I often compare racism to pollution. It is created by humans, it negatively impacts every one of us, and because it has been around for so long, we have become comfortable with its existence: so comfortable that some would deny it is even here.
In their classic book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Christian sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith describe the American nation as a “racialized society.” They write:
“A racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. A racialized society can also be said to be ‘a society that allocates differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed.’”
God has given us ethnic and cultural differences, which are not for the purposes of division, yet that is the exact purpose of the social construct of race. Race is a defining part of our society—affecting basic things such as where we live, as well as educational achievement and financial prospects. The racializing of America’s society has a long and often neglected history. The idea of race as division was the seed planted in America’s soil which birthed the trees that bore the fruit of racism. This fruit is tilled, fertilized, and replanted throughout generations, until we look up one day to realize that there is a whole forest around us with tall trees entrapping us all, making it hard to see the light.
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I have a dear friend in North Carolina who, like, me has committed herself to the work of reconciliation and racial justice. She does this in her personal life with the friendships that she cultivates. And she does this through her faithful commitment and work as a minority member of a multiethnic church.
This weekend, this beautiful black woman took to the streets to march in a peaceful protest calling for justice in America’s lynching of George Floyd. This is fresh on the heels of the state’s murder of Breonna Taylor, and the white supremacists murder of Ahmaud Arbery. All of these black bodies disposed, not as isolated incidents by a few people who are racist and acting anti-American, but as a result of America’s systemic oppression, the subconscious belief that black people are a threat and less than human, and that black bodies are not worthy of dignity, love, freedom, or respect. So, my friend marched like our ancestors in the streets to join in a community that is trying to make sense of how this can still be happening in our land in 2020.
She did not march alone. She wore a mask that stated, “Stop killing us!” and she took her vulnerable, “beautiful-brilliant, #blackboy” with her. He asked, “If Jesus is Almighty, why doesn’t He just stop the suffering all over the world?” I know her heart broke, and my heart aches for her and for him, and for all the black and brown children who are watching.
Make no mistake, our children are watching and when the world around them doesn’t make sense, they begin crafting their own stories to make sense of it all. Perhaps they start to believe the lies that their lives do not matter. Perhaps they will decide on this day that violence is the answer, because innocent and nonviolent black people are regularly murdered by the state with impunity too. Perhaps they will decide to chart another course, but will lack the confidence to do so because they do not have the tools. Perhaps we can use this moment as an opportunity to confess, lament, and tell the children and ourselves the truth. We need to do this in the country, and we also must do it in the white American and evangelical church.
Unfortunately, too many of our white pastors and church leaders lack the knowledge, historical context, training, experience, or personal relationships to do this important and necessary analysis. There is no way to do all of that here in one blog post. But I will share briefly some theological, historical, and social blind spots that some Christian leaders miss, which renders them impotent to respond theologically to the social concerns of an oppressed people.
Why Our Theology and Teaching Matters
One of my last speaking engagements this year as at a private Christian school, and it gave me the opportunity to lecture high school students in their philosophy classes. They read an excerpt from my book, Mentor for Life, where I wrote, “Learning to embrace differences and welcome diverse relationships into our lives is important for our spiritual formation. People who are different from us will make us uncomfortable and challenge us. This is cause for humility. Hopefully, these encounters will help us listen better, see more clearly, and become more compassionate.” So, the administration asked me to lecture on “Christian Unity in the midst of Political Divides.”
It wasn’t a seminary course, but I needed to lay a quick, yet solid spiritual foundation to address our physical realities. One of the questions that I asked was, “Why did Jesus go to the cross?” With very few exceptions, I got the typical (and accurate) responses about salvation of humans and the world, and some basic communication about the doctrine of atonement. However, very few students communicated that Jesus was unjustly murdered by the state for the political charge of treason.
The Jewish leaders were concerned about Jesus’ claim to divinity, but the government leaders were concerned about his claim of kingship in a kingdom that already had a king. This was an act of treason against Caesar (John 19:12, Luke 23:3), and treason is a crime that is punishable by death. That death must be violent, and it must be public. The punishment is psychological warfare; it invokes fear, and it inflicts trauma as a warning so no one else would dare do the same thing. Now more than ever, I believe that Christians, especially our leaders and pastors, need a good kingdom theology. This is what is missing from our Bible studies, small group discussions, Christian education, and our pulpits, and that’s why folks don’t have an answer to the question, “Where is God?”
I told my friend and her beautiful black boy that Jesus is suffering with us.
The writer of Hebrews records:
We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin (Heb. 4:15-16 NIV).
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was tempted to pass on the suffering of the cross, but he did not. The prophet Isaiah wrote of him that:
He was despised and rejected by humankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem…He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter…so he did not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:3, 7 NIV).
So just as black bodies lift their hands up and stretch their fingertips to the sky while yelling, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Jesus stretched his arms wide, and said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).”
In the same way that we say, “I Can’t Breath;” Jesus said, “It is finished (John 19:30).”
In the same way that Jesus asked his Father, “Why have you forsaken me (Matt. 27:46),” my friend’s black son, and so many black and brown people like him are asking God to make this suffering stop!
I’m just taking a moment today to write for my friend, her son, and black people everywhere to remind you that:
Jesus knows what it’s like to be falsely accused, and criminally charged for something that you did not do.
Jesus understands the character and smear campaign.
Jesus experienced murder by the state and had his body exposed for all to see.
Jesus knows what it’s like to stand against the oppressive kingdoms of this world, because his kingdom is not of this world.
Jesus understands that the legacy of his eternal kingdom will include humans from every tribe, language, nation, and people group. And those that God has invited in, no one can keep out!
So, we march for this kingdom. We cry, lament, and long for this kingdom. We must preach and proclaim this kingdom. This kingdom is at war; it is in conflict with the established kingdoms, principalities and powers of this world. It is in conflict with anyone and anything that does not submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ. This is the kingdom where we must pledge our alliance to, because only this kingdom will stand.
I have a love/hate relationship with social media.
I love that I can use the tool to connect with a diverse group of people from all over the world. I love that I can learn and be challenged by them, and offer unfiltered communication, knowledge, and inspiration. I love that I can get different perspectives and see the most beautiful pictures of places that I have never been and experiences that I have never had. I love that it is mostly free.
I hate that just because people have access to use these tools, their “followers” assume they are experts on an issue. I hate that some folks can’t seem to distinguish between facts and opinion, or they incorrectly assume that both have the same weight. I hate that our culture has conditioned us to believe that online “followers” has anything to do with a person’s value, importance, or contributions to this world.
Influencing the culture and using social media has its place in our society. Beyoncé is probably the greatest entertainer of my generation. She has a fierce beehive following. I’m amazed by how quickly her fans gather, buzz around, and come to her defense. She has offered us great art that is sometimes connected to political advocacy, and she has inspired—and some would say empowered—generations of women. Yet, the reality is that many in her hive don’t know her, have never physically touched or come into close proximity with her. She is an influencer, but she is not their mentor.
On the other hand, there are plenty people of great character who are doing the humble, yet important tasks, of going to work every day, loving their friends and family, and faithfully investing in their communities year after year. They are respected among the people who know and love them. They become reliable, trusted, and steady hands while learning, teaching, and investing right where they are. These people may have influence over a smaller flock; they may or may not be on social media, yet they often make excellent mentors.
People place ridiculous expectations on cultural influencers, and some of that is a direct result of the cultural influencers’ own rules of life, along with the toxicity of deceptive practices, creating illusions, and having poor boundaries. I know that it takes 30 or more shots to get a near perfect image on Instagram, and minutes can quickly turn into hours when debating with folks on Twitter. As a leader and mentor, I don’t have that type of time to waste. Instead of taking 30 minutes to get the right Instagram shot, I can be praying or doing yoga. Instead of debating and having conversations with random people on Twitter, I can be having deep conversations with my real friends, mentors, mentees, my spouse, or my daughter.
I mean think about it, people who are effectively leading organizations don’t have time to tweet all day. So, most influencers have a team around them doing the work of creating the illusions of perfection and simplicity (this looks easy), while inviting their “followers” into the most intimate parts of their lives (or so we assume). We sometimes forget that reality television is scripted, and for most cultural influences, their social media is scripted in the same way.
What does all of this say about us?
If we are honest, part of the draw towards cultural influencers is that we want to be like them. We want to live how they live, go where they go, and hang with their friends. We want their lives because we perceive that their lives are better. Beyond comparison, looking at them feeds an emptiness within ourselves. After all, if I can follow and talk about what somebody else is doing, then I don’t have to consider my own ways. I can stay distracted. There is no time to invest in my own life, relationships, or personal development.
When I think about cultural influencers, I often ask people to consider Janet Jackson’s words, “What have you done for me lately?” If you can speak clearly to that, great! If you can’t, then there is no reason at all to elevate culture influencers—many of whom are social media entertainers and marketing experts—as your mentor. By-in-large, these people are showing up on social media to sell products: their ideas, art, books, classes, etc. You can purchase those products to learn from them. Otherwise, we should not expect anything more.
If you want a true mentor, that often requires real physical relationship. Sometimes it requires a financial investment. Developing that relationship takes clarity, intentionality, time, and honesty from the real you and another human who cares enough to partner or invest in you.
This year, I officially launched my customized leadership coaching, consulting, and mentoring business. Some might think the influencer’s life is what they want. We look up to them because of their perceived success. To obtain clarity about their success and work along the way, however, each of those influencers have had coaches and mentors. An influencer may be what you want, but a mentor or coach is what you need. Get yourself a mentor.