Saturday, July 20, 2013

Race, conservatism and the evangelical church

After George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a number of people I know simply gloated. That was bad enough.

What I found disconcerting is that many of them were supposedly Jesus-loving Christians but clearly hard-core conservatives. It reminded me why we still have a major race problem in the church -- denial.

No, I'm not calling them racists, but they were clearly insensitive to the indignities, great or small, that some of their "brothers and sisters" have had to deal with on a consistent basis.

And I believe that their commitment to a myopic conservative worldview, which seeks comfort for itself but couldn't care less about anyone else's suffering, is the primary culprit here.

Frankly, most of my friends outside my diverse church and the local music community are white. This is especially the case among the three local Christian singles ministries that I've been involved with; I'm one of only two African-Americans who participate, and neither of us are militants who demand to be heard.

But sometimes I wish they would ask me for my perspective on things.

You see, many of them focus on Christian "morality" and "liberty" at the expense of everything else; as you can imagine, they vote Republican. They don't see how or why the conservative agenda that now controls the GOP is considered insulting and injurious, at times even willfully, to African-Americans, who vote Democratic for that reason.

How so? Well, let's consider the phrase "big government." You may not know this, but it originally had a racist connotation -- recall that it was the Federal government that took down Jim Crow laws in the South, specifically through laws and Supreme Court decisions that irritated a lot of people and led to what became known as the "new right," which started in the 1950s and gained steam in the '60s. Propagandists over the years have sought to blame the "Great Society" for the ills of the black community, never mind that it doesn't have the same access to education and employment opportunities (I realized this when I got to college) as everyone else.

Over time these folks have sought to reverse the progress that we've made, especially when it comes to important issue of voting. The Supreme Court's invalidation of a major tenet of the Voting Rights Act didn't help, and right-wing radio's quasi-racist ramblings have inflamed the discourse. Not to mention the voter-ID laws implemented in many states that are reminiscent of laws in Southern states that essentially barred blacks from voting. (Voting will always remain an issue.)

But my "siblings" don't see that we as African-Americans are often treated differently in the world. While I personally have never experienced being stopped by a policeman for no good reason -- "driving while black" -- or ignored by restaurant waitstaff, I know people who have.

And sometimes it spills over into the church. When I was in college I began attending a campus Christian fellowship that was otherwise all-white. I soon found out why it was that way; a couple weeks after coming -- and becoming chummy with one of the women -- a staff member asked me to leave; it turned out that the ministry actually operated a separate group for black students and she said that I would "fit better" there, my actual church background notwithstanding. (I didn't.) Later on another staff member tried to drive me out but failed.

At the beginning of my last committed dating relationship in the summer of 1999 -- my girlfriend was white -- I had a week off from playing at my church, so I visited hers. In the church was literature from the "Conservative Chronicle," which one of her sons would bring home on a regular basis; upon reading it I detected a spirit of racism. (Which turned out to be correct; I learned long after the relationship collapsed that it was the newsletter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, formerly known as the White Citizens Council, which formed in the South to oppose desegregation.)

I'm privileged to attend a church where some of these issues have been addressed; however, I know full well that it's an anomaly. And even there, some folks still often don't "get it."

We took this on most recently in my Christian Leadership Concepts small group -- CLC is a two-year men's leadership course that ended for me in February -- in which racial reconciliation was one of the last things to be taught. Because the other guys know that I have a passion for and considerable knowledge and experience in that, one of the co-facilitators asked me to lead the first session. As part of the curriculum we used the book "Strength to Love" by Martin Luther King Jr. However, I told them flat-out that Dr. King's opponents were conservatives. I didn't get a handle on how they reacted.

One song that's now being played in heavy rotation on smooth-jazz radio is a cover of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," whose message I heartily agree with. But I wish that my conservative friends would heed it -- that when it comes to issues of race in the church they may recognize that their attitudes may be part of the problem.

The same Bible that causes me to oppose abortion and homosexual conduct also despises racism and obliges me to identify with those of lower status. (Not just help -- identify with, for you can't do the former without the latter.) We simply won't solve this problem unless hearts are softened, and may God do so.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Some (hopefully) helpful answers to some unhelpful questions surrounding the Zimmerman case

In light of the recent racially-charged murder trial of George Zimmerman, I've noticed that quite a few people reacted to his acquittal with glee, almost gloating in the process. This post is directed towards those folks who unwittingly have deepened the racial divide in this country with their insensitivity and by their attempt to ignore it. To engage them I've formulated a few questions they might ask, with some answers.

1) Why do you follow such grandstanders as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who go places for the express purpose of stirring up racial strife?

Well, not really -- a lot of us aren't completely sold on either of them for different reasons. Keep in mind, however, that they're not part of the "system" and thus maintain sufficient independence from it to be able to speak prophetically to the nation at large -- and they must be somewhat effective, otherwise you wouldn't be complaining about them. By the way, the very same charge was often made toward Martin Luther King Jr.; 50 years ago this spring the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala. began, and a lot of people then and there complained about "outside agitators" even though he had been invited in.

Oh, and contrary to popular opinion, they're not "stirring up racial strife" where none had previously existed -- you don't realize that it already had been stirred up; at the time of Trayvon Martin's death there had already been marches and rallies nationwide then. Hear me, people -- nationwide.

2) Why don't African-Americans spend more time on righting the wrongs in their own community, such as black-on-black crime, bad schools, broken families etc.?

In fact, we do. Here in Pittsburgh, never a year goes by without at least one "Stop the Violence!" march -- which often makes the news -- and it's a common complaint at the funerals of black boys and young men who were shooting victims. Moreover, we've done numerous things to foster change, with all kinds of programs and initiatives that are in fact known to the public, too many to list in this post.

But here's what you don't understand: We also want the same kind of access to education, employment and such things as anyone else, which we can't always get for a number of different reasons. That's why mere "hard work" and "personal responsibility," which we do believe in and practice, don't suffice to effect change.

3) Why focus on race so much? Didn't Dr. King say that he hoped to "live in a land where my four little children are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?"

He did say that, but if you listen to or read the rest of that speech you'll notice that he made abundantly clear that it certainly wasn't the case on Aug. 28, 1963, the day he delivered it. And based on other reports I've heard, Zimmerman didn't believe it, either. Besides, virtually all African-Americans of or above a certain age have what we colloquially called "lynching stories"; I could share with you mine, but I won't go there right now.

4) Can't you just "forgive and forget?"

Many of us African-Americans are Christians, which means that we do believe in and practice the doctrine of forgiveness. However, you have to understand what forgiveness entails: It's not about ignoring, minimizing or condoning evil acts; it's about removing them as obstacles to reconciliation, not exactly an easy process if you've ever had to go through it.

"Forgetting," on the other hand, is neither practical nor desirable; remember the old adage "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." Even after the back of Jim Crow was broken in the South, laws were passed against segregation to make sure that it didn't return. Also, remember that two of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous refer to "making amends" -- which means fixing, as much as possible, the damage that had been done. (No, I don't mean "reparations.")

And that's ultimately where I'm going with this. I'm pleading for a spirit of repentance on everyone's part so that we can build together the "beloved community" that Dr. King so eloquently spoke of, but that simply won't be possible with the type of hardened hearts that many of you have displayed in this situation. I invite you to listen to our historic pain so that you can get a better sense of what we have to struggle with in the hopes that you can truly identify with it and understand our mourning, of which Trayvon's death is but a symbol. That was in fact the real lesson of Jesus' parable of the "good Samaritan."

May God have mercy on us all.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fighting the wrong war

You may have heard of or seen the video of the Christian protestor at a recent gay pride march in Seattle being attacked by sympathizers. Some believers are saying that the incident proves "intolerance" toward Christian witness.

I have a different view; however. For openers, spouting Bible verses or holding up signs denouncing homosexuality in such at atmosphere is akin to a Ku Klux Klansman hassling African-Americans -- it's just not a smart move. And while I don't personally countenance such a violent reaction, I understand it.

As often happens, the anti-gay demonstrators actually go beyond the parameters of Scripture by insisting that "God's judgment is imminent" because of homosexuality. In other words, their singling out gays as particularly deserving of His wrath is unbiblical in its own right.

Bottom line, they're fighting the wrong war -- they have confused spiritual warfare, which God tells us to fight, with cultural warfare, which He doesn't. The reason is simple -- when you're focused primarily on real or perceived sin you're not focused on Jesus, and when you're not focused on Jesus more sin is inevitable.

The devil gets this, believe me. One of his favorite tactics is to "play both ends against the middle"; he starts something on one side that might be clearly wrong but then often influences a reaction that potentially causes more damage to the cause of Christ than the original issue. Now, the only way this can work is if the reactionaries don't recognize the Enemy's involvement. (Most don't.) That's why "culture wars" always fail -- they try to make the culture "safe" for Christians to live in and thus eliminate the idea of trusting in God to preserve His people in a dark world.

I know what you might be thinking: Doesn't the Word of God speak about His judgment against gays? Yes and no. The Scripture identifies homosexual conduct as belonging to the "world system," which is on its way out anyway. Besides, telling gays that they're in danger of judgment is something that, according to Philip Yancey's book "What's So Amazing About Grace?", just about every gay person has heard already so the words simply aren't convicting.

Specifically denouncing homosexuality may raise funds and bring out demonstrators; however, it's a distraction from real spiritual issues. Bottom line, we need to our -- and God's -- priorities straight.