Category Archives: ideologies

BMWs, Whiteness, and my Christian Faith

As a young seminary student in the late 1980’s I interned at the amazing United Methodist Church in Clovis, California. For three years this church made space for me, treated both my wife and me like family, and allowed me to grow as a leader. One of my first assignments was to lead the young married bible study. We met every Thursday in one couple’s home. One of our fist decisions was to choose a book or theme. After much discussion we all agreed that we would work through Tony Campolo’s book 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch. The study was going along well until week seven when we explored the chapter “You Cannot be a Christian and Own a BMW.” At least one of the couples in our group owned a BMW. It would be fair to say that the evening did not go well for me.

I have reflected on that evening often over the years. If I were to lead that study again, I wouldn’t focus on BMWs. For Campolo, the BMW was a metaphor for a much larger concern. As Christians, how and where we spend our money has both moral and ethical implications. The neighborhood you choose to live in, the size of house you purchase, where you invest your retirement money, and, yes, the car you choose to purchase are not morally neutral choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Civil Rights Tour and lesson in Leadership

My job requires me to spend a lot of time thinking about leadership. I oversee a ministry with programs, staff, and board members in five states. Keeping everyone one the same page while providing the space to be unique and creative is a constant challenge.

Last week I was afforded an opportunity to join with a group of collogues on a Civil Rights tour through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I have spent the better part of the past two decades reading, reflecting on, and educating myself about diversity, race, and civil rights. This was my first time going to the locations where history was made in the 1950’s and 60’s.

We visited Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park) the staging ground for many demonstrations and catty corner from 16th Street Baptist Church the site of September 15, 1963 bombing where four young children were murdered. I walked through the Freedom Ride Museum and heard the stories of the riders, who prior to joining the ride, filled out their wills. They were riding for change and knew that the price might be their lives. In Montgomery I heard the story of Rosa Parks, a strong yet humble women whose single act of defiance, refusing to give up her seat to a white man, set in motion a set of events that would change the south (and north) forever.

In Selma we visited Brown Chapel and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Later we heard firsthand accounts of the Bloody Sunday, the turnaround Tuesday, and the Selma to Montgomery marches.

In Mississippi Roscoe Jones sat with us and shared his story. In 1964 he was friends with James Chaney, one of three civil rights leaders who were murdered. Their story was retold in the movie Mississippi Burning. Roscoe was supposed to be the fourth person in the car. Events conspired in such a way that he was unable to join them. As a result Roscoe lived and his friends were brutally murdered by the KKK.

This tour shook my soul at many levels. Two things continue to stand out for me. The first was the age of the leaders and many of the protestors. They were young. Somewhere along my journey I began to assume that mature, wise, and prophetic leadership was something that only came with time. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and a host of other peers (foot-soldiers) were all in their 20’s and 30’s. They stepped up and led. They were not limited by their youth.

Second, these leaders were not part of the legitimized and elected power structures of the day. They had no access to these structures. Their legitimacy came from the grassroots. They prophetically spoke truth to power and in the end the official powers of the day began to make space for these young, brave, grassroots empowered leaders.

The work and mission of the Civil Rights leaders is far from over. This “ism’s” of prejudice and judgment are still alive and well.

There are lesson that need to be remembered. First, it is the youth who will lead the way. Those of us who are older need to find the humility to make way for leaders who are young and reckless. Second, change, real change, will always emerge from the bottom. Those of us who are in legitimized leadership positions would do well to remember this.

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Service or Social Justice?

There is nothing quite as inspiring as morning coffee, toast with honey and peanut butter, and conversation with a good friend. This past week, all of this fell into place during a trip to Chicago. The conversation started innocently enough. I asked about a conference my friend had attended. It was clear that he was not impressed. According to him the theme was justice but all they could focus on was service.

I must admit that initially I did not understand his point. In my mind service and justice might not be exactly the same thing, but they are closely related. To put it mildly, I got schooled.

For him service, although important and needed, is only a Band-Aid. For example we need people to help out and serve at after school programs, foodbanks, drug rehabilitation programs, day cares, drop-in centers, and homeless shelters. This list is only a start. It is the opportunity to serve at various helping agencies and social service programs that has been at the heart and soul of what DOOR programing offers.

In my mind service was a pretty important priority for Jesus as well. So I wasn’t understanding the frustration.

Then he made the transition. Service is what we do to help folks who have been left behind by a system that doesn’t care. There is a sense in which service makes me, the service provider, feel better about myself, my life, and my privilege. And it provides some temporary relief for those who have been abused and treated unfairly by the system.

The work of justice asks us to challenge, change, deconstruct, and rebuild the system. Justice work asks questions about fair wages, access to health care, and housing costs. It is concerned about affordable childcare and quality education for all. It examines how people in power wield their power and demands that no one be judged or treated differently because of where they live, the color of their skin, or their religion or orientation. Working towards justice requires that we embrace the complexity of the world we live in.

There is a tendency among people of faith to keep things simple. It is relatively easy to feed people or offer after school tutoring. It is quite another thing to make changes to assure quality education for all children.

This summer our Denver program eliminated one of its service days and replaced it with a gentrification tour. During this tour our groups are exposed to the realities of gentrification on the Westside of Denver. Many of our participants appreciate being asked to think about the injustices that come with gentrification. There is also a growing segment of folks who are horrified that we would expose good people who came to do service to issues of justice.

I am grateful for a breakfast and conversation that satisfied my stomach and challenged my soul. Could it be possible that service without justice is just self-serving?

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A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives.

What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

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

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

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

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

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My way or the highway

I am a follower of Jesus, an Executive Director of a national ministry, a student of theology, and an occasional pastor. For the last two decades my underlying motivations and curiosities have revolved around two biblical ideas. The first, Jesus’ prayer that the Kingdom of God could be a reality on earth as it is in heaven. And second, that God so loved the world. As it turns out these are attractive ideas and passages for most Christians. It could be argued that the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16 are the most universally recognized parts of scripture.

The attractiveness of these ideas begins to fall apart once we start asking questions. What does the world, and particularly the church, look like when it lives in such a way that heaven and earth are the same? Who is all included in this world that God so loved?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Together

Like most people I am glad the latest election cycle is over. I live in Colorado; we happen to be a swing state. From what I can tell, the primary benefit of this honor is to be inundated with political ads. I mean one right after the other. First candidate A says you shouldn’t vote for candidate B, followed by an ad from candidate B saying you shouldn’t vote for candidate A  Every ad had the same basic message – the other person was always evil, wrong, or sinful.

Truth be told, these political candidates were simply reflecting an emerging way of being together as humans. It goes something like this, “you either agree with me or you are wrong.” And the political world isn’t unique in holding this perspective. People of faith tend to only connect, gather, and worship with others who affirm their particular assumptions and prejudices. This way of living, thinking, and being is dangerous, corrosive, and boring. We need to find new ways to be together. Does it really make us better people if we focus our interactions on those with whom we agree?

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

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

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

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Progress – yes and no

For me October is always a month of reflection; by the end of this month I will have completed 20 years at DOOR.

My conference minister regularly reminds me that people and institutions become what they pay attention to. It was December 2004 when I began paying attention to something different. In many ways this something different was and is tied to the words in Jesus’ prayer “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The journey began in 2003. When recruiting for a new Denver City Director there were no applications from people of color; the scenario repeated in the search for a new Chicago City Director a year later. In both cases extremely well qualified individuals were hired. But what did it say about DOOR and our commitments to diversity that we were unable to attract even a single candidate of color for these positions?

If DOOR was going to become a “multi” ministry, we were going to have to begin paying attention to different things. With a great deal of naiveté I wrote the following reflection/vision statement:

 As we think about DOOR in 10 years, part of that dream includes a transformation of the ethnic make-up of our City Directors. We are not saying it is wrong to hire Anglos, nor do we want to fire any of our current staff. Our current City Directors are some of the finest and brightest people with whom one could ever hope to work. We do, however, want to think about how and with whom we replace outgoing City Directors.

As DOOR looks down the road 10 years, it is our desire to develop a plan that would enable us to identify, train and hire City Directors who are from the urban minority community. It is important to recognize that for a plan like this to be successful our current set of City Directors will have to own this vision.

The goal was that by 2014, 51% of full-time DOOR staff would come from the urban minority community.

Well, its 2014, how did we do? Today, ten years later, 50% of our full-time staff and 72% of our summer Discerners are persons of color, and our local boards are no longer dominated by white men. The changes at DOOR are real; however we still have much to learn.

You see, in 2004 we were primarily thinking about diversity through the lens of race. The other forms of diversity – theology, class, age, orientation, and gender- were always important, but there was a sense in which these secondary diversity issues. In the last few years it has become increasingly clear that to limit “diversity” to one particular aspect, in DOOR’s case “color,” leads to an incomplete and potentially twisted understanding of the kingdom of God.

DOOR is both a tolerant and intolerant organization. On one hand we are open to participants who “don’t get it,” but on the other we do not have a whole lot of tolerance for people who are content to live out their racial prejudice or stereotypes. What happens when we expand this tolerance-intolerance tension to issues of religion and orientation?

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Looking for Grace

Later this week Mountain States Mennonite Conference, the conference I am part of, will be hosting its annual assembly. This year’s assembly will be closely watched by Mennonites from across the USA and around the world. Depending on who you ask we are either prophetically leading the church to a new reality or we have come as close as a conference can get to committing the ultimate sin. In February 2014 we licensed an openly gay pastor. In the Mennonite world licensing is the first step on the path to ordination.

This decision has pushed our conference to the very center of the Mennonite world. Whether you are a Mennonite of not, the discussion itself is familiar.

On the conservative side it goes something like this:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.”

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”

And on the more liberal side we hear:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.” (I know, both sides claim this one.)

“God created us with particular orientations and desires; let’s celebrate and support these differences.”

“Love is the only biblical orientation.”

So there is a sense in which everyone is claiming to have the moral high ground. Like everyone else I have a bias in this discussion. That is not what I want to talk about.

Is there a way for everyone to back off a bit? I was part of one discussion where someone was so worked up that they began to tap me on the chest with their fingers. Quite frankly once we achieve that level of anger, it is safe to say that the conversation is no longer about the Christian faith.

I have heard people say that more often than not conversations about orientation and Christian faith quickly descend into irrationality. An irrational conversation is frustrating for everyone.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to choose grace over the need to be right. Back when I was in college the popular book Evidence Demands a Verdict was making the rounds. The idea behind this book was to prove to everyone who didn’t hold a certain set of convictions and beliefs about the bible that they were wrong. It took years for me to learn that arguing people to my convictions and beliefs rarely works.

What I have discovered in the last 20 years is that choosing grace is a much better approach. One, it leaves space for me to be wrong and two, it allows the other to be wrong! When we choose grace then it becomes possible to live and worship with those who are different.

There are many people predicting that the Mennonite Church USA is going to split over the sexual orientation controversy. I hope our leaders and the rest of us find the courage to be graceful with each other. It will not always be comfortable or easy, but it might be the most Christian decision we can make.

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A white issue

Two years ago I was asked to join the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) advisory board. SCUPE is a ministry committed to educating leaders to revitalize congregations and community organizations to transform cities towards becoming just, inclusive and peaceful communities in accordance with God’s vision for the world. This particular board gathers twice a year to hear reports and dream about future possibilities. During the Advanced Latino/a Theological Education (ALTE) Program report a person made the thought-provoking comment that fundamentalism is a white person issue.

Normally I would have just ignored the statement but Martin Marty, a well know writer on the subject of fundamentalism, was in the room and he didn’t raise any objections. For those of you who have heard the term but are not really sure what fundamentalism is, here is a quick refresher. It stresses the infallibility of Scripture in matters of faith and morals and as a historical record. These are the people who get stressed out about the theory of evolution.

I am not sure that I grew up as a strict fundamentalist, but it certainly shaped my view of God, the Bible, and the kind of choices I needed to make in life. It is never fun to discover that deeply held commitments are more a matter of culture than a universal Christian understanding. Facing this reality is uncomfortable and has the potential to be disruptive. We all want to believe that our Christian understandings are culturally neutral. Quite simply this is not the case, and never has been the case.

Our understandings of God are always culturally influenced. One of the only ways I know of moving beyond my particular culture is to put myself in places where other cultures and understandings have a voice. This isn’t easy. For many of us difference has and continues to equal sin. Allowing for difference can very quickly become uncomfortable. How do people who believe in a literal six day creation worship together with those who understand evolution to be true? Evolution versus creation is child’s play when put alongside questions of sexual orientation. Difference is not easy.

Can you imagine a church where difference is celebrated? Being with a group of believers who hold wildly different understandings of who God is and how God works? Potentially uncomfortable, certainly messy but also freeing.

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Empathy

One of the more frustrating aspects of my day-to-day life is dealing with people who do not see the world as I do.  I realize that this can come off as sounding arrogant, foolish, or ignorant.  Admittedly this is sometimes the case.

Dealing with people whose world is small can be frustrating.  If a person only associates with people who share his or her values is it possible to grow, change, or mature?  Is it even possible to have empathy for someone or something you have no experience with?  I am convinced this is how racism still exists.  If you only hang out with “your own kind” it becomes very easy to demonize anything that is different.

A number of years ago I was feeling pretty good about my theological knowledge.  In the middle of my bragging my friend asked who I was reading, a simple question.  I began to rattle off a long list of names.  Before long he stopped me again and asked whether I noticed anything about my list.  My quick response was that they are all great theologians.  He shook his head and said that I wasn’t even aware.  That impressive list was all white men.  Then he went on to ask where the women and the writers of color were.  In less than two minutes my friend had moved me from pride to embarrassment.

Empathy, deep heartfelt empathy, demands that we open our eyes and hearts to the other, to that which is different.  I am white; I will never fully understand the pain and horror of racism.  Having friends of color, not token but true friends, has helped me develop empathy for the racism they continue to experience on a daily basis.  Today when I read theology for every Anglo author I read I make a point of reading three authors of color.  This practice has done more to shape my understanding of who God is than almost anything else I do.

In the last few years a raging debate has escalated in the church about sexual orientation.  One of my newest practices is to read theology written by my gay brothers and sisters.  Once again I find myself understanding that God is so much more than the white, straight, male world I was born into.

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