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.

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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?

The Trademark Revocation of the Washington Redskins and the Ensuing Debate

I want to deviate a bit from my usual posts about church history to step into the other arena that I love: sports. There was a bit of news today in the sports world. The US Patent Office canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark in another step toward changing the name. This comes on the heels of a powerful ad that aired during the NBA Finals the other night. I will simply link to that video here and let it speak for itself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mR-tbOxlhvE.

Today’s news provoked an interesting response on social media, and that is what I want this post to address. I have seen a few responses so far, mostly from sports fans/ sports talk radio hosts. Here are some quotes for you (with names removed): “I have read somewhere that most Native Americans are not offended.” “It’s only been since Obama became president because he always wants to stir up issues of race.” “Did you just wake up and figure out the team name? They’ve had it for years.” While you have to take internet comments and posts with a grain of salt, these attitudes should be unsettling for us.

I think that the back-and-forth over the last few years between Dan Snyder (the owner of the Washington Redskins) and Roger Goodell (the NFL Commissioner) has shown a resistance to change the team name largely due to financial reasons. While it is a lot of work to change the name of a team, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio went through this exact same thing in 1997. They changed their name and logo from the Redskins to the Redhawks in cooperation with the Miami Tribe.

The whole debate over today’s news saddens me. People are so concerned that the government is stepping into this issue that they are ignoring the problem. You also get the obligatory “everything is offensive/ bullying today” arguments. The fact remains that the word “Redskin” is a derogatory name for Native Americans. If I were a fan of that team, I would be conflicted about wearing a hat or shirt with that name on it. It’s past time to change the name. Champ Bailey, who played for Washington sums it up better than I can:

“When you hear a Native American say that ‘Redskins’ is degrading, it’s almost like the N-word for a black person,” Bailey told USA TODAY Sports. “If they feel that way, then it’s not right. They are part of this country. It’s degrading to a certain race. Does it make sense to have the name?” (full story here:  http://q.usatoday.com/2014/06/11/champ-bailey-controversial-redskins-name-like-n-word/)

I close by asking for your thoughts and comments on the issue, both from those who support keeping the name and those who think they should change it. It’s obvious where I am on this issue, but I welcome other positions.