“And You Will Know That I Am The LORD Your God”

I have stated verbally, and I think in this space too, how I believe I am experiencing some of the best Bible study this year that I have ever been able to accomplish. That is both reassuring (thankful I am not going backward) but also embarrassing. I feel like I should have been at this point many years ago, but I guess some skulls are just thicker than others. Anyway, what has helped me tremendously this year is that I am using fine line markers to highlight, and in some cases, make notes in my Bible. This has helped me see some powerful messages in books where previously I would just skim over or glide past certain words or phrases. I noticed one such phrase while recently reading through Ezekiel. When one phrase (or even word) keeps reappearing in a chapter or book, it is time to pull out the ol’ thinking cap and ask what the author was trying to communicate. So, I offer the following as both result of my reading and for your continued thoughts.

The phrase that caught my attention is, “And you will know that I am  the LORD your God” and numerous variations. Sometimes it is second person in speaking to the Israelites (“you”) and sometimes it is third person (“they”) in referring to the nations. At least once a specific nation is mentioned – Egypt!

So, here is what I discovered in my non-scientific, non-computerized, and non-original Hebrew language analysis: that phrase (or a variation) shows up 60 times in the book of Ezekiel. What makes this even more profound is that the phrase does not appear in 23 out of the 48 chapters – therefore, if my math is correct, Ezekiel uses the phrase 60 times in 25 chapters. In a couple of chapters (20 and 25, to be specific) the phrase is used 5 times!

There are a number of other phrases that convey basically the same thought, but in different expressions: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God,” “I am (or will be) your God,” “I the LORD sanctify them,” “I the LORD have poured out my wrath.”

So, I ponder – why this emphasis? Why is it so critical for Ezekiel to communicate that YHWH is God, and that the people will finally understand this? Did they not know that YHWH was God? Were they not good, devout, wholesome Jews?

In a word, no. God had to show Ezekiel this, and he did so in a dramatic fashion, taking Ezekiel in visions to the Temple in Jerusalem where Ezekiel saw how corrupt the worship of the priests had become. They had drawn images on the walls of the temple depicting foreign gods, and both the priests and the leading women of the nation were actively involved in idol worship. In a dramatic, and what had to be for the faithful a crushing scene, God is so fed up with the nation that he gets into his chariot and leaves the temple and the city in order to allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians.

All well and good for those faithless Jews, you might say, those ignorant hooligans who had every blessing in the world yet turned their backs on God.

And I ask, the church in America is different how?

We all, liberal and conservative, wrap our interpretation of the Bible in the American flag, and use patriotism as the primary lens by which we invoke the Word of God. We all, liberal and conservative, refuse to consider or apply the teachings of Scripture that not only challenge, but destroy, our pet ideologies. We all, liberal and conservative alike, have removed God as the sole arbiter of our thoughts and intentions and words, and we have replaced him with pragmatics (what works) or cultural relativity (what is) or shallow emotionalism (what I feel) as the basis of our theology.

Consider this: notice how Republicans (in general) passionately argue that all pre-born life is sacred, that regardless of how a baby was conceived (even through rape or incest) or what might or might not be considered “defects,” that life is precious in the sight of God and must be protected. Democrats (again, generally) reject that thinking, and argue it is up to the whim of the mother to decide who is allowed, or is rejected, entrance at the border of life. In the issue of immigration the roles are reversed 180 degrees. Republicans (I repeat, generally) argue it is the right of a sovereign nation to decide (i.e., “freedom of choice”) who is admitted entrance, and careful examination must be made to decide if a life is “worthy” to be granted visitor or citizen status. Conversely, Democrats (same song 4th verse) argue that all life, regardless of whether we “want” the immigrant or whether he/she exhibits any “defects” should be granted admission.

And, both sides appeal to the Bible for support of their views.

Can there be any more stark of a contrast in how we allow politics and “patriotism” to color our interpretation of Scripture?

Dear Christians, brothers and sisters, can we not see here how critical it is for us to stand under Scripture, and to argue that all life is precious, created in the sight of God – and at the same time remember the repeated and emphatic commands of God to treat the alien, the fatherless, the poor, the destitute, with love and compassion? Why is it either/or? Why can we not, as those who are supposed to understand forgiveness and grace so much more than anyone else, extend that grace to all people – people who look like us and people who don’t look like us (or believe what we believe)?

I will admit to my own fears and shortcomings in this regard – I have to deal with my fallen humanity just as much as the next guy (or girl). But – Christians are called to a higher standard. We are not called to just aspire to the Constitution of the United States of America. We are called to aspire to the Being, the very nature, of God.

The very same God who sent Israel (and Judah) into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity because they forgot God.

God promised Ezekiel that following their punishment, both Israel and the nations would learn that He, the LORD, is God.

Will the church ever learn that?

The Christian Response to Racism (Part 2 of 2)

In my first part, I attempted to point out how pervasive and systemic racism is in our American culture, and how it has been so from the very founding our our nation. In this part I want to address how it might be possible for us as a nation to move on, past our historic past.

In a sentence: the only way we as a culture will move past racism is to full admit that every race and people can be, and are, racist in our thinking and in our actions. Yes, in America that racism is predominately skewed toward the white race – but it is far from limited to the white race.

In my last post I stressed how critical it is for the white majority to admit our systemic, pervasive racist views. In no way am I suggesting that every white person alive today is guilty of being racist – or for personal guilt in our racist past, for that matter. What I am suggesting is that until we admit that racism can be, and often is, systemic, we will never be able to move to a truly “color neutral” society.

The flip side of that coin is that every person who falls into the “minority” category must admit that their race can be, and almost without exception is, equally racist. It does not take a sociologist to recognize the hatred espoused by the Nation of Islam toward Jews, to mention just one example, or the racism that I see and hear regarding one local tribe of Native Americans to their neighboring tribe. The blatant racism preached by many elected officials in Washington is repugnant, to be honest, but the prevailing culture among the “main stream media” is that it cannot be labeled as “racism” because it originates from an ethnic minority.

So, to be brief, racism is chiefly a human condition, and that condition is sin. Racism in the United States will always be a part of our culture so long as it is only addressed from one side. This is the “dirty little secret” that is rarely, if ever, discussed in conversations regarding racism. But I hold no hope for Martin Luther King’s dream of a nation where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as long as every action, every word, every thought, is viewed through the lens of the color of the skin of the actor, speaker, or writer.

It is at this point that I feel we as a people have failed the vision of Dr. King. Instead of attacking the concept of racism itself, we have simply shifted what it means to be racist – and I will probably be called a racist for writing that. As much as I recognize the guilt of white Americans in establishing what can only be described as systemic racism, I simply refuse to accept the accusation – either expressed or implied – that only whites can be racist.

I repeat – racism is a part of the human condition, and that is sin. Racism is a theological problem, not just a political or sociological problem. Until racism is attacked from the point of view of the cross and the gospel, it will never be adequately addressed. And it is exactly at this point that I believe so many religious leaders have failed. We think that if we can write a couple of new laws, or hold some “unity” meetings, or have a couple of marches, all will be well. Well, it is not ever going to be “well” unless and until preachers start preaching on the sin of racism – in every possible way, shape, and form. In predominately white churches those sermons are going to sound different than sermons preached in minority churches (because the visible forms of that racism are different), but it is only at the foot of the cross that we are going to be able to move into a truly color neutral society.

[By the way, I never want to live in a “color blind” society. I do not want African-Americans to give up their African roots, nor do I want to Latin Americans to give up their Latin roots, or Asians to give up their Oriental roots, or Irish Americans to give up their Irish roots. That is not what the American dream is all about – for me it is about maintaining those ethnic and social connections while at the same time blending in with every other culture. When it works, it is a beautiful thing, and I believe it is the highest of aspirations for every American.]

I must also address a phenomenon that repulses me as much as overt racism – and that is the false or pseudo guilt promoted by so many white politicians. They “claim” to be genuinely concerned for the plights of minorities, and yet with every law that is passed and every speech that is uttered, those to whom they claim sympathy are further degraded. Consider the results of programs such as welfare. What was thought to be assistance to mothers with dependent children, has instead created a permanent under-class of families with no father in the picture. Every study ever conducted has proven that children in fatherless homes fare far poorer than families in the same socio-economic class where there is a father present. Yet, to challenge the idea of welfare is considered to be the greatest of racist “sins.” Here again we see how racist whites can be – all in the guise of helping to overcome racism.

A personally vexing related question for me is this: what action, or series of actions, will constitute an adequate confession of our racist past? How many times, and in what ways, will the white majority have to admit to our sinful past? I ask this because I am honestly ignorant as to the answer. It is clear to me that a significant minority – if not a majority – of white Americans still have not come to grips with the enormity of the problem of racism. So, if that is true, what is the goal to which we should be moving? And how will we know when we get there?

I titled these couple of posts a “Christian Response to Racism” and I fear I have not proposed much of a solution. For me, the only answer is to preach Christ and him crucified. When we stand at the foot of the cross and realize the depth of our sin, we in no way will be able to judge another person simply based on the color of their skin or their nation of origin. It is because we refuse to accept the Lordship of Christ that we are racist – and to deny that is to reject the Holy Spirit who makes us all one in Christ. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are all “miserable offenders.” We can all be “blessed forgiven,” but we are all going to have to confess our guilt first.

Lord, save us from our miserable failure!

The Christian Response to Racism (Part 1 of 2)

I have often thought of broaching the subject of racism and Christianity, but I have always ultimately shied away. This was not because of a lack of interest, or because I thought the subject unimportant, but I never really felt like I had an adequate entry point to fully express my thoughts. That changed recently, and so I want to express some thoughts that I know will offend just about everyone – and I know that because these thoughts first offended me.

First, I need to acknowledge that this opening thought is not my original thinking. It was brought to my attention by an old colleague, one whose insights I trust greatly. I will personalize it, however.

It has always been somewhat of a mystery to me how the German people (as a whole, I’m generalizing) can either deny or minimize the horror of the holocaust. This is not true of every German citizen, to be sure, but even today the account of what happened to Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and other “undesirables” is largely muted in German culture. Like I said, I have always wondered about this, as it seems to me that (a) the Nazi regime was such a deviation from the norms of German society, and that (b) the present German culture is so different from that time period, that it would be cathartic for Germans to acknowledge the atrocities of that one decade and vow that it would never happen again. I can totally understand the fear that making such acknowledgment would foster copy-cats who want to defend Hitler (and this is exactly what happens!), but I have felt that once the enormity of the evil is squarely admitted, it would simply be unthinkable that any subsequent culture would want to replicate Hitler and his minions. As a whole, I think most Americans would agree. Admit the horror, recognize that Nazism was an abhorrent aberration to German culture, create the appropriate safeguards that would prevent such atrocities from occurring again, and move on.

Now that we are all on the same page, substitute “Jew” with “Black” or “African” or “Native Indian” and see how your expression changes. You see, in America the white majority has no problem admitting to the sin of Germany. But, when confronted with the reprehensible treatment of our ancestors toward ethnic minorities, all such confessionalism flies out the window. We become defensive, belligerent, dismissive, and even delusional in denying the racism that was, and in some quarters remains, systemic in our culture.

This parallel between Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 and our own American “holocaust” (the term is not perfectly identical, but comes close) is what is particularly troubling to me. If the white majority in America cannot admit to the sins of our fathers, we will never be able to admit to our own sins in regard to racism, and therefore the scourge will never be adequately removed. It is not so much that whites deny the reality of slavery, it is that the concept that whites are superior to blacks (and other ethnic minorities) is so enshrined in our legal system and in our public theology. It is, as I said, systemic, not anecdotal. The beast is not a symptom, but it is the root cause, of so much of what afflicts America today.

Consider this: there is a pining today for America to return to the glory days of the  1950s (or there-about) when God was welcome in the schools and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited with passion. Well, God may have been welcome in most white schools, but blacks were forcefully kept out of the classrooms, sometimes at the point of a rifle! We were not “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” We were divided legally by race, and justice was only for whites. But it did not stop there. Blacks were not welcome in most white churches, either. It was not just lunch counters and bathrooms that were segregated, but God’s covenant people were clearly divided along lines of color.

I cannot stress this fact enough: this was not just a matter of public opinion. This segregation had the force of law – it was enshrined in the very fabric of our legal system. Blacks could be, and were, lynched for the “crime” of following too closely or inappropriately staring at a white woman. Blacks who were arrested were tried by all white juries. It is not just that the laws were written to protect white privilege, but the implementation of those laws was so skewed to white privilege that a black person (or Indian, for that matter) had no effective recourse. It was this pervasive, systemic inequality that reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr. reacted to so passionately.

And, just as with so many Germans who choose to look past their Nazi past, it is this pervasive, systemic racism that so many white Americans choose to blithely ignore or actively seek to repress.

A common sentiment expressed today is, “Well, that may have been true 100 years ago, but I do not own any slaves, so I cannot be held responsible for my ancestors.” On one level this may be true, but who among us can honestly deny the the effects of this skewed legal system do not continue to affect American culture? Consider the inequality of inner-city schools with the same level of school in the affluent (largely white) suburbs. We excuse our behavior with the suburbs have a higher tax base, so therefore the schools have a deeper revenue source. So, who created the inequality of the tax base? Our tax tables are just another way in which white privilege is enshrined in our legal system. Scoff if you will, but the idea that “all men are created equal” in this culture is just a myth. We may be “created” equal, but the location of one’s birth – even by just a few city blocks – can have enormous consequences for how two babies are housed, educated, and treated in regard to health care and even the legal system.

I was genuinely repulsed as I sat and listened to a dear friend of mine recount how he was pulled over by a white police officer for the crime of “driving while black.” He was in the wrong neighborhood, driving a nice car, so he had to be up to no good. Why is it that black men have to tell their sons (and daughters) how to respond to police officers in ways that I will never have to explain to my daughter? That reality sickens me.

Until this reality is squarely admitted, and permanently and forcefully changed, America will never be a Christian nation. It never has been. And to argue otherwise is plain heresy.

That having been said, we in America have a foundation that will allow us to overcome our past, and to safeguard our future. It is the same safeguard that provided Germany with the strength to overcome the Nazi propaganda, had they chosen to implement it. It is the power of the gospel – the power to fully and totally submit to the grace of our Creator God. It is the power of the crucified and risen Christ. And as far as humans are concerned, it begins with an honest confession that our forefathers have sinned, and we share in that sin to the extent that we perpetuate the systemic sin that they created. The question is, will we have the courage to allow that power to change us?

In part 2, I will examine a corollary issue related to this post. But, I think I have said enough for today.

Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Reggie L. Williams)

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, Reggie L. Williams (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) 170 pages including extensive endnotes.

Through the years I have developed somewhat of a credo for my reading/education: I cannot learn anything from someone with whom I agree 100%. I may be encouraged, challenged, edified, reminded, or entertained, but very, very, rarely can I be educated. When I want to learn something, I must reach outside my circle of experience and understanding. In terms of fulfilling that credo, Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

I first came to meet Dr. Williams in a seminar hosted by Wheaton College on the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and culture in April, 2012. I was finishing up my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and much to my joy and everlasting gratitude, Fuller allowed me to create a guided study of the theology of Bonhoeffer. The professor assigned to guide me in this study was Dr. Glen Stassen who was a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller, and a devoted Bonhoeffer scholar. Dr. Williams completed his Ph.D. under Dr. Stassen, so in an academic sort of way there were a number of stars that were aligning themselves that would finally come together during this seminar.

Dr. Williams’ topic at the seminar was on the impact of the year Bonhoeffer spent in New York, 1930-31, and in particular, his exposure to the world of Black Christianity in Harlem. If you are interested in Bonhoeffer, you can read all the seminar’s lectures in the book, Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2013). If you want to be fully educated about Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, you need to read Williams’ complete exposition in this volume, listed above.

To be perfectly honest, reading this book was difficult for me. I am, to a very large extent, the product of the very protected and dominating white culture that Williams identifies in this book as the evil that Bonhoeffer witnessed in Harlem. Reading what Bonhoeffer witnessed during his year in New York was not pleasant. (Note: I had read Bonhoeffer’s account numerous times, but reading the same words through the eyes of Dr. Williams was enlightening – in a very disturbing sense. I had read Bonhoeffer’s words, but through Dr. Williams I actually felt them. It was, as I said, disturbing.)

To provide an exhaustive review of this book would require much more space than I typically aim for in these blog posts. Suffice it to say that Dr. Williams writes as an insider to the injustice Bonhoeffer identified in his work at Abyssinian. While this is truly an academic product, it is also a labor of love – and a gripping account of Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem. Williams provides a lucid explanation of the “Black Christ” to whom Bonhoeffer would have been exposed to in Harlem, the economic and cultural background of the Harlem Renaissance, and draws a clear line of contact between that experience and Bonhoeffer’s work with and for the hated Jewish community in Nazi Germany.

This book would be an extremely valuable purchase if you are interested in: Bonhoeffer and his life; Black theology and its impact not only on Bonhoeffer, but also later 20th century theology; racism, ethics, and/or the role of the gospel of Christ in confronting culture in any age. My only criticism of the book is that it tends to read in somewhat of a stilted manner, and not at all like the wonderful manner in which Dr. Williams speaks.

I actually was able to speak to Dr. Williams following his presentation at Wheaton. I was desperately seeking a topic for my dissertation, and somehow I managed to catch Dr. Williams when he was not the center of a huge group of people (NOT an easy task!) I explained my situation as hurriedly as I could, and to my great surprise and pleasure, Dr. Williams took a number of minutes to question me about what I had studied, what I was attempting to accomplish, and what ideas I already had. In about 15 minutes I felt an inviting warmth and welcome that touched me deeply. I know that experience has influenced my reception of Dr. Williams’ book – and so I want to stress again – this book identifies the racial divide that continues to trouble the Lord’s church. If you are unwilling, or unable, to look in the mirror and examine your own life in light of this reality, do not bother buying or reading this book. If you are willing, and if you can invest in the effort to examine your own ideological weaknesses, then I highly recommend this book.

Charlottesville, Racism, and a Chilling Prospect

Trigger alert: the following blog post contains some truths that may be difficult for little snowflakes to handle. If you cannot consider any opinions that differ from your rigid worldview, you might want to skip this one.

I’m sure the topic of the Charlottesville, VA riots were the topic of many sermon addresses this morning. I happened to think my thoughts on the book of Job were more appropriate for the moment, but that does not mean I do not have some thoughts on the events of the weekend. My reaction is threefold:

  1.  The rhetoric and the beliefs which underlie the white supremacist movement are vile, repugnant. That much is without question and every Christian of every ethnic background should be loud and clear in denouncing the “alt-right” movement, the KKK, and every other neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. I have been pleased that the response of virtually every Christian leader that I have seen has been uniform and unequivocal. There can be no quarter given in opposing this worldview.
  2. However, the most troubling response to me is the one I have NOT seen, not after this weekend nor for the past eight years. For these eight years, and largely with the complicity of the sitting president, there has been a racist movement that has rioted, looted, destroyed property, and ruined lives. Throughout these same eight years, I have been told that these racists are fully justified in their actions, that I should wring my hands in horror at the “injustice” they have be subject to, and that I share in the guilt of the nation simply because of the color of my skin. The very spiritual leaders that are (correctly) denouncing white supremacy were either stone cold silent as the rioters destroyed homes and businesses, or they symbolically joined in, trying to absolve themselves of the guilt of their “white advantage.”

Well, folks, racism is racism, no matter what the color or ethnic background of the racist. I am glad to see some preachers, editors, and other spiritual leaders denounce the “alt-right” and their ignorant minions, but their complicity and silence as the “BLM” movement terrorized large portions of a number of cities is deplorable. Why is the racism emanating from one race acceptable, if racism from another race is to be deplored?

3. Beyond the hypocrisy of an astounding number of individuals, there is another terrifying aspect to the events over the weekend. Many are calling for a ban on the freedom for certain groups to be able to speak. This is a chilling development, and if it is not opposed with the most vehement objections we can mark this point in history as the beginning of the end of the United States. I vehemently reject the hate and violence of the “alt-right,” the KKK and the BLM movements. But, as the classic saying goes, I must defend their right to speak (speak, not perpetrate violence) to my dying breath. If they do not have the right to speak their lies, how am I to be guaranteed that I can speak my truth to their lies?

It has already been proposed in many places that limits should be placed on “hate speech” that would include denouncing sexual perversion as a sin. If hate-mongers can be legally muzzled simply because we object to their tirades, what will prevent the prohibition of the preaching of biblical truth? The “slippery slope” argument is an argument that is fraught with danger, but there is another danger here that is real and profound. We must not, we cannot, prevent some idiot from speaking just because we think his words idiotic.

What would have happened this past weekend if those who disagreed with the white supremacists had simply moved to a different part of town and held a counter demonstration, replete with racial unity and a vehement, but peaceful, denunciation of the weirdos across town? But, no – hatred was met with hatred; violence was met with violence, and the world must wonder what ever happened to the great American dream.

As much as I do not want to hear them, I have to allow the bigots to have their say. But I do not have to listen. Let them march – and vacate the entire region around them. Let their words fall on empty streets and vacant buildings. Ignore them – but not their hate! Ignore their presence, but reject their ideology!

Christians must unite to condemn racism. All racism, no exceptions, no excuses.

[editor’s note: I had to correct the location of the riots – sorry, I have been a little distracted, and did not pay close attention to where the riots happened.]