Signs of Hope

Beginning with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 it seemed that almost monthly there was another tragic death or incident that revealed, or prompted, racial conflict in the United States. Most of my readers know the list, but here are some low-lights:

  • July 2014: Eric Garner (black) is choked by (white) police and dies on Staten Island for selling cigarettes on a street corner.
  • November 2014: In Cleveland, 12 year old (black) Tamir Rice is shot by (white) police for pointing a toy gun at people.
  • April 2015: Walter Scott (black) was shot in the back while running from a (white) police office after a traffic stop in North Charleston, SC.
  • April 2015: Unrest envelops Baltimore after Freddie Gray (black) died as a result of not being properly restrained while being transported in a police vehicle.
  • June 2015: 9 (black) people were shot and killed at an AME church in Charleston, SC by a young (white) male.

In the face of this barrage of shameful violence, I want to share some of my experiences and resources that I’ve encountered of the past few weeks that give me hope for the future.

hope sign 01In many ways it begins with the response of the families of those 9 people killed in the Charleston church shooting. Instead of responding with violence, the went to the courthouse and addressed the killer, Dylan Roof. In a dramatic and unexpected moment they expressed both their grief and forgiveness to Dylan.

From the outside this expression of grace seemed Christlike and exemplary to others engaged in racial conflict. But it’s not that simple. I also appreciate those family members that called upon him to repent. It’s very easy for white America to sit back and expect that past wrongs be forgiven by minority populations and then we can all just move on. There’s a Godly onus upon white government institutions, white corporations, white churches and white families to acknowledge past wrongdoings and repent of those sins. We cannot ask black America to forgive us for sins we refuse to admit.

So how do I find this hopeful?

I find hope because the conversation is starting. I find hope in the LA Times article that discusses the difficulties of forgiveness and atonement. I find hope in the airing of alternative perspectives such as those expressed in this article,We should be sick and tired of apologizing for who we are and what’s happened to us. If I hear that on the news again, I’m going to throw up.” That statement makes me uncomfortable, but it belongs in the conversation.

I find hope in this interview of civil rights leader John Perkins that was conducted at the North American Christian Convention a couple of weeks ago. In graphic detail he describes the moment he decided to pursue reconciliation rather than revenge. He also calls for repentance to accompany forgiveness.

I believe you will also find this interview with NACC keynote speaker, Sean Palmer, challenging as he reminds us that racial reconciliation is a Gospel issue, not just a nice idea.

I find hope because when I attended Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration last week I found people wanting to talk about racial reconciliation and church integration.

  • Randy Lowry, the president of Lipscomb hosted a two-part Forum on Racial Relations in Our Country and Our Church.
  • Dr Lowry mentioned that about 18% of Lipscomb’s students are from minority populations.
  • Buddy Bell, the minister at Landmark Church in Montgomery, Alabama, used his keynote address to support the removal of the Confederate Flag from public institutions and to encourage white Christians to talk with African-Americans about what the flag means to them.
  • I had lunch with a friend who described a recent unity church service he’d attended where members of the African-American churches were given a venue to describe the discrimination they’d faced in that town. He told how (among other things) they recounted the reality of a hospital segregated by race and the story of a (black) woman forced to give birth on a mattress in the floor of a janitor’s closet while beds were available but off-limits in the white wing of the hospital. Not that the story is unique, but I find hope because this story was told within a church.
  • I find hope in the stories of different people I met who had participated, sometimes with their church groups, in a tour organized by Lipscomb of significant civil rights sites and the way that impacted their attitudes and worldview.
  • I’m encouraged that Summer Celebration had two sessions addressing the issues of racial reconciliation in churches.

These are small steps.

Much work and discussion lies ahead. Both NACC and Summer Celebration are overwhelmingly attended by white Christians. So these forums can have all the discussions they want, but changes also need to take place. Talk must lead to action. One racial unity service a year, or even two, isn’t enough. But it is a beginning.

I am convicted that the church can fulfill it’s mission as a force for reconciliation within our society, but there’s still a long road ahead.

I want to leave you with a powerful sermon that was delivered at Summer Celebration. Dr David Fleer is a homiletics professor at Lipscomb University. The sermon presented at Summer Celebration is available for purchase and download HERE. But Dr Fleer presented the same basic material at a racial unity service just a few days before. I encourage you to listen and pick it up in this video at the 30 minute mark.

Recommendations

Although I’m passionate about the important role that multi-ethnic churches need to play in the kingdom of God, my own well is pretty dry on this topic at times. This is a primary reason I launched this blog last year. Sure, I have thoughts, ideas, experiences and reflections of my own, but I need conversations with others to be the leader my church requires.

Along the way, I’ve often been reminded that LISTENING is one of the most important skills for ministering, or participating, in a multi-ethnic church. I can’t speak into the lives and stories of my congregation if I don’t know their stories. If I’ve never heard their pain, I can’t be part of their salve.

So this week’s blog is simple. I want to point you to two excellent resources.

The first is an interview with Don McLaughlin. You will find it HERE on the Newsworthy with Norsworthy Podcast. Or you can find the podcast on itunes. Luke Norsworthy has some very interesting guests and I recommend you subscribe to his podcast.

The interview with McLaughlin was posted on 20 August, less than 2 weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. McLaughlin is the pulpit minister at the North Atlanta Church of Christ. This is perhaps the largest multiracial Church of Christ in the United States.

In the interview McLaughlin briefly discusses racial attitudes in the US. He provides a great perspective on the humanity of all parties involved in the Ferguson tragedy. In a series of narratives he describes how racism has touched his family, and how his church has taken steps to welcome all people, regardless of “what color they’re wrapped in”.

The second resource is a blog post published by a friend of mine: Sean Palmer. You can read it HERE. One point that struck me from Sean’s post was the observation that,

“The strongest indicator of race relations in America is the church. Well, it’s the church, plus backyard barbeques or girlfriends’ weekends and guys’ poker nights – the strongest indicator of racial relations is who we are with when we get to choose who to be with.”

God’s call to unity and oneness doesn’t apply merely to what takes place within the walls of the church building. For those of us in churches with racially diverse memberships, our task is not complete. We can only truly consider ourselves a reconciled church when the church gatherings outside the building reflects the diversity found inside the building. A multiracial church filled with mono-racial friendships and social events is not reconciled.

Sean also does a great job of highlighting the fact that God is greater than culture. I really hope that if you’ve taken the time to read this far, you’ll take the time to read his post too. You’ll be blessed.

The Value of Community

Last week’s post on Donald Sterling was well received. Thank-you to those who took the time to read it and also to those who sent me a private message on the subject.

I wrote that post just a couple of days after the NBA gave Sterling a lifetime suspension from the NBA. I’m happy with my comments and questions. But I appreciate a couple of friends who have written on the topic this week and the perspectives that they present. No one person or article can cover all aspects of any topic and each writer has a style that connects best with different audiences. So I accept my limitations, but look at this for a diverse lineup:

  • I write as an Australian who has spent most of the last 15 years in the US. I now life in upstate New York.
  • Jonathan Storment has white skin, was raised in Arkansas and now preaches for a church in Abilene, Texas.
  • Sean Palmer is an African-American raised in the deep South. He now serves as the Lead Minister at The Vine church in Temple, Texas.

You get enough of my writing on this site, so I want to use this space to highlight some elements of recent articles by Jonathan and Sean.

Jonathan’s article is one of his regular guest posts on Scot McKnight’s blog.  He opens and closes by racist attitudes in his life. The point of his article is that the church has helped him identify this sin and repent of it. Without this outside intervention in his life these attitudes may still remain unacknowledged and festering. Praise God for those in his life who were not too timid to speak truth. Too often we gather around us people who affirm us more than challenge us. While we certainly need affirmation and encouragement a healthy church will also help us identify blind spots in our hearts and lives.

Jonathan used one term that really caught my attention: “Elegant Racism”. While it’s hardly self-explanatory it accurately describes many of our churches today. On the one hand we confess that God loves all people of all races, all ethnicities, all  cultures, and all languages equally. But we take no steps to build bridges to the racial, ethnic, cultural and language groups different from our own. We are “elegantly racist” because we’re so darn polite about not associating with the “others”!

The sad truth is that it’s often easier to love people who aren’t sitting in our living room. It’s easy to be moved about the plight of poor children on the other side of the world and give lots of money to send a missionary so that they can hear the wonderful news of Jesus. It’s much harder to run an after school program for children on the other side of town.

Jonathan’s article is a needed reminder for me. Too often I get to the end of a week and look back on who I ate with and realise they were mostly, or all, white guys aged within 15 years either side of me. If I’m not intentional, elegant racism becomes a tragic part of my life. Who are your friends? Who do you eat with? Who do you go to the movies with? What activities in your life take you outside your cultural comfort level?

Sean’s article points out three ways our Sunday segregation undermine central tenets of the Gospel. First, we make cultural preservation a ministry of the church. Although Romans 16:4 has a puzzling mention of “all the churches of the Gentiles” the first church consistently worked to overwhelm the Jew – Gentile divide. When churches make the preservation of a particular culture part of their mission, we begin diluting the Gospel message.

Second, when our racial traits form a stronger bond than does our submission to Jesus we undermine Jesus’ death. Sean makes this excellent point, “Because we have deluded the scriptures and encased the Bible as a personal, self-help book, we’ve lost its deliberately public calls for social change.” Yes, we can make our faith too personal.

Sean’s third point naturally flows from his second. Not only is our faith too personal, so is our worship. The church is infatuated with worship styles. I’m part of that. I’m a big believer that worship needs to be meaningful to me in order to be meaningful to God. Singing hymns from the 1600’s with words I don’t understand prompts a disinterested attitude that disrespects God. But when we worship as a church we also practice sacrifice. We worship God when we sacrifice some of our preferences so that a sister or brother can express their heart to God.

I’ve recently been challenged to consider my entire Christian walk as one of submission. It’s tough. Ephesians 5:22 is an infamous verse as it instructs wives to submit to their husbands. If I’m asked to read this passage at a wedding I always make sure I read v21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This certainly provides a great basis for marriage. What we often overlook is that this passage discusses marriage as a metaphor of Christ and the church (v32). Mutual submission is the basis of harmony within the church.

When I’m unable to worship God because of “style”, I’m also not submitting to my sisters for whom that style has great familiarity and meaning. But if other church members refuse to vary their worship style they’re also refusing to serve those in the church with values different to themselves. God’s model of worship requires submission and sacrifice by everyone, not just the minority.

Summary

I hope my reflections have encouraged you. Most of all, I hope my post encourages you to go and read what these guys have to say. I really appreciate their hearts and the authenticity they bring to the table from their distinct backgrounds. Leave a comment on their blogs and support them as they stick their necks out to challenge the church to represent God’s vision for his kingdom: that the church may be one.