Never Lose Sight: Putting One Foot In Front of the Next

It literally pains me when I hear people take cheap shots at poor black people. Recently, I had a conversation in which someone did just that. The most troubling part is that 9 out 10 times when I have such encounters, the person offering such a diatribe is a white, middle class, person that lives, moves, and breathes purely in dominant culture. They have never lived in poor black neighborhoods and they certainly do not have significant relationships with poor black people.  Yet somehow this doesn’t appear as the slightest barrier for those who want to verbally abuse the most vulnerable citizens of this land. Apparently, actual 1st hand knowledge or experience isn’t a prerequisite for being an expert on black people’s problems. Stereotypes from media are apparently sufficient. Besides, poor black people are easy targets, people can say what they want, often have a laugh at their expense, and there will be no social consequences for such action. Poor black people have no champion to defend them socially or politically.

When I was growing up my family scraped by with the bare necessities but there was never a short supply of love. By High School, my family had clearly crossed over firmly into the black middle class. We moved to the burbs and I attended a middle class suburban high school from grades 10-12. Since college, I have been living in black neighborhoods (1st in Harrisburg, PA, then in Philly) comprised of mostly poor and working class families. However, my own family is most certainly middle class. Everyday I live with the realities that come with being a young black male. The fear, the stereotypes, the clutched purses, and the always present and perpetual threat of being suspected for the crime of being black at the wrong time or place, that is when cops are looking for any black body to fit their description. Being black is draining. Blackness still continues to be described pejoratively in America. To be a black american is to constantly have to tell yourself that you are somebody, that you are made in the image of God, that you are creative, and intelligent. To not do so will result in being drowned in the negative words that dominant culture has to say about your existence and ‘your kind’.

Yet, I don’t even have to deal with where my next meal is coming from, or the stigma of not having a college degree while searching for a job (God forbid you have a conviction, because there are almost no options for you when you are black). I have healthcare, food, housing, transportation, and a reliable and livable income. And in a couple years I will have a PhD, which will make me extremely privileged educationally speaking, within the black community. Blackness by itself is tiring enough, but to be poor and black is a burden I honestly can only sympathize with at this point (rather than empathize with) as  my neighbors share with me their struggles to find work and provide for their family. And yet, it is precisely poor black families that are often the most popular targets of the media and the middle class. Through vitriol and stereotype, they get blasted 24/7 for every aspect of their lives. They are the scapegoats of America, who will champion them?

And yet what is amazing, and surely a sign that there is a God in the world, is that many black folk courageously get up each morning  (and have done so for 400 years of oppression) with a renewed determination to keep going. They lift their heads, get up, put one foot in front of the next and continue to struggle and believe for better. Folks create out of nothing, stretch little into much, hustle, grind, and make due with scraps. Can some families do better in this area or that? Sure, which family couldn’t? Cause most folks who blast poor black folk need to look in the mirror at the log in their eye, rather than worrying about the spec in someone else’s. Some people’s dysfunction is just hidden behind middle class suburban-home walls and are not the topic of discussion for American consumption, but I know that the vanilla suburbs is full of drama and strife (remember, I lived in a mostly white middle class suburb for 3 years in high school!). So, maybe it’s time to stop scapegoating the most vulnerable among us, because there is one person that is a champion for the poor and oppressed, and his name is Jesus, and he doesn’t take kindly to those that would trample over the vulnerable.

“As all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. They will receive a more severe punishment.”” (NET, Luke 20:45-47)

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Are We Celebrating Easter Right?

For Easter, many preachers will get into their pulpits and tell their congregations that the appropriate response to Jesus’ death and resurrection is gratitude. We must be thankful for forgiveness (for our individual sins), we must be thankful for assurance (meaning it doesn’t matter how we live), and we must be thankful for salvation (which is interpreted as our ticket to heaven).  While I certainly believe in our being grateful for what Jesus’ death and resurrection offers humanity, is that really the primary response that God is looking for. The next paragraph is probably not for you if you prioritize the ‘Sunday School’ answer over Jesus’ straightforward and clear teaching. (Can’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Contrary to popular opinion, the primary response in scripture to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is not gratitude (although we should certainly be grateful) but it is imitation. Jesus, over and over again, invited those around him to follow him and imitate his way of life which inevitably leads to crucifixion (aka being crushed by hegemony and power). Jesus’ primary call to become his follower has always been about taking up the cross. This is primarily an ‘opting out’ of the worlds way of being and doing. Opting out of its violence, oppression, greed, apathy, selfishness and then ‘opting in’ to God’s kingdom of  servanthood, jubilee justice, holistic peace, forgiveness (of others sins and financial debts), and a courageous love not known by this world. Imitating the Way of Christ, in direct confrontation with this world, even to the point of death is what we have been called to as disciples of Jesus.

So as we celebrate Easter and the Resurrection of our Lord, let it not be a comfortable and complacent remembering, but may that memory of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection inspire and invigorate us to participate in the New Humanity and the New Way Jesus has provided for us.

How to Follow Jesus and Love Our Neighbors Without Voting (Guest Post by Samantha E. Lioi)

(I am thankful to have a guest post by a new friend, Samantha Lioi. Things like Justice, Peace, and Community, are not just ideals to hold for her, but are integral parts of her life. I thought it would be helpful to have a countering perspective to the model I presented earlier, for which I have not completely sold myself on nonetheless. I’m thankful for my sister’s radical and anti-imperial witness in the midst of complacent and comfortable approach to politics. Enjoy! – Drew)

“Love does not enter into competition, and therefore it cannot be defeated.” Karl Barth[1]

 

The acts of love we must undertake as disciples of Jesus, the risen Christ, are much riskier than voting.  Using our voices—our real-time, audible voices—and standing with our bodies in the way of injustice (for ex., standing with someone at an immigration hearing, sitting with a family whose son was arrested on false charges, walking with a community whose right to exist is threatened by neighbors or armed corporations) is much different from thinking of voting as voice.  If we consider our vote to carry our voice, we must consider whether voting functions this way for members of society whose voices are routinely set aside or completely unheard.

 

I’m grateful for the written voice of my friend Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, whose family immigrated to New York City when she was in grade school and who is a naturalized citizen of the United States.  In explaining her choice as a black woman not to vote, she questions this idea of voting-as-voice, and points to what I find to be a compelling trend from the Civil Rights era.  “Between 1955 an 1977, acts of civil disobedience decreased, and the number of black registered voters and elected officials increased. In this period, legislation favorable to blacks also decreased, and economic positions of black people deteriorated.”[2]  It may be that direct action involving physical risk is much more effective in moving lawmakers toward justice than electing a representative we believe will enact justice or attempting to direct current lawmakers through our votes.

 

It is important for Christians to ask the practical question, “What actions and collaborations with God and others will contribute to increased well-being for the weakest, most at-risk members of our society?”  It is equally important for us to realize this is a question about how we use our power, and when Christians think of power, we should think of the upside-down, unreasonable power of the cross and resurrection.  We are easily seduced by our belief in our ability to make things happen.  I do not want to dismiss effectiveness; however, I do want to remind us that the cross did not appear anything close to effective as a way of bringing deliverance to the Jewish people.  It was, quite obviously to all onlookers at the time, a defeat—a shameful, final defeat, the kind from which people turn away their faces.  I know you know this.  But we are human and we forget.  This is the Gospel we proclaim; this shameful, strange, violent death and the equally shocking rising of Jesus is, for his followers, the undeniable picture of our God, the God who dies in human flesh and the God who breathes life in places of death.  And voting for President of the United States of America, a participation in choosing who will have the highest seat of power in our government, does not immediately appear relevant to the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  It is often a way of claiming power over those with whom we are at odds (including other Christians), and it is a turning over of our power to someone more influential, to someone higher up.  Jesus surrendered his power only to the One who sent him, and drew his healing power from this One, and we are to imitate this way of living.

 

I have heard some say they fear that if we don’t vote, we who are most privileged (and I include myself in that category—in terms of racialized identity, education and access to financial resources) will disengage, because more often than not, our lives are not significantly affected by changes in the Oval Office.  But apathy and complacency among those most comfortable is a constant problem in every society, and as I observe our behaviors, voting does not address this problem.  We privileged one’s vote and feel we have done our duty.  Having voted for a man we believe will best support the nation’s common good, we can then disengage from the day-to-day struggles and lives of people who lack the social, financial, and cultural padding we enjoy.  If we take time at all to struggle with the questions around voting, perhaps we will choose to act, showing up in the flesh to work for widespread well-being.

 

Still, I admit it is sometimes true that getting certain people into office helps the immediate cause of vulnerable people.  And I have deep respect for those who choose to vote because their daily, direct work with vulnerable people makes it impossible for them to imagine not voting—especially when those vulnerable people—because of legal status or other barriers—have no possibility of voting themselves.  In cases like this, I understand that voting feels like the action with the most integrity, and there is a sense of acting on behalf of specific people, friends, with faces and stories one knows like one’s own.  At the same time, let us also admit that this situation and this amount of thoughtful deliberation is not descriptive of most U.S. Christians or their reasons for voting.

 

Whether we choose to vote or not, as the people of God we do not arrange our lives around the timetables of elections but around God’s year-round actions of reconciling love, remembered in the story of the Divine taking on flesh, growing up as an ordinary child, teaching, healing, dying, rising, and sending the Holy Spirit.  Nor do the decisions of elected officials limit the boundless plenty of the Creator, from whose open hand the desires of every living thing are satisfied.  Whenever and wherever the needs of God’s creatures are not filled, it is ours to partner with this ever-creating God to see that the plenty is justly shared.  This partnership is not dependent on voting or upon any other human institution, including church institutions.

 

The acts of love we must undertake are much more costly than voting.  Let us encourage one another in the risky, full-bodied love of the Risen One.


[1]              Quoted as an epigram in Lewis, Ted. Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting (Eugene, Ore: Cascade Books, 2008).

[2]              Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, “Freedom of Voice: Non-Voting and the Political Imagination,” in Lewis, Electing Not to Vote, 36, emphasis mine.

Politics of Poor Plight and Prophetic Priorities: A Brief Response to Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney recently made an interesting comment about his lack of concern for poor people. According to him, we need not care about poor people because America has a safety net. Rather, he is concerned with America’s middle class because they are the ones who are struggling. Yes, that’s right, the people with more resources than poor people are the ones who are hurting most in this economy, according to Mitt’s logic.

While I am thankful that we do have a safety net in America, considering the thousands who have died from the famine in the Horn of Africa in the past year, I can not fathom how one could argue that poor people are doing well in America and the middle class is the group suffering most. This is so ridiculous that I won’t spend any more on that point.

However, as a Black Anabaptist Christian shaped by the Israelite scriptures and it’s fulfillment in the person of Jesus, I have particular priorities that shape my own ethics/politics. My Jubilee-Shalom-Kingdom of God politics must always prioritize “the least of these” among us, to not do so would be to disregard God’s  intervention and revelation in the world, particularly the Bible. The Bible clearly keeps watch of, defends, and centralizes the concerns of poor people throughout the entire narrative. To be in continuity with the God of scripture, and specifically Jesus the Crucified One, we must embrace the same ethics concerning poverty that is consistently woven throughout scripture. It compels us to embody Jesus’ story now in our own contexts. A faithful reading of scripture demands from us particular prophetic priorities to enact if we are to claim to be Christian (Christ-like), and they are not really optional. One of those ethical priorities is our care, sacrifice, and provision for the poor. To state that you do not care for poor people is to reject the Israelite narrative and ultimately to reject Jesus, that is assuming we can not slice him up and then choose which parts we like and which we do not like as if Jesus were a buffet line.

Sorry Mitt, but you have absolutely no credibility with me. (Neither do any of the other candidates, so please don’t take this as an endorsement for anyone). Finally, let me make myself clear by stating that as far as I am concerned, both major political parties in America are off the mark when it comes to the issue of poverty. One party (in my eyes) is aggressively against poor people, and the other (again from my perspective) pays lip service and offers a few minimal government programs, however each fall drastically short of the Jubilee paradigm from the Old Testament that Jesus continues to echo in his own ministry. As Christians, our ethics and political priorities ought not be confined to the arguments of the day between two imperial political parties, but ought to begin and end with theological vision rooted deeply in scripture and particularly in Jesus the Christ, as they are manifested in love for God and others.

Here is a tiny fraction of the biblical passages that remind us that we ought to prioritize the poor as a part of our Christian ethics and witness.

Psalms 82:3 “Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!”

James 2:5-8 “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

Dueteronomy 15:11 “There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.”

Proverbs 14:31 “The one who oppresses the poor insults his Creator, but whoever shows favor to the needy honors him.”

Luke 6:20 “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.”

Ezekiel 16:49  “‘See here – this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy.”

Galatians 2:10 “They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do.”

1 John 3:17 “But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow brother in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?”

11/11/11

In the 11th book of the Bible (1 Kings), in the 11th chapter, at verse 11, you find the following verse.

“So the Lord said to Solomon, “Because you insist on doing these things and have not kept the covenantal rules I gave you,t I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant.” (NET)

Solomon has hoarded wealth and has turned away from faithfully following God, instead worshiping the idols of his foreign wives. Here at 11/11/11 in the Bible we find God explicitly stating that this break in covenant will result in the losing the inheritance and legacy of the kingdom and throne.

Throughout the Bible two reoccurring themes that jump out and off the page is God’s impatience for those who participate in idolatry and injustice. Want to see God angry… according to the tradition of scripture, all you need to do is participate in idolatry and/or injustice and it will come to fruition.

11/11/11 only comes around every 100 years. It could be a great time to evaluate our relationship with God and our concern for the marginalized. For in this reminder, we may save ourselves from exclusion from Christ’s Kingdom and Table.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Hope you enjoyed the interesting rendition of King’s famous Mountaintop speech given the day before his assassination. As it is often said, while may don’t have work or school today, let it be a day on rather than a day off.  A day on of service, compassion, love, and sacrifice for your fellow neighbor, as we reflect the significance of King’s prophetic life.

Joining God’s Activity

Exodus 6:6-8 “Therefore, tell the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I will bring you out from your enslavement to the Egyptians, I will rescue you from the hard labor they impose, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you to myself for a people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from your enslavement to the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob – and I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord!’”

 

This passage is a great illustration not only of what God has done for the Israelite community, but representative of who God is and how he has actively worked throughout history on behalf of all humanity. God has been actively intervening in creation, taking and choosing sides, always favoring the weak. In these verses we see that he has been revealing himself as the One True God, liberating and redeeming the oppressed and enslaved, forming lasting covenant relationships, and journeying with his people all the way to the Promised Land.

Let us turn not only our eyes but our loyalty to the LORD, joining him in his liberating activity. Let us take note of how God has worked and is working so that we may align ourselves in continuity with the very work of God in our communities and neighborhoods.

 

 

A Child is Born

We don’t know exactly what Jesus looked like, in the Occident most portrayals of Jesus are blond haired and blue eyed. Some scholars are describing him as Afro-Asiatic in descent given his background, geography, and the common ethnic mixing of that particular time. While we don’t know exactly what he looked like, I always appreciate various African and Black expressions of Jesus.  While many are offended by such pictures (while never giving a second thought to European depictions of Jesus), I think it is important for those who have been oppressed (socially and psychologically) to be able to identify with the God who came down and incarnated to identify with us.  It is not a visual message of colonial oppression, power, and dominance, but rather of liberation, empowerment, redemption, solidarity, and love.

Granny Chen (Great Grandmother past away).

My Great Grandmother past away yesterday at the full age of 103 years old.  She was blessed to keep her mind together basically for her entire life, which is often rare these days for those who have the privilege of living that long. The picture below was taken during her big 100th birthday a few years back, with all the (blood-line) fellas who are children and grandchildren of my grandfather, Granny Chen’s son (there are others, but these are who could make it out).

During her party, she actually took sometime to speak to everyone, I wish I could remember everything that was said, but basically she reminded us of who we are, as well as to remind us of our Rock (Jesus the Christ) who we ought not let go of.  I imagine after living a long life like that (over a century) you have a particular vantage point, especially as you see all the various families that have sprung up. Yet that was the message she wanted to pass on the next generations.  The things she has seen, I can not imagine. But now, we are believing that she is at REST. Love ya Granny Chen!