Social Justice

Why Does Jesus Have to Be Such a Lousy Role Model?

By Derek Penwell

WWJD? If you read the Gospels, apparently not much that would please the Family Research Council.

Given the pressing social concerns about the “war on Christmas” and the first amendment travesty visited upon America's evangelical wedding cake industry, Jesus’ regard for the poor and oppressed seems laughably myopic.

I mean, if you believe that you’ve been put on this earth to skulk about pointing out everyone else’s sins, Jesus doesn’t set a very good example. Oh sure, he cracks on the self-righteous and the hypocrites, but usually because he feels a moral responsibility to shine a light on the self-satisfied, those who seem way too pleased that they’re “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like [the] tax-collector” (Luke 18:11).

Interesting that Jesus not only doesn’t feel the need to scour the countryside in search of people to condemn—for fear that surely someone’s ruining the fabric of “traditional society”—but, ironically, he seems to find those who are most publicly religious (that is, the folks who do scour the countryside in search of people to condemn) the folks most in need of a good verbal smack down.[1]

So, if you believe your Christian mission centers on identifying sinners to steer clear of, Jesus is a really crappy role model. If you think that the demands of Christian purity require you to shine a bright light on the those people the church ought to be busy hanging scarlet letters on, then Jesus is bound to be a disappointment to you.

At this point, someone will surely object, “But we’re just calling attention to sinful behavior. We don’t hate the sinners, just the sin. What we’re doing is actually the loving thing to do. We love them; but we have a responsibility to make sure that they change.”

But let’s just be honest—when some group utters “love the sinner/hate the sin,” everybody knows they’re only talking about LGBTQ people. (Frankly, I don’t think being LGBTQ is a sin, and I don’t like the phrase. But if you’re going to wield it against someone you don’t approve of, at least try to be consistent.)

Franklin Graham wouldn’t advocate keeping rich people, for example, from full participation in the life and ministry of the church—in anticipation that they’ll, you know, renounce that which prevents their tricked-out camels from fitting through the eye of the needle.

I’m pretty sure Tony Perkins isn’t launching any campaigns meant to publicize the socially corrosive sin of anger evinced by road-ragers who terrorize rush hour traffic, proudly displaying their “Jesus” fish and their “God is my co-pilot” bumper stickers.

Jerry Falwell Jr. isn't leading the charge against hypocrisy, calling out the white-washed sepulcher lobby who claim to follow Jesus, but who still embrace violence, selfishness, and deceit in their political leaders.

The truth of it is, we’re extremely parochial about the “Biblical” sins by which we’re determined to be aggrieved.

My suspicion is that “love the sinner/hate the sin” language operates practically as a convenient mechanism by which one can appear morally superior to those whose sins most offend one’s particular sensibilities—all for the purposes of public consumption.

But the specificity with which we apply “love the sinner/hate the sin” bothers me. I guess my question would be: Have you actually talked to someone who’s been “loved” to death by all this concern for the particular sin of being LGBTQ? Young people are killing themselves from this kind of “love.”

Yeah, Jesus is a lousy example if what you care about are the sins that vex much of popular Christianity. In fact, not only didn’t Jesus make it his mission to fish about for people to be offended by, he sought out the people that most of the rest of polite society saw as offensive, and then proceeded to go to the bar with them.[2]

So, Jesus is exactly the wrong guy to appeal to as the inspiration for a 21st century version of the personal morality police.

And it’s kind of sad, really. For a large segment of Christianity, Jesus’ lack of moralistic rigor cannot but appear embarrassing.

On the other hand, if you want to pattern your life after a person who befriended the folks who always seem to get picked last in the game of life, Jesus works perfectly as a role model.


  1. See, for example, Matthew 23—a chapter dedicated to calling out religious pretension.  ↩
  2. See Matthew 11:19.  ↩

Not Created for Shame

By Bentley Stewart

“We were not meant to live in shame...” Richard Spencer, white nationalist who popularized the term ‘alt-right.’

I agree.

Let me state that again. I AGREE. We are NOT meant to live in shame.

Notice that I limited Spencer’s quote. There is a very limited amount upon which I can find agreement with him. Even in this limited quote, he and I understand “we” differently.

When he says “we were not meant to live in shame,” he means that white people are not meant to live in shame. His “WE” is white.

I speak as a person of faith. God did not intend for humanity to live in shame. In Genesis 3, God beckons the first human family out of hiding in shame. We are not meant for shame. Humanity, which includes white people, is not meant for shame. Shame robs us of the abundant life that God desires for us and Jesus proclaimed. 

I agree with another thing that Spencer said in this edited clip. Here’s the other comment of Spencer’s with which I (mostly) agree:

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” 

Here’s how I would state it: “America was designed for white people.”   

When I use the term “white supremacy,” this is what I mean. “America was designed for white people.” (Some use the term differently and I have much to learn from those nuances.) 

“White supremacy” is the version of racism that is endemic to the United States. In other places, there are other versions of racism. It is also important to note that white supremacy exists beyond our shores.

Before I explain what I mean that “America was designed for white people,” let me define racism.

One problem is that the term “racism” has become a shaming pejorative. Remember, I profess faith in a God who desires that we leave shame behind. Calling someone a racist does not have a good track record for liberating people from racism. When I am shamed, I have two default responses. Accept the shame and wallow in it or reject the shame by breaking relationship with the messenger. Wallowing in shame is not only miserable for me. Wallowing in shame serves no one. 

My working definition of “racism” is informed by the Reconciliation Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my ordaining body. 

Racism = Race Prejudice + Misuse of Institutional Power

We, all of humanity, have prejudices and biases. Don’t believe me? Take a test on implicit biases and prove me wrong. We all have prejudices. It is part of the survival strategy of mammals. In any given moment, we are experiencing too much stimuli to make conscious decisions about all of it. We have prejudices. We pre-judge, in part, to filter our experiences. Without these prejudices, we would be overwhelmed by the number of decisions we would be forced to make in any given moment. Part of what it means to be human is that we have the freedom and responsibility to question our prejudices so that we are not limited by preconceived notions. 

Having prejudices based on appearance is not racism. It is part of what it means to be human. 

Instead of unpacking the phrase “misuse of institutional power,” I will return to Spencer’s quote:  

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” 

European settlers claimed the land that Indigenous Peoples had lived on for generations. Their relationship with the land was forged through generations of loving and learning from the land as they struggled to survive and thrive. The First Nations people were claimed by the land as much, if not more, than they claimed the land. 

This week used to be my favorite holiday. For me, there is no greater spiritual discipline than the corporate practice of gratitude. And, it is becoming harder and harder for me to reconcile my appreciation for this holiday and the genocide it sanitizes. 

Please do not stop reading there. Remember, I do not believe that we were created for shame.

A quick distinction between shame and guilt:

Guilt says I did something bad.

Shame says I am bad.

Guilt is about behavior and shame is about the person.

In order to face the legacies of the displacement and genocide of this land’s indigenous people and the enslavement of people from Africa, we need to confront our historic guilt over this behavior. However, we must not wallow in shame. We were not meant for shame. Shame serves no one. In fact, the insidious pathology of shame allows us to avoid our guilt. If I am a bad person, then all I am capable of is bad. I am incapable of anything good. I am not accountable for my behavior. From the place of shame, I bypass my guilt, which means I forfeit my agency to engage in any new behavior. 

When we use the sickness of shame to bypass our guilt, we then seek ways to self-medicate the shame with all sorts of numbing agents to desensitize ourselves from the pain of one another. If I collude with the lie that there is nothing I can do about how racism oppresses people, then I will strive to maintain willful blindness about racism. 

Perhaps, you are thinking. Hey, I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t own slaves. Why should I feel guilty? I strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Again, I speak as a person of faith. 

"The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Numbers 14:18

God loves us. God did not create us for shame. And, God loves justice. God loves us so much that God cares about our behavior. God wants us to love as we have been loved. 

The verse above has been used by some to talk about “generational curses” and by others as way to talk about “systemic sin.” Whatever your preferred nomenclature, our country’s original sin is racism. The soil of our land, from sea to shining sea, is soaked in the blood of racism. We still eat the poisonous fruit from this blood-soaked soil.

For this reason, I try to avoid referring to people as “racist.” Again, it is a shaming pejorative. Shame serves no one and God never meant us for shame.

Rather, I say that we live in a country struggling with the insidious systemic evil of racism. We all suffer from how racism misshapes our God-given identities as beings of dignity and sacred worth. God wants to liberate us, ALL of us, white people too, from racism. We are meant for so much more. We are meant for the abundant life of becoming the beloved community.

As a citizen of this nation, I am confronted daily, multiple times a day, with the choice to resist racism or to collude with the powers and principalities. Other citizens, such as Spencer and other white nationalists, have decided to publicly profess their allegiance to this evil. 

The temptation is to think that just because I am not professing white supremacy that I am somehow free from racism. In my analysis, we are all confronted with choices daily that present opportunities to collude with or resist racism. I mess up all the time. I refuse to let my missteps to be the end of my journey towards liberation from racism. 

If you have read this far, I want to thank you. I want to leave you with a word of hope. Before that, I offer an invitation and a practice: begin to examine your known world for the vestiges of racism. Freed from shame, examine the ways in which you resist the powers of racism and the places where you collude with those powers and principalities.  Every morning, ask yourself how will I resist racism today? How will I be an agent of liberation from racism?

From Romans 8: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The soil of our land is soaked in the blood of racism. Our land was subjected to the evil of racism. Creation itself is rooting for us, the children of God, to be revealed. Our liberation will be discovered in celebrating our interconnectedness and seeking justice for all.

May we seek to be better caretakers of the interconnected web of creation and by the grace of God, when we stumble on our way to becoming the beloved community, may we fall forward towards love and justice. 


Rev. J. Bentley Stewart is the Director of Student Life for Disciples Seminary Foundation in Northern California. He is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has standing in the Northern California/Nevada Region, for whom he serves as one of the anti-racism trainers. He is endorsed as a hospital chaplain by Disciples Home Mission. In his decade of hospital ministry, he specialized in pediatrics, palliative care, clinical ethics, interprofessional communication, and cultural bridging. He holds a B.A. degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and a M.Div. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is organizing the core team to begin a new Disciples worshiping community in Marin County, gathering-desire, where he resides with his wife, their two sons, and their beloved 95 lb. lapdog, Norman. 

 

Why the Church and Its Allies Must Come Together to Fight Oppression Now

By Derek Penwell

In the aftermath of the recent presidential election it is no understatement to say that many people are anxious about what lies ahead. Women and minority groups have understandably begun to organize, so as not to be taken by surprise should they find themselves the targets of harassment, legal intimidation, or violence.

I believe the church has a role to play, along with other religious communities and non-profit justice organizations. As such, I recently reached out to over 200 hundred area clergy, and over 25 different non-profits in the city where I live to gather together, to see how we might offer support to one another as we brace for the worst. Below is the statement I gave about why we need to stand in solidarity with one another now.

In the wake of the presidential election those who are celebrating victory are calling for the country to unify behind the new administration. Such a call for unity, however, rings hollow for many who feel threatened by the aggressively hostile rhetoric of the winning campaign—not to mention the violent acts of some of the President-elect’s supporters. Those threatened by the repeated denigration of women and minority groups rightly wonder how they can be reconciled to the very people who have expressed such antipathy toward their fellow citizens.
But perhaps even more hurtful is the awareness that such large numbers of otherwise good people were willing to overlook the fear and hatred being sown by the candidate and his allies. The feelings of betrayal extend beyond the disappointment at having lost an election to the dawning realization that a significant portion of the country has made peace with the potential victimization of so many of its citizens. Consequently, calls for the country to “come together” sound like a way for those newly empowered to tamp down dissent—a dissent, which is not so much political in nature, as it is moral.
As leaders within the religious and non-profit communities, we’re also aware of the need for unity. However, our belief is that the kind of unity necessary is one predicated on truth and a commitment to the flourishing of all our friends and neighbors, regardless of race, gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender expression, or ability. Moreover, the kind of unity we envision draws its strength not from a desire to consolidate power, but from our deeply rooted values and beliefs about the worth and dignity of all people.
As faith leaders, we can speak pastorally about the fear and dislocation people are experiencing as they anticipate the implications of disquieting policy proposals. We can speak in ways that no one else is capable of speaking about the spiritual nature of our call to protect those who are most vulnerable among us. We are motivated not by any benefit to us, but simply because—across religious traditions—our commitment to caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger—which is to say, those who often find themselves alone and without voice—is at the very heart of all of our religious expressions.
As leaders within the non-profit world, we have intimate knowledge of how some of the policies that have been proposed will negatively impact those whom we love and serve. We know the weak points in the system, and where those who will be disadvantaged are most likely to encounter difficulty. And we know that without the concerted effort of all of us who find ourselves at the intersections of justice work, too many people will be left behind, too many will suffer under the boot of oppression.
Whether it is fear of deportation of refugees or the undocumented; or a justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color—leaving them in constant fear of the very authorities charged with protecting them; or the institutionalization of bigotry toward LGBTQ people in housing, employment, and public accommodations; or the coarsening of attitudes toward women that will inevitably continue to underwrite rape culture and an environment hostile to women’s flourishing; or a society that defaults to treating Muslims with suspicion and hatred; or a world in which those with disabilities are systematically disadvantaged—we know what the disastrous possibilities of such a future promise.
But if we come together, if we embrace the unity that finds its strength in our shared commitment to justice for all our neighbors, we can begin to reassure them that they need not live in the fear that they will be abandoned by the very people tasked with advocating on their behalf. And our unity will send a message to those in power that the values and beliefs that bring us meaning and purpose will not allow us to look the other way while our friends and families are torn apart by bigotry and fear.
We’re better than that.

A Letter to My Children for Father's Day

Dear Christopher and Michele,

I wanted to take the opportunity presented by this Father’s Day to share a few things with the two of you.  Both of you have either told me that my Father’s day gift is being made or what it is you want to get me on this day, but I wanted you to know what it is I hope for.

I hope you both know how much you are loved.  The two of you are my life’s deepest joy.  I held you moments after you were born, when your arms and legs weren’t much bigger than my fingers.  Then you fit into my hands, but you made a journey into my heart and there I still hold you both.   Though you are adults now, you are still my children. My love for you began even before you were born and it has only deepened over the years.  My parental role and responsibilities have changed as you have become adults, but my great desire to see you thrive in life and my willingness to help you in that pursuit has not lessened in the least.  Your life is your own, but remember you are never alone as you seek to live it.

I hope I have taught you well that it is important to work for a world that is just and fair for all people.   I hope you have learned that prejudices and stereo-types are products of fear and ignorance and they should have no place in a society that believes in “justice and liberty for all.”  It does not matter the color of someone’s skin, the language of their tongue, the religion of their heart, and it doesn’t matter whom they choose to love.  Human beings are on a journey together and we need to have respect for the diversity that this world has to offer.  I hope I have taught you this in a way that leads you to stand opposed to the forces in this world that would have us fear those who are different.

I hope you know that the violence that is part of our nation, especially gun violence with the death of 93 people every day, is not the way things are supposed to be and we don’t have to simply accept it.  In a democracy we all have a voice and an ability to make things better than they are today.  Never accept that the way things are is the way things have to be.  Those who never want to enact changes and accept things the way they are are wrong.  You have a voice.  You have a vote.  Use them.  You have the power to unite with groups and organizations which are working for a better world.  Join them.   You have heard me quote Dr. King many times in sermons.  Among all the things he taught us was the fact that change can happen.  It takes time and persistence, but it can happen.  Work, my children, for a better world.

I hope you realize how deeply appreciative I am of the role you both played in helping me through a very difficult time in my life.  When I doubted if I could make it another day, you were there to help keep me going.  You were my energy when I had none.  You were my laughter when I was crying.  You were my reasoned thought when I could barely think at all.  I never thought I would have to be held up through the good will and efforts of my children, but I was and I will be forever grateful.  Life has turned for me and every day is not now a chore to get through, but a gift waiting to be experienced.  That you two are part of each day is a wonderful example of the Grace that I think is behind all of life.

Finally, I hope you know that more than any present you could give me for Father’s Day is the gift of seeing you passionate about the things that matter – life, love, justice, kindness and peace. Strive for these things and other things will take care of themselves.

I love you both and wish God’s deepest blessings upon your lives. 

Dad

Deeds Instead of Creeds

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

"The inner journey, pursued faithfully and well, always takes us back to the world of action."    Parker Palmer

Over the years that I have been involved in ministry, I have come to the conclusion that right doctrine takes a back seat to right living.  That orthodoxy is not nearly as important as orthopraxis.  I don’t think adherence to creeds is as important as a life of deeds.  Of course, this sometimes gets me in trouble with those who want to say I am arguing for salvation by works instead of grace.  To which my reply is always Matthew 25 and Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and Goats where the place of eternal habitation was not based on what one believed, but how one treated others, specifically those who are on the margins of society.  Even the Apostle Paul wrote, in the book of Romans no-less, that God’s righteous judgement will be revealed and God will repay each one according to their deeds (2:5-6).

The truth is, for me, the Christian faith is no longer about how I get to heaven and avoid hell.  It is about how I live in this world as a follower of Jesus.  How do I live as a person who seeks to practice love for all, including my enemy?  In what ways can I work to tear downs walls of prejudice and hatred that have been built up over the centuries.  How do I stand up for the truth that every human being has been created in the image of God in a world where special privilege is given to those of a certain race or class?  What am I doing to feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless and sanctuary for the refugee?  What am I doing to further the kingdom of God that Jesus came preaching about?    

Recently, in the congregation I serve, someone brought to our attention a study done called “Virginia Millennials Come of Age.”  It was about the social, economic and political traits of the millennial generation in Virginia.  One of the highlights of the study was the high percentage of millennials who wanted to be involved in service opportunities to their community (75%).  Many were looking toward churches to be an avenue through which they could fulfill this desire.  If we believe that our faith is more about deeds than creeds, then we have a natural inroad to this group that has largely become absent from the pews.  If we can understand that church doesn’t just happen on Sunday in the classroom or the sanctuary, but that church happens whenever we work together to lessen the difficult plight of others. 

I do not mean that this should be understood as another “evangelism strategy;” an effort to keep alive the institution of the church, as we have understood it, by getting younger people involved.  It does mean a whole new way of understanding the body of Christ existing in this world.  It means the church is not the people who set themselves apart by a system of beliefs, it is a group of people who engages the world for the sake of creating a world of peace, equality and justice.  I have spent a lot of time over the years working with the ministry Habitat for Humanity which builds simple, decent and affordable housing.  Habitat’s founder, Millard Fuller, once said this, “Habitat is unashamedly a Christian ministry.  And it is precisely because it is a Christian ministry that we work with people of all faiths and no faith.  Because that is what we believe Jesus would have us to do.” 

 In the middle of writing this post, I went and worked at Oasis Social Ministry.  I go there on some Thursdays with members of my congregation.  We join with others and serve food to whoever comes.  Those that do come are considered our “guests” and they are treated with dignity and respect.  The posted sign reminds us of that.  Today we served bacon-cheeseburgers, French fries, fruit salad and vegetable soup.  There was no preaching with words.  I did hear some singing, but not certain it was the hymns.  There were definitely some heads bowed in prayer and gratitude before the food was eaten.  If someone were to ask me when was the last time I was at church, I would say “Today, at Oasis.”  I do know this, whatever food we serve on whatever Thursday we serve it, well, it all tastes a lot like bread and wine.

 

The Creatively Maladjusted

Given the fact that it is Martin Luther King, Jr. day and injustice toward vulnerable people persists, I thought I might offer a few thoughts about what it means to remain silent in the face of that injustice—and about what it means not to, what it means to be creatively maladjusted.  Disclaimer: My analogy with the Civil Rights movement is only meant to be suggestive, not to establish easy equivalences

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those whowere selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:1319).

Following the first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Jesus and his new disciples take a few days off, then head into Jerusalem.

Where do they go?  Straight to the temple.

What happens?  Jesus makes a whip of cords and starts turning over the tables of the money changers.  He’s ranting and raving about how they’re turning God’s house into a marketplace.  The folks in charge don’t much care for his attitude and say, “Who are you?  What sign can you show us for doing this?”  Then, Jesus commits the ultimate Jewish faux pas by saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

What Jesus has done, in effect, after making such a grand splash at the wedding at Cana, is to guarantee that the very people who might have helped promote his ministry are the ones whom he has alienated by his little foray into temple finances.  He’s made some pretty influential enemies in his first trip to Jerusalem.

So what?  What’s the significance?

Well, think about it.  When Jesus cleanses the temple in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it occurs at the very end of Jesus’ ministry—after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and just before being snatched up and crucified on Good Friday—which, if you think about it, makes more sense.  You can see why Jesus would be upset with the religious establishment in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  They’ve hounded him for three years, and are plotting to kill him.  A little righteous indignation seems appropriate.

But in John, the cleansing of the temple comes right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He’s had nothing but smooth sailing up to this point.  Why upset the temple bigwigs right off the bat?  It makes much less sense, from a narrative standpoint, to have Jesus challenge the money changers in the temple just as his ministry is taking off.  Why does John set up the story this way?

John puts the story of the cleansing of the temple right next to the wedding at Cana on purpose.  He’s making some rhetorical hay about the shape and trajectory of Jesus ministry.

What do I mean?

Well, how must the disciples be feeling after seeing Jesus pull a Bobby Knight in the temple? They have to be terribly confused.  They thought they were getting a pretty engaging guru, fun to have around at parties, somebody to keep the open bar open—but what they got instead was a loose cannon, an unpredictable guy who knows his way around the business end of a whip.  Jesus' impatience with the way things are calls to mind what Martin Luther King wrote in Strength to Love:

 “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

Well, Jesus is nothing if not creatively maladjusted.

Jesus explodes our tame, self-aggrandizing expectations about how joining up with him will be the end of our problems.  John wants to show us that just because you follow Jesus doesn’t mean everything magically becomes sweetness and light.  In fact, joining up with Jesus may cause you a whole new set of problems you might otherwise have avoided if you’d just stayed home and watched Jeopardy.  Sometimes we have to follow Jesus into the temple, where only hostility awaits us.

And that bothers us, doesn’t it?  If not, we haven’t been paying attention to what happens to people willing to walk into the teeth of the storm.

In April of 1963, a group of well-meaning (I think) white clergy in Alabama got together and issued a statement calling for the end of demonstrations they considered “unwise and untimely,” by “some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” even though this group of white clergy recognized “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today, responded to these clergy in his, now famous, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Not surprisingly, Dr. King’s anger at the unjust social systems made bolder through their embodiment in law is present throughout his letter, raising again the Augustinian question about whether unjust laws—laws that degrade “human personality” and “distort the soul”—ought rightfully to be considered laws at all.

Dr. King reserves his biggest disappointment, however, for the church.  He rightly criticizes white moderates, whom he considered to be “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘justice’; who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”   He speaks candidly in his letter about weeping because of the laxity the church, about how “blemished and scarred” is the body of Christ “through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformist.”

At one point, Dr. King recalls with a certain wistfulness “a time when the church was very powerful.”  It’s interesting to note, though, just how he sees the church’s relationship to that power.  The church was at its most transformative, he argues,

when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.  Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’  But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than humans.  Small in number, they were big in commitment.  They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’  By their efforts and their example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.

It occurs to me that we who have committed ourselves and our communities of faith to seeking justice are the inheritors of that legacy—a legacy that hears the cries of inequity and injustice, and remains incapable of turning a deaf ear.

We are the spiritual offspring of the creatively maladjusted.  We cannot stand by and do nothing.  We join together across the diversity of theological and denominational lines to take our place in the procession—a procession that, just in this country alone, stretches back through the Civil Rights movement, through women’s suffrage, and through the abolition of slavery.

We are people who cannot abide and will not stomach the excuses offered up by unjust systems that somehow “now is not the time,” or that raising a ruckus only contributes to the problem.  We draw together because we’ve been called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—not because there is anything necessarily heroic in us, but because we’ve been passed a torch by heroes and saints who’ve gone before us, and who have called us to bear witness that God is not satisfied with either an unjust society or a lazy church “more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘peace.’”

There's a constituency within the church today urging caution, who think it "unwise and untimely" to press the issue of justice for young African American men who suffer disproportionately at the hands of the legal system, for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the church, for a beloved community that includes our Muslim sisters and brothers—even though this constituency recognizes “the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.”  They believe that taking any kind of a stand will be heavy-handed and disruptive, while failing to realize that, if Jesus is our model, heavy-handed disruption of the existing unjust order is sometimes not the thing we wait for the right time to pursue, but the very thing with which we lead, the thing that sets the shape and trajectory of our ministry.

If we are indeed the offspring of the creatively maladjusted, we will never have a better time than the celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to start living like it.

Turning off Sarah McLachlan

By Lisa McDowell

I can hear the song from the kitchen and I begin shading my eyes to search for the remote. My full intention is to change the channel without seeing the television screen. As soon as the words start, I’m at a place of guilt and sorrow. “In the arms of the angel…” It used to be one of my favorite songs, long before it became the ASPCA’s theme.  It used to be a reminder from my teenage years of a movie starring a young Nicholas Cage and a very popular Meg Ryan. But now, it is caged dogs and sad-faced puppies, and I don’t like it. The first thing I do when I hear the song is turn the channel because I cannot bear to watch.  

As I sat in church last week, listening to my husband deliver a really good and necessary sermon on Jesus’ teachings and how we can’t just ignore the ones we don’t like, it hit me: I do this all the time! It’s the Sarah McLachlan Effect in my spiritual life. When I don’t like something, just turn the channel, just shut it off, ignore it. Sure there are millions of abandoned pups out there, but I don’t want that image to ruin my nice, ordinary life. Then the even more poignant thought, “Sure Jesus told the young rich man to sell all of his riches and then he could enter the kingdom of Heaven, but I really like my stuff” <she quickly turns the Bible page>.  

This isn’t a new way to view our faith. All of us latch on to our favorite scripture and ignore the things that don’t align with our own thoughts and desires. But the difference between the hard scripture passages and the ASPCA commercials is that the commercials affect me. I encourage and support adoption of sheltered pets. If I knew I could give a needy animal or two proper attention (because let’s be honest, two small children, a full-time job and an active church life doesn’t leave time for much) I would be the crazy dog lady in a heartbeat. Yet, I don’t allow the scriptures to have the effect that the commercials have. 

Maybe it’s because the Christian culture avoids these scriptures and the teachings that are hard to explain. Go read Luke 18:18. Okay, I’ll make it easier on you: 

18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’[a]21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

It’s really hard to explain away Jesus’ words, although I’d prefer to do just that. How about Matthew 5:38-42?

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

So basically Jesus is saying to not ignore that man or woman on the corner holding a sign even though I wonder what they are going to do with the money or food I give them. Jesus is asking for a lot. He wants disciples to leave their families, “let the dead bury the dead”, and deny even ourselves. I’ve been turning pages in the Bible over and over and it gets hard to ignore all of these commands from Jesus. I want to turn away from this Bible overload, so I usually shut the Bible and tune into social media or trash TV. There’s a relief in that act because it usually affirms that I’m not as bad as I was starting to feel!  

But when I realize that my fulfillment doesn’t come from my ability to numb my brain with useless information and far-from-reality TV, the sway to watch the sad commercial in its totality arises, the desire to read into the words of Jesus pervades. Because the real reality is, the ASPCA is showing us the worst-case scenarios, they are playing on our heartstrings because really great things can come for both participants in the adoption process. The same is true for us Bible-readers and Christ-followers. Jesus was commanding us to get rid of the fringe, the things we hold so dear that we cannot open our hands or arms to anything else. He doesn’t want the sad commercial to be the end of the story, because the reality is that when the dearest and most-treasured thing is no longer firmly in our grasp, we are open to more grace, bigger blessings, and others entering into our embrace. That’s hard to fathom, just like the commercial is hard to watch.  

This realization that I am ignoring some pretty clear commands of Jesus is not easy to swallow, but I am always up for a good challenge, and I have seen my faith grow when I truly incorporate Jesus and his teachings into my life. That being said, I will not promise that I will make eye contact with my television the next time Sarah’s beautiful voice graces my ears, but I will make a pact to stop skipping over the hard parts of the Bible that I don’t like, or understand, or want to live out. I know my faith journey has to have an upward climb at some point and the aches and pains of growth come in passages like those shared above. I know that my greatest challenge day in and day out is to not tune out the words of my Savior and my God. I like to think that changing the channel prevents a change in me, and that’s just not okay anymore.  

Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice & Reclaiming the Straight and Narrow

By Douglas C. Sloan

The prophetic voice does not predict the future. The prophetic voice warns us about the path we are traveling and invites us to travel a different path, to embark on a different journey. The prophetic voice is one that takes us to task for not being the Love and Grace, the Justice and Compassion of God in the world. The prophetic voice calls us to listen for God in different places and in different ways. God does not speak through war, violence, or oppression. God does not speak through empire, nationalism, patriotism, wealth, exclusion, or isolation. The voices and words of people – whether verbal or written, ancient or contemporary – are not the voice of God. It is through the lostness of the coin, the lostness of the sheep, the lostness of both sons that the voice of God is heard. God speaks to us and calls to us through injustice, oppression, bondage, exile, hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, imprisonment, and the need for healing. When we find the lost, deliver justice, save the oppressed, release those in bondage, return those in exile; when we feed, quench, clothe, house, heal, and visit the prisoners – it is then that God speaks and God acts and God is clearly present in the world. It is then that there is no thin place and the curtain that hides and separates us from the Divine is torn asunder and the presence and glory of God is plainly visible for all to see, for all who dare and care to look. It is then that God is more immanent than transcendent. And there is more. When it does occur that there is compassion for the widow and orphan and alien and stranger, when the lost are found, when there is justice that repairs and rehabilitates and restores and reconciles, when the oppressed are freed, when the exiled are returned, when we feed and quench and clothe and house and heal and visit the prisoners, then God celebrates enthusiastically and extravagantly and all are invited to the party. That is Good News.

Jesus is a prophetic voice who invites and directs us to a different path – the middle path. The middle path is narrow and one of constant tension. Thus, Jesus does not dismiss us from the Law. Walking the middle path is about maintaining that tension by walking straight and narrowly between the way of God and the way of the world – by maintaining the tension between a life of Divine Love and Grace and a life of legalistic obedience and ritual purity. Walking the middle path is not about indecision or balance. Walking the middle path is not about weighing the options and analyzing the arguments and making a choice. Walking the middle path is about immersing and subjecting ourselves to the tension and conflict of the middle path and allowing it and enabling it and participating in it as a purgative experience, a purifying fire, a death – our death. To be fully human – to be fully what God created and intends for us to be, to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God, to be a child of God – is not about choosing or living into a better way. We do not reject or abandon or suppress the ways of the world. We have to die to them. That of us that needs and desires legalistic obedience – and rituals of magic and absolutes and divisiveness – and empire and wealth and vengeance and war and violence and oppression and hate and exclusion and jealousy and gossip and cold hearts and mean spirits and idolized certainties – that part of us has to die. When that part of us dies, we are inescapably left with resurrection and transformation and new life. That is Good News.

15 Things the Church Needs to Do in 2015

By Rev. Evan Dolive

It's that time of the year again, when we stand on the precipice of a new year and look forward to what is in store for us in 2015. Last year, I wrote 14 Things the Church Needs to Do in 2014, and many of them are still true for 2015. However, given the events of 2014, the church now also has a monumental opportunity to provide healing, justice, care, and compassion in new and exciting ways — ways I believe are important for the church in the upcoming year. 

1. Review what happened in 2014. What worked? What didn’t? Where did we spend our money? How did we touch people’s lives? What one word would describe 2014? Take some time and objectively look at what transpired in 2014.

2. Honestly answer the question, “Why in the world would anyone want to come to this church?" I believe this is the biggest question that every church must ask itself. How one answers this question affects the ministry, outlook, and mission of the church. If you answer this question honestly, the answer might surprise you and scare you at the same time.

3. Answer, "If we closed our doors tomorrow, who would miss us?" Is the church a place to go on Sunday morning or an impactful piece of the community? Is the church a place that is finding areas of ministry that are outside the four walls of the church? Is the church a place of community building, fellowship, and service, or is it just merely existing? If the church closed tomorrow would there be a gap, a hole, a void left in the community or even a particular community? 

4. Then ask the even harder question — "If no one would miss us, then what are we doing here?"

5. Speak up for the voiceless in our own backyard. Too often churches have a understanding of changing the world. Don't get me wrong — the message of Christ has that ability. But instead of constantly looking at overseas mission trip destinations, are we looking in our own backyard? Are there areas that we are missing because we think someone else is handling the problem? There are needs in any-sized community — the church is called to speak up for those who cannot and be the voice they are longing to have. If the church cannot and does not speak to community, state, and national issues then we are missing a big piece of the gospel.

6. Have honest conversations about race. In Ferguson, Staten Island, Ohio, and everywhere in between, the complexities of race in our society has been thrown to the forefront of news, conversation, and lives. Was Dr. King correct when he said that 11 a.m. on Sunday was the most segregated hour of the week? For many churches that still does seem to be the case. How the church responds to the issue of race in the 21st century will be extremely important.

7. Re-evaluate missions. What is the purpose of missions? What is our mission as followers of Christ? Is the church supporting missions that support our mission? Reviewing how the work of the church is done will focus the ministry opportunities for 2015. 

8. Remember that failure is not a bad word. So you planned and planned and planned some more and your ministry idea that was supposed to bring people the good news didn’t get off the ground. Well ... that's OK. Ministry is tough. Failure is never easy but it something we must see not as a negative but as a growing point. If we are holding back for fear of failure then we are limiting what God can do in that situation. Churches cannot simply just wait for "home runs." Ministry is more about trial and error than it is an exactly science. So get out there and try something, get your hands dirty, be the hands and feet of God!

9. Love the people, love the people, love the people. And I mean no matter what. The church needs to strip away the cold exterior and welcome people — all people — with the loving arms of God. We need to love people for who they are not for who we want them to be.

10. Answer, "If someone came to this community for the first time what would their impression be?" Some parts of the church have a reputation of being an "insiders" club. For some congregations it is difficult for a new person to find their place or role within the community. If the same 10 people do everything in the church, how can the rest of the church have an impact? If someone were to walk into your faith community what would their first impression be? Is the signage correct? Are things laid out well? Is there someone to greet them yet not ask 100 questions and make them fill out a commitment card? Let's look at the church with fresh eyes and see what happens.

11. Stop the bodies-in-the-pews game. There is more to being a ministry of God than painstakingly counting bodies in the pews. This is does not mean people who are missing are unimportant — it means the church needs to stop defining itself by numbers physically in attendance. What if we worried about how many lives we have touched, instead of the number of people that come on Sunday morning?

12. Pray for ... everything. Patience, peace, mercy, safety, movement of the spirit, direction. Start praying and never stop. The church, the world, and our souls need it.

13. Increase giving. It takes faith to increase giving even during good financial stability but even more when it times are tough. Have faith, take courage, and step out and increase the giving of the church. It doesn't have to be much, but it has to be some. Watch what happens when a little is given in faith.

14. Decrease complaining. Yes, there is a lot to do and few workers to do it. The budget may have its pitfalls and attendance is not what it once was 40 years ago, but that doesn't mean we have to let it affect us and our life. We have a lot to be thankful for. Attitude is important — especially in the church. If people are always complaining — especially about insignificant things — then this will spill over to all parts of the church.

15. Don't give up on the church. I know what Christ said — that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church — but there are times when this feels untrue. People from all walks of life have been shunned from or have run out on a congregation for differing beliefs or theological styles. As the body of Christ we need to remember that the church is made up of imperfect people who are trying to do the will of God. While we might not like the direction the church is heading we cannot give up on it. God has never given up on us — let’s not give up on God.

Rev. Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is married to his high school sweetheart and has two children ages 3 and 1. He currently serves in Beaumont, Texas. He also blogs for Houston BeliefGood Men Project, and Radical Parents. For more information about Evan visit www.evandolive.com or find him on Twitter or Facebook.