Where will I stand?

It seems to me that a new line was crossed last week. First, two public encounters with police were caught on video resulting in two dead African American men. Then in Dallas, five police officers were gunned down. If your social media feed is anything like mine, it blew up. Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter. For each hashtag there are leaders of faith who claim their perspective is the right perspective, the Christian perspective.

As a person of faith myself, I want to know where we go from here. Standing on the sidelines and just hoping this will blow over does not seem live a viable or moral option. People are dying, and this needs to stop.

I wanted to write something last week. All I could do was stare at a blank screen.

When I read John 3:16, I discover a God who cares about all people. Jesus was sent for the world. In Philippians 2 there is a song about Jesus emptying himself of all his divinity, taking on the very nature of a servant, and dying on the cross. When asked to describe pure religion, James said it had something to do with how we care for the powerless. When Jesus was spoke to his followers about violence he talked about turning the other cheek as a creative non-violent way of resisting the power structures. This was a cornerstone strategy of the civil rights movement as led by Martin Luther King, Jr. When Jesus stood before Pilate and the religious leaders facing and receiving violence, he never lost his cool, never returned violence for violence. On the cross Jesus offered forgiveness to his executioners and an invitation to a fellow cross-mate.

I look at Jesus and try to imagine how he would respond. I see a person who loved without exception. This same Jesus knew that the only way to measure our commitment to all lives had something to do with how we treated the powerless and disenfranchised among us. Quite simply this is the heart’s cry of Black Lives Matter and all the movements that proceeded it.

This I why I choose, as I believe all people of faith and good conscious should, to stand with Black Lives Matter. It not about valuing one person over the other. Rather standing with Black Lives Matter is the most radical and Christ-like way we can demonstrate a commitment to the intrinsic value of all lives.

Leadership

Last night I saw Selma for the second time. The movie tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. For those who have not taken the time to see this movie, please go. It is worth the price of admission. This movie is a stark reminder of a past that many would like to forget. 1965 was a time when Jim Crow laws shaped the daily lives of our brothers and sisters of color by instituting various racially motivated economic, education, and social hardships. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains.

In the midst of all of this a leader and prophet emerges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had always assumed that leadership came easily to King. Hearing his sermons still takes the listener to a higher place. Who doesn’t resonate with “I have a dream” or “He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land”? King had a way of rallying people to his cause, of stirring people to action. I imagine that just being in his presence made you a better person.

The movie dared to expose a more personal side of King; a side that questioned, doubted, and wondered. Sometimes it is easy to assume that leadership is about confidence and strength. It was good to be reminded that leaders are human beings as well. King found ways to overcome his fears and questions. In doing this he became the prophet, pastor, and spiritual leader we needed and continue to need.

Today we still need people who can move beyond their fears, questions, and weaknesses to find the courage to speak truth to power. We need people to dream, to go to the mountain and see not what is but what can be.

Memorial Day

Yesterday my pastor spoke from Psalm 77, specifically focusing on verse 11 where the writer declares, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” Today is Memorial Day. More often than not I think of this as the first day of summer, not as a day to remember. It may have something to do with my Mennonite upbringing. As a pacifist I have struggled with the “war” holidays while admiring anyone who is willing to sacrifice their life for something greater than themselves. So, regardless of my personal beliefs these acts of courage and sacrifice need to be remembered.

As my pastor reminded the congregation heroic acts are not limited to times of war. There are civil rights heroes; just last week we lost Dr. Vincent Harding, probably best known for drafting Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I am also reminded that we have ordinary heroes who don’t always make the headlines, but do make a difference. Something is lost when we forget to remember those who help us to live in a better and more just world. In my work life I am surrounded by these every day heroes. It seems appropriate to remember and recognize them on this day.

Staff 2013 Chicago Cropped medium size file

It has become increasing clear to me that I benefit from the past and current (and future) cloud of witnesses that has cleared the road before me and continues to walk beside me. This group of women and men has helped me to experience a Christian faith that is much more than male, white, conservative, and privileged. It is has been their constant nudging, pushing, and prophetic vision that has pushed the ministry I lead beyond “Anglo.”

Today, in 2014, our staff and boards are made up of young and old; men and women; Anglos and persons of color; single and married; straight and gay; Americans and immigrants; the theologically conservative and liberal. Without this cloud of witnesses, transformation could not have happened.

It was Dr. Cornel West who said, “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth.”

It has been the gentle and not-so-gentle questions, proddings, and pleas that have prevented DOOR, the organization I lead, from entering into a well-adjusted indifference. Prophetic presence comes with a high personal cost and sacrifice, which I have not always acknowledged. To my board and staff I apologize for the times DOOR has failed to live up to its calling as the Beloved Community.

Please accept my sincere thanks and gratitude for the work you continue to do to help me live in a world where inclusion, justice and equality are in simple terms “normal.”

 

Church

A Facebook friend and “former” member of a church I pastored a few years ago shared the following status, “I’ve got nothing against God; it’s his fan club I can't stand.” Statements like this make me sad. Personally I am a huge believer in the church. Quite frankly I do not know how I could be a Christian without the support of a home church. But neither am I naïve. Too often the church is not a healthy place. On August 22 a local newspaper, Denver Westword, ran a detailed story of a pastor who seems to be using grace as a way to justify his moral failures. In his wake there are a series of women who have been hurt and even terrorized. Beyond the moral failures of leadership there are the moral judgments. Too often the church has been a place of condemnation and judgment. Over the course of history the church has managed to find “justifiable theologies” to condemn almost everything. African Americans were seen as less than human, non-white immigrants could be part of the family as long as they stayed on their side of the border, women were not fit for leadership, and people of various orientations were not and are not admitted.

In some senses the evidence is overwhelming. The church of today cannot be the church that Jesus envisioned when he appointed Peter as the rock upon which the church would be built.

The church is so much more than “judgment” and “moral failure.” Today, August 28, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. was a product of the church. His dream was rooted in a connection to a community of faith.

Since 1994 people of faith have been gathering at the US-Mexican border to celebrate “posada sin fronteras.” This is a celebration where the church comes together to say no to walls of division and yes to a bond that is more powerful than political boundaries.

Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and author of Tattoos on the Heart, tells the story of how people of faith - the church- can change the destiny of those the world has given up on.

The church is still a powerful agent for change. Yes it gets tripped up from time to time. The news media and social media will play a role in keeping the church and its leaders accountable. This is good. My hope and prayer is that people will not abandon the church because of its sins, but rather chose to hold the church accountable. When the church is accountable, it is also prophetic. Prophetic gives way to hope and change.

Fear, Violence and Death

This past Monday I was in Los Angeles when I received a text from my wife, “there was a fatal shooting at 29th and Franklin, it happened just as the High School was letting out.”  I live a 31st and Franklin.  The 18 year old victim died.  My son turns 18 later this year so when I hear of an 18 year old being shot to death in my neighborhood, it becomes personal very quickly.  According to my neighbors this was a gang related shooting. The news this week has also been dominated by a shooting in Florida.  An unarmed 17 year old was shot to death justifiably, according Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.”  In what world is shooting an unarmed teen justifiable?  Can we really claim to be a Christian Nation and have laws that allow us to kill each other?

Philosophically what happened in Denver is as “justifiable” as what happened in Florida.  A gang member was simply standing his ground – protecting his turf.

I can almost understand why people without faith believe that standing your ground is important and correct, but what I cannot understand is how anyone in the faith community could even begin to endorse a law like this.

Stand your ground laws help to legitimize prejudices, assumptions, and stereotypes.  It is not surprising that both of the dead teens happen to be black.  It is this is population that has been victimized most by society’s irrational fears.

We are not going to get past things like racism, prejudice, and fear by creating space for justifiable murder.  If anything, allowing civilians to arm themselves makes these issues more contencious.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Jesus had it right all along.  Swords and guns must be transformed into instruments of peace.  When we arm each other it becomes too easy to let fear dictate our actions and fear too often leads to unwarranted violence.

Seminar

Sometimes I agree to do something before I fully think through all the implications.  Months ago a coworker and I agreed to lead a seminar titled “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race” at the upcoming Mennonite Convention in Pittsburg.  Apparently we are going to talk about White Privilege.  This is one of those “elephant in the room” topics.  I want to live in the world of Martin Luther King’s dream - a world where people are only judged content of their character. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world has not yet arrived.  It means admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color.  This is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born White and will die White, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?  One 55 minute seminar will not solve the issue.

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by White Privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for White people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

Leadership

For much of my life I have dreamt about being a leader.  In my mind leadership always had something to do with “showing the way.”  Martin Luther King Jr. did this when he talked about his dream.   President Regan did the same when he asked Mr. Gorbachev to tear down this wall!  Barack Obama motivated a nation with three simple words, “yes we can!”  Jesus did when he preached a sermon on the mount (see Matthew 5-7) Being the kind of leader who can see past the storms of life to what is possible is intoxicating.

Leadership is more than a great speech.

It is true that King gave a great speech that motivated a nation to dream, but before he could stand at the Lincoln Memorial he had to sit in a prison in Birmingham.  Jesus knew how to captivate a crowd, but he also knew how to wash his disciples’ feet.

I am about to complete 17 years as the “top dog” at DOOR.  I have had a few inspirational moments.  The most significant lessons I learned about being a leader have very little to do with “showing the way.”  Sometimes being a leader has meant that I got to clean the bathrooms.  Other times it has required me to step out of the lime light and let others lead.  More often then I care to admit it has required me to apologize and ask for forgiveness.  One of the biggest temptations leaders face is arrogance and arrogance has a way of causing all kinds of hurt and pain.

I am not of the school of thought that says everyone is a leader.  Leadership is a role that should be taken on with plenty of caution, trepidation and prayer.  And know this; a real leader knows that leadership is mostly about being led.

Enemy

This week President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I remember September 11, 2001 like it was yesterday.  It wasn’t a fun day.  I was in a plane, flying from Ft Lauderdale to Chicago, when the first tower was struck.  I still remember being ordered out of our plane and eventually out of O’Hare airport.  I was one of the lucky few who managed to rent a car.  The 18 hour drive from Chicago to Denver was filled with all kinds of emotions.  What if I had been on one of those planes? Before the end of the year I was diagnosed with shingles.  The doctor said it was stress related.

I cannot say that I was ready to throw a party when I heard the news, but I did not shed any tears either.

How should people of faith respond when those who wish to do us harm are harmed?

Martin Luther King Jr. had an important perspective, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate; violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."

I think that there is much wisdom in his words.

The Power of Vision

I have always been inspired by people with prophetic vision; that unique ability to see beyond a current reality into a new and better future. In 1961, President John F Kennedy reshaped the political tone of our country when he stated, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Martin Luther King had the gift.  His “I have a Dream” speech is as powerful today as is was in 1963. 

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

It seems to me that Jesus wanted believers to be people of vision - to see things not as they are, but as they should be.  The kingdom of God is a place where the hungry have food and the homeless have a place to lay their heads; where the lonely, the alien and the outcast are included as members of the family – God’s family; and where forgiveness, not vengeance, is the mode of operation.

My prayer for this world, not very original, but still visionary:

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.