Christianity

2017: What The (White Protestant) Church Must Do

By Rev. Mindi

I read this post shared by an Episcopalian friend this week, and along with some online conversations on “what is the future of the church?” with declining attendance and resources, I’m wondering what has happened to our ecumenical movement? What has happened to our movement for unity?

As an American Baptist pastor married to a Disciples of Christ pastor, I can tell you that not much really separates us. We all do baptism pretty much the same way. We do communion the same way, albeit Baptists tend to only do communion once a month. We aren’t opposed to doing it every Sunday, we just make it out to be more work than it really is. We have some common roots in history. We have faced some of the same struggles on inclusion and diversity in recent years, and as both denominations have taken steps to truly live into God’s ways of love and justice and the teachings of Jesus, some of our more conservative kindred have gone out the door, or have simply stopped talking with us.

And it’s not only American Baptists and Disciples, but Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists (and other UCC-ers), and the list goes on. While we vary in our ways of baptism and communion and vary in our liturgical rigidness, when we start talking about issues of justice, Black Lives Matter, inclusion of transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer folks, and welcoming refugees and immigrants, we have so much in common. I regularly have conversations in ecumenical gatherings of clergy (especially fellow clergy in a similar age range to me, but not always) about the same issues facing our churches. The same issues facing our communities. The same longing to follow Jesus and being held up by resources.

So why oh why oh WHY ARE WE NOT WORKING TOGETHER? Why are we still separated on Sunday mornings? Why is (as the author of the blog post I shared stated) Sunday morning still the most segregated hour, decades after Martin Luther King Jr. called us out on it?

I know I am not the first to say it, but as a response to white privilege and white supremacy, perhaps those of us in the traditional white protestant churches, as we face closing down and shrinking numbers, need to go join a Black church. Perhaps we need to listen to someone else preach on Sunday morning and tell us how to be involved in the community. We can do this within our own denomination to start with.

Secondly, we can join with our kindred down the street. While many of us have “full communion” with other denominations or allow for those of other ordination standards (or none at all!) to preside at the table and at baptism, we do not move beyond those relationships (as again, the author of the blog post I shared stated).

As we enter 2017, the future of the church doesn’t lie in us keeping to ourselves on Sunday morning. If we do that, we will continue to shrink, decline, and close. Those of us who are white Christians need to especially consider giving up our power and ownership of space to join with our Christian kindred of color to truly follow the ways of Jesus (who wasn’t white, as we keep pointing out but fail somehow to truly comprehend). We might find that the church isn’t declining, but thriving, if we give up our own vision of what the church is supposed to look like, and join in God’s vision:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb!”

~Revelation 7:9-10

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.

Two Secrets of Good Leadership: Learning to Live with Other People's Pain and with Your Own Mistakes

By Derek Penwell

Two Keys to Good Leadership

Thesis: You can’t be a good leader until you get comfortable with other people’s pain and with your own mistakes.

Learning to Live with Other People’s Pain

I know about a church that developed some bad habits over the years. They had worked with a paradigm of ministry in which the minister was responsible for virtually everything. If a light bulb burned out in the exit sign, they dropped a note to the minister. When the lady who was supposed to bring the grape jello to Vacation Bible School forgot, everything stopped while they called the minister to let him know. When the garbage cans didn’t get put back, somebody would leave a message on the answering machine to apprise the minister of this crucial oversight.

And, as if by magic, new light bulbs and purple jello would appear. The garbage cans mysteriously found their homes. The minister made sure complaints were addressed and problems were solved. He did most of it himself.

The arrangement suited everybody—the minister had a compelling need to feel needed, and the congregation had a capacious reservoir of need. Everybody wins![1]

Except when the minister left, the arrangement was no longer viable. Now there was a congregation trained to be needy, but no longer anyone to meet those needs. How do you handle a situation like that?

What will the next minister have to do if she doesn’t want to continue this co-dependent relationship?

She’s going to have to develop an extraordinarily high tolerance for pain.

“What?”

Any minister who wants to make changes to a system that depends on the minister to make changes is going to have to get comfortable watching people suffer.

“How can you possibly say that? Isn’t suffering part of what ministers are supposed to be in the business of alleviating?”

No. Where did you get that idea? Ministers are in the business of helping equip people for the reign of God. Sometimes that means being intensely and pastorally present when people suffer. But pastoral ministry is almost never about fixing people’s suffering, about doing away with people’s anxieties, about slaying everyone’s dragons for them.

Pastoral ministry is about helping people discover a new story that makes sense of their suffering and anxiety (and hope, doubt, aspirations, needs, etc.) in light of God’s reconciling love manifested in Jesus Christ.

In the case I’ve been describing the new pastor, if she is going to be faithful to her vocation, is going to have to get comfortable with the pain caused when people see burned-out light bulbs, jello-less VBS extravaganzas, empty garbage cans by the side of the road, and mistakenly believe that the only person responsible for them is the minister.

“So, you’re saying the minister should just be lazy and let everybody else do everything?”

No. I’m saying that if everybody else believes the only person who needs to do anything is the one getting paid, you haven’t hired a minister; you’ve hired domestic help.[2] The minister isn’t doing anybody any favors by constantly rescuing the congregation from those situations for which other people need to be taking some responsibility.

Authentic, Jesus-centered ministry that seeks to enable growth rather than merely enable, requires learning to have a high threshold for other people’s pain.

It’s tough, but there aren’t any shortcuts.

Learning to Love Your Own Mistakes

I just took a group of people down to San Luis Potosí, México. We work in a children’s home there, started by Ted and Wanda Murray. I’ve been taking groups down for over 20 years now. The trip is one of my favorite things to do.

Anyway, I took my two oldest children again this year. My daughter wants to speak Spanish better to be able to communicate with the kids down there. So, I started her on a language series, The Pimsleur Method (It’s the best language learning system I’ve found, for whatever that’s worth).

So, I've been talking to my daughter about how her Spanish is progressing. She said she really likes the lessons. So, I gave her some tricks about learning a language.

“The nice thing about the Pimsleur method,” I said, “is that, if you do it daily, you wind up having to hear yourself speak the language out loud over and over again—which is important, because one of the biggest obstacles to speaking a foreign language when you travel is overcoming your fear of speaking out loud in front of other people.”

She said, “Yeah, that’s the scariest part, because you don’t want to goof up and have people laugh at you.”

“That’s the trick to learning a language, though—being able to withstand the embarrassment of getting it wrong. If you can’t stand being laughed at, you’ll never learn another language.”

Why is that?

Because the process of mastering a language requires making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Tons of mistakes. Painful, embarrassing mistakes.

Learning a language is just as much about learning what not to say. There are no shortcuts to the hours of practice or the patience to endure the humiliation of doing it incorrectly.

I also think that’s another secret to good leadership.

Much of what passes for conventional wisdom about good leadership has to do with always making good decisions.

When presented with a choice, the good leader will choose X; the poor leader will choose Y—where X is eventually shown to be a wise decision, and Y a poor one.

I want to suggest, however, that making good decisions isn’t the best indicator of leadership. Instead, I think the sign of excellence in leadership is the desire to learn from mistakes.

If you’re going to learn to pound nails, you’re going to have to make peace with mashing your thumb every once in a while.

On this reading of leadership, excellence requires not only a willingness to be wrong, but an enthusiasm about being shown where you went wrong. Good leadership values being shown where things went wrong.

You can’t be a good leader without risking mistakes and embracing the humiliation of getting it wrong.

Here’s the secret: Ministry isn’t about being right; it’s about getting it right.

And if you want to get it right, you’d better learn to love your mistakes, because they’re your friends on the path to good leadership.

Good leadership is often counter-intuitive. But if it were easy, great leaders would be everywhere. They’re not. So, we have to work at it.

_______________

  1. Before I get a whole bunch of email arguing either that I’m being unfair to to needy congregations or needy ministers, I’m willing to spread the blame across the clergy/laity spectrum.  ↩
  2. Again, prior to emailing me, let me hasten to say that I know there are lazy ministers out there. If that’s your problem, then this post won’t help you address your situation.  ↩