Racism Makes Us White People Stupid, Irrational, and Subhuman

Why have non-wealthy white people consistently voted against their economic self-interest to one degree or another since 1964? That question came to a head with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, but it hasn’t gone away. The answer, when controls for other factors are included, comes down to the fear of losing racial supremacy, dominance, and privilege. This fear is framed as “losing our way of life,” and some white politicians suggest that violence may be the only way to maintain that so-called “way of life.”

This is what racism does “for” non-wealthy white people. But do we non-wealthy white people think about what racism does “to” us? We are impacted in a variety of ways that make the “white wage” of racism (as W. E. B. DuBois named it) a bad deal for all but a few white people. To receive the white wage, we pay a variety of “white taxes.” Those taxes come in several forms:

  1. Documented and demonstrated costs in economic growth, public amenities, voting access and rights, and government services and benefits,
  2. Trauma responses based on Perpetrator-Induced Trauma Syndrome,
  3. Self-dehumanization of white people as a result of participation in the historic and ongoing systemic and institutional racism in America
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1. “Why can’t we have nice things?” Heather McGhee asks in the first sentence of her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The reason, McGhee argues, is racism.

Racism in America is maintained, in large part, by a zero-sum story that asserts any gain for Black, Brown, Native, and/or AAPI folks means equal and opposite losses for White folks. This story serves the interests of the few white people in power. “The zero sum is a story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit,” McGhee writes, “and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it” (page 14).

White people have been told a story that says they will lose resources if people of color gain resources. The story serves the wealthy white people who continue to accumulate power, privilege, and property at the expense of everyone else. It is perpetuated to make sure that other white people do not align themselves with people of color – people with whom they share numerous social, economic, and cultural interests.

McGhee uses the master metaphor of the fate of public swimming pools when segregation was outlawed in the United States. In numerous towns and cities across the nation, these formerly “whites only” public amenities were closed, neglected, abandoned, filled in, and paved over rather than being shared by citizens of all colors. Not only were people of color denied the use of such publicly-funded amenities, lower-class and poor white people were deprived as well.

“A once-public resource became a luxury amenity,” McGhee observes, “and entire communities lost out on the benefits of public life and civic engagement once understood to be the key to making American democracy real” (page 28).

The areas where lower-class and impoverished whites are caught in the racist blast radius include the closing of public amenities and services as listed above; the reduction of government safety-net protections, especially beginning with the Reagan administration; access to affordable higher education including grants rather than loans; the war on drugs and mass incarceration; the cash bail system; access to healthcare resources and benefits; hospital closures in rural and small-town settings; and predatory lending practices and evictions.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is complete enough. It is certainly the case that , on average, white people have come out better than people of color on every element of that list. But “better” is not the same as “good.” In her discussion of the financial crisis of 2008, for example, McGhee notes, “There is no question that the financial crisis hurt people of color first and worst. And yet the majority of the people it damaged were white. This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over again throughout our country’s history, from the drained public pools, to the shuttered public schools, to the overgrown yards of vacant homes.”

McGhee demonstrates in a variety of ways that there is what she calls a “Solidarity Dividend.” Cooperation, collaboration, sharing, and synergy produce greater wealth and opportunity for all who don’t currently have such benefits. The zero-sum story is false and dangerous. Diversity, equity, and inclusion make good economic, political, and social sense for all Americans who are not currently in the 1%. We get more, she concludes from “the sum of us” than by promoting just “some of us.”

Racism is a stupid strategy for almost all of us white folks.

2. The Zero-Sum Fallacy is stitched into the very founding of the United States, and before. McGhee writes that from the country’s “colonial beginnings, progress for those considered white did come directly at the expense of people considered nonwhite. The U.S. economy depended on systems of exploitation,” she continues, “on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders. This made it easy for the powerful to sell the idea that the inverse was also true,” McGhee concludes, “that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people” (page 7).

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, in their book, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, describe and detail the process of creating this system and writing it into the founding documents, foundational court decisions, and political turning points in American history. They point to the possibility that white people have been and are traumatized as perpetrators of this ongoing, systemic, and institutional crime against humanity.

They point to the work of Rachel McNair, who wrote Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. McNair has studied “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), a form of PTSD symptoms not caused by being a victim or rescuer in a horrifying event but by being an active participant in causing the event” (page 174). McNair studied soldiers, executioners, police officers and others who were expected to kill other human beings and identified traumatic stress responses analogous to those suffered by victims of such events.

I say “analogous to” because McNair does not draw any equivalency between victims and perpetrators. Nor do Charles and Rah. Instead, they see similarities in the responses that might be instructive. Those similarities include the multi-generational nature of some traumas and the complex nature of traumas that are systemic and institutional.

“Is it possible that PITS also has a complex version for people who lived their entire lives perpetrating dehumanizing violence against people of color?” ask Charles and Rah. “This version would include,” they suggest, “slave owners, soldiers participating in genocidal battles against Native peoples, and white settlers moving west and pushing the removal, and even extinction of indigenous tribes” (page 176).

Commentators have noted the irrationality of white behavior in voting and acting against their clear self-interest. This irrationality confounds any number of “rational actor” models of human behavior. What if the irrationality arises from the historic and multi-generational trauma of enacting and benefitting from the systematic dehumanization and destruction of Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI people?

“In short,” Charles and Rah ask, “are whites experiencing the phenomena of a generational trauma that can be labeled ‘the trauma of white America’? White America could not perpetrate five hundred years of dehumanizing injustice,” they conclude, “without traumatizing itself” (176). Again, there is no equivalency between perpetrators and victims here. This is no plea for sympathy. It is, rather, a tool for understanding that might lead to honest reflection, repentance and repair initiated by white Americans.

Without such honesty and effort, the first response to trauma – denial – will continue to be the only response most white Americans will make. Charles and Rah point to school textbooks in Texas and Oklahoma which may be edited to exclude any reference to “slavery.” If only that were limited to other states. We know from recent work by students in a local district that such whitewashed history is a current reality in Nebraska. “Institutions established by whites,” Charles and Rah write, “are so ashamed of their own past that they are unable to even publish accurate history” (page 177).

Racism makes white people stupid and too traumatized to admit it.

3. Racism dehumanizes not only the victims but also the perpetrators. Social psychology research in the area of self-dehumanization continues to reveal that treating others as less than human requires that I see and treat myself as less than human in most cases. In “Losing Our Humanity: The Self-Dehumanizing Consequences of Social Ostracism,” Bastian, et. al., tested the effects on the perpetrators of committing acts of social ostracism.

They “provided empirical evidence that people see themselves as less human when engaging in the social ostracism of others” (page 164 of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39-2). They note that some people who dehumanize others will minimize their personal responsibility for the behavior and even think more highly of themselves.

These people are likely to commit further damaging acts and may even spiral into psychopathy and narcissism. In these cases, it is certainly possible for someone to lose their humanness altogether. The more severe the damaging act, the greater the chance of this outcome, I think.

However, when people are aware of the damage they do to others, a couple of things happen. We tend to see ourselves as less human. Perhaps this is a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance we have created. Fully human beings don’t treat others in that way, so we must be or have been less than human in order to do such things.

The second outcome is that when people are aware of the damage they do to others, they are more likely to engage in actions to return to the community of real humans. “Self-dehumanizing in response to interpersonal transgression,” they write, “appears to allow for and facilitate repentance, reconnection, and rehabilitation” (page 165).

Key to this process is direct awareness and acknowledgment of the harm done. “Maintaining a sense of ourselves as human is indeed important,” the authors conclude, “however when we have harmed others, recognizing that we have lost some of that humanity is an important process in motivating reparation” (page 165).

In the experiments conducted, the subjects could not escape or deny their responsibility for and active participation in the bad behavior. Most of us white people now can delude ourselves and deny our responsibility for the effects of racism. I never owned slaves. I never stole land. I never redlined a neighborhood. I never lynched a black man. So, we can maintain the illusion of our humanity.

Or can we? Here Charles and Rah are correct in pointing to the multi-generational and systemic trauma of Whiteness. It takes tremendous work to deny our corporate responsibility. And perhaps the amount of energy required is no longer worth the return on investment. It is destabilizing for me as a white person to continue to confront my history of oppression, abuse, and genocide on this continent. But I am also freed from the need to deny and delude.

A real reckoning with racism for me as a white man opens the possibility of reclaiming my genuine humanity.

Racism makes white people stupid, too traumatized to admit it, and less than human in the process and as a result.

All of this in order to be able to say, “I May Not be Much but at least I’m Better Than (Generic Person of Color).”

That’s a bad deal. For all of us.

Jesus Comes for Life! Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

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Read John 3:14-21

Almost every extra point in American football is kicked toward a sign in the crowd that reads “John 3:16.” Even if most viewers no longer know the words of the verse, they know it matters to Christians.

I wish someone would hold up a sign that says “John 3:17.” Alert viewers might notice the difference. The curious might even Google the text to see what it says. I think they might be surprised by what they find.

Indeed,” John writes, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Even the clunky NRSV translation makes the point clear.

Jesus comes for life!

This is not the message our curious football fans hear in popular culture – or in most Christian churches in America. What they hear is that God punishes. Obey the rules or get punished. Assent to certain propositions or get punished. Stop asking questions or get punished. Vote in a particular way or get punished.

Even the more popular forms of culture Christianity are just the mirror image of this punishing God. If you do the right things, believe the right things, vote the right way – then God will reward you with health and wealth, with peace and privilege, with straight teeth and thick hair. If you obey, then God will give you your best life now.

Of course, if you are struggling, that must be your fault.

People who see the John 3:16 signs have been conditioned to expect the God who Punishes. The Christian message seems to be that the beatings will continue until morale improves.

But that can’t be right!

Jesus comes for life!

Even the beloved verse on the signs is experienced as much more stick than carrot. “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son…” So far, so good. Then comes the hammer – “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

The second half of the verse is like an iron fist inside a velvet glove. People read the reverse of the verse and shudder. Those who don’t believe in Jesus will perish, they read, and have eternal death. People aren’t making this crap up. That’s what they hear from lots of American “Christians.”

So much for the verse Martin Luther called “the gospel in miniature.”

But that can’t be right!

Jesus comes for life!

Perhaps we ought to spend some time on the verse most Christians think they know. If you want the full scoop, you can read sixteen hundred words in last Monday’s post on how to translate John 3:16. Otherwise, I’ll give you the executive summary.

God so loved…” The word translated as “so” doesn’t mean “so much.” John writes about the method of God’s love, not the intensity. That love is the self-giving, other-regarding love which reveals God’s very heart. This is the love which wants nothing for self and everything for the Other.

God loved the world in this way…The “world” to which John points is the cosmos, all of Creation – from quarks to galaxy clusters and everything in between. God’s love is cosmic in scope and depth.

The way God loved the cosmos is by giving. This is the fundamental character of God. God is the Giver. We can speculate about all the divine “omni’s” – omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. But that’s not where Christian scripture focuses. God is the Giver – for free, without expectation or condition, fully.

God loved the world in this way: God gave the Only Son… This isn’t Jesus’ genealogy. This isn’t a story about the inner workings of the Trinity. This is a testimony to God’s gift. In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made [God] known.” God gives God’s very heart for the life of the world.

Jesus comes for life!

Now we are thirteen words into the Greek rendering of this verse – halfway home! Why did God do this? God gave “in order that.” God gave God’s own heart to make it possible for each and every member of the cosmos to embrace the gift of God’s love. Yes, I trust that’s God’s desire to give life is universal. I trust that because that’s what Christian scripture says.

In the second half of John 3:16, things sound a bit iffy. There’s this talk about “may not perish” and “may have eternal life” in the NRSV translation. It could sound like there’s some doubt about God’s love. The grammar here doesn’t indicate doubt. Instead, it simply means that the action hasn’t yet been completed.

God’s gift of God’s loving heart to the whole cosmos is accomplished in Jesus. The response to that gift is not completed but continues. The cosmos is not yet saved but is indeed in the process of being saved.

That’s true for me each and every day. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has often said, “I can’t say that I have been saved. But I can say that I am being saved each and every day.” The details of that “saving” will get more attention next week. So, stay tuned for that.

Jesus comes for life!

The opposite of being saved appears to be “perishing.” But that’s not a helpful translation. The opposite of being saved is being “lost.” In fact, that’s the term Martin Luther uses in his translation of the New Testament. The word can mean “lost” in the way that a sunken ship is lost at sea. But it can also mean “not yet found,” as in the way a wandering lamb is separated from a flock.

That seems to fit much more with the Jesus we meet in the Christian scriptures. “The Son of Man came,” we read in Luke 19:10, “to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke uses the same word for “lost” that shows up in John 3:16 as “perish.” Jesus comes so the lost may be found.

This is how Jesus defines his own faithfulness in John 17. In John, the disciples are a microcosm of the faith community to come. “I guarded them,” Jesus prays in verse twelve, “and not one of them was lost except the ‘son of lostness’ so that the scripture would be fulfilled.” On the one hand, Jesus guards his little flock. On the other hand, the son of lostness (Judas) walked away into a deeper darkness.

Perhaps I’ll address the mystery of human rebellion, embodied in Judas, another time. But I hope my point is clear.

Jesus comes for life!

Perhaps now we can read John 3:16 in the life-giving, good news, way it was written. Here’s my feeble attempt at a translation.

“So, you see, God unconditionally loved the cosmos in this way – God gave the Only-begotten Son, with the actual (but unexpected) result that everyone who continues to actively trust in him might not be lost but rather might have life that does not end.”

I know it doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue in the way we expect. If, however, we want to use this verse as the “gospel in miniature,” we ought to know what it actually says.

Jesus comes to give life to the lost…and to keep on giving life to the lost…and to give life to the lost some more. If that’s what you hear from a Christian, from some preacher, from a church service online – well, that’s the Good News of Jesus Christ!

If the message you hear is that the beatings will continue until morale improves, then run in the other direction as fast as you can! That’s not the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes for life!

Now, what about John 3:17 – the verse I would rather have on those end zone signs? As a result of this Good News of Jesus Christ, we Christians know that God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world but rather that the world might be saved through him. Anyone who uses the Christian faith to judge and condemn people has gotten it wrong.

The NRSV translation struggles with a Greek word group here. From this word group we get the English word “crisis.” The NRSV gives us “condemn” and “judgment” as translations from this word group. But that’s not helpful. We like judging and condemning other people far too much for these translations to do us much good.

“Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1885. We love hierarchies. We love to be “better than” someone else in order to feel good enough as we are. We love to penalize those who are different, often simply for being different. In the headlines today, for example, are instances of laws that make “walking while trans” a crime.

Oh, how we love to punish those who make us uncomfortable!

Jesus doesn’t come in order to penalize difference. He doesn’t come to punish those who make us uncomfortable. Instead, he comes to challenge our desire to do that. He comes to overturn systems that abuse and exploit. Perhaps you remember the Temple Incident from last week?

Jesus doesn’t come to judge or condemn. We can do that quite well enough on our own. Jesus comes to provoke a crisis that will expose the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus comes to provoke a crisis with the human faces of those powers – corruption, violence, and empire. Jesus comes to judge…judgment itself! Jesus comes to provoke a crisis that tramples down death by death and opens a path to life – abundant life!

He comes to offer the whole cosmos the invitation to trust in God the Giver. That’s what it means to “believe” here in John’s gospel.

“Believing” isn’t some kind of intellectual assent to a checklist of doctrines. “Believing” isn’t some kind of behavioral to-do (or to-not-do) counsel of perfection. “Believing” isn’t some kind of imperialist, colonialist, hierarchy that rewards us by penalizing those “below” us.

“Believing” certainly isn’t something we can control or contain. It’s not something we can define or determine. The Spirit blows where it wants to blow, Jesus says. Don’t be surprised if it shows up where you least expect it. And stop trying to put limits on how that Wind of God works.

“Believing” is our halting, day-by-day response to God’s offer of abundant life. Next week, we’ll talk more about the shape of that life and how it works out for us.

Jesus comes for life – abundant life! If you get a chance, maybe you want to make a new Bible verse sign to hold up for people to see…

Turning the Tables

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. Obviously, I’m still working on the Temple Incident recorded in John 2. Doing a first-person sermon as Nicodemus is fun and has some value. But it’s also a way to punt on the real repentance issues in this text.

The systems of White Male Supremacy that structure white Christianity are not going down without a fight. It would be easy for us white liberal Christians if the whole issue were Franklin Graham leveraging his Operation Christmas mailing lists to fear-monger his racist, xenophobic, homophobic bullshit. If only the tables to be turned belonged exclusively to those “other white folks,” this would all be so much easier.

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But it’s our tables that need turning as well. Jesus turns the tables to put things right. In John 2, Jesus is clearing away the obstacles to abundant life. That climaxes in a few weeks with his welcome to outsiders in John 12. It is this boundary-busting welcome that provides the final step toward his glorification on the cross. It’s when the outsiders want in that the reign of God fully arrives in John.

Nobody really wants that kind of talk in our white, mainline churches. We don’t want to go and talk to people in our neighborhoods who don’t already belong to our churches. We don’t want to keep doing hybrid worship – both in person and online – once The Pandemic has passed. That was just an expedient to keep our insiders inside. We don’t want to take nonmembers into account when we make plans for our property that might affect them. We don’t want our tables to be turned in such a way that we are guests and Jesus is the host.

That’s all crazy talk, we think. If we go down that path, we’ll end up turning over tables just like that nut from Nazareth. If we start tossing money around like it belongs to the poor people, where will it end? After all, somebody has to pay the bills to keep the Temple in business, right?

We white folks have made God’s houses into spiritual shopping malls where we sell comfort to the comfortable, serenity to the settlers, and peace to the privileged. As long as they are paying the bills, we’ll keep selling the goods. And after a while, the last one left can turn out the lights.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. When that happens, the system responds with violence. Abundant life disrupts the power of scarcity. Bigger pies are harder to manage and manipulate for personal gain. Good news for the poor is, at least in the short term, bad news for the rich. Zeal for God’s house will consume us, we’re afraid. So we set the tables back up almost as fast as Jesus turns them over.

Jesus isn’t arrested at the moment he enacts havoc, because the crowd approves of what he does. It’s only the powerful, the privileged, and the propertied who get their underwear in a bunch about the difference between a demonstration, a protest, and a riot. Jesus enacts a symbolic prophetic sign, but he turns over real tables, scatters real money, chases real livestock. When we spiritualize this into some merely verbal protest against a religious system, we let ourselves off the hook.

But Jesus enacts the nightmare of every entrenched power structure. The crowd might see the Matrix, might wake up from the nightmare, might come to know that the system was created by and for the privileged, rigged for the rich. The goal of the system is to make sure that poor, white men continue to blame anyone but rich white men. In our system, race makes that identification easier. So that’s where we start the turning.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. What must be overturned in the Church to put things right?

Before we jump to that, let’s start with me. I need my tables turned regularly. For example, I was in a conversation not long ago where a Black pastor reminded us of the ways in which White Christians have debased and destroyed Black communities. He wasn’t particularly aggressive in his comments. He simply told the truth without padding it for us white folks. I was grateful for the candor (sort of).

I didn’t hear one thing I hadn’t heard or read before. Yet, I felt my face get hot. I felt my head begin to shake. My guts started vibrating in rhythm with my lower jaw. In response to just the slightest honest input, I was ready to tip into a full-blown shame storm. To compound my response, I was then ashamed for being ashamed.

That response won’t do. But it’s necessary. “For through the law I died to the law,” Paul writes in Galatians 2:19-20, “so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” I don’t like having my ego crucified any more than anyone else does. But there’s no real life without that death.

For me, turning the tables means spending more time hearing face to face from my Black, Brown, Native, and Asian American siblings. It’s not up to them to educate and reform me. That’s my work and our white folks work together. I need to continue to render myself less dangerous and more resilient in such conversations. And I look forward to opportunities not merely to become a better person but to work as a partner with my siblings in ways to make our community better.

And then there’s the Church. Jesus turns the tables to put things right. We are called to overturn the “White Liberal Limbo” game. That is the game where we ask, “How slowwwwwww can we gooooooo?” As long as we give the most fragile folks veto power over constructive change, we will continue to maintain our systems of white male supremacy. If congregations die doing the right thing, that’s faithfulness. The alternative at this point is to be whitewashed tombs filled with the bones of people who don’t know they’re dead already.

I believe that in the coming decades we’re going to end up with a number of church buildings and other properties that will simply stand empty because all the white people have either died or left. Let’s make plans now to give those properties to cheated communities or to sell them and repay the proceeds to those communities. I know we white liberals are happy about justice until it starts to cost us money. But the tables of the moneychangers must be overturned if we White folks are to be freely and fully human.

It’s easy to write that knowing that reparations are unlikely to happen on any scale in my lifetime. Talk is cheap. So, we are establishing a Reparations Repayment Calendar at our house. We will give money to a number of organizations and causes that advance the agendas of racial justice and repair. From our perspective, these are not “donations” (although the IRS would regard them as such). These are repayments of debts owed for centuries.

For example, in honor of the Great Three Days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter, we will give to the NAACP Legal Defense fund and to a local bail relief fund. Jesus was crucified between two thieves. He went and preached to the spirits who were in prison. The stone is rolled away, and the jail cell of the tomb is empty. We see a connection.

On Thanksgiving, we will give to the Omaha tribal organization. Our house stands on Omaha land. It is only ours because of the original theft based on the Christian “Doctrine of Discovery.” We can be grateful for how the land was loved and stewarded before we got here. And we can begin to make legitimate payments for the damage we have done to Native communities. We see a connection.

In Epiphany, we remember that the Wise Ones came “from the East.” We can give to the the ELCA’s Association of Lutherans of Arab and Middle Eastern Heritage. The strategy for that mission in our church is chronically underfunded, and we can make some small gift to address that need. During Lent we can direct our offerings to the Urban League of Omaha, since Dr. King’s birthday almost always falls during that liturgical season.

We can give a Pentecost offering to a Latinx-related cause in honor of Cinco de Mayo. In February we can support a cause focused on the concerns of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, since that’s about the time of the Chinese New Year.

You can see where we’re headed with this. It will be a work in progress. It will not be a substitute for any other efforts toward education, advocacy, support, growth, and further repentance. But it will be, we hope, a way to make “table-turning” a part of our ongoing rhythms of faith and life.

Right now, however, there’s something of particular urgency. Our racist former president has stoked the fires of hatred against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The number of hate crimes against the AAPI communities has skyrocketed in the last year. In response, the AAPI Association in the ELCA drafted a statement that was approved within hours by the ELCA conference of bishops. You can read that statement here.

In addition, plans are being made to make March 21 a Sunday of prayer and lament in our churches around this disgusting rhetoric and related crimes. That’s not likely to be the most popular thing a pastor or other leaders have ever advocated. But it’s a way to set a few things a little closer to right.

Jesus turns the tables to put things right. In this Lenten season, we are called to be turned and to turn. How will we answer?

Philemon Fridays — An Introduction

I’m going to dedicate my Friday posts for the next few months to Paul’s Letter to Philemon. I want to introduce that project in this post.

Why study Paul’s Letter to Philemon? My initial reasons were purely practical. I have served over the last ten years as an interim pastor in a variety of settings in eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa. Interim ministry is intended to be quite limited in time. In order to lead congregational bible studies that stood a chance of getting finished, I decided to focus on “little books.” The Letter to Philemon is one of the littlest of the little books in the Christian canon.

What I discovered in this letter is a trove of technical and interpretive challenges as well as a load of social and political dynamite. I was hooked after the first time through. The study of this letter became a standard part of my interim ministry tool kit for reasons that will become clearer as we study together. As my dad often said, it’s better to be lucky than good!

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I am not a professional scholar of the Bible. I have no delusions that I am producing a commentary on the text. That is not to say there is no scholarship or study behind this work. I am blessed with a certain facility in languages. I have maintained and improved my skills in New Testament Greek over the years. While I am no Greek scholar, I have some passable translation abilities. I have translated the text of Philemon a half dozen times, and I keep trying. I hope my translation is helpful while not veering too far into paraphrase or inaccuracy.

Scholars are fairly certain this is an authentic letter from the Apostle Paul to a man named Philemon. Paul is responsible for between one-quarter and one-half of the New Testament as we Protestants have it. Paul started, supported, and encouraged numerous congregations across the eastern Mediterranean, mostly in what we could call modern-day Turkey and Greece.

Philemon was a householder and slaveholder in the city of Colossae, in the Lycus River valley. He was, in Roman terms, the paterfamilias, the official and actual head of a household. Apphia and Archippus were members of that household, although Paul doesn’t specify their relationships. After all, they knew who they were and how they were related. It’s fair to assume that they might have been wife and son to Philemon, but we can’t be certain of that.

Other believers gathered in Philemon’s house for community events, worship, study, and fellowship. We don’t know the makeup of that group, but we know that Philemon was at least the host and was probably the leader of that little faith community. We can’t know the size of the group, but we can speculate that it was made up of a mixture of men and women, free persons, freed persons and slaves, adults and children, and people of a variety of social and economic situations. Perhaps the group had as many as two dozen members, depending on the size of Philemon’s house.

Onesimus was an enslaved person in Philemon’s household (we think). It may be that Onesimus is the first to read the letter aloud to the community assembled in the house of Philemon. We think this was Paul’s typical procedure. He sent the letter in the hands of a personal assistant. That person would not only read the letter but could also interpret what Paul wrote, answer questions and even expand on the teaching if necessary. We think that Phoebe performed such a role, for example, in delivering Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Onesimus may have that role here and therefore would have had a significant voice even if it were an “offstage” presence in the letter. It’s worth imagining that reading scenario as one of the possibilities for the letter. That may have been a step too far in this highly charged situation. It may be that Philemon is the one who first reads the letter aloud to the gathered community. That scenario has its own explosive potential, as I hope you will experience in the following Philemon Friday posts.

Paul probably wrote this letter while he was under arrest in Ephesus. Ephesus was the major political, economic, and religious center in the region. It was sometimes referred to as the third city of the Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. It is likely that Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus at time he wrote to Philemon.  This makes the travel time and distance manageable for all.  This is particularly the case since Paul describes in verse twenty-two his hopes for traveling to see Philemon in the near future.  We’ll learn more about Paul’s imprisonment later.

Dating any of Paul’s letters is always tricky business, and the Letter to Philemon is no exception. I connect this little letter to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in content and theme. There’s lots of debate about the date of Philippians, but I think it’s fairly late in Paul’s ministry—just before he wrote his Letter to the Romans. Many scholars would put the writing of Philippians some time between 59 and 61 CE. I believe Paul wrote to Philemon at about the same time.

The letter raises more questions than it answers. What does Paul want from Philemon? What did Onesimus do? Was there any deeper connection between Onesimus and Philemon? Why does Onesimus return “home” at the risk of his own life? Does Philemon free Onesimus from enslavement? If so, what happens to Onesimus, Philemon, and the rest of the household after the fact? How do these people continue to have relationships, if they do, after the dust settles? Why does the Church seem to support the institution of enslavement even after this letter becomes part of the Christian canon? What does it have to say to us now — if anything at all?

Thus, the Letter to Philemon is a gift from Paul that keeps on giving—to the energetic reader and to the Church as a whole. I will speculate on responses to some of those questions as we go along. But they are just that—speculations.

Scripture functions in several ways for us Christians. It is a door to life with God through the cross and resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s Word in Scripture changes hearts and minds and brings us into the new life beginning here and now. Scripture is also a window into the lives and faith of first century Christians. We can look through the frame of that window and see some things about our ancestors in the faith.

Christian Scripture is also, and most important, a mirror. If we are willing to look, we will see ourselves. When that happens, we can repent of that brokenness we view and rejoice in the grace we experience. I hope we can allow Scripture to function in all of these ways for us in this study.

Part of the mirror we call the Letter to Philemon will reveal to us our own racism and white supremacy. Most of us who will be part of this conversation are a lot more like Philemon than we are like Onesimus. As we’ll see later, the Roman Imperial slave system and the modern Transatlantic slave system have a number of similarities and differences.

It’s instructive to read these systems alongside one another and to use them as tools for understanding both systems. But we can’t just map the modern Euro-American system on to the Roman system, and we won’t try to do that. Nonetheless, we can learn more about enslavement then and now than most white people have learned in their traditional history classes.

We’ll also see that the Roman system is not racialized in the way the Transatlantic system is. We’ll see that Roman imperial society is not racialized the way American society is. That being said, we can once again see some similarities in the systems that will help us to become better acquainted with our own racism and what it can mean to be allies in the anti-racist cause in our own time and place.

I have found the study of this letter to force me to think about the Transatlantic slave trade, about racism and anti-racism, about white privilege and supremacy, and about the Christian church’s role in each and all of these issues. The study of this letter has led me to read a number of historians, theologians, scholars and novelists—mostly black but not exclusively so—who describe the deep complicity of white Christianity in the system of white domination that is so deeply rooted in our American history and culture. I hope I can share some of those perspectives with you during the course of our conversation.

I don’t know anything really. I’ve read a fair bit. But I’m no expert in any of this—just a student trying to figure some things out. So, I will get any number of things wrong in this conversation. If we are to be allies in the anti-racist cause, we white-privileged folks are sure to get it wrong in many ways.

I hate to get it wrong, whatever the “it” may be. Nonetheless, taking the risk is a first, small step in solidarity with those who are told all the time, not that they get it wrong but rather that they are the definition of wrong. It’s not asking much of me to be vulnerable to a little criticism in order to move our conversation forward.

If you want to play along on this track, I encourage you to read Paul’s Letter to Philemon several times in the next week. It won’t take long, and you won’t need to hurry. Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the text.

White Pastoral Poverty

I have heard tell of white (like me) pastoral colleagues who weary of conversation, reading, study, and calls to action when it comes to anti-racism work. Some note that they are already hard-pressed by The Pandemic and all its related complications. Some note that they have their hands full already with partisan political posturing without adding conversations about race to the mix. Some even suggest that since they have no people of color in their neighborhood or township or county, for them the conversation is beside the point.

In the spirit of Christian charity, I hope and am willing to concede that these responses may be the results of frustration and fatigue. I know in my own case, however, that frustration and fatigue do not create new thoughts in my head. Instead, they tend to lower my inhibitions, unfilter my words, and render me unfit for decent human company.

I am not throwing the first stone of judgment since I am freed from the slings and arrows of parish ministry in my retirement. But it is painful to hear that such conversations are taking place in the white, mainline pastoral guild.

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If we strip away the superficial aspects of the complaint, the basic question is simple. What’s in it for me? Issues of racial justice don’t impact me and my ministry directly. I’m doing fine as I am. Why should I bother with this stuff when I have so many other things demanding my energy and attention?

Few of us would admit to such a jaundiced view out loud. But I have asked that question on many occasions as a pastor. I’m not proud of that admission, but it is no less true because of that.

The problem is, of course, that it is the wrong question. It is not the wrong question merely because it is so damned arrogant and selfish. It is the wrong question because it tacitly assumes that there is nothing “in it” for me as a white person to engage in conversation with Black and Brown and Asian people and their faith practices and traditions.

With a few exceptional moments, I have lived and worked that way for a lifetime. I am ashamed by my ignorance and grieved by what I have missed. The question presumes that if I am a white person with no connection to Black, Brown, or Asian people, that I am not missing anything. The question presumes that my whiteness is sufficient and self-sufficient. In fact, we White Christians are deficient and incomplete on our own and by ourselves.

Seventy-five percent of white Americans have no connections to Black, Brown, or Asian people in their lives – me included. The percentage is actually higher for White Christians. We who try to live as if Whiteness is enough have hollowed out our humanity almost beyond recognition.

That’s not a judgment merely on our white identities. It is, rather, contrary to a description of God’s intention for Creation. It is not good for us to be alone. We cannot be fully and authentically human and Christian if we whittle ourselves down to mere Whiteness.

I forget that fact almost every day. I settle for the little nub of humanity left when I limit myself to Whiteness. So, I’m grateful for the reminders that human life is about so much more. I’m grateful for the reminders that people with other experiences and social locations can enrich my life and I can enrich theirs, if only I will engage in the conversation as a partner and be willing to listen and learn.

I need to engage in anti-racism work and relationships not only out of love for neighbor. I am not in the position of all-powerful giver here. I need to engage in that work and those relationships out of love for self. If my vocation is to be fully and authentically human, then I dare not cut myself off from the resources God provides.

My most recent reminder of this reality is Esau McCauley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. McCauley is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, a priest in the Anglican Church in North American, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

McCauley did his doctoral work with N. T. Wright, and it pleases me to hear echoes of that relationship in his writing. But his work is no mere echo of a giant in the field of New Testament studies. McCauley is a careful and close reader of Christian and Hebrew scriptures, a careful thinker about biblical theology, and a clear-eyed interpreter of texts from an historic and contemporary Black perspective.

I don’t take McCauley as a representative of “Black theology” as a whole. That’s not the point and would be insulting to McCauley and to Black theology – a variegated and complex field (just like White theology). I do experience him reading scripture texts from a social position I cannot occupy. I can’t read the texts that way myself, but I can listen and learn and have my eyes and ears opened to new (at least to me) insights.

This is one reason to engage in such studies. I cannot live, read, think, or act out of a social location other than my own. How can I know what the larger world is really like if I am limited to my own understanding and experience? How can I be fully and authentically human if all I know is a small, cramped, and often not very attractive slice of that human experience?

Without the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian theologians, I am stuck with, as McCauley describes it, “a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice” (page 11). I will no longer be content with such an anemic view of Reality.

The question I want us white pastor types to ask is this? What do I need in order to be a better Christian and more fully human? And one answer I want us to give is that we need to listen to and learn from our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers. We need to do that for a very long time, especially we white males who have called the shots for too long.

We White Christians need to continue to learn that faith and politics are separated only to maintain the privileged, powerful, and propertied in their places. Black Christians have not been saddled with the social quietism that is assumed to be The Truth in most of our White congregations. “How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” McCauley asks in a chapter about political engagement in the church. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following,” he concludes, “in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).

We White Christians need to continue to hear and practice a vital and passionate engagement with Scriptural texts for our lives here and now. We need to remember that from our social location, we are going to hear things in the texts that will convict us and demand conversion. We need to remember that others will hear words of liberation and life in the same texts. If we do not listen to the other voices, we will end up with a “slaveholder’s canon” designed to underwrite our White supremacy. And we will continue to be God-awful boring.

In particular, we benefit from the constant reminder that God is not only a forgiver but a liberator. We benefit from the constant reminder that Jesus not only welcomes the little children but challenges the powers that be. We benefit from the constant reminder that salvation is not merely about individuals but is about systems and the restoration of all of Creation.

The topics McCauley addresses in his work are, by and large, areas I have not addressed in my preaching and study over the last forty years. My ministry, education, and understanding have been impoverished as a result. He outlines, for example, a New Testament theology of policing based on an examination of Romans 13 and Luke 3. This is a deep and sophisticated discussion that opened my eyes to new possibilities in the text.

As he comments on the Magnificat in Luke 1, he asks, “Is this not the hope of every Black Christian, that God might hear and save? That he might look upon those who deny us loans for houses or charge exorbitant interest rates in order to cordon us off into little pockets of poverty and say to them your oppression has been met with the advent of God?” (page 87).

As I read that, I was wishing that someone might have preached such a gospel to my father who loved farming so dearly but was forced by federal and state policies to leave the farm and work “in town.” McCauley, as a side effect of his comments, reminds us that poverty and injustice easily cross the Color Line. We need our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers to keep rubbing or White noses in that truth until we get it.

We desperately need other witnesses to remind us that racialized “colorblindness” (even of the Christian variety) is, after all, just blindness. “God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness,” McCauley writes (page 106). A colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness – White colleagues, that’s what we have now.

“Instead,” he continues, “God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated,” McCauley concludes, “not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 106-107).

I am certain that McCauley and I would disagree about any number of textual, theological, and social issues. That’s the good news. My education is deficient, and my training is incomplete without such conversation. “What I have in mind then,” McCauley writes, “is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (page 22).

That’s one reason why we White Christians need to do this work. I thank God for the chance to be a partner in such a convicting and generative conversation.

White Male Markers

Millions of Texans went without electricity, heat, and water for hours and sometimes for days over the past week. Half a million are still without utilities, and thirteen million people are under a water boil order for the near future. In the meantime, Texas energy companies are making big bucks. “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices,” according to Comstock Resources, Inc. CEO, Roland Burns.

Comstock is owned by Dallas entrepreneur and sports team owner, Jerry Jones – poster boy for white, male power, privilege and position. Stock prices for energy companies have skyrocketed while government officials blame each other for the clear failures in policy and preparation that resulted in four dozen deaths, huge physical suffering, and likely billions in property damage.

Photo by Amir Esrafili on Pexels.com

During the worst hours of the disaster, Colorado City (Texas) mayor Tim Boyd took to Facebook to make his feelings known in a since-deleted post. Boyd declared that the government is not responsible for the welfare of people who are too lazy to take care of themselves. Socialist government and bad raising, according to Boyd, have conspired to produce the situation folks in Texas now face.

All that was missing from Boyd’s post was a quote from Ebenezer Scrooge, that the foolish freezing folks should hurry up and die to reduce the surplus population.

Later Boyd issued an apology and announced his resignation. Even though he composed the entire post, and it was quoted in its entirety by news sources, he protested that it was “taken out of context.” He wished that he had chosen “better wording” (whatever that might be for such an arrogant and disgusting screed) and thought more clearly about his comments. He complains that he and his family have suffered from anger and harassment as a result of the post. And he concludes by noting that he is now a private citizen and should just be left alone.

Finally, this week we learned of the death of Rush Limbaugh from cancer at age 70. Limbaugh was the first to take full advantage of the Reagan cancellation of the Fairness Doctrine and to turn cable news into cable bullshit. I use that term in the way that Harry Frankfurt uses it in his little book On Bullshit.

Limbaugh raised the disregard of truth to a high art. He was one of the first to realize that truth is not even relevant in most current conversations. Provocation is power. Facts are a waste of time. Limbaugh was offensive, abusive, misogynist, racist, and fascist in his comments. Worst of all, he simply did it for the money, not for any principles. I am not dancing on Limbaugh’s grave. I simply report what he himself said about himself on numerous occasions.

The cavalcade of white, male supremacy continues on, even if the Marmalade Misanthrope no longer occupies the White House or has his Twitter account. It’s not a man – it’s a system. It’s a system that produces so much idiocy that I can’t even get to the Ted Cruise to Cancun or the Terry Bumstead interview that continues to make me think that he has years of dementia already behind him. White male supremacy is an inexhaustible font of foolish hypocrisy and wealthy stupidity that would be hilarious if it didn’t kill people by the thousands daily.

As this all unfolds, I’ve been reading Native, by Kaitlin Curtice. It is, among other things, a poetic summary of the nature of Whiteness and thus a commentary on events every week – not just this one. So, for my own edification, I will share some of the necessary face-slaps I have received while reading.

What whiteness cannot enslave, whiteness erases. That is not a political or ideological or theological argument. It is rather, an historical observation. This observation is for me, of course, more in the category of the privileged white male fish discovering the ocean of whiteness and maleness and privilege in which he’s been swimming for a lifetime and more. I’m late to the game and will spend the rest of this life catching up.

“A thread runs through the history of America,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native,

a thin line that connects people, places, moments, cultures, and experiences. This thread started when Columbus arrived and deemed Indigenous peoples savage and unworthy of life, a thread that continued as African peoples were enslaved and forced onto this continent. We see it today in hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. It is a thread of whiteness, of white supremacy, that aims to erase culture, to assimilate those deemed “unworthy” of humanity. (page 13).

And we see it in spoiled food, broken pipes, contaminated water, and the bodies of the homeless in the streets of Texas cities.

Whiteness enslaved Black people in order to crush the life out of them like grapes and sell the juice of their labor. When that was no longer the legal system, whiteness erased Black people from the political process, from the accumulation of wealth, from quality housing, from good schools, from white churches, from our stories, and from the pages of the history white people teach, remember, and celebrate. Whiteness continues that process of erasure daily.

“Whiteness is a culture that requires the erasure of all others,” Curtice continues later in her book,

considering them less-than. It is believing in that well-known metaphor of a melting pot that we so love to hold on to in America, but erasing the value of the lives of the “other” within the narrative and in the process presenting the idea of assimilation as virtue. But really, assimilation is about power, power that puts shackles on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color” (Native, page 45).

Whiteness has an ironic and contradictory relationship with all that is not white. On the one hand, whiteness removes all that which is not white and will not become white. On the other hand, whiteness needs the Other as the “Inferior” in order to fund what James Baldwin called the “White wage.” That wage is basically, “I may not be much, but at least I’m better than someone.” Domination in the end is a perverse dependency of Whiteness on all that is not white. That perversity harms all but the most privileged of white people along with all others.

Whiteness erases Indigenous people from the land, from power, from their stories, from their cultures, and from life. Indigenous people were not seen as “usable,” so they were then seen as “disposable.” A continent was “discovered.” Land was seen as “empty” – even if the first inhabitants had to be forcibly removed by genocide and trails of terror and tears. Culture was cut off along with hair, and language was forgotten along with oppression. The imperative was to clear out of the way, assimilate to whiteness and/or die.

White people are portrayed as adventurers and explorers who “discover” a place for the first time. The land is “uninhabited” and needs to be “developed.” In fact, white people are colonizers of spaces that must be stolen before they can be possessed. The environment must be rendered friendly to capitalist exploitation and white male supremacy. That re-formatting of the place is deadly for those who were there first. And it is highly profitable to those who continue to “own” what lies under the stolen land in places like Texas.

Land and plants and animals and people are commodities to be measured and mined, sliced and diced, packaged and sold. “We lose the ability to see things clearly when colonization sets in,” Curtice writes. “We are clouded with dreams of economy and market value, and we forget that the land is still speaking, that the forgotten are still here, and that white supremacy does not have the last word” (Native, page 33). But while it speaks, people still suffer and die.

Because this story is so familiar, so comfortable, and so well-designed for the desires of white, male supremacy, we who benefit most are privileged to believe and act as if the story describes “Reality.” We can tell ourselves stories about colonization and settling, about heroic pioneers and fantastic frontiers, about rugged individuals and bold entrepreneurs. In the telling we don’t notice (and don’t want to notice) the people who suffer and die as a result, the communities that are devastated and destroyed as a result, the planet that rebels at our irresponsibility as a result.

I wish that my Christianity had been part of the solution over the last five hundred years, but I know better. “Settler colonial Christianity is a religion that takes, that demeans the earth and the oppressed, and that holds people in these systems without regard for how Jesus treated people,” notes Kaitlin Curtice. “So to be part of a colonizing religion, I have to constantly ask, Who am I following?” (Native, pages 35-36).

As we prepare to read next Sunday about the cost of discipleship, that question faces us Christians with painful urgency.

Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (Mark 8:34-37, NRSV).

White, male supremacy, using the tools of unfettered individualistic robber baron capitalism, is always trying to find out what it will “profit them.” In this Lenten season, we who desire to follow Jesus are challenged to actually try that path and see where the life really is.

More on Native in future posts, I’m sure.

Throwback Thursday Books — A Simple Way to Pray by Martin Luther

“How Not to Pray”

In his little book called A Simple Way to Pray, Martin Luther remembers an old joke about a pastor who was praying one thing but thinking another. Luther says the pastor’s prayer went something like this.

“O God, intend Your ear to me (Hired hand, have you lashed the horse to the wagon?).”

“Make haste to deliver me, O Lord (Young lady, go milk the cow).”

“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit (Get cracking, you rascal or the plague take you!).”

Luther notes that the pastor illustrates an old Latin proverb: “a person engaged in various pursuits, minds none of them well.” “A true prayer,” Luther concludes, “meditates on all the words and thoughts of the prayer from beginning to end” (Kindle Location 188).

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Many people would define prayer as “talking to God.” That’s true, but it’s a very limited definition. Talking to God puts the emphasis on what I have to say. It puts me in charge of the conversation. Worst of all, prayer as talking to God leaves no room for listening! One of the problems with the prayers Jesus describes in Matthew six is that there is so much talking and so little listening.

Prayer that makes a difference is rooted in listening. Listening happens in silence. “Silence,” writes Kallistos Ware, “is not merely negative—a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech—but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.” (The Power of the Name, Kindle Location 27).

Bishop Theophan the Recluse put it this way: “the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” To stand before God with the mind in the heart—that is a deep definition of prayer. That is what it means to store up treasures in heaven—to stand before God with the mind in the heart.

Prayer is not merely request. Prayer is relationship. “Prayer,” writes Anne Lamott, “means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” (Help, Thanks, Wow, page 4).

Prayer does not begin with me. It begins with God. Prayer is not primarily something I do. Rather prayer is something God does in me and to me and through me. “True inner prayer,” Kallistos Ware concludes, “is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God.”

Praying restores us to our full humanity. The function of prayer is to place us in the presence of God. This was God’s intention from the beginning. In the garden, God strolled with the humans in the cool of the evening. They were always in his presence and happy to be there. That is the way we are made. We are restless, irritable and discontent when we separate ourselves from God.

Is it any wonder that Jesus criticizes the actions of the religious leaders of his day? What they did were not bad things in and of themselves, Alms, prayer and fasting are helpful disciplines at any time, and especially during the Lenten season. But who is the focus of these actions? If it is me, I have already gotten what I want. If the focus is God, then that’s how I need to act.

Humility is the doorway to holiness. So there is no real prayer without humility. Anne Lamott reminds us of an old riddle. “What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.” Those who advertised their alms, prayers and fasting indeed got their rewards. What they wanted was public applause, and that’s what they got. Arrogance leads toward applause and away from God. Humility precedes holiness and leads us toward God.

Humility is the doorway to holiness. Holiness is the real goal of being human. We were made to stand in the presence of God, to walk with God as friends in the cool of the evening.

C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” God already knows what we need better than we know ourselves.

Matthew 6 is the longest instruction Jesus gives about praying. So we should probably pay attention.  At the center of these texts is the confidence that God is our Father. We can approach God with confidence. We don’t have to prove our value in advance. Our Father sees our secret places and stays with us. So we can come to receive the ashes, knowing they are not the end. We go from the ashes to the altar. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Then we remember Jesus in his body and blood, given and shed for us and for the life of the world.

Your Father who is in the secret place–this is God is waiting in the hidden depths of our hearts to speak to us. Real prayer springs us from the trap of showing off before God and others. God knows who we are better than we know ourselves. So we can be honest. We can be real people. In prayer, we can be free to be who we truly are and who we truly are created to be. “Talk to God,” says Rowan Williams, “as if you are Jesus.” That’s a startling statement, but that’s exactly right.

We were prepared for that relationship by the words of the Prayer of the Day this past Sunday. We prayed that God will “transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity…” We can pray as if we are Jesus because that’s what God intends us to be–more and more like Jesus.

After some good listening, then perhaps we are better equipped to speak. One of the challenges is simply learning how to pray in a helpful way. In 1535 Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked Luther for some instructions and training on how to pray. Luther wrote a letter, which became a booklet, describing Luther’s personal prayer practice. I like to summarize that practice with the acronym “ITCH.”

“I” stands for Intercession — first lifting up the needs and concerns of our neighbors before God. “T” stands for Thanksgiving. God is the Giver of all good things and deserves our thanksgiving and praise for such grace, mercy and love. “C” stands for Confession. We come before God in our brokenness and lack of faith, and God heals us in the honesty of our self-disclosure. “H” stands for Help. Whoever we call on in life and in death, Luther notes in the Large Catechism, that one is our God. We are encouraged to call upon God in every time of need and to never be bashful in our requests.

Much of the book is specific examples of how Luther uses this and other methods to pray his way through the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. But this little book also has nuggets that are precious to me. For example, Luther urges concentration in our prayer and suggests that we refrain from multi-tasking while we pray.

“Just as a good and diligent barber must keep his thoughts and eyes precisely on the razor and the hair and not forget where he is while cutting hair,” Luther writes to Besekendorf the barber, “even though he may be chatting a great deal, he will be concentrating carefully, so that he keeps a close eye on where the razor is so he doesn’t cut somebody’s nose, or mouth, or even slice somebody’s throat.” Perhaps Luther had some mixed experiences with barbers! But his concrete illustration makes the point.

Luther encourages us to regard prayer as a necessary form of spiritual nourishment. “To this day, I nurse on the Lord’s Prayer like a little child,” he writes, “and like an old man now, I eat and drink from it, but never get my fill.” Again, Luther’s imagery is earthy and precise — one of the many things I value about his writing.

I have taught and used Luther’s prayer method for years and rely on it whenever I find myself at a prayer road block. That is especially the case when I find myself, as Luther did, under some kind of spiritual assault. Luther was convinced that these moments of “Anfechtungen” were not times to have to make up prayers on the fly and off the cuff. Instead, at such moments a tried and true discipline can be useful to allow the Spirit to haul us out of the depths and into the light.

I look forward to re-engaging with this prayer discipline in the season of Lent 2021.

Grasshoppers and Grace –A First Person Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

(Joel enters, holding a dry, bare branch).

Do you see this? A day ago, this branch was covered with leaves. Then they came. It only took a few minutes. Now this is all that is left. It’s not even good for firewood.

You can call me Joel. My name means “The LORD is God.” My folks gave me that name as a joyous testimony to their faith. But right now it seems like a dark sign of judgment.

You see, we have a bug problem. Locusts have invaded our land. You might call them grasshoppers. And you might wonder why this is such a big deal. Well, let me tell you. One locust is just a bug. A hundred million locusts is a disaster.

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They are so thick that sometimes they blot out the sun. Those hoppers strip our grapevines. They split fig trees right down the middle. They chew the bark off the trees and leave them to die. Just look at this branch!

Now imagine hills and valleys covered with nothing but bare stems and dead branches. That’s how our land looks right now. The locusts eat everything in sight. What cutting locusts leave, the swarming locusts eat. What the swarming locust leaves, the hopping locust eats. What the hopping locust leaves, the destroying locust eats.

They march through fields like six-legged soldiers. Ahead of them is green grass. Behind them is a wasteland. Sometimes the chewing and chirping are so loud we can’t hear each other even when we shout.

They cover everything. They eat our clothing. They chew on our ropes. They clog our wells and foul our wine jars. We find them in our beds, on our tables, crawling in our hair. It is maddening, terrifying. Sometimes it seems like the world is coming to an end. It seems like this is God’s great judgment on us.

We have no feed for the cattle. We have no seed for the next year. People are starving. Some are leaving their farms and heading for other lands. It is a dry year and even the water fails us. The dead stems are like tinder. Heat lightning strikes. So when the locusts leave, the fire takes over. Our land is covered in darkness and despair.

I am no farmer. I am a Jerusalem priest. The people come to the Temple in a panic. The farmers stand in the vestibule and wring their hands. The vinedressers wail in the wings and plead for answers. 

Little children come with their mothers looking for food. Old people wander in and say that they have never seen anything like this. We hear cattle bawling for fodder. We see sheep wandering in dazed confusion.

The people demand answers. Is this the end of all things? Is God angry with us? What shall we do? Tell us! So we do what priests do. We take off our nice robes and dress in sack cloth. We sit in ashes and pray. We fast all day and chant all night.

Our leaders call a solemn assembly of all the people. They urge everyone to come to the House of the Lord. They ask us all to cry out to God for help. No one is exempt.

The aged come with their canes and crutches. The children toddle into the Temple square. Mothers come with infants nursing at their breasts. Newlyweds are called from their celebrations.

All the people gather. The announcement is terrifying.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming, it is near… Truly the day of the Lord is great; Terrible indeed—who can endure it?”

We priests lead the people in panicked petitions. “Spare us, your people, O Lord!” we cry out. “Do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations!”

We appeal to God’s glory. “Why should it be said among the peoples,” we ask, “’Where is their God?’”

As we pray, the weeping wanes a bit. The panic gives way to peace. There is some safety in the sanctuary. There is some comfort in the crowd.

Now…now…I am having a vision—a vision like none I have experienced before. I see clouds fat with rain coming over the hills to the east. It is the rain we need for our crops. As the clouds rush toward us, the great locust army is scattered. The drenching storm drowns the great hordes and washes them to the sea. The land is rescued and the people are saved. 

The vision comes to me as a song. It is a song we have known since we were children. I chant the words as they come to me.

“Yet even now, says the LORD, Return to me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, with mourning;” As I sing, the crowd becomes quiet. All the eyes turn to me. “Rend your hearts, and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger and abounding steadfast love, And relents from punishing.”

Now the crowd is swaying as I sing. I see faces stained with the tears of repentance. I see heads bowed in prayers of confession. I see former enemies embracing each other with forgiveness. I see the wealthy linking arms with the poor. 

“Who knows….who knows…whether he will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind him, A grain offering and a drink offering For the LORD, your God?”

Yes, who knows? Who knows? This is not the cry of despair. It is rather the heartbeat of hope. Only the safe and secure have the luxury of certainty. Only the smug and self-satisfied desire the stability of an unchanging God.

Our prayer is different. Like the Hebrew slaves we cry out and pray that God will hear. Turn back to us, O Lord! Turn away from the punishment we deserve. Turn to us with the grace we need! Foreswear your judgment and embrace your love! 

We know your heart, Lord God! The foolish Hebrew children abandoned you in the wilderness. They made a golden calf and worshipped that mute piece of metal. Moses pleaded for their lives, and you listened. You changed your mind and started again.

You sang to Moses the song I hear in my vision. “The Lord, the Lord, A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, And abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, Keeping steadfast love for thousands of generations,

Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Who knows whether the Lord will not turn and relent? Who knows? We know! We know your heart, Lord God! We know that you do not desire the death of sinners. Instead, you long that we will turn from our sin and have life.

You long that we will trust you and rely on you as our God. The locusts will soon leave. We know this from centuries of experience. Yet what they represent remains.

There is a dark power that seeks to consume us. There are forces in this life that wish us nothing but death. There are realities in this universe that thrive on our terror and feast on our fear. The little monsters are only previews of the great evil afoot in the cosmos.

This is not the last battle between the forces of light and darkness. But it is a glimpse of the glorious ending. There will come a time when all is set right. 

Isaiah once talked about a branch—a righteous branch that springs from the stump of Jesse. That branch is a descendant of great King David. That descendant will set all things right. 

I look at this dry branch now, and I have another vision. The branch is broken into two pieces (breaks the branch in two). I see them crossed and covered with the form of a man. It is a wondrous and terrible vision.

As I see that dry branch now made wet with blood, I hear strange words. “For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” a voice says, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Who knows? Who knows? The dry branch may yet bear fruit. There will come a time when the grain, the wine and the oil will spill out abundantly. There will come a time when the forces of darkness will rot on the shores of God’s kingdom. There will come a time when the threshing floors shall be full and the vats shall overflow. There will come a time when the Lord’s people will never be put to shame.

As we sing together there in the Temple, something wonderful is happening. The vision I received is becoming the vision of the whole congregation. Young people are speaking words of hope and joy. Old people are seeing the vision. Even our slaves are dancing and singing and speaking good news. The spirit of prophecy is poured out on us all!

The question on our lips is the question of hope. Who knows? Who knows? And the answer on our lips is the answer of faith. God knows! God knows! And God knows us in mercy and love!

(Joel exits in silence).

OFD Lawsuit — Intentions and Outcomes

In my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training, forty years ago, I learned a number of “useful half-truths.” One of those interpersonal rules of thumb went something like this: “The meaning of any communication is in how it is received.” Of course, what I intend in a sentence, an action, or even a gesture, may not be the message that is received. That’s what makes it a “half” truth. But what the recipient discerns, or experiences, is part of the interaction and the meaning of that interaction.

That distinction would have remained an academic curiosity for me if I had not been guilty of transgressing it almost as soon as I learned it. One of my CPE colleagues called me out for treating her badly after we had a difficult personal interaction. I had persuaded myself that I was treating her the same as always, but group members begged to differ. In the face of that evidence, I protested that I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. The room got quiet as she wept and then fled the space.

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It didn’t matter what I intended. The outcome was obvious. The question was not what I intended. Rather, the question was twofold. Could I put myself aside long enough to see not merely my intentions but also the outcome? And did I care enough about her to care about the impact of my behavior? I wish I could say that I learned that lesson in a flash, became a better human in that moment, and repaired the damage I had done. No, it took time to undo some of the damage, but I didn’t really “get it” until much later.

Recently, an Omaha firefighter filed suit against the City of Omaha. The lawsuit alleges that the department and employees of the department discriminated against Jane Crudup based on her race, color, and gender. Crudup was hired by the department in January of 2019, the fifth Black woman to serve as an Omaha firefighter in the city’s one hundred fifty-year history.

In the suit, Crudup alleges that her gear was hoisted on a station flagpole. It appeared to her to “simulate a hanging or public lynching,” as the suit states. No one took responsibility for the behavior, and no disciplinary action was forthcoming. No additional investigation took place. This was in the context of previous incidents that Crudup experienced as harassment and the department found to be “hazing for the purpose of training.”

The city attorney’s office plans to defend against the suit. Crudup has the written and public support of the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters, of which she is a member. The suit notes that the Omaha Fire Department employs black firefighters at a rate of about five and a half percent of the total employee base, even though Omaha’s black population represents twelve percent of the city.

The department publicly affirms the value of a diverse work force but seems to have some history of complaints regarding the harassment of black, female firefighters. Crudup has been on leave from the job since the end of May. The suit has not yet been adjudicated.

As I read reports of the suit and the alleged behavior that prompted the suit, I think about the useful half truth I mentioned above. First, I use the word “alleged” because the case has not been settled. However, I am quite certain that Jane Crudup saw what she saw, experienced what she experienced, and evaluated it all accurately. No one has suggested that she or her Black, female firefighter colleagues have fabricated any part of their stories. In the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, “Believe black women” is an effective standard of evidence in my book.

Second, I would be surprised – well, shocked would be more like it – if the perpetrators of the “pranks” were unaware of the intimidating and dehumanizing meanings associated with their alleged behaviors. These meanings may be so familiar that they did not come immediately to mind, but that simply proves my point. I think it is highly unlikely that there is any degree of innocence or ignorance involved here.

Those two points being given, we come back to my useful half-truth. If we continue to focus on the “intentions” of the perpetrators of racist behaviors, we will rarely – if ever – identify any behaviors as racist. If the argument that “I didn’t intend my message to be racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or classist, or transphobic” is allowed to be determinative and dispositive, then we will make little or no progress in anti-racist work.

We know that people who claim they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies are quite capable of deeply dehumanizing and destructive behavior toward those who are not “like” them. The protest of epistemic innocence is offered as sufficient proof that they are not guilty of anything bad. It is the “get out of jail free card” in the game of interpersonal and institutional racism. I have played that card myself enough times to be embarrassed and ashamed whenever I hear someone else use it.

This “intentions” standard underwrites much of the systemic and institutional racism in our society. Ijeoma Oluo, in her recent book, Mediocre, rehearses the way that Joe Biden rode the difference between school discrimination by intention and by “accident” to repeated re-elections to the Senate. People didn’t intend to segregate schools by rule, he argued. It just happened “naturally” and thus should not be remedied by busing.

The standard that “intentions” must be proved continues to support housing and education segregation. It maintains differential health access and outcomes for Black and Brown people. It encourages sexual harassment in the workplace, going back to Clarence Thomas and before. It maintains the myth of white, male innocence and the power and privilege that depend on that myth.

Relying on “intentions” is not a solution but is rather part of the social structure that maintains systems of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Yet, that standard continues to be used to decide court cases on harassment, discrimination, and abuse at every level of the judiciary. So I’m not optimistic regarding the outcome of Crudup’s suit.

Anti-racist progress focuses on outcomes rather than intentions. “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas,” Ibram X. Kendi writes, “that produces and normalizes racial inequities” (How to Be an Antiracist, page 17). “An antiracist policy,” he continues, “is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups” (page 18).

The emphasis here is on “produces.” We must stop thinking about “intends” if we ever expect to make any progress. Intentions are pretty much useless. What matter are outcomes and impacts.

As a Christian, I have an additional and more demanding standard of conduct to uphold. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he responds to a question about whether the early Christians could eat meat left over from animal sacrifices to the local, pagan gods. The details of that discussion are not important here. Rather, Paul’s standard is what matters. It’s that noble half-truth above placed in the Christian framework.

If my conduct offends the conscience of a “weaker” member of the community, then I must consider ceasing that conduct. “Weaker” is an interesting notion in Paul’s context. But he is certainly addressing a situation of economic, social, and political inequity within that congregation. I would argue that he wants the rich, powerful folks in the congregation (the ones who could afford that meat in the first place) to consider the impact of their behavior on those who do not have that position, privilege, and power.

If any of those firefighters are Christian (and I suspect at least some are), then they are called by their Christian vocation to put the needs of their colleague ahead of their own desires, regardless of their “intentions.” It is incumbent on those Christians with power to strive for empathy with and advocacy for those with less power in a system. The intentions of the powerful are beside the point here. What matters is the impact on those with less power.

Coming to terms with that impact requires effort and empathy. It doesn’t take a great deal of energy to figure out that a hat and coat in the imitation of a body hanging on a pole could cause distress for a Black colleague. It doesn’t take a great deal of energy to figure out that what white men in that system experience as good-natured “hazing” would be felt as persecution by black women who have dealt with that adolescent white boys’ bullshit their whole lives.

It wouldn’t take much energy for superiors to understand that the complaints of the less powerful are almost always discounted by the system, and that they had a chance to do something better. It wouldn’t take much energy for the system to acknowledge that discrimination and harassment are built into and supported by that system and most such systems in this country. It’s not asking too much for those who claim to serve others for a living to take the needs of their colleagues into account.

I know that I live in a glass house as a professional in a Christian denomination. We have often done little better in our own systems and structures. Just read the headlines any given week. But whataboutism won’t get anyone off the hook. That’s just another argument from intention – after all, we’re not any worse than others, and we really do mean well — so goes that argument. No – all of the systems created, controlled, and commanded by white men have the same problems and live under the same demands for change.

Let’s watch how this unfolds and apply pressure where we can to ensure greater equity of outcomes and a just resolution for this suit.

The Cross in the Middle of Everywhere — Throwback Thursday Books

The Superbowl ad sponsored by Jeep© and featuring Bruce Springsteen has generated thousands of words of commentary in its wake. Some have applauded it as a signpost on the path toward national reunion in the United States. Many have rightly pointed to its affinities with and symbolization of “Christian Nationalism.” The use of an overtly Christian worship space with a cross and heart nailed to a map of the United States is a pretty clear deployment of the iconography of Christian Nationalism.

The critiques are merited and well-taken. My question is this. How did the writers, producers, and owners of this ad miss the obvious subtext? Was it a case of creative tunnel vision, of being so excited about the “trees” of the ad that those responsible missed the “forest” of deeper meaning? I wish it would be that simple and naïve, but I don’t think so.

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It’s not that garden variety Christian Nationalism was slipped in under the radar in some insidious plot. Rather, the ideology of Christian Nationalism has been so taken for granted in the United States for so long that it is simply part of the expected background. The innovation is not that someone slipped in a narrow set of symbols to trumpet White Nationalist Cultural Christian Republicans. The novelty is that any white people noticed and complained.

This brings me to my Throwback Thursday book for this week. I want to lift up The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall. I have read and reread this book so many times that my highlighting has underlining, and my underlining has highlighting – all surrounded by marginal notes and questions in various colors of ink.

In this book Hall continues his project, begun in 1979 in Lighten Our Darkness, to uncover and describe an “indigenous theology of the cross” for Christians in North America. The book is a summary companion to his three-volume work on “Christian Theology in a North American Context.” The chapters were originally lectures delivered at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 2002. They have that snappy and immediate character of oral presentation and Hall’s passion for the topic.

In this post, I want to focus on the unifying theme of the book and of Hall’s work. I think his work is one resource in understanding why the “Middle” Superbowl ad could slide so easily into mainstream awareness with nothing more than an approving smile and a small tear in our eyes. Christian Nationalism is, I would propose, nothing more or less than a militant expression of the dominant and underlying cultural framework for white Americans on this continent since the first colonialists set foot on its shores. No great revelation, but there it is.

The ideological heart of the North American project is cultural, political, economic, military, and ideological triumphalism. It has gone by several names over the centuries – the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, The White Man’s Burden, American Exceptionalism, The Christian Century, Make America Great Again. In all these expressions there is the toxic combination of white male supremacy, Christian supersessionism and triumphalism, and western colonizing imperialism.

If one benefits from the privileges of that wicked cocktail (as I do), life is good indeed. If one lives outside that system, the consequences can be fatal. Hall writes, “the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes possibly the single most insidious cause of global peril” (page 4). Before we recoil in disbelief, let us recall the role of the West in nuclear proliferation, climate change, debt colonization, proxy wars, covert assassinations, and global white supremacy. I’m sorry, Bruce, but that’s what the “Middle” looks like if you’re a person who lives on the Edge.

Western (primarily Calvinist Protestant) Christianity has served as the underlying ideological framework for the “Middle.” We live in a time when that ideology is being identified, outed, and challenged. That’s absolutely necessary for the long-term credibility, health, and even survival of Christianity in the West. “In short,” Hall writes, “it is the theological triumphalism of Christendom that must be altered if the Christian faith is to exist in the world of today and tomorrow as a force for life and not death” (page 5).

What the “Middle” really did was to center those systems which are killing us. We saw a lone, isolated, individual man in his pickup truck in the wide-open spaces. All that was missing from the image was the gun rack in the window and steel testicles hanging from the trailer hitch.

“Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck,” writes Ijeoma Iluo in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy–to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo,” she observes. “It may not stop until it has destroyed everything” (page 45).

The chapel at the heart of this triumphalist universe is not the home of an existing flesh and blood congregation but is a geographic landmark – the center of “everything.” It is not, however, even the center of the whole United States but rather only of the “lower 48.” So, it does not take into account people of color in Alaska and Hawaii, much less those in Puerto Rico or Guam. But then, why should it? And why bother with some messy and cantankerous congregation? After all, the American Middle is an ideal and ideology, not an actual community. What is to be centered is not an existing land but rather a conquering culture.

One of my points is that the creators, writers, producers, sponsors (and actor) may have missed the problem because triumphalist Christianity (in its most visible incarnation as Christian nationalism) is not a “bug” in the system. It is the system itself. And that is the problem. “So long as Christian faith is unable to distinguish itself at the level of foundational belief from the Western imperial peoples with which it has been inextricably linked,” Hall writes, “its actions and ethical claims will be ambiguous, even when they are inspired by apparently Christian motives” (page 4).

One would think that Hall had seen the “Middle” ad as he was writing his book. Of course, it antedates the commercial by twenty years. The ad is beautifully constructed and filmed. It hits all the right emotional buttons. There are values which one could admire – unity, empathy, compassion, community. But these values are so diluted by and polluted with the centering of white, male, evangelical, American Christianity, and so associated with the imperialist, colonialist, supremacist ideology of the West that the good stuff is drowning in the powers of death.

No matter how well-intentioned the ad might have been (for the sake of construing my neighbor’s actions in the kindest possible way), its actual message was counterproductive and contradictory at best. The ad’s association with the dominant ideology (which is, after the Ideology of Domination) conditions every element of the overt communication. That Ideology of Domination is readily associated with numerous causes and perspectives that reflect the Middle and reject the Edges.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez addresses this association at length in her award-winning book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. I quote her at length:

Christian nationalism—the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology. (page 4).

This triumphalist ideology is so tightly stitched into most of the American Christian fabric that one hardly notices it any longer. And removing that lining from the American Christian garment is and will be difficult and painful.

I would plead, at least, that those of us who are heirs of the “theology of the cross” (aka historic Lutherans) might become familiar with what Hall and his colleagues describe as the “thin tradition.” It was Jurgen Moltmann who noted that this theology was known by at least some Christians but never much loved. After all, who wants to be part of a movement that embraces the sin and suffering, the despair and death, the frailties and failings of human beings – embraces all that with self-giving love and a trust that God works through our brokenness to give real life?

Obviously, not many –not even many Lutherans. “Historical Christianity – Christendom – has steadfastly avoided the theologia crucis because such a theology could only call into question the whole imperialistic bent of Christendom,” Hall writes. As long as triumphalist, imperialist, colonialist white Western Christianity was calling the shots, there was no need to change or even notice. Now is a time, Hall suggests, for a profound reconsideration.

“But now the possibility of such a reconsideration has become a grave necessity for there is no place in a world on the brink of self-destruction for a religion that is driven,” Hall concludes, “by the quest for power and glory, or even for survival” (page 7). Perhaps we Lutherans could become part of the solution rather than part of the problem by embracing this thin and little-loved tradition.

That means losing. That means relinquishing our privileged positions in the middle of everything. That means relinquishing power and property to those who have been cheated and robbed for so long (aka reparations). That means the cross is a real vocation rather than a cultural and political symbol. That means, Hall says, “the only way of saying yes to life in such a context is to discover, somehow, the courage that is needed to confront the culture’s repressed and therefore highly effective no. The theology of the cross is for Christians,” he asserts, “the most reliable expression of the Source of that courage.”

Sorry, Boss. The cross in the middle of everything isn’t in Kansas. It’s on a hill outside Jerusalem, in the hearts of people who love, and in the heart of the Creator of all.