The Way Forward, 6-2-2020
Many years ago I was discipling someone. I gave her a Bible and told her about Jesus. When I saw her several weeks later, she was excited. Proudly, she told me she put that Bible under her pillow every night. She had not read a page. But she was growing in Christ because she slept on it each night.
If all we do is sleep with the Bible, it is useless (and probably makes the pillow lumpy). The Bible is also useless as photo op, useless as a truth-totem in court. A teller of boldfaced lies, will tell those lies after swearing on a Bible. The Bible is not a totem, a prop, or an accessory.
The Bible is God’s living word, God’s message to the world conveyed through law, prophecy, creation narratives, chronicles of kings, Gospels, poetry, and letters.
In America, we’ve exceeded 100,000 COVID-19 related deaths. We’ve watched in horror as defenseless African Americans have been killed by law enforcement officers. Know their names: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Expressing outrage at the evil of structural injustice, advocates for justice have protested, peacefully.
Opportunists have hijacked peaceful protests turning them into lawless outbursts nationwide. Our president has not by addressed the systemic injustice that leads to unarmed, surrendered suspects being strangled. Instead, he has threatened deadly force and has insulted governors across the country.
What’s the way forward from here? For Christians it is to take the Bible out from under the pillow and out of the photo ops. To recognize the force of God’s word, the Bible must be opened, must be read. Three passages stand out to me.
First, Acts 16:1-3, Paul’s recruitment of young Timothy to his missionary team. Timothy is one of many biracial people in the Bible, with a Jewish Christian mom and Pagan Greek dad. The Jerusalem Council determined Gentile believers need not be circumcised (Acts 15). However, Paul recognizes that in order to gain a hearing with Jewish audiences, Jews on his team should be circumcised. So, he circumcised Timothy.
That’s not a small thing without the availability of anesthesia. But Timothy accepted extreme discomfort to become a more effective witness. He thought it was worth it to sacrifice in an unpleasant way. He wanted Jews would listen when he preached and consider Jesus. He did it for the good of others.
How much are we doing for the good of others? If you’re white, how much thought have you given to the way black people have been humiliated in our country’s history. The video image of Derek Chauvin holding George Floyd’s down is dehumanizing. Black people have put up with that kind of treatment for 500-600 years. Derek Chauvin’s commitment is to protect and serve. Maybe he felt he needed to subdue Mr. Floyd. He went murderously beyond that. White Christians, we have to empathize with the pain our black brothers and sisters have experienced. We have to think, speak, and act for the good of others. Paul and Timothy set the tone for this self-giving attitude with Timothy’s circumcision.
Next, we then turn to 1 Corinthians 9:21-23, where Paul says,
21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Identity politics is a conversation stopper. If I think you are assailing my identity as a white man or as someone who cares about justice, I’ll rush to defend myself as I forget common sense. I’ll ignore the teachings of Jesus. In defense of my preciously held identity, I might even denigrate you, without thought for the consequences. Of course, you’re as human as I am, so you’ll take the same tack. Defending myself, I’ll put you down; you, in turn, will defend yourself and your preciously held identity, and put me down.
How did Paul defend his identity? He didn’t. Wait, what? Don’t you trot Philippians 3:4-6 out to me, claiming Paul was as much committed to identity politics as anyone else. What does he say in verse 7? “Whatever gains I had I count as loss because of Christ?” Who is saying that today? Who is saying, whatever I have accomplished is rubbish (Phil. 3:8) because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord? Are our leaders saying anything like this? I don’t hear it. When see elected officials, I see posturing, self-promotion, defensiveness, and photo ops. Paul calls that kind of behavior trash. He will be whatever he has to be to help you know Jesus. His concern is your soul, not his identity.
Christians, our calling is to love our neighbors. My fellow white Christians, if our black and brown neighbors feel distressed by economic disadvantage, disproportionate suffering, and distrust of public institutions, we need to stand with them in empathetic solidarity. If they feel we are indifferent to their pain, why would they care what we have to say about Jesus? Like Paul we count our own identities as “loss” for the sake of knowing Christ and helping others know him.
How is a white Christian standing with a black brother in the face of prejudice something I actually do for God? How is a rejection of white supremacist conditions is an act of love for Jesus? Consider his words in Matthew 25:40. He says to the righteous whom he has invited to inherit the kingdom (25:34) that they are blessed in this way because they cared for the least in his kingdom (v.40); and, in caring for the least, we care for Jesus.
I am not saying black and brown persons are “less than” white Christians any more than I would say the hungry or the stranger are “less than” anyone else. The way our society is structured, some people are inherently advantaged. Others have to struggle. When the advantaged give up privilege and help their struggling neighbors, it is as if they are doing it for Jesus. God notices.
God also notices when the advantaged ignore those who struggle. When we turn a blind eye on the pain around us, Jesus says, “Depart from me” (25:41). Why? We ignored Jesus in his time of need. “When did we do that,” the privileged ask. Jesus answers, “Whenever you failed to care for the least of these.
Don’t stand, posing for pictures holding your Bible. Sit down, open it, and read it. Don’t self-righteously decry violent protests. Empathize with people who are in such pain, the only way they know to express it is through loud, over-the-top activism. They’re trying to get the attention of a country they feel is ignoring them. Did you hear me advocate burning buildings or smashing windows or attacking anyone? No, you did not. I did not say any of that is ok.
But, I read the Bible and I see where God’s sympathy lies. He’s with everyone who is broken. When someone starts a fire as a part of a protest, it’s because they’re in pain. Jesus cares about their pain. We, his people, show our care for him by the way we care for people in pain and the way we work for justice and harmony.
If you would like to respond to anything you’ve read here, I heartily invite you to share stories of how you’ve reacted to people in pain, and stories of what you’ve done to make the world a safer, more just place as you stand with those Jesus is standing with.