BMWs, Whiteness, and my Christian Faith

As a young seminary student in the late 1980’s I interned at the amazing United Methodist Church in Clovis, California. For three years this church made space for me, treated both my wife and me like family, and allowed me to grow as a leader. One of my first assignments was to lead the young married bible study. We met every Thursday in one couple’s home. One of our fist decisions was to choose a book or theme. After much discussion we all agreed that we would work through Tony Campolo’s book 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch. The study was going along well until week seven when we explored the chapter “You Cannot be a Christian and Own a BMW.” At least one of the couples in our group owned a BMW. It would be fair to say that the evening did not go well for me. I have reflected on that evening often over the years. If I were to lead that study again, I wouldn’t focus on BMWs. For Campolo, the BMW was a metaphor for a much larger concern. As Christians, how and where we spend our money has both moral and ethical implications. The neighborhood you choose to live in, the size of house you purchase, where you invest your retirement money, and, yes, the car you choose to purchase are not morally neutral choices.

Last Sunday I experienced another BMW type of moment. During the adult Sunday school hour our speaker asserted that “you cannot be white and a Christian.” At this point it is important to let you know that 90% of the folks in the room were white. After the initial shock wore off he went on to say, “If all you are doing is focusing on the color of your skin then you are missing my point.” Just like Campolo’s BMWs this speaker, was using “white” in a metaphorical way.

White Christianity is a faith that allows a person to talk about making things great again. It is a lens that provides a rose colored perspective of our shared history. It is choosing not to see how white Christian faith and slavery, Jim Crow, sexism, homophobia, and segregation are all part of “great again.”

White Christianity allows Christian politicians to advocate for carpet bombing the enemy while claiming to be pro-life.

White Christianity has the power to marginalize and dilute movements, by responding to Black Lives Matter with slogans like All Lives Matter.

White Christianity creates a space to claim the authority and inerrancy of scripture until it becomes inconvenient. Turning the other cheek and welcoming the stranger don’t apply when the stranger is Muslim, gay, a Democrat, or a Republican.

White Christianity is not so much about the color of my skin as it is about the power I choose to access and weld because of my skin color. The hard work that those of us with access to white Christianity are tasked with is to unburden ourselves from the need to reshape Christianity into a faith that only serves our needs. One of the more powerful ideas within Christianity is surrender. As we do the hard work of surrendering white Christianity and leaving it at the foot of the cross, something Christ-like will take its place.

The Mixing

Polite people don’t mix faith and politics, or so we have been told. I understand why so many people feel this way. Both of these subjects are deeply personal. For the most part we like to believe what we believe and have no interest in changing our positions. That said, we also believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is wrong, and that eventually they will see the light. My job for the past two decades has been about asking people to think about both their faith and their politics. DOOR invites folks to come and spend anywhere from a day to a year with us. During their stay we ask people to reflect on their deeply held faith and ask if it can extend beyond a conviction to a practical response. As soon as we start talking about how to live out faith, political perspectives begin to surface.

It is not possible to move towards a public faith- the kind of faith that is committed to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner; all the stuff that Jesus talked about in Matthew 25- without talking about politics.

For example, take feeding the hungry. We have DOOR participants work in soup kitchens. If you spend enough time at a soup kitchen, eventually it becomes apparent that these ministries serve an interesting cross-section of people, not just the homeless or folks who are looking for a free ride. There are families, the working poor, children, and young adults. Eventually you have to ask why people need a soup kitchen. In time this leads to conversations about affordable housing, fair wages, education, and access to health care. All political topics.

I am no longer sure that it is even appropriate to separate our faith and politics. As Christians we hold to this unique concept that all human beings are created in the very image and likeness of God. For this reason alone everyone has worth. There is also a sense in which people of faith, are call to care for all humans.

Maybe we need to flip the language a bit. Instead of dividing the conversation between faith and politics, we should start thinking about our interactions with other people as a human issue. Any faith or political perspective that actively dehumanizes the other should be considered wrong.

This alone will not solve everything. Disagreement is part of what it means to be human. However, starting discussions with the assumption that we all have worth has potential to create a space for vigorous, yet civil, discussions.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

My favorite line in the Lord’s Prayer is “on earth as it is in heaven.” The idea that Jesus wanted this life on planet earth to be a reflection of heaven has been a source of hope for me. I might go so far as to say it is the basis of my conviction that humanity is moving towards an ethic of kindness, inclusion, and generosity. Then November 8, 2016 happened. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, this past election cycle uncovered and exposed some of the darker sides of humanity. I have friends and co-workers who are legitimately afraid of what might happen to them. Over the period of a few hours on that Tuesday judgment, hate, and fear was normalized. In my city of Denver a swastika was recently spray painted on the door of a local elementary school. The news regularly reports about re-empowered hate groups.

Have we taken a giant step backwards? My initial reaction was a resounding yes. I am beginning to wonder if that is really the case. Is it possible that the only thing that changed on November 8 was the shattering of my insulated world?

Hate, misogyny, judgment, and distrust didn’t just suddenly emerge on November 8. On that night my privileged political perspective was given a reality check. In a sense I had a 2 Kings 6:17 moment, where Elisha prays that the eyes of his servant would be opened. In that particular case the servant saw the armies of God. In my case I have been reminded that the world is larger than my particular echo chamber.

Can I, can we, still take seriously Jesus’ words – on earth as it is in heaven? Yes, now more than ever. It is time for people of all faiths to demonstrate to the world that we can respect each other, that we can live together without resorting to violence. It time for the church to be about inclusion, not just the politically correct type of inclusion but a radical inclusion that takes seriously the humanity of everyone.

My youngest son is in Bible College. I have enjoyed reading his papers and watching him struggle with his own faith. Recently he was asked to write a reflection on a passage in Galatians. He chose Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In his reflections he wondered what Paul might have written if he were around in 2016. My son thought it would go something like this:

There is no longer Christian, Jew or Muslim,

There is no longer straight, gay, queer or transgender,

There is no longer liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; American or foreigner,

For we are all humans created in the very image and likeness of God.

This election exposed some scary things. It is now time for people of faith to start being the hands and feet of Jesus. Just maybe we will all be around to witness heaven right here on earth!

Hangover

“When they go low, we go high.” Nice words, but this morning they seem a little too optimistic. Here in the United States of America, going low won the day and the next four years.

We just elected a president who started his campaign by describing an entire people group as rapists, thieves, and drug dealers. Over the course of his candidacy he made it OK to objectify women thereby creating moral space for misogyny. Now he is calling us to unite, to come together as one. How does this even happen? I don’t even know how to approach my fellow believers who justified their vote by saying, “well he’s a baby Christian.”

I work for organization that has hired Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, immigrants, and people from the GLBTQI community. They are terrified and not figuratively. The fear is real; it is based on actions and statements made by the candidate. Their very humanity and lives have been brought into question.

I don’t know how to come together. How do you hold hands and sing Kumbaya with someone who denies your very right to exist?

Where are the people of God in all of this? Where is the church?

Too many church leaders, who tend to look like me, white and male, have sacrificed the gospel of Jesus for a shot at power and dominance. The best way to do this was to rewrite Scripture so that the only things that mattered were prayer in school, abortion, and homosexuality. Loving God and loving people have become side issues. As long as we have someone in our camp who hates who we hate, then we can look past the misogyny, the racism, the sexism, and the fear mongering. All of this has brought us to today, November 9, 2016.

I do not know what the future holds; today I am pretty pessimistic. But maybe it is time to remember that people of faith have always been most effective and prophetic when they find themselves judged, misunderstood and in the minority.

Empathy

In a normal year I like to watch the news and I especially like the political round tables. Lately I have found myself switching channels. Debates seem to be less about ideas and more about bullying. A few weeks ago I watched a debate between some Republican and Democratic pundits. I was intrigued by the Republican who attended a United Church of Christ congregation known for being very progressive. Before long I was both disappointed and sucked in. This man was railing against his church. The Sunday before his pastor had said something about white people being racist, simply because they are white. This is not an unusual claim and from my perspective is also correct. Whenever I am in conversations where this is brought up the room either gets deftly silent or a slow defensive anger begins to grow. Either way the white men and women in the room do not react well to be called “racist.” Their responses to this take a number of approaches. There is the, “I judge people by how they treat me, not their skin color.” Or the, “I have never said a racist thing in my life.” There is also the friend approach, “I have friends of color, they have never called be racist.” My personal favorite, “I voted for Obama.” If you have been in one of these discussions chances are you could add many more responses. The point to all these responses has something to do with never having joined a hate group or used racist language. From a certain perspective they have move to a place beyond racism.

As I have thought about that pundit and reflected about conversations I have been part of, I wonder if what many white people are lacking is empathy. According to Google, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  More often than not privilege and power becomes a barrier to empathy.

White privilege affords me the freedom to only understand my world, my context, my feelings, my Christian values, and my responses. And all of these “my’s” get to be considered the standard of how everyone else should respond.

So when a person, particularly a person in power, says “I don’t judge people until I know their character,” that says something about privilege. It assumes that the other person will treat me with enough respect so that I don’t have to run in fear. My brothers and sisters of color do not have this privilege. All too often they are judged simply because of the color of their skin.

As a white person I get all the privileges of being white. My world view is the standard. My Christian faith is correct. My freedoms are the first to be preserved. Living in this world means that I benefit from structures designed to make my life better at the cost of making things more difficult for people of color. This is racist.

Changing this system, working towards a world where people are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin will take a whole lot of work. A good first step is recognizing that “Black Lives Matter.”

A time to weep

In Romans 12:15 the Apostle Paul calls us to, “weep with those who weep.” Like many I first heard about the tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida Sunday morning as I got ready for church. 50 people killed and 53 others injured. The worst domestic act of terror since 9-11. This is a time to weep. 50 people, 49 victims and 1 hated filled perpetrator, each one created in the very image and likeness of God, gone. This is the kind of stuff that breaks God’s heart. Then to find out the shooter was acting as both judge and jury towards our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, added an additional level of pain to an already heart-rending day. If there was ever a time for people of faith to stand shoulder to shoulder, this was it. Sunday was a day when every worshipper in every church, mosque, and temple needed to stop, pray, and mourn.

Now, a few days after, I am also bothered by a conspicuous silence by some in the faith community; the leaders, pastors, and lay people who are uncomfortable. Without a doubt this is a moment to lay aside our theological and political differences and stand together. Our common humanity negates any theological, religious, lifestyle, or political differences we might harbor.

If people of faith cannot find a way to stand together and be present, supportive, loving, and praying, our faith really doesn’t have much significance.

My role at DOOR affords me a tremendous amount of contact with young people. One of their major frustrations with the church and people of faith is hypocrisy. They hear sermons about a loving God, then watch their leaders condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They are told about a pro-life God, then instructed to buy guns to protect themselves. They hear the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world,” and are then told to hate the gays, the Muslims, and anyone who doesn’t respect our way of life.

I am tired of religious expressions that are constantly looking for ways to exclude, hate, and judge. I claim a faith that rejoices with those who rejoice, mourns with those who mourn, and steadfastly believes that everyone is created in the image of God.

Today I stand with Orlando, Florida. Today I stand with all my brothers and sisters who have been judged. Today I choose to believe that love wins and hate loses.

A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives. What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

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.

My way or the highway

I am a follower of Jesus, an Executive Director of a national ministry, a student of theology, and an occasional pastor. For the last two decades my underlying motivations and curiosities have revolved around two biblical ideas. The first, Jesus’ prayer that the Kingdom of God could be a reality on earth as it is in heaven. And second, that God so loved the world. As it turns out these are attractive ideas and passages for most Christians. It could be argued that the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16 are the most universally recognized parts of scripture. The attractiveness of these ideas begins to fall apart once we start asking questions. What does the world, and particularly the church, look like when it lives in such a way that heaven and earth are the same? Who is all included in this world that God so loved?

I doubt that it is possible to fully answer these questions in one blog, especially when the church has been trying for 2,000 years. The journey towards loving the world that God loves and living on earth as in heaven can be painful and upsetting, mostly because God doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for our values, rules, or theology.

One of the ways that people of faith have dealt with these passages is to “help” God with the definitions and procedures. It usually goes something like this: yes, God sent God’s Son for the whole world, but if you really want to be included then you need to pray the right prayer, believe like we do, and follow our rules for being a Christian. Living on earth as in heaven means you have to accept “our” understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

I understand why we create rules for living and statements of faith. It helps us to make God more palatable and manageable. Quite frankly it is simpler to be together and worship together if we are all the same. This need to define and contain God is an ancient practice. In John 8 the religious leaders bring a women caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment. Their motives were pure, they wanted a faith that honored God and followed the rules. Jesus just didn’t have the same need for rules designed to control God. For the most part fundamentalism grows out of an honest desire to do right by God. The problem with fundamentalism is that it quickly leads to a “my way or the highway” mentality.

I am part of a denomination that is working through its understanding of sexual orientation. There are those who say if you don’t agree with me, then you are wrong. This is just another way of someone saying I have figured out the box that God belongs in and if you don’t agree with me than you clearly don’t know who God is.

This brings me back to the Kingdom of God on earth and the world that God loves. Whenever people of faith have attempted to define and limit what this is they have gotten themselves in trouble. The truth is that the image of God that we all reflect presents a pretty diverse portrait. Like the apostle Paul, all of us are looking at the Kingdom of God through a glass dimly.

I make no claims to fully understanding who is and is not included, but I suspect that living on earth as it is in heaven means that I need to be open to including, worshipping with, and loving even those with whom I disagree.

Together

Like most people I am glad the latest election cycle is over. I live in Colorado; we happen to be a swing state. From what I can tell, the primary benefit of this honor is to be inundated with political ads. I mean one right after the other. First candidate A says you shouldn’t vote for candidate B, followed by an ad from candidate B saying you shouldn’t vote for candidate A  Every ad had the same basic message – the other person was always evil, wrong, or sinful. Truth be told, these political candidates were simply reflecting an emerging way of being together as humans. It goes something like this, “you either agree with me or you are wrong.” And the political world isn’t unique in holding this perspective. People of faith tend to only connect, gather, and worship with others who affirm their particular assumptions and prejudices. This way of living, thinking, and being is dangerous, corrosive, and boring. We need to find new ways to be together. Does it really make us better people if we focus our interactions on those with whom we agree?

It is our differences that make us unique. It is imperative that we find the courage to embrace and even accept those whose world view is unusual. Leaning to celebrate how we are different will make us better people, Christians, and politicians.

I do not know how to fix or change the political world. But I do have hope for the church. Can you imagine attending a church where political, social, and theological differences are embraced? Where a person’s stand on any of the “controversial” issues isn’t a litmus test, but rather a reason to have a voice?

Faith and risk taking are ideas that go hand-in-hand. When people of faith only gather with others who look, believe, and think the same, the gathering becomes something less than church. When Christians divide from each other over theological or social differences it becomes less Christian. As people of faith we are called to become highly comfortable with being highly uncomfortable. This is what it means to be salt and light!

Embracing Difference & Green Chili

It has been almost 20 years since I made a significant career and life change. Back in 1994 I was pastoring in a church where almost everyone looked, thought, and believed like me. In many ways this made being a pastor “easy.” For the most part my convictions and stereotypes were identical to the people in my church. We knew which political party to vote for, where to go for lunch, what neighborhoods to live in, and the best school district for our children. We all agreed about right and wrong and had a common understanding of what a sinful lifestyle was.

By the start of 1995 many of my tight definitions and convictions about faith and life began to erode. Moving from a monoculture (suburbs) to a multicultural (city) world began a change. Everything I thought I knew about God and the life of faith was put to the test. In the city I met a God, apparently my God, who wasn’t predicable and certainly had no respect for my well thought through theological conclusions or understandings. It was almost as if God was showing me God’s rebellious and mischievous side.

In the city I found myself working with people who claimed “Christianity” but held convictions that opposed what I thought where no-brainers, the basics. At first this was hard. How could someone claim the same faith as me and vote for the other party, or embrace a lifestyle I understood to be wrong? For a while I put up a fight. When I look back on it now, I sort of thought of myself as an urban martyr for Jesus. I suspect that Jesus was mildly humored by this impulse.

I probably would still hold to the martyr perspective if I hadn’t encountered green chili. Not just any green chili, but Denver west-side green chili. For those of you not from Denver, it would be money well spent to travel to Denver and sample some of this culinary delight. As a Mennonite from Canada my primary way of adding spice to food was to reach for the salt and pepper.

Green chili comes in many varieties and everyone seems to have a unique family recipe. Regardless of the recipe, it is fair to say that green chili is significantly spicier than adding salt and pepper. At first this chili was a shock to my taste buds. From a certain perspective the spiciness was sinful. Over time I came to understand green chili as simply different from the foods I had grown up with. Today this difference has become tasty and enjoyable.

Leaning to embrace and accept different foods has only served to increase my eating enjoyment. I still like the food I grew up with, but learning about other foods has expanded my world. 

I have tried to take this lesson about food into my faith world. Just because someone sees their faith differently than I do, this does not immediately make them sinners. It just means they are different. Learning to embrace and appreciate those differences only serves to expand my understanding of God. In a sense it serves to make my faith spicier. Trust me, spicy is good.

If as people of faith we can learn to table judgment and embrace difference, the Good News of the gospel would actually be Good News.

Rule Books

I am not a rule follower by nature.  There are those who would see this as a character flaw that needs correction.  I on the other hand have always viewed this particular trait as a way to challenge the status quo.   After all Jesus wasn’t much of a rule follower himself.  He spoke with a Samaritan woman, breaking two laws – 1) talking to a woman in public and 2) associating with a Samaritan.  He broke the Sabbath rules when he cured a man with withered hands, a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for 18 years, and a man who had been ill for 38 years.  Just read the gospel stories, Jesus seemed to have a loose and flexible arrangement with the Old Testament laws. What drives our desire to turn Scripture into a rule book?  Turning the Bible into a rule book only gives us the illusion that leading a good Christian life is a simple undertaking and that the Christian world exits in a black and white universe.  Quite frankly I don’t know why God didn’t hand out a clear-cut rule book.  The truth is that Scripture at its best helps us to function in the grey.

From what I can tell the major problem with the grey is that it leaves very little room for “I am right and you are wrong.”  If anything Scripture calls us to unity regardless of our differences.  This isn’t always easy or simple.  Many in the Christian community have been taught that difference equals sin.  When someone has a different political or social position than us the temptation is to label the other as a sinner.  Maybe it is time to let difference just be difference even when that difference seems to go against our particular understanding of Scripture.

Gray

I am the kind of person who desires clarity because it provides things like answers and direction.  It allows one to move forward with confidence and the assurance that “I am leading in the right direction.”  I have been brought up to believe that it is important to know some things, for example, the difference between right and wrong. There is a lurking danger when some in leadership claim to have divine clarity or direction.  More often than not it is simply arrogance parading as morality.  As I am writing this blog our nation is watching our federal leaders bring us to the brink of economic meltdown all in the name of their political “clarity.”  Everyone thinks they are absolutely right and this absoluteness leads to arrogance and a complete unwillingness to compromise.

This kind of misplaced clarity also shows up in the church.  From the benign - think of the worship style wars; to the sinister – consider how many in the church have treated those who are gay.  All of these struggles emerge from a false position of clarity.

As much as I desire clarity, both personally and professionally, I am slowly coming to realize how dangerous and destructive certainty and clarity can be, I am thinking particularly about a kind of certainly that emerges out of a desire to control, manipulate or rule the other.  The simple truth is that we live in a world which is mostly gray.  And it is not easy or comfortable living in the gray.

In politics, living in the gray means valuing and working with those who do not hold to your particular position.  It means owning the silliness of absolute viewpoints and assuming a position of humility that allows space to be wrong.

From a theological perspective we must own that black and white makes God small and manageable.  It removes the mystery and wonder.  It makes God easy to follow.  It allows us to shape God into our image rather opening ourselves to the possibility of being formed in God’s image.

Living in the gray opens us to the possibility of living in the tension of not knowing.  As strange as it might sound this is good and freeing.

Political or Partisan?

Many of us grew up with the notion that religion and politics are dinner conversations to avoid.  I think I understand why.  Both are deeply personal.  And we want to believe that how we believe is the morally right way to believe.  All of this leaves very little room for discussion and lots of possibility for hurt.  For many the only solution is to remain silent, especially around the dinner table.

We need to find ways to be a people of faith without becoming partisan.  Moreover we must own that faith is always political.  These are inescapable realities.  Too many church leaders have been seduced by partisan politics.  If I were allowed to rewrite Barack Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2008 for the church, it would go like this (the irony of using a political speech has not been lost on me):

“There are those who are preparing to divide us the church of Jesus Christ.  Well, I say to them, there is not a liberal church and a conservative church; there is only one church, one body.  There's not the black church and the white church and the Latino church and the Asian church; there is only one church.  Yes we argue, we don’t always agree, but when push comes to shove our unity always trumps our divisions.”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan a lawyer asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  An exchange about the law happens and in the end Jesus tells a story.  It is a story about religious people making bad decisions and one really bad person, the Samaritan, making a good decision.  The Samaritan chose compassion over any possible difference – political, social, religious or economic.  This act was political and even a bit subversive.

When people of faith do justice and demand justice partisan politics become irrelevant and kingdom politics become everything.

When we start with the radical political assumption that all people are created in the image of God everything changes.  People dying in the dessert, the health of your neighbor, education for all, racial profiling, and gun violence are all issues that people of faith should speak to with one voice because our oneness in Jesus trumps all the other possible divisions.

Judgment

I bought a new bible last week. Cokesbury is closing all its retail stores so now is a great time to get a great deal on a new bible! This whole process of looking for a new bible sent me down memory lane. I still have the bible I used as a teen. On the inside cover I found the following quote:

“No two Christians are exactly alike, some wear their hair quite long, others wear it fairly short, some Christians have black skin, others have skin that is yellow or white; some Christians have little education, others have graduate degrees; some Christians are poor, others are rich; some Christians enjoy using guitars and drums in church, other are opposed to using any instruments.”

A day or two after purchasing my new bible I was part of a phone conversation where the person on the other end of the line declared that I was clearly not a Christian. He then proceeded to pray the sinner’s prayer over me not once but multiple times. I must say it is interesting to be thought of as a person without faith.

This experience has caused a lot of reflection in my own life. Not about my commitment to Jesus, but about how many times I have questioned some else’s faith or commitment to their faith simply because it did not reflect my commitments.

I am known for telling people that God does not come to us for permission. We, humanity, are not the gatekeepers for God. Declaring someone outside of the kingdom of God has never been our responsibility. Allowing God to be God is not easy or comfortable. If you are like me you want God to be on your side. I would like to think that my values line up with God’s. This is what the church is called to do, remind us of God’s values. The struggle to be as radically accepting and inclusive as God can be disturbing.

In my work I get to see and work with Christians of all stripes. There are the patriots and those who call us to a global citizenship. I have worked side-by-side with pro-life and pro-choice believers. Some believers are convinced that the rapture is coming and others see it as the greatest scam ever pulled on Christians. This list could go on for quite a while. Here is my point, for reasons that are only known to God Christians don’t always agree. Our disagreements can seem quite significant. These disagreements should never be cause for declaring that someone is outside the kingdom of God.

How would Christianity be different if we started with the supposition that everyone is a child of God; that each person’s beliefs, political positions, immigration status, and citizenship are simply inconsequential?

Don’t you believe what the Bible teaches?

The other day I was asked to sign a petition.  It had to do with one of those burning “Christian” issues.  At this point you need to know that I am not going to name her issue, as naming it would shift the focus of this blog to the issue. My standard response to petitions is that I am a Canadian and probably shouldn’t sign.  Most people let me off the hook at this point.  In this instance I was once again let off the hook, but before she went on to ask for more signatures she proceeded to lament to me about the state of Christian belief in this country.

“Why can’t people just believe what the bible teaches?”  For her the Bible spoke clearly to her issue.

I have thought about her statement for a while now.  Like her I believe that Bible is clear about some things.  For me loving God and loving neighbors are at the top of the list, but once we get past these two subjects clarity quickly fades.

Think about all the things that divided Christians:

There are many believers who defend a literal six day creation. However, Christians were among the first to suggest that we need to understand the Genesis stories symbolically.

Christians are among the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Christians are among the strongest opponents of these conflicts.

Think about the current debates over gay marriage and women’s right to choose. It is Christians who are the strongest supporters and opponents.

Then there is the healthcare debate.  You can find committed followers of Christ across the “what should we do” spectrum.

Taking Jesus and Scripture seriously does not always provide clear-cut answers.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to accept people of faith who fundamentally disagree with you and your understanding of the truth.  That said, authentic Christianity always allows for the possibility that my particular understanding of the issue might be wrong.

Un-Documentable

In the last three weeks I have been drawn into at least five separate conversations regarding immigration.  The general tone of these encounters has been critical of current USA policy.  At the more benign level people argue that Christianity and hospitality are connected.  This call to hospitality demands that Christians advocate for an open immigration policy.  On the more radical end there are those who say that the USA made its wealth by taking much of the American Southwest from Mexico and continues to reap benefits from unfair trade practices and sweat shops.  For these folks immigration isn’t so much about hospitality but rather it is about reparations.  People are coming here because they want their “stuff” back. As you can well imagine, these discussions are filled with a whole lot of emotion.

The exchange that I keep coming back to occurred this week.  It was with my friend Anton Flores.  He runs a small not-for-profit in La Grange Georgia called Alterna.  Alterna is a group of people that offers community, fellowship and hospitality to the “un-documentable.”  It is important to note that “un-documentable” does not equal criminal or terrorist.  These are people who have come because providing for their family in their home country has become all but impossible.  More often than not the conditions that have driven them to the USA are tied to foreign policies and actions of the past and present.

I empathize with those who wish for stricter immigration laws and regulations.  The desire to feel safe and secure is powerful.  What I do not understand is why the church so often supports these laws uncritically.   Hospitality and making things right are cornerstones of the Christian faith.  As believers our first loyalty is to each other and humanity.  When this loyalty comes into conflict with the laws of the land, our faith commitment must always come first.

Different

Stanley Houerwas is one of those theologians known for provocative statements; I suspect he enjoys making people think.   This is from his book Dispatches from the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular - “Mentally handicapped folks are segregated, not because they cannot learn, but because they are segregated for being not like us.  Furthermore, we fear those who are not like us.” My initial response was to check out the copyright date of the book, it was published in 1994.  In my mind the societal fear of differences may have been true a generation or two ago, but not in 2012.

Have we made progress?  Do we still separate from one another based on how we are different?  During the last election cycle President Obama regularly said, we are not a collection of red states or blue states we are the United States.  I like the idea that our unity trumps all the things that divide us.  I cannot help but wonder if disunity and differences are what we cling to.

Just listening to politicians talk about each seems to confirm how divided we are.  Politics is not the only place of division.  Sunday morning worship is still one of the most divided hours in the week.  There is Conservative and Liberal options, multi-racial churches are still the exception, family values divide gay from straight, we have hymn churches and contemporary music churches.

This trend extends well beyond church and politics.  Communities divide over school districts, crime rates and ethnicity.  What will it take to get beyond our fear of different?  When I speak to DOOR participants I spend a great deal of time explaining the different is only different.  When we fear different the possibility is created to define different as bad, evil or sinful.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to tame our fear of different.  When we do this a whole new and exciting world of possibilities open up.

It’s time to declare a “War on Broken Bones”

It was on October 14, 1982 President Ronald Regan declared a “War on Drugs.”  It was a time in our country’s history when less than 2% of Americans viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the country.  By the 1980’s the number of arrests for all crime rose 28% while the number of arrests for drug related offenses rose 128%.  In 1999, crime statistics show that blacks were the most likely group to be arrested for drug crimes.  In some states in the mid 90’s 90% of those admitted to prison for drug offenses were either black or brown. Let’s reimagine this for a moment.  Let’s suppose the in 1982 “broken bones due to sports” was declared the new war.  In order to get this epidemic under control the government declares all broken bones due to sports activities a felony with a new mandatory minimum sentences and an additional “3 strikes and you’re out” law.

Seems silly doesn’t it?  You don’t fix a broken bone issue by sending the person to jail.  You get them medical attention and then develop more effective pads and game rules.

Why then do we think that the drug problem can be solved by stiffer mandatory jail sentences?  Drug addiction is a problem, but putting people in jail for addiction is silly at best and morally wrong at worst.  Drugs like broken bones are best dealt with by medical professionals.  One of the more embarrassing realities of this War on Drugs is that Christians have more often than not allowed politicians to define who is criminal and what activities constitute criminal behavior.

Maybe it is time to call the War on Drugs what it really was – a political ploy designed to motivate people to vote for and support a particular President.  It is important to note that every presidential candidate since has used some form of “get tough on crime (read drugs)” rhetoric.

According to Matthews’s gospel one characteristics of Christians is how we treat the prisoner.  I can’t help but wonder if he included this in his gospel because deciding who is bad and who is good is something we will get wrong more often than right.

Chaos

I was at Gunther Toody’s, a famous Denver breakfast spot, the other week for breakfast. Every Thursday, a group of retired pastors and church leaders get together to talk about what was, what is, and what should be. For me, it is fun to be part of a group where I am the youngest person by 30 years.

Every once in awhile, they ask my opinion on a matter they are discussing, but for the most part I enjoy listening to their bantering back and forth. Every once in a while someone shares a real zinger.

During my last visit, one gentleman who had been quiet for most of the first hour jumps into the conversation, and with a funny grin on his face, makes the following statement, “Religion provides solace for the chaos it creates.”

At first I thought I was hearing the cynicism of a grumpy old man. Then I started to think.

A lot of crazy stuff has happened in the name of religion. I remember as a young person going to book and record burnings because someone had told us that Satan was in the books and records. Most wars are fought in the name of God or we ask God to bless our war.

Our world is divided as much by religion as it is by politics.

Is it possible for religion to be less chaotic and more unifying? Do we always have to use religion as a reason to divide, separate and fight? Is it possible to start every discussion by finding out what we have in common?

Maybe labels like liberal, conservative, pro-life, pro-choice, Republican, Democrat, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist or Mennonite have no business being part of the church.

I had a friend who used to tell me that this world needs a little less religion (read chaos) and a whole lot more Jesus (read inclusion).