In my last post on Urbana 2015, I shared my personal and pastoral reflections on the messages and seminars I heard at the conference. Then as I started this post, I realized that I needed to preface my comments with a primer on the relationship between justice and missions (part 1 and part 2) otherwise whatever I say here will appear random. Now we are back full circle as I share some ethical and theological notes on #Urbana15 held in St. Louis this past December 27-January 1.
|In front of the America’s Convention Center in St. Louis
where most of the Urbana 15 plenary sessions and seminars were held
Ethically, there was much ado raised over InterVarsity’s support of #blacklivesmatter at the Urbana 15 conference. Before I comment on the challenging messages by Michelle Higgins and Christena Cleveland, I simply want to say: how could InterVarsity not address #blacklivesmatter and especially in the context of what happened in the city of #Ferguson and the tragic death of 18-year-old #MichaelBrown? My son is 18… my heart just hurts for the family of Michael. Take a look at the map below.
|Ferguson is only 12 1/2 miles away from where #Urbana15 was
meeting (a 20min drive)… how could IV not address #blacklivesmatter
when its missions conference was so nearby?!
Ferguson is located in the suburbs just 12 1/2 miles northwest of where Urbana15 was being held. It would have been apathetic at best (and hypocritical at worst) for InterVarsity to hold a missions conference in St. Louis and not address the mission and suffering that was taking place in its immediate vicinity. I would even say it was InterVarsity’s moral imperative not to ignore what was happening in a locale only a 20-minute drive away.
I simply want to say here: Thank you InterVarsity for your courage, moral resolve, and prophetic commitment to engage in missions, including justice for the marginalized and persecuted, not just in hard-t0-reach nations worldwide but also here within our own North American borders and local neighborhoods. If not addressed, InterVarsity would have been like the priest and Levite who walked passed their beaten brother in Jesus’ famous parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Thank God they stopped and they challenged all of us to consider what we can do help our fallen neighbor.
Secondly, I wanted to name the evangelical angst around #blacklivesmatter, that is, “guilt by association.” Since there are a diverse number of groups that participate in the #blacklivesmatter marches, sit-in’s, and demonstrations, and some evangelicals are wary about being associated with the activities and message of said groups, there is a general reluctance by evangelicals to support and join in the protests. And while I understand the angst, I also think there is a lost opportunity. Let me illustrate.
My son recently participated in the Polar Peace March on a very frigid Chicago day to protest the growing violence happening in our city. The march took place over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. According to Zach, there were so many diverse groups, and he doubts that anyone thinks each of them held the same belief system or shared the same identity. They were united around a common cause, but among them were concerned neighbors, mainline denominational churches (especially the UCC), some evangelical Christians like my son, community leaders, and even high schoolers who came just to get their community hours checked off their graduation requirements (not the best reason, but just being honest here).
People who attend protests often understand that their fellow participants come from all walks of life, and that we all do not necessarily share the same identity as those around us. It is the cause that is rallying us together. And if evangelical Christians in large enough numbers join African American churches who march to end urban violence, our participation can win us some influence with the organizers on how we want things done to keep the demonstration both peaceful and prophetic. Would we not want our presence to have a sanctifying effect on the movement? Don’t we want to learn from our fellow participants and let God use them to bring us to a holy and sacred moment of repentance, transformation, and commitment?
Again I understand the angst around not wanting the gospel message to be misrepresented, but if we stay on the sidelines, won’t our inaction also misrepresent the gospel?
Finally, I want to offer some challenges to both the listeners (including myself) and the speakers (also including myself, but I obviously did not speak at Urbana though often I preach or teach in varied settings). To the listeners first, I would plead: let’s be thoughtful, compassionate, and self-critical when we hear something we don’t like from whomever God has annointed at the time to speak, always ready to hear the message, and slow to fault the messenger for not saying things perfectly. God help us if every prophet or preacher of the gospel has to use perfect words of eloquence and wisdom instead of depending on the Spirit’s power (1 Cor. 2:4).
Many people were offended by Michelle Higgin’s apparent slight of the anti-abortion movement among evangelical Christians. I myself am against abortion and support the church’s non-violent efforts to end its practice (barring exceptional circumstances). But the context of Michelle’s remarks was her spirited challenge to evangelical Christianity that there are approximately 300,000 Protestant churches in the United States, and if just a third of these churches would adopt one of 100,000 children who are in foster homes, Christians could wipe out the need for a foster-care system altogether.
It is an understatement to say that this was a good word from Michelle. I think her point, but not articulated clearly in the cadence of her quick admonitions to the church, was that Christians ought to campaign for the lives of foster-care kids as much as they picket the abortion clinics. Let’s do both. These are not competing missions.
It is therefore troubling for me to see how some listeners let one point (Michelle’s criticism of anti-abortion activism), probably articulated too succinctly and therefore prone to misunderstanding, derail them from heeding an otherwise powerful message about ministering to those who are in our proverbial backyard, neighborhoods, and local communities. Call it an ethics of listening to God’s word, but I never let the mistakes of the messenger stumble me from hearing the truth of the message.
But now to the speakers, and this is not exclusively directed to the speakers of Urbana15 but to anyone who identifies him or herself as an evangelical Christian and preaches on the pulpit, in the classroom, at a conference, or elsewhere. To them, I would also say: let’s be careful to watch both our words and our theology, so we don’t unnecessarily generate misunderstanding and leave ourselves vulnerable to the hurtful label “liberal.” Okay. I admit I just opened a can of worms. Let me see if I can reel them in one by one with the next couple of paragraphs.
Here, I will share anecdotally. When I was listening to Christena Cleveland talk about the study done by social psychologist Keith Payne, I lamented at hearing how Payne’s experiment showed: black men are far more likely to be identified as holding a gun (even though they were actuallying carrying a tool) during a split-second decision because people are generally socially conditioned to think of African American men as “dangerous” in a North American context. I thought: Really? No way? That is unjust. I would hate living in a country where instinctively, just because I was Asian, people thought I was dangerous and assumed the worst of me.
But as Christena continued and shared the message that the gospel means there is no longer ‘us’ and ‘them’ but just one family who does the will of God (Amen to that!), she also used the social trinity or the doctrine of perichoresis as a model for the unity of church. In my head, my mind was going: “yes! yes! yes!” and as soon as she mentioned the social trinity, I went “oooh… that’s not going to sit well with some.”
The social trinity – or pointing to the triune relationship of the Father, divine Son, and the Holy Spirit as a model for how the church can be united – is controversial to say the least. Many theologians in the Reformed tradition, for example, would argue against it and say that God is simply not One in the same way the members of the church can be one. To be honest, I would agree with the Reformed camp on this one, but that is a different story. My point would be that there are so many other biblical texts and doctrines on which a person could argue for the breaking down of barriers between people (e.g., Ephesians 2:14-16), why pick the doctrine that would push away many theologically-trained evangelical leaders who would see the social trinity as a red flag to… dare I say it… a “liberal” theology?
In one sense, this should not be an issue if the listener gave the speaker a greater charity. I, for example, thought: “Well, I’m not a fan of the social trinity, but I hear you Christena! Preach on! I’ll just think about Galatians 3:28-29 instead of turning to the social trinity as the basis for being one within the church.” But the reality is: evangelicals often shut out the message if they think the messenger is not orthodox or conservative enough.
As one who is academically trained, I get frustrated by this predilection to shut down and not give the speaker a greater benefit of the doubt. As a scholar of color, I get even more frustrated that orthodoxy is often defined by a Euro-American majority within evangelicalism. But I also feel the duty as a theological educator (still committed to American evangelicalism) not to let my frustration get the best of me.
I have to labor hard to create a safe space for those whose cultural location is different from mine so they can hear my story and consider my justice concerns. To do this, I have to anchor my message within an exegetical and theological framework appreciated by my dialogue partners. It’s much work and call me naive, but I still believe that most God-fearing Christians, if they can see the biblical basis for taking action, they will.