Posts tagged ‘Civil Rights’

John Lewis: 1940-2020

John Lewis’s 80 years of life on this earth were electric. As a child, he aspired to be a preacher, practicing his sermons on the chickens on his family farm. He was ordained as a Baptist minister, but never served at a congregation. Instead, he devoted himself to the Civil Rights Movement – becoming a Freedom Rider, speaking at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and nearly losing his life on what has become known as Bloody Sunday – March 7, 1965 – in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Alabama State Troopers beat demonstrators who were marching there for voting rights. Mr. Lewis had his skull fractured by the troopers, and bore a scar on his head in testimony to their brutalization of him the rest of his life. In 1987, Mr. Lewis was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served Georgia’s 5th congressional district until his death. In 2011, Mr. Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Mr. Lewis passed away July 17, 2020. His funeral was held this past week at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where he was honored by three past presidents and many other dignitaries. He also became the first black lawmaker to have his body lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. Many disagreed with his politics, especially in his later years. But people on both sides of the aisle respected his character and so many of his accomplishments.

For all of John Lewis’s accomplishments – and for all the ways he has been honored as a watershed figure in American history over these past couple of weeks – he never lost sight of his simple faith in Christ.

In his book, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, he wrote:

Faith, to me, is knowing in the solid core of your soul that the work is already done.

This, in many ways, is a summary of what it means to believe the gospel. The world around us looks broken and terrible – especially these days. We see a pandemic raging and racial tensions flaring and political coalitions clashing. It looks like sin is encroaching and death is marching and Satan is winning. But Christians believe that sin, death, and the devil – even if they look like they are triumphing – have been defeated. The cross is the declaration that the work of salvation against all evil has already been accomplished by Jesus. As Mr. Lewis would put it: “the work is already done.”

John Lewis continued his meditation on faith by writing:

Even if you do not live to see it come to pass, you know without one doubt that it will be. That is faith.

John Lewis saw many things come to pass. Just five months after Bloody Sunday, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. But, of course, there are still many things for which we are still looking to be. There are still many problems that we face, not the least of which is the hatred and vitriol that has come to mark so much of our public discourse. But to quote the congressman again:

Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.

These are words we need now more than ever. Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for leaving them to us. Rest in peace until the resurrection of all flesh.

August 3, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Cries of Those Lost

Credit: Sean Rayford / Getty Images

This has been another long week for our nation. There have been difficult, but critical, conversations about racism. There have been demonstrations. There has been violence and looting. There have been tears. There have been deaths. This past Thursday, there was new evidence presented in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man who was shot and killed in Glynn County, Georgia.

In a Brunswick courtroom, a judge found probable cause for pressing murder charges against Greg and Travis McMichael and William Bryan. According to evidence presented by the prosecution, the three men pursued Mr. Arbery in pickup trucks until they were able to corner him. Travis McMichael then shot Mr. Arbery three times, fatally wounding him. After his death, Mr. Bryan testified that he heard Travis McMichael utter a racial epithet over Mr. Arbery as he lay dying. Evidence was also presented that Travis McMichael had used this same epithet repeatedly on social media and in text messages. It was an alleged pattern of hatred that can only be described as wicked and vile.

In Genesis 4, we read the story of history’s first murder – Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. God, however, will not let such a heinous act go unchecked. He confronts Cain, saying, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). It turns out that even if the voices of our slain brothers can no longer speak, their blood still does. And God listens to their cries.

When the apostle Paul witnesses to the Athenians, he explains that, contrary to their fashionable polytheistic and religiously pluralistic sensibilities, there is only one God, who “from one man made all the nations” (Acts 17:26). In other words, ultimately, we are all brothers and sisters, for, ultimately, we all share a common ancestry and a common Creator. Ahmaud Arbery, then, is our brother. And our brother’s blood is crying out. And just like God listened to Abel’s blood, He continues to listen as more blood is spilled and speaks. We can listen, too.

This Thursday will mark 57 years to the day since President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation from the Oval Office and asked Congress to enact legislation protecting and promoting Civil Rights. As part of his address, he said:

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated …

The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives …

It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. 

Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality. 

As a nation, it feels like we are walking through a deep valley over which death has cast its long and sinister shadow. But in this deep valley, we can stand together “recognizing right as well as reality.” In this deep valley, we can mourn the blood of fallen brothers, while also rejoicing in the blood of our risen Savior. In this deep valley, we can lift up our eyes to a hill called Calvary that shines with forgiveness and hope. As the old hymn says:

Abel’s blood for vengeance
Pleaded to the skies;
But the blood of Jesus
For our pardon cries.

May Jesus’ blood pardon us in our sin, and keep the souls of the slain safe in His care until He returns to raise them – and us.

June 8, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Changing Racist Hearts

Credit:  AP / The Washington Post

Credit: AP / The Washington Post

It’s been a tough week for race relations in America. Saturday, March 7 began with a march, led by President Obama and Representative John Lewis, across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the day 600 voting rights demonstrators, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., crossed this same bridge and were met by state troopers who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. Indeed, Representative Lewis was among those seriously injured in that fateful march. Reflecting on the events of fifty years ago, the president noted:

In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – all that history met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so many others, the idea of a just America, and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed …

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.[1]

If only the president’s final line rang a truer longer.

The very next day, a video surfaced showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a horrifyingly racist song on a bus. The University quickly denounced the video, suspended the fraternity from its campus, and expelled two of the students involved.

But then came this:

Attorneys and law professors have watched with interest this week as the University of Oklahoma moved swiftly to disband the school’s SAE chapter and expel two students on suspicion of leading the racist chant, which was captured on a now-viral video.

University President David Boren acted decisively in dismantling the chapter, but experts say the university may be on shaky legal ground.[2]

The issue at hand is whether or not the University of Oklahoma violated the students’ First Amendment rights by closing their fraternity and expelling two students simply because they sang a song that many find – and, I hasten to add, should find – offensive. As Terrence McCoy reports in an article for The Washington Post:

The expulsions immediately struck constitutional law experts such as professor Eugene Volokh, of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Volokh Conspiracy blog, as strange. Did the University of Oklahoma, a public institution, just punish speech that, while clearly abhorrent, was protected under the First Amendment? Was this a violation of the Constitution?

Private institutions – like Sigma Alpha Epsilon – can freely punish speech that breaches their codes or standards. But a public institution such as the University of Oklahoma, which takes public money, operates as an arm of the government under the law. “So, in effect, it’s not a university punishing a student for a racist video or social media post, it is the state itself acting against an individual – a person, importantly, with all the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” wrote the University of West Alabama’s Will Nevin on AL.com.[3]

This case is yet another example of how woefully inadequate civic laws can be to address the deeply moral aspects of the human condition and experience.

One the one hand, the First Amendment was put in place to serve an important common good – that of protecting this country’s citizens from being oppressed, even in their speech, by their government. This freedom is important and ought to be fiercely protected.  On the other hand, we must never forget that societal freedom is inevitably fraught with personal danger. Free speech, it turns out, does not always translate into right speech. Just because legally we can say almost anything doesn’t mean that morally we should.

An opinion piece by Byron Williams of The Huffington Post struck me as especially lucid in regard to this story’s moral entailments:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation.[4]

Notice the explicitly theological and moral category Williams uses for racism: it’s America’s “original sin.” But notice also how Williams also offers a distinctly non-civic answer to his distinctly theological and moral framing of this problem:

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?

The ease with which one can easily sing a song for amusement that dehumanizes another cannot be eradicated by an expulsion that, in my view, is unconstitutional.

Because racism is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned.

Moreover, it could prove to be the most meaningful class the students involved ever take.

To answer what he refers to as an “original sin,” Williams proposes a path to “redemption.” Though he does not frame redemption in a particularly Christian way, his argument is nevertheless rich with not-so-subtle theological overtones and vocabulary. Racists, as Williams notes, “cannot be eradicated by an expulsion.” In other words, if we want to root out racism from society, racists will need something more than punitive measures. As Christians, we know that racists will need Jesus – even as all sinners need Jesus. And racists will need followers of Jesus who are willing both to stand up against them and to seek the transformation of them.

One student’s words on last Monday’s NBC Nightly News broadcast express my hope for the students of Sigma Alpha Epsilon: “I want this to be a rehabilitory time for them.”[5] I hope it is. Because although the First Amendment may be able to defend them legally, it’s only Jesus who can change them internally. And it’s only Jesus who can heal people left broken by these students’ words relationally. So let’s lift our eyes to that hope. After a week like this last one, it’s a hope that we need.

_________________________

[1] Chris Cillizza, “A single photo that tells the powerful story of the 50th anniversary of Selma,” The Washington Post (3.7.2015).

[2] Matt Pearce, “Is University of Oklahoma frat’s racist chant protected by 1st Amendment?Los Angeles Times (3.10.2015).

[3] Terrence McCoy, “Why expelled Oklahoma frat boys would have an ‘excellent chance’ in court,” The Washington Post (3.11.2015).

[4] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[5] NBC Nightly News, Lester Holt reporting (3.9.2015).

March 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Subpoenaing Sermons

Credit: houstonmatters.org

Credit: houstonmatters.org

“Show us your sermons.” This was the message of the City of Houston to five area pastors. Last May, Houston’s City Council passed an equal rights ordinance prohibiting “any type of discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy”[1] among private and public employers. Almost immediately, those in faith communities and even in some businesses raised concerns. Will this limit a pastor’s ability to address issues such as same-sex marriage and gender identity in his sermons? Could a business be sued for refusing to allow a transgender person to use the restroom of the gender with which that person identifies, even if that identity does not match up with his or her assigned gender?

Opponents of the ordinance rallied and gathered some 500,000 signatures in an effort to repeal it, but the validity of the signatures was called into question and the ordinance was not repealed. This is when things got really contentious. As The Washington Post reports:

A group of Christians sued the city. In response, city attorneys issued subpoenas to five local pastors during the case’s discovery phase, though the five pastors were not involved in the lawsuit.

The subpoenas sought “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession,” according to the Houston Chronicle.[2]

The City subpoenaed sermons. And people were furious. Indeed, when several national news outlets picked up on this story, the City had to change course.  Mayor Parker announced last Friday that the City would narrow the scope of the subpoena and City Attorney David Feldman admitted, “When I looked at [the subpoena] I felt it was overly broad, I would not have worded it that way myself … It’s unfortunate that it has been construed as some effort to infringe upon religious liberty.”[3]

So what are we to make of all this?

On the one hand, as Eugene Volokh of The Washington Post notes, the City, by all reasonable standards, overreached and needs to be called to account:

I don’t quite see how “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” would be relevant to the litigation about the validity of the referendum petitions.

At the very least, the subpoena seems vastly overbroad. And the fact that it seeks the contents of religious speeches does counsel in favor of making the subpoena as narrow as possible (which would likewise be the case if it sought the contents of political speeches). I’m not sure what sort of legally relevant information might be contained in the subpoenaed sermons. But the subpoena ought to be narrowed to that legally relevant information, not to all things about homosexuality, gender identity, the mayor, or even the petition or the ordinance.[4]

On the other hand, if these pastors were indeed “using the pulpit to do political organizing … [by] encouraging congregation members to sign petitions and help gather signatures for equal rights ordinance foes,”[5] as the City Attorney suggests, even if such conduct is Constitutionally permissible, theologically, this kind of political posturing can compromise the integrity of the Office of the Ministry and can actually impugn the Church’s witness on the moral and ethical issues of our day. Charles Colson explains why:

Because it tempts one to water down the truth of the gospel, ideological alignment, whether on the left or the right, accelerates the church’s secularization. When the Church aligns itself politically, it gives priority to the compromises and temporal successes of the political world rather than its Christian confession of eternal truth.[6]

When pastors try to address concerns that are, at their heart, theological by using political means like petitions, theology can all too readily and quickly – even if unknowingly – get sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.  We need to be careful we don’t compromise our witness for the sake of cynical political gain.

Make no mistake about it:  I do not believe City of Houston officials should, in any way, shape, form, or fashion critique or try silence what pastors preach.  Such actions are beyond their purview of their vocations.  But as a Christian, I also believe that what the Church and her pastors have to say about human sexuality and gender identity is best said from the Word of God and not with a petition.

So, to the pastors who have been subpoenaed, I say: rather than looking at these subpoenas as infringements on your rights, consider them opportunities for ministry (cf. Ephesians 5:15-16). City Hall – even if the wording of the subpoena has now been changed – has invited you to send in your sermons. So do so! Inundate City Hall with the sermons from God’s Word – and not just with sermons where you happen to mention sex or gender. Send in as many of your sermons as you can. While you’re at it, include a charitable note indicating that you are praying for your leaders and praying that your sermons will be a blessing to them.

Remember, with God’s Word comes God’s promise: “My word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire” (Isaiah 55:11). The preaching of God’s Word can do more than a petition could ever hope to accomplish. A petition can win a political war. God’s Word can change a human heart.

Which sounds better to you?

_______________________________

[1] City of Houston, Texas, Ordinance No. 2014-530.

[2] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Houston subpoenas pastors’ sermons in gay rights ordinance case,” The Washington Post (10.15.2014).

[3]Houston Backtracks on Church Subpoenas,” ktrh.com (10.15.2014).

[4] Eugene Volokh, “Is it constitutional for a court to enforce a subpoena of ministers’ sermons?The Washington Post (10.15.2014).

[5] Jacob Gershman, “Houston Mayor Says City’s Sermon Subpoenas Came as a Surprise,” The Wall Street Journal (10.15.2014).

[6] Charles Colson in Render Unto Caesar…and Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State, A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (September 1995), 60.

October 20, 2014 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Michael Sam Makes It Public

Credit: cnn.com

Credit: cnn.com

“Does the NFL have any gay players?” my wife asked me last Sunday.  She was watching a Hallmark Valentine movie where one of the characters, an NFL quarterback, came out as homosexual.  “No, sweetie,” I responded.  “The NFL does not have any openly gay players.  There have been some players who have come out after they left the NFL, but to date, no players currently in the NFL are openly homosexual.”

It didn’t take long for that to change.

The next morning, while I was working out and watching ESPN, there was Michael Sam, former Missouri Defensive End and candidate in the NFL draft, coming out on national TV as a gay football player.   “I am an openly, proud gay man,” Sam told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”  Granted, Sam is not an NFL player…yet.  But his prospects are good.

I am surprised – pleasantly so – by how muted the negative response to Sam’s announcement has been.  Some journalists have hinted that responses could turn negative, but to date there is no swell of detractors decrying Sam as a dangerous degenerate.  By the same token, those who are writing and speaking about him are hailing him as a hero.  Brendon Ayanbadejo, a former linebacker who is currently a free agent, was effusive about Sam’s announcement, comparing him to Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks.  To cap off his feelings concerning Sam, he said, “To borrow from Neil Amstrong, this is one small step for gay men and one giant leap for the LGBTQ community.”[1]  Juliet Macur of the New York Times wrote a manifesto demanding that an NFL team draft Sam.  She begins by writing, “It’s time,” and ends by declaring, “Sam must be drafted. It’s time to move forward. The teams and the league are on the clock.”[2]  For Macur, Sam’s status as a future NFL star is not a matter of his talent, but of a moral imperative that says the NFL must have an openly gay player.

For orthodox Christians, all of this can be hard to sort out.  On the one hand, there is something to be celebrated here.  It is refreshing to see so many display a measured sensitivity to and deep compassion for those with same-sex attractions and those in same-sex relationships.  The gay slurs, gay jokes, and gay bashing of yesteryear have drastically dissipated and, for my part, I say, “Good riddance.”  Such speech is diametrically opposed to the biblical command to love, which Paul says is the fulfillment and summation of all biblical commandments (cf. Romans 13:8-9).  On the other hand, Christians cannot pretend that our society’s sexual free-for-all, which demands not only the toleration of, but the celebration of sexual practices that are far from biblical standards for human sexuality, is nothing more than an issue of civil rights.  Whether it’s Michael Sam touting his homosexuality or Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin exchanging texts about how many women they have slept with and the use of prostitutes,[3] the spacious sexual ethic of our society is simply not something Christians can endorse.  Partly because it’s immoral and Scripturally forbidden, yes.  But also because it hurts, belittles, and objectifies people, which, in and of itself, is tragic, no matter what your ethical worldview.

Ultimately, the loose sexual standards of our society are nothing new.  The path of sexual salaciousness is well worn – not only in twenty-first century America, but in all the societies that have come before her.  But we can choose a different path.  We can choose the path of sexual commitment in marriage while walking “humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).  I pray that we do.  For when we do, we not only live out God’s sexual standard in our commitments, we show God’s lavish love by our humility.


[1] Mike Foss, “Ex-NFL player: Draft prospect who came out is like Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks,” USA Today (2.10.2014).

[2] Juliet Macur, “It’s Time for the N.F.L. to Welcome a Gay Player,” New York Times (2.9.2014).

[3] Adam H. Beasley, “Texts shed light on relationship between Miami Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito,” Miami Herald (2.5.2014).

February 17, 2014 at 5:15 am 2 comments


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