Words of a Christian White Man

Growing up in church as a young boy I would occasionally hear people say, “If I make it to heaven one day I would be happy to be a doorman, just so long as I am there.”

The implication was that the joy of being in heaven would far outweigh even the lowliest position.

While the people who said this were unfortunately more concerned with the end goal of “making it to heaven one day,” they unknowingly stumbled onto something I think we need to revisit today in our churches… the desire to become humble, meek, and lowly servants.

While Jesus never gave any indication that a person ought to wait for the future to become a servant (or that becoming a servant is somehow a future consolation prize of heaven), he did have quite a bit to say about the importance of lowering ourselves and becoming humble in the present.

In fact, all of Jesus’ teachings were rooted in the idea that humility and weakness in the present actually brings heaven to earth. According to Jesus, there was something profoundly divine in the death of our ego, in dying to oneself, in taking on the character and disposition of a servant and lowering oneself below others.

Think about it.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.

When you give to the needy, do it in secret.
When you pray, do it behind closed doors.
When you fast, do not draw attention to yourself.
When you are invited to a banquet, do not take the place of honor, but take the lowest place.

Whoever is humble like a little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever sells their possession and gives to the poor will have treasure in heaven.
Whoever wants to become great must become a servant.
Whoever has been last will be made first.
Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.
Whoever wants to follow me must first pick up his cross daily.

For Jesus, the pathway toward greatness was always about humbly giving of oneself for the benefit of another without expecting accolades or special attention.

I know this kind of mindset is radically contrary to our Western mentality. Our culture and society are consumed by notions of ascent, status, and power. And these Western values have crept into our churches, even though they are antithetical to the actual teachings of Christ.

Yet Jesus’ words continue to beckon those who claim to follow him, not toward the wide road of ascent but the narrow path of descent, not toward the wide road status but the narrow path of humility, not toward the wide road power but the narrow path of weakness.

If you are wondering why I started in this place… here is the reason.

The wide road of ascent, status, and power perpetuate inequality and injustice, while the narrow path of descent, humility, and weakness are the foundational characteristics of reconciliation. And to the extent that churches pursue the former to the latter… they will never be effective at reconciliation.

I know that the word reconciliation is difficult to understand, but it is a word that every single Christian in the world ought to know better than anyone else.

Understanding and practicing reconciliation is absolutely essential for those who follow Jesus. One writer of the New Testament even says that followers of Jesus are to be servants of reconciliation. We sacrificially and voluntarily work on behalf of people, relationships, communities, and the larger world to help piece them back together and help restore them. But while reconciliation is an integral and essential responsibility of the Christian, I am not sure many understand what it is or how it ought to happen.

The word reconciliation (Greek katallage) means an adjustment of a difference, a restoration to favor.

Reconciliation is the patient work that removes hostility between people and God, between individuals, between people groups, and works to alleviate inequities in systems so that right relationships are restored.

As those who follow Jesus, it is obvious that we work to help restore people’s relationship with God. We hear that in our churches all the time. But it goes even further than that in how we are to humbly and selflessly work for reconciliation between people and within societal structures.

As Christians, when we see inequity and injustice (a difference in treatment, favor, or privilege), it is our responsibility to actively work on behalf of those who suffer injustice to make adjustments so that people and systems are restored and work rightly for all.

If you did not know it before, reconciliation is essential and absolutely paramount for anyone of any race who follows Jesus.

But for the white Christian… you and I especially have a huge responsibility in working for racial reconciliation in the United States.

When I look at the history of my black brothers and sisters in America, I see a system that created a difference in treatment, favor, and privilege. I see a system that created brokenness, hardship, and immense pain. I see a system that is still broken in many ways and has not been fixed or restored. I see a system that has not fully made adjustments in the difference.

I know you may be thinking that you personally did not create the problem and that you are not currently perpetuating racism. I understand. I have not personally owned slaves. I have not discriminated against people of color. I do not demean or dehumanize black people. Even more, like me, you would probably say that you have black friends.

But that is not the point.

As those who follow Jesus, we have been given the important and humble work of reconciliation. We have been given the responsibility of identifying differences and working to make them right. This is not a matter of opinion. This is literally the point of Christianity- to be reconciled to God and then to work for reconciliation in our relationships and communities.

But I have to tell you, reconciliation is impossible when your mind has already been made up about who is right and who is wrong and have already taken sides. It is impossible when you only care about preserving your own rightness and privilege. It is impossible when you refuse to see injustice and then lack empathy toward those who are suffering.

That is why so many white Christians in America have such a hard time working toward racial reconciliation. There is more interest in holding onto and preserving the Western values of ascent, status, and power than embodying the way of Jesus in descent, humility, and weakness.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, racial reconciliation would be one of the most essential tasks of the white Christian.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would be first in line asking our black brothers and sisters to forgive us for our past and present racism. (Again, you may say you didn’t personally cause the problem, but descent, humility, and weakness tells us that asking for forgiveness is the right thing since our ancestors are not here to do it for themselves).

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would not just take a knee with our black brothers and sisters, we would wash their feet and then lie prostrate to the ground before God in remorse for what they have suffered in hopes of beginning to restore trust between us. (No one is asking you to take a knee or lie prostrate for the political organization #BlackLivesMatter. But for flesh and blood black people).

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would tell every black man and woman we see that their lives matter and have immeasurable value. But it would not just be evident in our words, it would be evident in how we work to restore their communities with our time, energy, effort, and resources.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would begin working in the present for what we envision in the future when all is made right and all races live, work, eat, and worship together, while celebrating the God-given beauty and uniqueness of our cultures in peace and love.

The work of racial reconciliation is possible, but it must begin in humility and weakness, contrition and forgiveness. What does that look like for you as a white Christian? What does that look like for your all-white church? I would love to hear what you are thinking/doing in the comments.

Peace and love…

Brandon

One New Humanity

I remember sitting in an undergrad philosophy class at Hanover College in which the professor, discussing the limitations, nuances, and intricacies of human language, explained to us that while we English speakers have one word for the frozen precipitation that falls from the sky, snow, the Inuit people have over 50 words to describe every variation and type of snow.

I have to admit at being amazed at such detail of observation and nuance of experience.

There is a real beauty in being able to use descriptive words and language to paint a mental picture for others that is rich and vibrant in it’s specificity and detail. As a writer, I am continually reminded of the importance of words and how appreciative readers are at being able to participate in an experience, at being able to feel a visceral connection, and at being able to imagine the intricate details of an image… all through words.

Words can bring observations and experiences to life.

However, our diversity in words and language make us expert classifiers and near-obsessive labelers.

And you may be wondering why you picked up on a bit of cynicism with that last sentence.

While we all may not have the exhaustingly expressive, yet delightfully observant-of-every-fine-detail chops of Dostoevsky, we all have an almost innate need for descriptors. We are hard-wired, it seems, with the ability to observe, discriminate, label, and classify.

Of course this is not inherently bad and actually serves many good and useful purposes, however, our specificity in precise and meticulous observations, our keen eye at discriminating, our acuteness in classifying and labeling can actually, consequently and unintentionally, limit our experiences and create divisions of reality.

Rather than seeing people as they are, rather than enjoying experiences for what they are, we very naturally, maybe even unconsciously, begin to divide all things into categories and groups, which can then very easily lead to the creation of dualities and hierarchies, and then ultimately antagonisms and conflicts among the divisions, simply by the categories in which we place people and experiences and then by what we subsequently believe about them based solely upon how they are described, labeled, or categorized.

Let me be very clear in what I am saying.

We live in a time in which there are hyper-obsessions with how we describe ourselves, how we label others and put them into categories, how we begin to assign worth and value based upon the label a person or group wears and the category in which a person or group identifies, and then how we begin to live in division and conflict, either mentally or physically, with a labeled and categorized person or group… without ever knowing the person behind the label.

The sad and tragic reality is that underneath a label or a classification is a person, a flesh and blood human being, a living and breathing creation with a soul, who has been reduced to a cheap descriptor, who is only seen as an easy label for how they are described, who is stereotyped and caricatured, not for the depth of who they are, or as one uniquely created by God, but as an object that can be disrespected, diminished, and discarded.

God help us.

We are in a very precarious time in history.  The discriminating generalizations and xenophobic stereotypes, the widening fissures and the deepening crevasses in relationships, and then the tectonic plates of verbal and physical conflict between people and groups are shaking the foundations on which we stand. We are on the precipice of a cultural civil war and it is a dark manifestation of our fearful individualism, our isolated homogeny, and our dehumanization and devaluation of “those people” (whoever “those people” are, but it seems like there are more “those people” than ever today).

Our rugged individualism has failed us.

Maybe we are too deeply entrenched in our individual hatreds. Maybe we have sold our souls too long ago to the political machines of rancor and antagonism. Maybe we have pledged allegiance to our own interests in the world. Maybe we have been shackled to religions of rightness (and everyone’s wrongness) for too long.

I don’t know.

Maybe we are just too far gone for solutions.

But as one who actually believes that the time in which we live is rich with opportunity for a new and better humanity (and maybe it has taken us seeing the ugliness of humanity for us to have a longing for a new kind of humanity), I want to invite you out of the division and destruction and antipathy and hatred that surrounds us, maybe even that in which you have participated, and into a uniting and edifying reality built upon goodness and love for all people that no longer sees the world as we versus they, but simply as we.

I am not sure if you have ever considered this, but up until the time of Jesus the trajectory of the biblical narrative was a devolution into division, classification, and labeling that then further disintegrated into dualistic thinking, hateful discrimination, fearful xenophobia, we/they mentalities, cyclical conflicts, ethnic and religious prejudices, political animosities, and perpetual wars.

And this cycle played out over and over and over and over.

Does it sound familiar?

But with the introduction of Jesus, this tired and predictable trajectory ended.

Please do not tune me out here.

When I talk about Jesus, I am not referring to anything or anyone but Jesus Christ alone, because so many people, churches, and institutions have twisted Jesus into something he never was.

So I am not talking about churches, evangelicalism, institutional religion, or any other deviation of religion that has abandoned, maligned, or distorted the way of Jesus.

I am talking to you, right now, about Jesus Christ alone.

Because in Jesus, and in the message Jesus preached, you find the most revolutionary, counter-cultural, and radical movement in the history of the planet.

And that is not some crazy, religious claim.

At the height of dualistic thinking, hateful discrimination, fearful xenophobia, we/they mentalities, cyclical conflicts, ethnic and religious prejudices, political animosities, and perpetual wars, Jesus started a movement away from classifications, labels, and divisions which then began to erase dividing lines and hierarchies and conflicts… all with the most unlikely people from every disparate part of life.

Jesus faced, head on, ethnocentrism and racism. Jesus stood up to inequality and social stratification. Jesus embraced the uncivilized, the disabled, the outcast, the stigmatized, the unclean, the infected, the sinner. Jesus broke every glass ceiling of every institution and construct of his time (and even ours today).

No longer were people to be seen as Jew or Gentile, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be viewed as rich or poor, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be viewed as male or female, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be viewed as barbarians or civilized, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be viewed as clean or unclean, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be labeled or classified, no longer were people to be divided against or placed in hierarchies, no longer were people to live in conflict or hostility, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

In this one new humanity, Christ is all, and is in all. And in this one new humanity we no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view. In Christ, the old ways have gone, and the new ways have come- one new humanity. For in this one new humanity, we unite and align in Christ and in values that transcend every dividing line.

That is the radical beauty of the message Jesus preached- That humanity would no longer align by label or classification, but would unite and align in a love that transcends every label, every classification, every ideology, and every division.

No longer are we to be Protestant or Catholic, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be fundamentalists or progressives, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be those on the inside or those on the outside, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be Democrats or Republicans, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be Conservative or Progressive, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be legal citizen or illegal alien, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be privileged or under-privileged, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be gay or straight, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be transgendered or cisgendered, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be religious or atheist, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be American or Pakistani or Afghani or Korean or Venezuelan, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

For it is through Christ in which all things were created. And by Christ that all things hold together. And in Christ that God reconciled all things to himself. That’s the good news.

And we continue this reconciliation by inviting everyone out of the labels, classifications, dividing lines, and hostilities.

I was listening to some friends, who had long histories as Conservative Evangelicals and who had more recently swung far the other direction toward Progressivism, discuss the recent failures of political progressivism. They had finally come to the realization that labels, descriptors, and classifiers no longer work and that there has to be something more. One friend even said, “I am not even sure if there is anything that adequately describes or represents us.”

And there is a growing number of individuals, like my friends, who are coming to the same realization about the failure of labels, descriptors, and classifiers and how ineffective they are and how divided they make us, one against another.

Here is the truth.

That which we long for, that which we strive for, can not be named or contained within those things that promotes antagonism and keeps us divided. They have never been found there and never will be. It is a dead end road.

However, that which we long for, that which we strive for, can only be found in the love of Christ that transcends every label, every descriptor, every classification, and every dividing line and then manifests in a growing movement of peace, mercy, grace, forgiveness, restorative justice, and unity.

Let me say that again, the love of Christ transcends every label, every descriptor, every classification, and every dividing line. And it is the love of Christ alone in which we should find our identity and the only place where we should reside, for it is the only place where every person in the world is welcome, treated equally, and loved fully for who they are.

Peace and love…

Brandon

A Prayer of Reconciliation to the World

Somehow I forgot to post this when it was written in 2010. Of course it seems as relevant now as it did then. This piece is an excerpt from my 2010 book Unearthed: How Discovering the Kingdom of God Will Transform the Church and Change the World.

Father God,

Too many times we as Christians have been the loudest and most vocal voices and many times we have not represented or embodied the way, life, and teachings of your Son Jesus.

Our judgmental and condemning voices have become a poor representation of Jesus in the community and the larger world and have left many who do not know anything about Jesus with a bad taste in their mouths and a deep contempt for your Church.

Too many times we are quick to say that we are the “defenders of the faith,” or the “protectors of our Christians heritage.” Yet in our zealousness to defend, we have compromised the way of your son, Jesus, and have many times done it in his name.

Father we repent and ask for forgiveness, for we know that Jesus did not spend his time isolating and targeting special “sin groups” or trying to defend his positions through arguing and debating.

Father we ask humbly that you replace our ways with your ways.

For we know that the way of Jesus does not have to be defended; it must be demonstrated.

It never moves out in judgment; it moves out in love.

It never extends in condemnation to the world; it extends in grace and mercy.

The ways of arguing, defending, judging, and condemning always build up walls and embitters those in the world who are on the receiving end.

For every way that we as the Church have fallen short of representing you to the world, we ask for forgiveness.

Father, we are so eager to accept your grace, but are so unwilling to extend it. We are so eager to accept your love, but are so unwilling to demonstrate it. We are so eager to accept your mercy, but so unwilling to give it.

While we have known that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, we have believed that it is our responsibility to condemn it.

While we have known that Jesus said he did not come into the world to judge it, we have believed it is our responsibility to judge it.

While we have known that Jesus told his followers to “judge not,” we have instead decided to judge anyway.

And while we have known that Paul asked the Church, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the Church?” we have instead decided that we should be the judges of the world?

God forgive us for not being like Jesus to the world.

Father, we need the strength to sacrifice our own wants, needs, desires, and pursuits.

Forgive us for the ways we have put idols within the Church ahead of you and your Kingdom.

Forgive us for the way we have worshipped facility and program over you.

Forgive us for the way we have followed human convention rather than your Spirit.

Father, we desperately need the fresh breath of your Holy Spirit to mold us and shape us into something useable and to open our eyes to the things that are not important to you.

We know that while we have been ignorant and negligent in understanding and extending your Kingdom, our calling and pursuit should be to model Christ by living and extending your Kingdom, giving ourselves self-sacrificially in love and service to the world, embodying a life of peace, justice, and mercy that becomes the yearning of all humanity.

Father, it is in this calling and pursuit that we have fallen woefully and painfully short. And it is because of our shortcomings with the world that we desperately need forgiveness.

Father, we need your power and strength to apologize to,and seek forgiveness from, any and all of those who have been on the receiving end of judgment, condemnation, or abuse from those of us who have labeled ourselves as Christians.

We deeply and prayerfully apologize and repent. We have not represented the love, grace, mercy, and heart of Jesus very well…and we desperately need your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the world.

To the atheist, agnostic, Jew, and Muslim, we prayerfully ask for your forgiveness.

To the homosexual, African-American, or any other minority that we have judged and oppressed in the past, we prayerfully ask for your forgiveness.

To the poor, enslaved, or victim of injustice, abuse, and neglect, we prayerfully ask for your forgiveness for judging you and turning a blind eye.

To every single expecting mother who sought an abortion, we ask for forgiveness for judging you and turning you into an issue and not demonstrating the lengths to which we would go to show you love, guidance, help, and assistance

And to every single person who has experienced anything less than the unconditional love of Christ from the Christian, we prayerfully ask for your forgiveness.

In Jesus name we as the Church in unity pray, Amen and Amen.