American Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He also collaborated with the occupying empire of Rome to extort money from his fellow-countrymen. He saw who had the guns — Roman legions, in his day — and he aligned with them to make an unjust profit. No wonder the people who saw Jesus invite himself over to Zacchaeus’ place for dinner were disappointed and disgusted. Notorious man of the people consents to intimate meeting with noted counter-revolutionary and predatory little turncoat.

In Luke’s story, Zacchaeus tells Jesus, “if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (19:8, CEB). I assume this was the case (the cheating); otherwise, why bring it up? Jesus says to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9).

And that concludes the story.

As with all the gospel stories, it is curt and tidy. It evokes just enough of a character and a problem to launch a story. Then the main action is the character’s encounter with Jesus. Its ending is nothing but a snapshot of restoration. Leper + Jesus = rejoicing. Woman caught in adultery + Jesus = go and sin no more. Mourning mother and dead boy + Jesus = rejoicing. Extortive tax collector + Jesus = salvation has come.

The simplicity of the stories gives them their power. They aren’t like modern novels, where the characters are convoluted and the plot is unresolved and there’s lots of gray. The stories in the gospels are silhouettes, light and darkness. They stick in the memory and linger in the soul. For that reason, they’re more like a rock you can build your house on. But they also lack the give and complexity of real, sandy life, which does not usually consist in episodes of lightning encounter and radical transformation.

For example, the message of the Zacchaeus story is clear enough. If you have stolen money from others, Jesus still welcomes you. Jesus reaches out to dine with the despised opportunist and collaborator. This is a word that warms my heart. It opens a hope of grace for those like me who stand with Zacchaeus on the benefiting side of imperial firepower. Also: gratitude for Jesus’ gracious welcome is then supposed to move its recipients to give back their unjust gains to their victims.

But what if it is not so simple?

What if I personally did not make the theft like Zacchaeus — but a theft was made hundreds of years ago, and ever since, the stolen capital has grown and amassed, continuing to benefit the racial descendants of the original despoilers? What if the robbery is not an isolated case as with Zacchaeus, but a whole society, organized to protect the interests of the thieves and their offspring, and to ensure the plunder remains inaccessible to the plundered? What if the theft was not only an easily quantifiable asset like money, as with Zacchaeus —but included properties that cannot be commodified, like land and labor and freedom and tradition and credibility and basic human dignity? What if those robbed are not, as in the story of Zacchaeus, merely the objects of Zacchaeus’ actions, but their own irreducible and active subjects, who have striven for centuries to reestablish what was forcibly taken from their ancestors?

What does restitution look like in such a case, Lord?


A Painful Evolution (Awakening #3)

At my core, I am a journalist with the desire to fight for truth and justice.  This identity blossomed during my time with my university’s newspaper and continued in the years following graduation (especially while working as a reporter).  While I thought I was pushing the limits of my surrounding conservative culture, it was not until the 2014 murder of a gay man in a North Carolina hotel room that my journey towards gaining radically new eyes began.

My husband (then boyfriend) and I had our first big fight while discussing that news story.  He called it a hate-crime; I said, “How can you be sure it wasn’t just a (terrible) murder, one unmotivated by his sexual orientation?” I naively thought this fact was irrelevant.  Thus began the painful and long process of shedding the scales of my white, American upbringing to recognize the power of race, gender, and socio-economic status in my culture.

Over the coming weeks and months, I was introduced to and read/listened to newfound news sites, journalists, thinkers and philosophers, and public figures. They put me through the wringer and upset the ways I’d previously thought.  Many more heated conversations between my significant other and me catalyzed my mind and heart in a new direction—feeling deeply for those who are terrorized, brutalized, and killed because of the color of their skin.

At the same time, I was experiencing the beginning of a spiritual crisis.  I increasingly saw a trend among many evangelical Christians in the United States: intolerance towards the idea that prejudice and brutality against certain races exists, and resistance to questioning the authority of the police to execute these acts.  With each new police killing or act of brutality that made breaking news, I observed many Christians who profess love for Christ put down anyone who criticized the actions of the police–calling for the exaltation of those who “put their lives on the line for us every day.”

Turning a blind eye to the epidemic in our country, where the lives of some are not valued as highly as the lives of others, is an atrocity.  Watching people who profess Christianity, the religion of a slain God who was unjustly killed by the authorities, side so quickly with the institution carrying the weapons that brutally kill 12 year olds, 20 year olds, and 32 year olds without repercussion is heartbreaking, and even angering, for me.  

It’s especially difficult when I see people I love deeply, who are loving and compassionate people, perpetuating these ideologies.  It shows me that this response, like a tradition, is passed from one generation to the next.  However, just as some traditions need to be broken, so does this mentality..

I now sit, nearly two years into this process of self-evolution, frustrated with the many who refuse to have their worldviews altered, while understanding the intensity of undergoing such change. Yet, I am still perplexed as to how to move forward in a faith that is populated with so many ignoring the instructions of Christ, instead aligning with an ethnocentric religious patriotism.  Simultaneously, I am driven with the desire to educate and fight for something in which I deeply believe—that until black and brown lives matter, all lives do not matter, and that giving up on people as unchangeable is not an option.

Parable for a Time of Violence

If you’re like me, you’ve read some very disturbing words of late on Facebook.

In response to police killings of black people: fact-finding and getting technical. Apologetics for the police.

In response to grieving families: silence.

In response to marches and demonstrations: dismissiveness. Anger. Accusations of “thuggery” (thug = the new N-word).

There is something weirdly inhuman about these responses.

Something basic and human – a minimal sense of connection and neighborliness – has been shut down. The folks making these comments react with more empathy when they watch someone get killed in a movie. They root for underdogs standing up to power in the Hunger Games or Braveheart, but sneer at Black Lives Matter protests happening in real-time in their cities. They close off compassion.

It reminds me of how something basic and human was shut down in the response of the priest and Levite in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan. A man was beaten and left half-dead on the side of the road. And instead of responding like normal humans to another person in pain – with at least a wince, with at least a twinge of fellow feeling – they put on stone faces and shored up their hearts. They passed by on the other side of the road.

There were, then, three wounded men in Jesus’s parable. Most obviously, there was the man the robbers beat up. His clothes were taken, his body was broken and bruised, and his sense of safety – gone. But there were also the other two: their bodies remained intact. They were still safe. They got to their destination. But on the inside, they were sick. They hurt their own souls by closing off compassion.

This is the sickness that we white people contract from our society. And we Christians are not at all immune (…as Facebook readily shows).

Jesus tells us what to do. At the end of his story, he commends the Samaritan man who had mercy. The one who acted out of compassion – even if it was not at all what his community expected of him. Jesus asks of us to take costly, countercultural steps to reach out to those whom the robbers of our society exploit and assault.

But even more than that: Jesus himself suffered robbery and violence. His clothes were taken, his body was beaten; he was derided, imprisoned, and killed.

Jesus heals our wounded, closed-off white hearts by entering as God into the dangerous and damned and cast-off spaces of our world. If we can love Jesus as God there – if we can “see the glory of God” in the marred face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6) – then we can learn to love the ones crucified beside him: the ones whom our white colleagues label thieves and rebels and criminals.

Cultural Blind Spot (Awakening #2)

Shortly after marrying Chelsea, she brought some things to my attention. She told me that I had certain communication patterns that she found difficult. In social settings I would interrupt, change the subject, and tell a separate story simultaneous to someone else’s. Essentially, I would speak over people. I was not actively trying to be a jerk. It was my M.O., the way I functioned. I loved it!

When she began expressing frustration about this to me, I could not see it. I didn’t think there was a problem. She did. Who was right? It seemed to me that her claims were misdirected and unfounded, but I decided to listen and tried to see what she was talking about. She would debrief with me as we left social settings, helping me to see when I co-opted the conversation or listened poorly (which was often). I slowly began to perceive the dynamics at work. I was blind to my own cultural habits. I was not trying to be ignorant. I just couldn’t see it. I had a cultural blind spot.

In seminary I had a class on race, gender, and ethnicity. The class itself had fantastic racial/ethnic diversity (white folks were the minority!), and in it I heard perspectives from people of color for the first time. It was also the first time that someone explained my white privilege to me. I had thought that racism was a personal issue that some people have, that other people have. I considered myself separate from racial issues because I thought I had overcome racism in my own thoughts and feelings. I felt confused, surprised and frustrated. I experienced what is called white fragility – when white people can’t emotionally cope with conversations about race and react in defensive and accusatory ways. I would notice my emotional responses and seek to suspend them and listen openly. I quickly found that I had some things to learn. Very specifically, my understanding of sin was far too small.

Sin, I was beginning to see, is not only a personal issue between me and God but has other dimensions as well. [1]  This is demonstrated in the creation story in Genesis. In that story we find 4 key relationships that are broken and need to be restored:

  1. Adam and Eve turn from and disobey God– sin is broken relationship with God.
  2. Adam and Eve realize their own nakedness– sin is brokenness in relationship to self.
  3. Adam blames and accuses Eve– sin is broken relationship to others.
  4. Adam and Eve’s decisions lead to a cursed ground and banishment from Eden– sin is brokenness in relationship to the entire created order and the systems of the world.

It is the last broken relationship that I found most significant for me as a white person. I realized that for a long time I focused on the first three and could not see systemic problems because the system worked for me. I couldn’t see patterns of oppression, and I didn’t know that working to overcome racial injustice is gospel work. I was stuck in a perspective that Jesus wanted to change.

So I slowly acquired ears to hear internalized white superiority everywhere. I would pay close attention to the ways that white people speak. I started to see privilege and superiority in my own assumptions and responses. And I began reading. I began tuning in to African-American writers and speakers, deliberately learning from them. I listened closely and put to death my own defensiveness in hopes that Jesus might show me what it means to follow him.

Some white people in America, no doubt, are evil racists who knowingly act in hatred. But my guess is that most of us aren’t.

Most of us are unaware that our assumptions are unjust. We have very large cultural blind spots, and when they’re pointed out, we need to listen, even when it is difficult.

May it be so. May we listen closely and come to understand our complicity in the hardships of our African-American sisters and brothers. May the painful images afforded us by iPhones and live streaming be a gateway into a more fully-orbed gospel – a gospel where Jesus Christ is conqueror of systemic racial injustice, extending his kingdom on earth (right now!) as it is in heaven.

[1] Scot McKnight’s expounds on the multidimensional nature of sin in his book,  A Community Called Atonement.

Drugged Dream (Awakening #1)

And all of a sudden, my eyes were open. Like coming to from a drug-induced dream. I saw it there, plain as day.

The white church in America is still deep in denial about the hardships of black neighbors — if not actively contributing to it. It could even be argued it’s a blissful ignorance.

Before you write me off and click away, listen to my story. It’s probably very similar to yours.

I grew up in Great Bridge, VA, upper middle class, lacking for nothing. I feel very fortunate for the life and access afforded to me by my parents. I’ve always leaned Republican, and never voted Democrat. I went to a Bible College, and most importantly, I love Jesus Christ. Sound familiar? I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Evangelical Christian.

Problem is, I love Jesus so much that I will follow Him to wherever that takes me. That brings us to the present, and my waking from a very comfortable dream to a terrible reality. [1] It’s strange, uncomfortable, but most importantly: true.

Throughout my youth and early adulthood, I held the view that all have equal opportunity in America. I had no reason to believe otherwise. Land of the Free. I loved that the Civil Rights Movement happened, and that black people’s lives now have equal protection in our country. The horrible injustices of the past have been fixed, and we’ve passed that dark chapter. I knew there is disproportionate poverty in the black community, but there are plenty of success stories of poor people from every race rising above and succeeding. If anyone remained in poverty, they were not taking advantage of resources available to everyone in our country. These views I used to hold.

Here is what Jesus has taught me, and is teaching throughout the ages. God has a special place for the broken-hearted, the oppressed, the marginalized. Our assessment of what got them into that situation should not be considered in our reaction to their plight. Many times what I see is people diagnosing poverty or calamity in others’ lives as a personal excuse. A friend reminded me that in John 9, the Disciples are concerned about the cause of a man’s blindness. Who sinned, him or his parents? Jesus doesn’t even validate their criteria, but simply enters into the suffering and heals the man.

In that situation, the cause of the man’s suffering was left to the mystery of God. Yet in other places the Bible is very clear about why the poor struggle. It is because people with power and wealth hold them down and keep them underfoot. Jesus calls out and condemns these actions.

It is also clear enough — if we listen — why our black neighbors face hardships here in America today. The facts and testimonies of black America say this: “We are viewed as lesser than our white neighbors.” White America, and the church, has consistently denied that claim and experience. Why is it so hard to believe that the people group we were hosing down and lynching half a century ago and had enslaved for 300 years are still in the throes of a system that suppresses them? This is one of the many sins of our nation, and it is being passed down, from generation to generation.

In these past years when these issues of violence towards black people has been center stage (Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, etc.), the white church has been deafeningly silent. After just sitting and watching, I’ve come to see how that silence is perceived by our neighbors of color: affirmation, compliance, and an implicit blessing of this violence through inaction and muteness.

In the weeks after Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop, Alton Sterling was shot point-blank while on his back, and five police officers were slain on duty, one thing I know is clear. Jesus is weeping. He is holding their dead bodies on the ground, weeping. He calls us to join Him. This post is just a start. We’ll have a few other voices join us to speak about Race in America and following Jesus. We are starting a conversation. If you follow Jesus Christ, this is worth your time, and an issue that I firmly believe is your Christian duty to think, pray, and act on. Let’s start with the thinking and talking part. Join us, especially if this makes you uncomfortable. I promise and truly believe God will do a work through it.

[1] The image of “the dream” is borrowed from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me.