Posts tagged ‘Racism’

Rayshard Brooks and the Human Heart

The cuts seem to keep getting deeper. The pain seems to keep getting sharper. The questions seem to keep getting bigger.

Another week has brought another unfolding story of a black man shot and killed by a police officer. It all began a week ago Friday when an employee at an Atlanta-area Wendy’s called officers because a man had fallen asleep in his vehicle while waiting in the drive-thru line and was blocking traffic. When officers arrived at the scene, they found 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks asleep behind the wheel and, after rousing him, it became quickly apparent he was intoxicated. The conversation between the officers and Mr. Brooks remained friendly until 40 minutes in when the officers explained to Mr. Brooks that he was under arrest. He began to violently resist the officers, took a taser off one of them, and then, while trying to escape, he turned and attempted to tase them and was shot and killed by Officer Garrett Rolfe.

Mr. Rolfe was immediately fired from the Atlanta Police Department and then, this past Wednesday, felony charges were filed against both officers by the Fulton County District Attorney, who alleges that Mr. Rolfe kicked Mr. Brooks while he lay dying. According to The New York Times:

At a news conference on Wednesday to announce the charges, prosecutors said that Mr. Rolfe declared, “I got him,” after firing the fatal shots at Mr. Brooks. Mr. Rolfe kicked the victim, prosecutors said, while his partner stood on the fatally wounded man’s shoulder.

Mr. Rolfe and his partner, Devin Brosnan, both of whom are white, then failed to render aid for more than two minutes, said Paul L. Howard Jr., the Fulton County district attorney.

These charges, however, are now being called into question in light of the fact that the District Attorney is himself under investigation for corruption, as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The GBI has opened an investigation of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and his use of a nonprofit to funnel at least $140,000 in city of Atlanta funds to supplement his salary …

The criminal investigation comes at a time when Howard, Fulton’s DA since 1997, is being challenged in the Democratic primary for reelection and is facing allegations of sexual harassment, which he strongly denies.

Some are accusing the District Attorney of pressing charges against the two officers involved in Mr. Brooks’ shooting merely to distract from his own legal troubles. Moreover, the legal counsel for Mr. Rolfe flatly denies the charges the District Attorney has brought against him, saying in a recent television interview that they are simply not true.

Is anyone else wondering which way is up in this case, or am I the only one?

There is still much about this case we don’t know, but this much we do: this case is devastating. It is of course devastating for Mr. Brooks’ family. A wife has lost her husband and four children have lost their father. It is devastating for the Atlanta Police Department, which is now grappling with a deeply disturbing case of alleged police brutality. It is devastating for the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, whose integrity and motivations face serious scrutiny. And it is devastating for our nation, as we not only rightly debate and discuss – but also sadly divide ourselves over – questions of racism, policing, and brutality.

Whenever we are faced with a case like this, and ether of disbelief tends to permeate the air. “How in the world could this happen?” we wonder. “How could people behave so recklessly, so dishonestly, or perhaps even wickedly?”

The prophet Jeremiah famously said:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

Both Jeremiah’s statement and question are important. His statement reminds us that the human heart harbors all sorts of sin. Congresswoman Val Demings from Florida, who used to work in law enforcement in Orlando, recently held a press conference where she outlined the problems she sees in policing. She explained:

When I see things go wrong, just like I did at the police department, there were either one of three things: bad mind, bad heart, or bad policy.

This strikes me as fair summary. But it’s not just a fair summary of a police department; it’s a true summary of human beings universally. We all have “bad hearts.” Indeed, the deceit in our hearts runs so deep that, often, we don’t even recognize the wickedness of our hearts. Hence, Jeremiah’s question of the heart: “Who can understand it?”

The apostle Paul once complained:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. (Romans 7:15)

Like Jeremiah, Paul knew that he did not and could not understand the deceit of his own heart that led him into the wiles of wickedness. His heart was craftier than his goodwill.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, by our confusion at a case like this one. We can’t quite seem to make moral sense out of it because human hearts, as the Scriptures say, often do not operate morally. Which is why we need not only the warning about the human heart from Jeremiah, but this promise for the human heart from Jeremiah:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke My covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

God wants to overwrite the wickedness of our hearts with the righteousness of His way. For this promise, we should most certainly pray.

We need better hearts now more than ever.

June 22, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a 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

Racism and Reconciliation

Our nation is hurting.

It was hurting when Ahmaud Arbery was cornered by two men in a truck who shot and killed him in Georgia. It was hurting when George Floyd died after an officer held his knee on his neck for over eight minutes in Minneapolis. And it is still hurting as protests have erupted over the death of these two men.

Many of these protests turned violent and spread across the nation over the weekend – beginning and Minneapolis and then moving quickly to Atlanta, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and continuing to fan out across many other cities. Businesses have been looted and burned. Communities have been terrorized. In Detroit, one man was even killed.

Did I mention our nation is hurting?

It can be difficult to know how to respond as we watch all of this unfold on our TV screens and in our cities. I myself have grappled with what to say. I also know, however, that, as a Christian, I am called to offer hope to the hurting. So, here are four – admittedly limited and incomplete – thoughts as to how we can respond in the midst of a national inflection point of pain.

We can mourn.

When two men – along with, tragically, many others – die unjustly under racially tinged circumstances, that should grieve us and cause us to mourn. When violent protests shatter communities, that should grieve us and cause us to mourn. The apostle Paul reminds us that we should “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). To take a moment to feel with and listen to those who are hurting, angry, frightened, and confused should be a cornerstone of a Christian ethos. To not empathize with those who are hurting flies in the face of a God who would take on human flesh to experience everything we experience – including hurt, anger, fear, and death itself.

This weekend, I saw a post from a man who regularly walks with his daughter and dog through his neighborhood. He explained how he worries that, if he walks alone, he could be profiled in an unfavorable way because he is a black man. One commenter responded with a bevy of studies and statistics concerning how many African Americans are shot by police and implied that this man’s fears were unfounded. I am all for studies and statistics. They can help us understand trends and identify problems. But to criticize a man’s personal story of fear with studies and statistics strikes me as akin to criticizing mourners at a funeral by bringing actuarial tables to the service and explaining how their loved one’s death falls within a standard variance of mortality rates. Even if it’s statistically true, it’s also emotionally cruel. Let’s take the time to mourn with those who mourn.

We can work for justice.

In his famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his faith in justice even as he called for justice:

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Later in his speech, he quoted these words from the prophet Amos:

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24)

When injustice is perpetrated, we cannot make excuses for it. We cannot minimize it, rationalize it, or justify it by claiming that there are other injustices that have been worse, so the current injustices we are facing must be no big deal. And we certainly cannot ignore injustice because it doesn’t affect us personally or fit our interests politically. The Fifth Commandment – “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13) – was meant to protect Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd just as much as it was meant to protect any of us.

We are a nation whose creed is “liberty and justice for all.” If the liberty of any person is compromised by murder, manslaughter, or any other untoward act that leads to death, it is an injustice that should concern and upset us all.

We can call for peace.

In the same speech that Dr. King called for justice, he also described how he worked toward and fought for justice:

The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Dr. King knew the struggle for justice is not best paved by violent deeds.

The scenes of violence that have erupted across the nation have hurt many innocent people. They have taken eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth, but they have not recovered or restored the lives of Mr. Arbery and Mr. Floyd. Their families are still grieving. Their sons, husbands, and fathers are still not coming home.

In His Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). It is important to understand that peacemaking can be quite different from peacekeeping. Peacekeeping can sometimes imply simply covering for or overlooking sin so that no one gets upset. In other words, peacekeeping can often be an exercise in little more than keeping the status quo. Peacemaking, however, means calling sin what it is and then working to restore peace from the ground up – not with excuses, but by repentance, and not with hatred, but by forgiveness. This is the kind of peace toward which Christians are called to work.

We can love.

Racism is rooted in hatred. To stand against racism, then, we must address the hatred endemic to it. How do we do this? Jesus shows us the way:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)

During these months of pandemic, a refrain has arisen: “We’re in this together.” This refrain is similar to the one uttered by Dr. King on the Washington Mall all those years ago as he was fighting the racism of his day:

Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

Dr. King is right. We cannot walk alone. So, let’s not. Let’s stand shoulder to should, side by side, and arm in arm. Our race may be a part of our humanity, but it is not the sum total of our humanity. Our humanity also includes:

Being somebody’s son or daughter.

Being somebody’s husband, wife, mother, or father.

Being somebody’s friend, coworker, and neighbor.

And being made in the image of our Creator.

These are the ties that bind us.

In a press conference on Saturday, Minnesota’s governor not only mourned acts of violence, but highlighted acts of love. He talked about protestors who had come out not with firebombs, but with brooms, shovels, and wheelbarrows to help their neighbors clean up their communities. They refused to let their neighbors walk alone. They walked together – both to protest injustice and to love each other.

We can, too.

June 1, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

The Case of Jussie Smollett

Jussie Smollett

Credit: Wikipedia

An affirmation of the inherent dignity of humanity is a bedrock in any functioning society.  This is why our nation’s founders unapologetically argued, “All men are created equal.”  This is why Scripture – from front to back, from creation to restoration – celebrates and upholds the value of every life.  People are created, Scripture says, “in God’s image” (Genesis 1:27) and are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).  The dignity of humanity is part of the reasoning behind Jesus’ golden rule: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).  Just as we expect to be treated with respect and esteem by virtue of our humanity, we ought to treat others likewise.

Sadly, the same human dignity the Bible upholds has been the dignity we, as humans, have violated.  Racism in the forms of sketchy shootings and startling yearbook photos has violated human dignity.  So has homophobia in the forms of bullying and lynching.  We have plenty of work to do when it comes to loving each other better.

There is a difference, however, between uncovering evidence of racist and homophobic problems and creating evidence of these problems.  This is what Jussie Smollett, an actor in the hit show “Empire,” is accused of doing.  Mr. Smollett initially claimed that, while walking home one night in Chicago, two men attacked him by wrapping a rope around his neck and pouring bleach on his face, all while shouting racist and homophobic slurs.  The story, on its face, was shocking and deeply disturbing.  No one should ever be attacked because of their race or sexual orientation.  But it didn’t take long for Mr. Smollett’s story to begin to unravel.  Prosecutors now say that Mr. Smollett staged the attack, paying these two men to jump him, and even sent himself a threatening letter laced with slurs beforehand, all in an attempt to boost his acting career and command a higher salary.  This, of course, presents us with a whole new set of problems.

In the twentieth century, there lived a self-styled archaeologist named Ron Wyatt.  Mr. Wyatt claimed to have found everything from the Ark or the Covenant to chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea, which he dated from the time of the Pharaoh during the Israelite exodus.  These would have been spectacular finds – if they were real.  But they weren’t.  To this day, people debate whether Mr. Wyatt was sincere and incompetent or a charlatan and malicious.  Either way, his fake archaeological finds, even if his intent was to bring attention to the truthfulness of Scripture, did not bolster Scripture’s credibility.  They only provided fodder for those who doubted Scripture’s accuracy.

What is true of fake archaeological finds that supposedly support the Bible is also true of staged racist and homophobic attacks.  A manufactured instance of racism and homophobia does not help the case for the reality of a broader racism and homophobia.

People often have very deep feelings, on all sides, on the current state of race relations and the treatment of those who identify as LBGTQ.  It is incumbent upon Christians to seek to understand people’s feelings and positions and to engage in sensitive, non-combative conversation, drenched in love, for the sake of mutual understanding and societal reconciliation.  But it is also okay, as a part of these conversations, to study and analyze facts around evils like racism and homophobia, as best as we can know them.  Facts are our friends.  And facts do not need our help.  Our job is not to create facts, as Mr. Smollett has done.  Our job is listen to them and learn from them.  For when we understand reality better, we can love each other deeper – both by empathizing with each other’s pain and by speaking to each other the truth, even when that truth is difficult, in the name of the One who is the truth (John 14:6).

Both our charity and our honesty are needed if we hope to move toward a better society.

February 25, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Moral Lessons from Virginia

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for the political leadership in the state of Virginia.  The state’s lieutenant governor seems to be in the most peril after he was accused by two women of sexual assault.  His colleagues are now considering whether or not to impeach him.  The state’s attorney general is embroiled in a scandal of his own after he admitted to dressing up in blackface at a party in 1980.  But all the trouble began with the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam.  His name first hit national news after he ran interference on a local radio show for Virginia House Bill 2491, introduced by Virginia delegate Kathy Tran, which, according to the delegate herself, might theoretically allow for a baby to be aborted while a woman was in the process of giving birth.  This sparked national outrage, with many arguing that the governor was defending nothing less than infanticide.  But more trouble was on the way for the governor.  Two Fridays ago, a website published a personal yearbook page of his from 1984, which featured one man in blackface alongside another man in Ku Klux Klan garb.  When the photo came to light, the governor first apologized for the photo and then denied he was in the photo.

Many progressives remain supportive of the governor’s position on abortion, but stand aghast at the picture in which he, ostensibly at least, appeared.   I have also read some conservatives who are outraged at his stance on abortion while remaining more agnostic about how offensive the explicitly racist photo on his yearbook page is.

The issue, morally, in both of these scandals surrounding Ralph Northam is, at root, the same:  a person, either because they are in the womb or because of the color of their skin, is not worthy of the same status and security as they otherwise would be.  A pregnancy can be terminated right up to the point of birth because the will of a person who is pregnant outweighs and outranks the life of the baby she is carrying.  A portrayal of black person that uses explicit symbols of hatred, lynching, and murder can be chalked up to an awkward joke at a college party.

We must be clear.  These things are wrong.  These things are inexcusable.  These things rob people of their dignity and have robbed people of their very lives.

I do not doubt that many people sincerely believe that abortion is a moral good because it is presented as empowering to women.  I also do not doubt that students in their twenties in the eighties may have not fully understood how what they perceived as a bit of tomfoolery was really a deeply entrenched cruelty.  This is why it is so important that we continue to describe and define the barbarous realities behind abortion and racism.  More people must know.  More people must understand.

Thankfully, there is a reflexive revulsion on the part of many to the idea of abortion in general and late-term abortion in specific as well as to the dismissive and diminishing attitudes involved in racism.  We should heed what our reflexes are trying to tell us.  In an article on the ethical entailments of human cloning, Leon R. Kass describes the importance of the human “gag reflex” in determining what is moral and what is not:

Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it … It revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound.  Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous and rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity.  Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

Theologically, we would say that our gut-level moral disgust at certain things is triggered by the requirements of God’s law, which Scripture says are written on every human heart (Romans 2:14-15).  In this way, our guts can give us valuable insights into transcendent moral realities.  But, as Leon Kass so critically notes:

Repugnance need not stand naked before the bar of reason.

Moral feelings are often astute, but they can also sometimes mislead us.  We must check our moral feelings against the bar of moral reasoning.  We can study the development of a baby in utero and we can draw reasoned conclusions about the life of a child.  We can watch anyone of any race erupt in laughter, burst into tears, tremble in fear, or sacrifice for love, and we can draw reasoned conclusions about their humanity.

The hard question that stands before us, then, is this:  have we really so clouded our hearts and minds by political ravings and selfish cravings that we have become blinded to what ails us?  Are we overlooking what should be morally obvious?

Perhaps Ralph Northam’s blunders can remind us of what we should already know:  that life is precious – be it the life of a baby in the womb, or the life of a person of any race.  And perhaps, if we reflected on that moral reality for a while, we’d see more pictures of ultrasounds and fewer pictures in yearbooks.

That certainly sounds like a better world to me.

 

February 11, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS MARCH

1968 was a watershed year in American history.  It was in 1968 that North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and its ally, the United States.  It was in 1968 that two U.S. Athletes stared downward at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, hands stretched upward, after winning the bronze and gold medals in the 200-meter sprint, to protest racial inequities.  It was in 1968 that 11 million workers in Paris – more than 22 percent of France’s total population – went on strike, with riots erupting that were so violent, they forced the French president, Charles de Gaulle, to flee the country for a short time.  It was in 1968 that the leading Democratic candidate for president, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  And it was in 1968, on April 4 – 50 years ago this past week – that the venerable icon of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated while standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

To this day, American society is still seeking to come to terms with Dr. King’s death and the horrific racism that sparked it.  Debates over how, how deeply, and whether large swaths of America are racist rage, with no end in sight.  In a decade that was rife with segregation, Dr. King was a powerful and prolific voice for racial reconciliation and human dignity.  This is why 50 years after his death, we still need his wisdom and vision.

Dr. King drew from the rich well of the biblical prophets’ cries for justice to paint a portrait of what could be.  From the dream that he so vividly described on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to the melancholy and pointed letter that he wrote to Christian clergymen while in a Birmingham jail earlier that same year, Dr. King knew that racism was a sin that could – and must – be overcome.  As he explained when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him … I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality …

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant … I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that we shall overcome!

Dr. King’s fight against racism was tireless, and his optimism that racism would one day be overcome by brotherhood was indefatigable, for it was rooted in a hope in a God who creates all men equal.  Dr. King unwaveringly believed that God’s creative design of dignity could conquer even the acridest apartheid of men.

As Christians, we must never forget that racism cuts against the very heart of the gospel itself.  Racism exchanges the love of all for the hate of some and forgets that the very people it hates were loved by Christ so much that He died for them.  To be a racist is to make a mockery out of the very love of God.  In this way, racism is not only an ugly blight societally, but an extremely dangerous gamble spiritually, for God will not be mocked.

Dr. King was hated by many.  But those who hated him, he declared:

I have … decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. 

Jesus decided to love – and He redeemed mankind.  If love has this kind of power, there is simply no better thing to choose.

April 9, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Killing Racism: When Self-Preservation Meets Self-Sacrifice

Charlottesville Violence

Credit:  Getty Images

When James Alex Fields killed one person and injured nineteen others by purposely plowing his Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters at an event called “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia, which itself was protesting a decision by the city to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, racial animosity once again bubbled to the top of our national headlines and discussion.

President Trump, in the least controversial of his three statements on this tragedy, declared:

Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal under the law. And we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

As Christians, we can agree that “racism is evil.”  But it is evil not just because, as the president noted, it is an affront to the dignity that is inherently ours by virtue of the fact that we are created by Almighty God; it is evil also because it is fundamentally antithetical to the Christian gospel.   One of the hallmarks of the gospel of Christ is its power to reconcile us not only to God in spite of our sin, but with each other in spite of our differences.  The apostle Paul explains:

Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles…were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household. (Ephesians 2:11-14, 19)

Paul here identifies two groups of people – Jews and Gentiles – and says that, in Christ, the things that once separated them have now been destroyed.  The faith they share trumps any racial and cultural differences they might have.

This theme of different groups being brought together in Christ is not unique to Paul.  This is the centerpiece of the day of Pentecost where “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) all hear the gospel declared to them in their own languages.  This is also the centerpiece of eternity itself, as people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9) come together in worship of the Lamb of God.  It turns out that it is awfully hard to have a Christian view of and hope for heaven while espousing racism, for, in eternity, all people of all races will be glorified as precious and redeemed in God’s sight.  Heaven has no room for racial divisions.

With all this being said, we must now ask ourselves:  how do we fight the racism that continues to plague our society?  Perhaps the best way to fight it is to strike at its root.  And although there is no singular root, I agree with Ben Shapiro when he argues that identity politics is one of the primary causes of many of our modern-day manifestations of racism.  Although identity politics is classically associated with the political left, Shapiro notes that groups like “Unite the Right” engage in “a reactionary, racist, identity-politics…dedicated to the proposition that white people are innate victims of the social-justice class and therefore must regain political power through race-group solidarity.”  In other words, it is the drive for self-preservation that fuels much of the racism we see today.

In order to confront our modern-day manifestations of racism, we must take our tendency toward self-preservation and exchange it for something else – something better – like the beauty of self-sacrifice.  Thankfully, the call to self-sacrifice is one that Christianity is perfectly poised to make, for we follow a Savior who sacrificed Himself for our salvation and who reminds His disciples that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it” (Mark 8:35).  Jesus calls us to lives of self-sacrifice.

What does self-sacrifice look like practically?  The Declaration of Independence famously claims that “all men are created equal.”  But in order to truly adopt this claim as our own, we must clarify what is meant by “all men.”  In many people’s experience, “all men” includes two groups: “us men,” meaning those who are like us and share our background and beliefs, and “those men,” meaning those are unlike us and conflict with our background and beliefs.  Human nature tends to prioritize “us men” over “those men.”  In other words, even if we believe, in principle, that “all men are created equal,” we tend to concern ourselves with those who are like us – “us men” – before we stop to consider the needs of those who are unlike us – “those men.”  Christianity calls us to flip this order and first consider “those men” before we attend to the concerns of “us men.”  The apostle Paul makes this point when he writes, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  This, it should be noted, is precisely how Christ lived.  For Him, every man belonged to the category of “those men,” for He alone stood as the God-man.  No one was like Him.  And yet, rather than preserving Himself, He sacrificed Himself for us.  Christ is the very essence of self-sacrifice.

Last week, I came across an article written several years ago by Bradley Birzer, a professor of history who holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College.  In his article, Professor Birzer tells the story of a priest named Maximilian Kolbe.  The story is so poignant and compelling that it is worth quoting at length:

St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest, had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, as had been vast number of his fellow men, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans. The Nazis seemed to avoid discrimination when it came to state sanctioned murder.

On the last day of July 1941, a prisoner had attempted to escape the terror camp. As punishment, the commandant called out ten random names – the names of those to be executed in retribution for the one man trying to escape. One of the names called had belonged (or, rather, had been forced upon) a husband and father. As the man pleaded his case, Father Kolbe came forward and offered his life for the one pleading. The commandant, probably rather shocked, agreed, and Kolbe, with nine others, stripped naked, entered the three-foot high concrete bunker. Deprived of food, water, light, and toilets, the men survived – unbelievably – for two weeks. Madness and cannibalism never overcame them, as the Nazis had hoped. Instead, through Kolbe’s witness as priest and preacher and as an incarnate soul made in the image of Christ, grace pervaded the room. When the commandant had the room searched two weeks later, only to find the men and Father Kolbe alive, he furiously ordered them all to be injected with carbolic acid.

The man who removed Kolbe’s body offered a wondrous testimony under oath. Kolbe, he said, had been in a state of definite ecstasy, his eyes focused on something far beyond the bunker, his arm outstretched, ready to accept the death of the chemicals to be injected in him.

Father Kolbe lived a life of self-sacrifice, even when a life of self-sacrifice meant offering himself unto death.  As he awaited his fate, he preached the gospel, which burnished in his bunker-mates love for each other instead of competition against each other over the meager resources of the Nazis’ concentration camp.  And because of Father Kolbe’s willingness to sacrifice himself, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans were able to stand together.

Do you want to confront racism?  Just live like that.  It is difficult to be racist when you put others before yourself, because instead of being suspicious of others, you learn to love others.  And love and racism simply cannot coexist.  In fact, love, when it is embodied in self-sacrifice, not only confronts racism, it kills it.  And it’s much better to kill an evil like racism than to kill a person like in Charlottesville.

August 21, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Torture, Facebook Live, and Racism

facebook-live

It is supposed to be a platform to broadcast funny moments with family, respond to questions in real time from people who follow you on social media, and provide updates on your life.  Now it has become synonymous with torture.

When four young adults took to Facebook Live on New Year’s weekend, they did so to broadcast their torture of a mentally disabled 18-year-old man from a western suburb of Chicago.  According to Fox News, the broadcast:

Showed him cowering in a corner while someone yelled “F— white people!” and “F— Donald Trump!” At one point, the man was held at knifepoint and told to curse the president-elect.

The video also showed the man being kicked and hit repeatedly, while his scalp was cut. The group apparently forced him to drink water from a toilet.

Hate crime charges have now been filed against the four involved in the attack.  In this particular instance, the four attackers were black and the victim was white.  Reporting for The Washington Post, Mark Berman and Derek Hawkins explain:

When asked whether the hate crime charges stemmed from the 18-year-old’s mental health or his race — both of which are factors listed in the state’s hate crime statute — [Chicago Area North Detectives Commander Kevin] Duffin said: “It’s half a dozen of one, six of the other.”

Even though the Facebook Live video is still available through several outlets, I have not watched it.  Just from what I have read about its content, I’m not sure I could stomach it.  This is the kind of crime that rends any reasonable heart.

A crime like this brings to the forefront – again – issues of racism and hatred.  If the language they used on the video is any indication, these attackers seemed to be animated by a hatred for white people, a political animus for Donald Trump, and a potential disparagement of this young man’s mental capacities.

Ironically, the problem with racism of any sort is that racism always goes deeper than race.  Racism betrays a fundamental inability to see a certain group of people as actual people.  Racism ties a person’s value and dignity either to the color of their skin or to the origin of their birth rather than to the fact of their humanity.  This is why, from a Christian perspective, racism is ultimately a spiritual problem.  Scripture reminds us that, simply by virtue of being human, we are imbued with a measure of value and dignity.  Thus, when human lives are not treated with appropriate value or dignity, God’s anger is inflamed.

Certainly, there are things on a macro-scale that have been done and can continue to be done to stem the tide of racism-at-large.  Political legislation, protest movements, and dedicated activists are all important to confronting racism wherever it rears its ugly head.  But we, as individuals, can also confront racism on a micro-scale by how we treat each other.  Be honest with yourself:  do you treat every person with whom you come into contact as fully human?  Or do you see some groups of people – whether those groups be demarcated by race, socioeconomic status, or even simple personality type  – as less than human?  Treating people as less than human can manifest itself in a myriad of ways.  Sometimes, it is a declared disdain for a certain group of people based on a certain feature of that group.  More often than not, however, we treat people as less than human when we regard them as annoyances, looking past them instead of loving them.  In a micro-way, then, confronting racism can be as simple as an act of kindness that affirms a person’s humanity.

To whom can you be kind today?  Even if your kindness never gets broadcast on Facebook Live, it will be much more worthwhile than what has become the platform’s most famous – and infamous – broadcast.  And that, at least, is a place to start.

January 9, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

More on Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Imagine you’re a police officer in Baton Rouge.  You’ve been called to a convenience store where a 37-year-old man named Alton Sterling has been reported to have recently threatened another man with a gun.  You approach Mr. Sterling and pin him to the ground when someone shouts, “He’s got a gun!  Gun!”  Fear takes over.  Shots are fired.  And Alton Sterling lies dead.

Now imagine you’re a police officer in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  You pull over a vehicle that has a broken taillight.  The man inside, Philando Castile, dutifully explains that he has a concealed carry permit and has a firearm in the vehicle.  When Mr. Castile reaches for his license and registration, however, you think he’s reaching for his gun.  Fear takes over.  Four shots are fired.  And Mr. Castile dies in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter.

Finally, imagine you’re a 25-year-old black man named Micah Xavier Johnson who has watched other black men be shot and killed in altercations with the police under suspicious circumstances time and time again.  You see protest after protest against these shootings by Black Lives Matter, but in your mind, these protests do not equate to real action.  After the tragedies in Baton Rouge and St. Paul unfold, you seize on these moments to exact revenge.  At a protest in Dallas, you, with anger coursing through your veins, aim your arsenal of firearms at twelve officers, killing five of them, only to finally be taken down yourself by law enforcement officials.

Are you still with me?

Now, let’s do a little math.

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

At this point, I need to include some caveats.

First, don’t misunderstand the intent of my thought experiment.  I am not trying to exonerate bad behavior by asking us to imagine ourselves in each of these men’s shoes – by asking us to empathize with them.  Empathy never tries to excuse sin, but it does try to understand people because, when we understand people better, we can understand what leads to a week like the one we just experienced better and, hopefully, take steps to prevent another week like this one from happening again – ever.

Second, the facts in all these cases are still unfolding.  When 49 people were shot and killed by a terrorist at an Orlando nightclub, I offered an encouragement on this blog for people to patiently wait for the facts rather than jumping to conclusions about the shooter’s motives.  The same caution applies here.  It could be that one or both of these officers in Baton Rouge were animated by naked racial animus and shot and killed one or both of these men in cold blood.  If this were the case, the equation above would still hold, albeit on the anger side rather than on the fear side.  It could also be that, as more facts surface, one or both of these officers were not animated by fear, but by a legitimate concern for self-defense.  Turning to Dallas, it could be that Mr. Johnson was clinically insane and not in his right mind when he carried out these horrific attacks.  If this were the case, what he did still could not be excused, and his anger and hatred would still loom large, but it might be understood a little differently.  Carefully sorting through the facts – and being patient enough to do so – is incredibly important in tragedies like these.

Third, I am not a law enforcement official.  I know some law enforcement officials, and I have nothing but the utmost respect and love for them.  Honestly, if I had to walk in their shoes, I’m not sure that the altercations with Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile would have gone down any differently.  I can imagine myself becoming very frightened very quickly.  The fact that so many law enforcement officials keep their cool when tensions are high is a testimony to the character and competence of so many of these men and women.

Fourth, I am not a black man.  I have heard enough stories of incipient and systemic racism against black men, however, that my heart breaks.  I would not want to live under a cloud of such constant suspicion.  I would not want to have to teach my son the lessons of what little slights, sideways glances, and clinched purses could mean.  If I had to endure that day after day, I would be angry too.  And if someone was to needlessly take the life of someone that I loved, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted to exact an eye for an eye.  The fact that so many African-Americans keep their protests peaceful and focused on change rather than turning them into opportunities for revenge is a testimony to the character and compassion of so many of these men and women.

What has happened this week, then, is not an indictment of the masses, but the fruits of a few.

But…

Even though what happened this week was not by our hands, this is not to say it couldn’t have been by our hands.  Remember the equation?

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

Have you let fear take over your heart any time this week?  How about anger?  Is anything from the way you manage money to the way you treat your family to the friends you avoid to the grudges you hold to the politics you have that is driven by fear or anger? The results of your fear and anger may not be eight dead, but are the results in any way good?  Let’s adjust the equation a little bit.

Fear + Anger = Plenty That Is Not Good

Is this true of you?

Fear and anger are part of the human condition and are devastatingly etched into the annals of human history.  One needs to look no further than the night before Jesus’ death.  When Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the religious leaders, Peter goes from being so angry at what is about to beset his Master that he cuts off the ear of a man in the mob that has come to arrest Jesus to being so fearful at what is transpiring with his Master that, just hours later, when a servant girl asks him if he knows Jesus, he denies his Savior and friend.  Fear and anger coalesce into one necrotic night.

The truth is this: there’s plenty of fear and anger to go around – among the masses and, if we’re brutally honest, in our hearts.  The equation holds true for us all.

So, on the heels of a terribly tragic week, let me conclude with two gentle reminders:

“Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:32).

And…

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath” (Psalm 37:8).

Think on these things.

July 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

2015 In Review

Happy New Year 2016 images download

This past week, I took some time to scroll through my blogs for 2015.  It was, in some ways, an unsettling exercise.  Consider these headlines:

Blogging can be a frustrating discipline because, at times, as my list above intimates, it can become flat-out depressing.  It seems as though I’ve blogged on a never-ending succession of tragedies, controversies, and indignities this past year.  And yet, as tough as these topics might be to tackle, I believe they are vital for us as Christians to understand and address.

A few themes have emerged as I’ve watched the headlines unfold in 2015.  First, it seems as though we are obsessed with sex and oppressed by violence. Between “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the Ashley Madison scandal, and same-sex marriage, headlines relating to human sexuality and the sexual ethics have dominated.  But so have headlines relating to violence.  The acronym ISIS is now the stuff of household lore.  Planned Parenthood’s gruesome harvesting of fetal parts sent shivers up the spines of many.  Beatings and shootings with racist tinges dominate the headlines.  As a child, I remember my parents criticizing many movies for having too much “sex and violence.”  Was art imitating life back then or is life imitating art now?

A second theme that has emerged is a search for who we are as humans.  I would be intellectually, emotionally, and relationally naïve if I did not recognize that same-sex marriage is about much more than sex.  It is about the ability of people to define themselves as they see themselves.  This is also the case with the transgender recrudescence.  How internal desires correspond to a person’s biological ordering is key to understanding the existential angst that many people in the LGBT community experience.

Third, issues of race and religion have taken center stage this past year.  From the racist chant by members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon to the shooting at the church in Charleston, racism is frustratingly alive and well.  At the same time the LGBT community is trying to figure out who it is and arriving at some spiritually dangerous answers, we seem to have forgotten some of the older spiritually salutary lessons we had to learn about who we are as a nation of immigrants.  And I would contend that this is true across the racial spectrum.  Trumped up charges of racism in the form of the newly minted category of “microaggression” do not help, but neither do denials that racism is real and consequential.  Religiously, we are learning quickly – both from Paris and San Bernardino – that bad theologies have terrible consequences.  The theological drivers of groups like ISIS cannot be minimalized or rationalized.  They must be confronted.

As I reflect on the stories I have covered, I have become convinced more than ever that our world is not just in need of good thinking, but theological thinking on the things that ail us.  The problems we have encountered in 2015 are not just the results of some bad thinking that needs to be tuned up by an enlightened intelligentsia so we can march boldly into a utopian era.  Rather, the problems we have encountered in 2015 are the results of nothing short of a deeply depraved sinfulness that needs to be confronted by the Word of God.  And this is where we, as Christians, have something unique to offer our world.  While the world is trying to solve its problems by political, intellectual, and social gerrymandering, we can be confronting and forgiving the sinners – even when those sinners are us – who create the problems.  In my mind, that’s our greatest hope for a better world.

Human sin, sadly, will probably continue to give me plenty of reasons to write in 2016.  But grace, thankfully, will give me even more reasons to rejoice.  So let’s see where the year takes us.

January 4, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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