Why Fake News Is a Good Thing

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Hello again, everyone! It has been a long time since I have posted a blog. I have to admit that dissertation writing has consumed a lot of my time and left me with little inspiration to write blog posts as well. However, I do hope to get back into the blogging habit over the coming months.

Today, on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration, I wanted to write a post about everyone’s favorite topic: Fake News. This has been a trend over the last several months, especially surrounding the 2016 Election. Many people have been duped by fake stories circulating on various websites, especially Facebook.

There was a New York Times article posted just yesterday about the creator of the fake news website ChristianTimesNewspaper and how he made a fair bit of money by posting extreme news stories which he made up. This guy, Cameron Harris, garnered a lot of clicks after posting a story about Hillary Clinton allegedly stuffing ballot boxes. Harris took advantage of a statement by President-elect Trump in which Trump noted a potential for the election to be rigged.

Harris’s website is just one among many out there posting fake stories. I myself have seen friends buy in to headlines and stories about the election, or about other “news” which seemed to be fishy to me. I would then go to Snopes.com and check into these headlines. Often, there would an article debunking these stories which had been shared many times on Facebook. I would post the link to the article from Snopes in the comments, but sometimes would get the push-back, “Snopes is not an unbiased authority! You need to not trust it as a factual site! It’s fake news!” Even the anti-fake news websites were getting branded as untrustworthy. Biased journalism was everywhere! Either news sources were too liberally-biased in favor of Hillary Clinton or they were too conservatively-biased in favor of Donald Trump. Nothing could be trusted. Both sides claimed theirs was the “truth.”

So why can the Fake News phenomenon be a good thing? I have spent way too many years in school working towards my degree. Over these past several years, I feel as though I have gained a valuable tool: how to critically think about sources. I feel like one of the most beneficial things about pursuing a college education, or degree of some type, is learning how to do correct research. I have also been working as an adjunct history professor recently at an undergraduate institution. One of the things I always have to address is how to research proper websites and proper authorities. This usually includes talking about Wikipedia, or other online sources which allow anyone to edit entries.

One thing that Fake News has taught us recently is to be skeptical of certain bold statements. For example, people want to simply attach “BREAKING NEWS!” to a random story in order to get clicks and website visits. This is logical, since like Mr. Harris mentioned above, website visits and clicks actually translate into real-world, literal money and revenue. Sometimes people are trying to become the next Onion.com, a wildly successful satirical website (one of my favorite recent imitators of the Onion is the BabylonBee). These comedic sites are usually looked at for entertainment purposes and people often know when visiting them or when seeing these websites’ articles shared on Facebook that the articles are fake and supposed to be funny. The problem arises when a website is unfamiliar or contains words in the title that make it seem legit. The title ChristianTimesNewspaper, mentioned above, could appear to be addressing actual world news from a Christian perspective. I have seen others with similar titles sharing fake stories with the purpose of seeing End Times type events in “the news.”

But the fact that Fake News has become a buzzword(s), including a popular hashtag on Twitter, has allowed people to be more skeptical when encountering headlines. This is a good thing. Critical thinking is a good thing. Reading a story or article with an eyebrow raised can be helpful and make readers wonder if the story they have just read is fake, real, or at the very least, unverified. One major thing I have learned in my years of research is how to check sources, which sources are typically more trustworthy, etc. For example, picking up a monograph from Oxford University Press that is filled with footnotes and sources is much different than reading a source which has no notes or bibliography and is self-published on Amazon. Both might be good sources, but you need to do more digging with the second book.

I’m curious what you all think. Is Fake News a bad thing? Or, like I have mentioned here, can it be helpful? Can we “trust” any news sources anymore? Who has the time to chase down all sources for an article that someone shared on Facebook? There are positives and negatives, but I think overall Fake News has created more critical thinkers.

The Love of the Spirit in an Age of Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Greetings, everyone and apologies to my readers for the lengthy gap between posts. I was working on a chapter for my dissertation over the last few months. Usually this blog focuses on figures from church history. We have examined men and women from throughout church history, from the beginnings of Christianity up through to very recent examples. Today’s post, however will look at two very recent, very polarizing events in the United States: the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I want to frame a discussion of these events in light of the popular Bible passage on the “fruits of the Spirit.”

This past Sunday at my church, the pastors began a new series on the fruits of the Spirit. If you are unfamiliar, these are found in Galatians 5.22-23. This passage notes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (NIV). The pastors at my church are going to take a week-by-week look at each “fruit,” and this past Sunday’s focus was on love. The sermon covered a lot of elements of love and community, especially examining Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches (John 15.5-12). I really enjoyed the pastor’s linking to Jesus’ picture of love: between Jesus and God and between fellow humans. However, I found myself wondering what Galatians means when talking about love.

As the pastor was giving context for the passage of the “fruit of the Spirit,” I was looking for passages nearby that include the word “love” (in the NIV at least, which I had open at the time). I found 5.13-14 to be helpful. It says, “Serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Okay, so humility is important. Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is important (this one is pretty well-known). These didn’t really blow the roof of my doors, so I turned to chapter six hoping for something more. Galatians 6.2 says “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (NIV).

Now we’re talking.

This passage set my mind spinning in a number of different directions. Full disclosure: I am a white male. I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life living in Ohio, the last 6 of which were spent in a town that was about 10,000 people and probably 95% white. My high school (in the suburbs of Cincinnati) was mostly white. I went to Ohio State, which was a pretty diverse place, especially compared to the two aforementioned towns. I now live in a very diverse city (Los Angeles), and have for about 5 years now. However, I might be as confused as ever about the plight of African Americans in this country.

Back to Sunday. After I read Gal. 6.2 I began to get really frustrated, even angry. I spent a little bit of time last week dialoguing on social media about the two murders of black men by police officers. However, sitting in church and reading a passage that said I am supposed to show love by “bearing the burdens” of my black brothers and sisters caused me a great deal of consternation. How on earth can I bear that burden? How can I, as a white male living in a world of white privilege bear the burden of others in this country when I don’t have to deal with the same fears and realities that they do? This past week we saw a black man who was selling CDs wrestled to the ground by two cops, get shot several times, and killed. Then just a day or so later, a woman live-streamed a video on Facebook after her boyfriend had been shot four times by a cop (who was still pointing the gun at the victim) as the victim was reaching for the requested license, proof of insurance, etc. The ensuing outrage of the country was provoked, and several protests arranged (one ending in a horrible circumstance in Dallas after a lone gunman ambushed police). The Black Lives Matter movement organized, and continues to organize, protests. Some of these protests have resulted in viral videos of camaraderie between police and protesters, between white and black individuals. While this is a good thing, it has yet to solve the problem.

This brings me back to my questions from Sunday. How can I as a white man in a world of white privilege bear the burdens of my black brothers and sisters? Is it possible? I have never left my house fearing that I might later that day be killed. I have been stopped by police before (for speeding, at random sobriety check-points, and even after I swerved across a lane line on a freeway because I was getting drowsy). In each and every one of those interactions with police, I have never for even half of a second worried that one of those cops would pull a gun and shoot me several times. This is sadly not the same reality for black Americans. Black lives don’t matter enough in this country, and that’s a major problem. That is something that needs to change, but how? What’s the answer?

I have been wondering this week what I can do to bear their burdens. Do I need to protest at Black Lives Matter rallies? Do I need to support legislation and/ or call my senator? Do I need to “just pray?” None of those seem like enough. I would love some of my African American readers to provide insight on how white people in this country can help, because we have to. In fact, a recent Christianity Today article addressed this very topic. All I know is that we can’t keep responding with statements of “Hold on, let’s wait and find out all the details before we charge the cops with murder.” That allows the problem to continue. That shows just how systemically racist this country still is.

I want to close with a quick account from later in my church service on Sunday. Our church sang the song “You’re a good, good, Father” at the close of service. I found myself wondering if songs like that in a time like this would cause pain among African American Christians. I also found myself starting to think, “Yes, God you are good, but please help this country.” I found myself pondering Psalm 13.1-2: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Again, I am a white male, and I find myself greatly outraged. How do my black brothers and sisters read this Psalm?

So I end by saying, I don’t actually know what to do. I don’t know how the “love fruit” of the Spirit can be evident in my life when I live in a world of hatred. I pray for change in this country. I pray for justice, for mercy, for peace. Most of all, I pray for African Americans to finally be treated equally with white Americans.

I welcome your thoughts on this with the goal of having a discourse.

A Heart for Muslims: Temple Gairdner’s Legacy

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Last week we took a respite from our series on the history of missions to discuss Donald Trump and his perceived manipulation of Christianity. This week, we return to our series once again, but this time we find ourselves in Cairo. In the wake of the horrific attacks in Brussels, and the resultant xenophobic rants regarding Muslims coming into this country, today’s blog seeks to focus on a missionary who served Muslim communities. William Henry Temple, or simply Temple, Gairdner (1873-1928) served for almost three decades in Cairo, Egypt (Tucker, 244).

Gairdner’s role as a missionary to Muslims was aided by his ability to learn very quickly, including learning Arabic “well enough to become involved in teaching in less than a year” (Tucker, 243). He also, along with his wife (they were married in 1902), used their musical talents to put on concerts to draw Christians and Muslims together (Tucker, 243). Importantly, Gairdner changed his tactics in ministering to Muslims in Cairo. He shifted from the typical missionary strategy of arguing the differences between Christianity and Islam to more calmly discussing the problems that Muslims had with Christian beliefs (Tucker, 244). He even sought to engage Muslims where they were.

Gairdner spent time trying to work with Coptic Christians in the area, but found few of them were very interested in helping out with the missionary work among Muslims (Tucker, 245). Gairdner’s publishing and his teaching left resources to his mission after his death in 1928 (Tucker, 245). Tucker also notes that Gairdner’s real legacy was the resulting increased desire for people to pick up his mantle of missionary work among Muslims, particularly in the Anglican Church (Tucker, 245).

Although Gairdner could be seen as successful in many ways, there were problems in the mission, notably a lack of helpers. This greatly hindered Gairdner’s publishing work, and even though he spent a year studying Islam with world-renowned experts, he was unable to really make an impact in the scholastic realm (Tucker, 244-45). Gairdner himself even lamented it, noting that he could have made a real contribution to the field. He also saw some of his fellow-Christians renounce their faith and convert to Islam (Tucker 243). So, while he did have some modest successes, one might say that he had just as many setbacks.

I want to point out that in today’s religio-political climate in the United States, we have a variety of opinions, especially with regard to Muslims. I think that Gairdner might assist us by his passion for working and engaging with the Muslim communities around us. As mentioned above, there have been a number of xenophobic responses to ISIS-claimed attacks around the world, most notably by Donald Trump. Trump has said several times that the United States should start banning all Muslims from coming to this country. Ted Cruz likewise has recently stated that Muslim communities around this country need to be monitored. I think such positions on Muslims would appall Muslim missionaries like Temple Gairdner. His methodology was to engage Muslims, not fear them. He even lamented the Coptic Christian Church near him for not doing more to minister to Muslims that were a part of their own communities.

Last night, while watching election coverage of “Western Tuesday” (yet another moniker assigned to a day when more than one state holds a primary), I heard several analysts talking about how each time there has been a ISIS-led terrorist attack around the world, Donald Trump gets a bump in the polls. I find such reactions by the American people alarming to say the least. Without getting too political (although I fear I may have already), I would say that we should be worried when we hear things like, “We have no choice but to ban all Muslims from entering this country,” from our presidential front-runners. I would also say that we should be shocked and appalled when such statements are met with exuberant applause by the masses.

Temple Gairdner took issue with the standard Christian missionary practice of his time, which was to fiercely debate Islam and Christianity. His approach sought to meet Muslims where they were and engage their beliefs. While I recognize that Gairdner’s methods were rooted in mission work and politicians like Trump and Cruz are focused on political strategy, I think Gairdner’s legacy still fits. His time in Cairo was not always happy and not always met with successes, but he nevertheless remained there until his death because he believed in the work he was doing. He believed in God’s call on his life. I would even contend that he had a heart for Muslims. I wish that our political climate, particularly political establishments that are aligned with a Christian majority, would share Gairdner’s sympathy and love for Muslims and eschew Trump’s xenophobia. After all, this country was founded on religious freedom, and I hate to break it to many people out there, but Islam is a religion.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues? Is today’s geopolitical climate too different from from Gairdner’s to make these assertions? Has ISIS changed the game permanently?

Bonus Blog: Trump and Constantine: Can Religion be a Political Tool?

Well, I wanted to start off this blog with a disclaimer noting that I am a historian, not a political scientist. I have noticed many different opinions on the social, cultural, and media phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s rise to the forefront of the Republican Primary discussions. Trump has taken numerous victories around the country, including a thorough domination in the states in the Deep South. Since today has numerous high-profile primaries and one caucus, I wanted to blog about Donald Trump, Emperor Constantine, and the ability of religion to be used as a political tool.

There has been no shortage of blog posts, articles, and probably even forthcoming books detailing Donald Trump’s ascendancy in polls and in voter turnouts. There have been those who have shared memes joking about his unorthodox campaign, those who have questioned his true loyalties, and even a trending hashtag of #NeverTrump. Others have called into question whether or not he is a real Christian, as he claims to be. There was even a mini-controversy over him saying “Two Corinthians” in quoting a Bible verse (many people did not realize it, but many Christians refer to 2nd Corinthians this way). I wanted to delve into the theory that Trump has used Christianity as a tool to gain the support of much of the Religious Right. Such a theory reminds me of some interpretations of Emperor Constantine.

Constantine (272-337 CE) was the first true Christian emperor. He converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of the cross before riding into battle. He parlayed its image onto his shields and eventually was victorious at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. The Edict of Toleration was issued in 311, which ended the persecution of Christianity, and the Edict of Milan in 313 legalized Christianity as a religion in the Roman Empire. Constantine was only baptized on his deathbed, leading to many scholars over the years to question the authenticity of his conversion. Some have argued that Christianity was a political tool to unify the empire under Constantine’s rule, firming up his status as the sole ruler of the Roman world.

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his Ecclesiastical History and a Life of Constantine, the latter of which was a glowing, hagiographical work which praised Constantine’s virtues and cast him in the role of a saint. For Eusebius, Constantine was completely sincere in his faith, and even ushered in the millennial kingdom on earth. For some modern scholars, Constantine was a shrewd politician who used Christianity. Which is it?

The current consensus is that Constantine definitely made a political move in making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, most scholars now either believe he might have been sincere, or at least that he could have been sincere but there is just no way to truly know. Unfortunately, we simply have to study Constantine’s actions from the perspective that he might have been a genuine Christian or that he might have just used Christianity’s popularity to his advantage. Either way, the effect was that Rome was Christianized and Constantine was a main cause of it.

This brings us back to Trump. Is he a true Christian? Is he using Christianity to manipulate voters into thinking he’s their Religious Right champion? Maybe Donald Trump is actually a Christian who is using Christianity to his political advantage. He would hardly be the first politician, or potential president, to do so. Unlike Constantine, however, Trump is alive and we can scrutinize his actions and decisions and speeches to determine to what extent he is using Christianity as a political tool.

Where does this leave us? Should we give Constantine the benefit of the doubt? How about Trump? I think that both can teach us that religion can be a political tool. It has been in the past and most likely will continue to be into the future. Voters need to realize this and make informed, intelligent decisions on whom to vote for. What do you think? Do you agree? Should we allow for the possibility that religion is just a tool for politicians sometimes? Does that make them less of a Christian (or other religious follower)?

Midweek Blog: Terrorists and Their Other Victims

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Today’s blog will continue our recent discussion of American church history, but it will concern some recent tragic events. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, there was a horrific terrorist attack in Paris on Friday, which killed 129 people. What has followed the attacks, in the USA at least, has been a war of words regarding whether or not we as a country should allow over 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country. In fact, 31 states’ governors have voted against allowing any refugees into their respective states. Those who have been arguing such a position point to the fact that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks came to France as a Syrian refugee. Recently there has also been renewed debate over Islam as a religion in and of itself, with many people claiming that mosques with any ties to terrorists should be shut down. While we can and should debate all of these points, today I want to look at a selection from a poem written in 2001 entitled, “First Writing Since.”

The poem is in response to 9/11 and how Muslims in the country had to deal with the fear/ suspicion they encountered everywhere. The old cliche is “history is bound to repeat itself.” Unfortunately, people are still having to deal with suspicion and fear directed at them because of the actions of a few. The author is a Palestinian-American Muslim woman named Suheir Hammad (text in Harvey and Goff, 531-533). I think this poem gets at many of the frustrations that people are feeling right now in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Hammad writes, “first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot’s heart failed, the plane’s engine died. then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now. please god, after the second plane, please don’t let it be anyone who looks like my brothers” (Harvey and Goff, 531).

The author here shows that she understands what is to come, specifically the blaming and the suspicion that will be leveled against those who “look like” the attackers. She notes that her first thought was “please let it just have been a horrible accident.” Unfortunately, it was not and that led to a time of great trouble for Muslims in America.

Hammad later writes, “most Americans do not know the difference between Indians, Afghanis, Syrians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus. More than ever, there is no difference… one more person ask me if I knew the hijackers… one more person assume no Arabs or Muslims were killed… we did not vilify all white men when McVeigh bombed Oklahoma” (Harvey and Goff, 532).

These are some of the most poignant lines from the poem. Hammad notes how Indians, Afghanis, and Syrians were all lumped together in the aftermath of 9/11 as well as Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh. Hammad touches on how each were persecuted as though they “knew the hijackers.” Clearly, she herself has been asked that question. The notion that someone would ask that of a Palestinian Muslim shows just how the suspicion of Muslims hit a fever pitch in the wake of 9/11. She makes the powerful statement that just because one white man (McVeigh) killed over 160 people when he bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building doesn’t mean that we should blame all white men. The very idea that white men in the USA would all be blamed equally for the actions of one seems far-fetched to say the least. But, it’s not far off from what Muslims went through after 9/11 and what Syrians are going to have to go through in the coming weeks. One seems preposterous, the other seems like a foregone conclusion. Anyone else see what’s wrong with that picture?

The final selection I want to include offers hope. Hammad writes, “thank you to the woman who saw me brinking my cool and blinking back tears. she opened her arms before she asked, ‘Do you want a hug?’ A big white woman, and her embrace was the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer… There is death here, and there are promises of more. there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting, but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has arisen. affirm life. affirm life” (Harvey and Goff, 532-533).

These are powerful statements. In the first part of the selection, a white woman shows how comforting and welcoming people can be, despite widespread suspicion and hatred. Sometimes people just need a little kindness. The second half of the quote shows that even though we as a nation were hurting, and Muslims in particular were feeling ostracized, we were (and currently are) all still breathing. That means that we are alive. We must “look for peace and justice” and “affirm life.”

Now, how can we do that? Does that mean we have to let anyone come into our country without being careful? I don’t know. I think it means that we need to start seeing this number of 10,000 refugees as more than just a huge number, and as more than a potential for terrorism. There are living, breathing people that are fleeing a war-torn world. I don’t know the logistics that are involved with “vetting” these refugees nor do I know how they will acclimate to life in the United States. What I do know is that we need to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of our past. Just 15 years ago, we turned our backs on many Muslims in this country because they “looked like the terrorists.” We ought to be so ashamed of this past that we are vigilant to not repeat the process. Not all refugees are potential terrorists. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will be able to “affirm life.”

Midweek Blog, “The Last Days Are at Hand:” The Epistle of Barnabas and Reading the Signs of the Times

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In continuing my series on the Apostolic Fathers, I wanted to examine the Epistle of Barnabas today. My reason for doing so lies within many of the comments I have read online and even heard from some individuals regarding the United States today. I want to preface this by saying that this blog will not get into the recent debates regarding the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage a few weeks ago (I find that such debates belong in a more philosophy- or theology-centric blog); however, the ruling has been one of the main catalysts for individuals clamoring that the end of days must be at hand. At this point, I want to jump into the Epistle of Barnabas.

Barnabas reads:

“We must therefore investigate the present circumstances very carefully and seek out the things that are able to save us. Let us avoid, therefore, absolutely all the works of lawlessness lest the works of lawlessness overpower us, and let us hate the deception of the present age, so that we may be loved in the age to come… The last stumbling block is at hand, concerning what the scriptures speak.” (Barnabas 4:1-3)

And further:

“Consequently, let us be on guard in these last days, for the whole time of our faith will do us no good unless now, in the age of lawlessness, we also resist, as befits God’s children, the coming stumbling blocks.” (4:10)

As we did last week, I want to pause to note that the original intent and flavor of such commentary on the world around the author was likely rhetorical in order to inspire direct action. Barnabas was probably written sometime between 70-135 AD (Holmes 373), and contains a general anti-Jewish tone throughout. Israel often serves as a negative example, such as their tendency of reading Mosaic laws too literally, instead of an allegorical understanding of the laws’ true, spiritual message (Barnabas 10). As the author’s purpose is to invoke action by Christians in the present age, one must read the above passages from chapter four as a rhetorical device designed to inspire Christian piety in their lives.

To pull a 180, there have been many people throughout American Church History who have claimed intimate knowledge of when the end of the world would come. Heck, Y2K inspired a number of groups to wait for the end times on a mountaintop, or in Jerusalem, for a front-row seat to the apocalypse. Even today many people will point to social or political events in order to show that “the end is nigh.” I think that some people may have called Barack Obama the antichrist a time or two. The most recent apocalypse-inspiring event has been the SCOTUS’s legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states. Some have decided that this will be what finally causes Christ to return to earth.

The reason I am making the connection between those who claim the end of the world is upon us and the Epistle of Barnabas is twofold. First, the idea that a text written in the first two centuries AD (almost 2,000 years ago) taught its audience that they were living in the last days should serve as proof that no one has any idea when the end of the world is actually going to happen (so how about we stop trying to figure it out?).

The second reason is more nuanced. I wonder what someone who today claims that the end of the world is coming actually wants to accomplish by such rhetoric. Does that person want to inspire his or her own community toward a more righteous way of life (as Barnabas did)? Or is their message intended to scare others into joining their ranks/ aligning with their ideology? Do people who are currently claiming that the USA is “beyond saving” really want it to be saved? Or would they rather the USA just align with their message and teaching?

In closing, I feel like the type of people who are so focused on the end of days often miss out opportunities to serve the world around them. Instead of seeing some event as “the sign that Christ is returning soon,” why not try to lovingly minister to those with whom one disagrees? If one’s goal is truly that people will hear the Gospel, why the fear-mongering? Why not action that speaks a loving message into the hearts of those around you? I would argue that much of Barnabas has an ax to grind (particularly against Jews). As a historian, I do like how it is an early example of a more allegorical interpretation of scripture and shows how that exegetical method developed. Yet, I wonder how Jews would have responded to such a work. I conclude with one final question: Do people claiming the “end is nigh” ever wonder what impact their message has on people? As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.

Midweek Blog: The Shepherd of Hermas and the Burning of Black Churches

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(Photo courtesy CNN.com)

I missed blogging last week because I was travelling to Washington DC to see my oldest nephew become a Bar Mitzvah. It was a great time of celebration and seeing family. Now that I am back, I want to pick up my series on the Apostolic Fathers by exploring a small passage from The Shepherd of Hermas. It is one of the more interesting books of the Apostolic Fathers (and certainly the longest). There are many elements and passages from Hermas that I could focus on (and I will probably do at least one more blog from this intriguing book), but the passage I want to highlight today will serve a discussion on current events.

The work is probably from several periods with certain sections arising at various points from the late first to the middle of the second century (Holmes, 447). The passage I want to underline today is from chapters 9 and 10. Hermas, goes up to a field accompanied by an elderly woman who will show him “what you must see” (9:2). Hermas sees an ivory couch (9:4) and is instructed by the woman to sit on the couch (9:8), but he is prevented from sitting on the right side and instead told that he must sit on the left (9:9). Hermas is not a fan of being told to sit on the left and the woman notices. She responds, which leads us to the main section that I want to focus on:

“”The place on the right side is for others, who have already pleased God and have suffered for the sake of the Name. But you fall short of sitting with them. But persevere in your sincerity, as you are now doing, and you will sit with them, as will all who do what they have done and endure what they have endured.’ (9:9)

“‘What,’ I asked, ‘have they endured?’ ‘Listen,’ she said: ‘scourgings, imprisonments, severe persecutions, crosses, wild beasts, for the sake of the Name. This is why the right side of holiness belongs to them, and to anyone who suffers because of the Name. The left side belongs to the rest. But to both, to those sitting on the right and to those sitting on the left, belong the same gifts and the same promises; the only difference is the former sit on the right and have a certain glory.'” (10:1)

So, before I continue, I want to state that I know that this passage was written during a time when persecution of Christians was widespread and a very real possibility for most if not all Christians around the Roman Empire. The historical context of Hermas would suggest that the way we read the passage quoted above should center on persecutions in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

That said, I want to draw a link between this passage and a very alarming problem facing people in the United States right now: the rampant persecution of black Christians in this country. By now, I am sure you have heard of the shooting in Charleston at an AME Church Bible study two weeks ago. Nine people were killed in an awful hate crime. However, many people are just now hearing about the number of churches that have been burnt in the two weeks since Charleston. At least 6 predominantly black churches have suffered damage and destruction from fires in several states throughout the South, many of them suspected to be the work of arsonists. The latest, a church fire in South Carolina, is now believed to have been caused by a lightning strike, but the fact remains that black churches in the South are being targeted, attacked, and, often, destroyed.

This is where I want to draw the connection with the Shepherd of Hermas. We have seen above that Christians who have faced horrible suffering get a special place at the ivory couch in Hermas. Hermas himself is not allowed to sit on the right side of the couch because he had not undergone such trials. While the “promises and gifts” remain the same for both camps, there is a “certain glory” for those who have so suffered. I feel that many white Christians in the US (a group that I would put myself in as well) have literally no idea what our black brothers and sisters face today (and have faced over hundreds of years in this country). This happened during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and is still happening today. Often you hear phrases like “racism is over,” or “don’t play the race card,” to basically downplay the struggles of black men, women, and children. Such statements are most often uttered by white individuals. Racism affects black communities in many ways, and even houses of worship are being targeted.

I think that the most poignant part from the Hermas quote above comes when the elderly woman says, “persevere in your sincerity.” Christians must continue to be sincere with regard to the struggle of black Christians in this country. Engaging in endless debates about gun control and the confederate flag (although they can help enact real, positive changes) must not overshadow or ignore the more prevalent issue in this country: the continued racism and bigotry that black individuals face, even when they go to church. In order to drive home the point: how many of you knew about the problem of black churches being burnt in the South before the most recent “lightning strike incident?” It had not been discussed, it had been overshadowed, and isn’t that part of the problem?