the educational monopoly on the urban schools, and replace them with systems that place the welfare of students at least on par with the welfare of teachers. Imagine what could happen if good Christian teachers and school administrators would accept a mission challenge to serve as teachers and Principals in under performing urban schools.
 
Yet, we still have not exhausted the list of life issues that make these young black man so angry. The problem of education has shown a link to the next issue that has created this angry environment. Fathers at home have a correlation to higher grades in school.
 
African-American youth are more than twice as likely to grow up in a single-family household as white students. Over half of these young people grow up in a mom-only home. Seven percent grow up in a dad only household. And 1 in 10 grow up with neither parent.
 
One Baltimore mother, Toya Graham, became a viral sensation for pulling her son out of the rioting while proceeding with her motherly beat down (of course others criticized her). Honestly, as I saw that mom in action, I was caught between cheering her on and asking,  “But where are the dads?”
 
Identifying this issue is not meant to demean the single mothers of these young people. They are often doing their best.  It simply is meant to identify that the absence of fathers in the household, or other strong male role model has had devastating effects.
 
Over the last decade numerous studies have been released that show the adverse impact that young people raised in single-parent families endure, particularly those who are raised without their fathers. The absence of fathers has demonstrated a 3 times higher rate of poverty, higher crime rates, incarceration rates that are 70 times higher. Single-parent family children are at higher risk of abuse and neglect. They are more likely to be sexually active, and users of drugs and alcohol at an early age.
 
Bill Cosby made headlines when he came out with a statement that absentee fathers are one of the biggest reasons for the problems in the African-American community. While some have sought to discredit Cosby’s assertion because of other life issues which have allegedly been exposed about Cosby more recently, the studies of negative consequences for single-parent family children cannot be ignored.
 
One of the best things that could happen to this generation of young African-American men is for their fathers to take seriously their role in the home. But since the decline of the black family has become a generational problem, it will take mentors for the current fathers to equip them for the task.
 
Yet, the African-American family is not the only thing that is broken.  Often the African-American community is broken.
 
The African-American community commonly advances the notion that “it takes a village to raise a child.” With the development of housing for the poor in the 50’s and 60’s the fabric of that urban village began to be dismantled. The poor were dislocated from neighborhoods into units that warehoused others with limited prospects and even less hope.
 
That dismantling was accelerated in the 70’s and 80’s as cornerstones of the community, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, joined the exodus from these neighborhoods and moved into suburban communities, leaving the previous community in the grip of an economic tailspin. But as those cornerstone members of the family relocated it also left an absence of mentors and models for the ensuing generations.
 
Without people from the community to look out for each other, and as families themselves collapsed, youngsters found it easier to be drawn into the destructive community of gang involvement. In these groups they found others who shared their anger.
 
This is the place where Christians could possibly have the greatest impact. What if Christians were to move back into urban neighborhoods with a mission of being a light in the darkness of some of these communities? What possibilities could present themselves if Christians provided mentors, and environments to experience family community so young people aren’t left looking to only find the worst options?
 
As I consider all of the cultural trends and issues that play on the anger of young African-American men, I feel as if I would also struggle under the hopelessness that has generated such anger.
 
 If we are going to bring lasting calm to Baltimore, and overcome youthful anger by resurrecting hope for other African-American communities and individuals, we have a lot of work to do as a nation, as churches, and as Christian and non-Christian individuals.
 
Or we can stand still and wait for the next city to be set aflame.
 
–Pastor Steve
 

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