Injustice Requires Interruption–why Protestors needed to be on Michigan Ave

“Some of the most important moments in your ministry will happen in the interruptions,” a professor told me while I was in my first week of seminary. As I walked down Michigan Ave, speeding to keep up with the 15-year-old from my church, I wished I could say this to the shoppers around me.

Today, let yourself be interrupted. By God, let yourself be interrupted. I understand white Christians who are reluctant to take to the streets in protest–but I do not understand white Christians who justify the police’s murder of Laquan McDonald and find black anger “disruptive.” Injustice should be disruptive. Continue reading

Police Brutality and Christian Pacifist Silence

When it comes right down to it, Anabaptist Christians can never justify siding with the police over a civilian. We are pacifist. It is a fundamental tenet of our faith that there is always an alternative to violence and that, as people of faith, we ought to seek it. When it comes to police ethics, we begin with a hermeneutic of suspicion. That is, theologically–as pacifists–it is in our outlook to approach every officer-involved shooting with a healthy skepticism to doubt whether the officer was justified. If what we know of the situation is that the officer used a gun, it is morally consistent for us to assume the officer should not have.

If, in reading a media report, we ever find ourselves sympathizing with a shooter–whether it is a documented fanatic or an officer of the state–at that point, we ought to reexamine our assumptions. If you find yourself wanting to sympathize with law enforcement consistently, you ought to consider retiring your pacifist card and joining a different tradition. Continue reading

‘When I think about Sandy, I think about Jesus’

“This is not a protest. It is a demonstration of faith.” From the moment we arrived at DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church, the focus was not just on Sandra Bland but on the God who had created Sandra and saw the injustice that led to her death. The church where Sandy attended for almost two decades found itself mourning under the spotlight of the media and hype of what has been a long, long year of mourning, since Michael Brown died in Ferguson last summer. When Rev. James Miller stepped into the semi-circle to address his grieving congregation, the video cameras said “Speak into the mic, please. Will you say your first and last name and spell it out?”

James Miller reminds the media to look at God, not him.

James Miller reminds the media to look at God, not him.

Rev. Miller refused. He was not at a media circus. He was at church, at home, the second home of African American culture, and this house did not change its rules because the cameras were rolling. Hundreds of people gathered around the courtyard of the church, spilling into the parking lot. It was hot. Humid, the way July is supposed to be. All the women in their best church dresses, all the men in suits. The ushers didn’t even take off their white cotton gloves. Church is church, even when grief lands in your backyard. Continue reading

Tell Me about your First World Problems. No For Real, Tell Me.

I didn’t used to mind the phrase “First World Problems.” I agree, the fact that they’re out of gingerbread donuts is a shallow thing to get upset about. It is, as Urban Dictionary defines the term, “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.”

I see what you mean.

I see what you mean.

A poet friend of mine hates the phrase. He finds it hollow and reductive. The more we argue about it, the more he convinces me. “First World Problems” is part of the vocabulary of cynicism. Like “stuff white people like” or hipster racism, the phrase is fueled by the neoliberal armchair activist. It’s a language that owns privilege while disowning personal participation in social change. It’s defensive speech. By calling my frappuchino a “thing white people like,” I preempt the dialogue, so that I can’t be accused of being “racist” because I’ve already admitted my own self-awareness. Or by calling NPR a “thing for white people,” I assume people of color won’t–can’t be–interested in the same things I am. Continue reading

“Amazing Grace” and Other Must-Knows for #blacklivesmatter Marches

“Greet the people next to you. That’s how we’re going to dismantle this racist system.” This is how our protest started. For those who have been wondering what it means to march for #shutitdown or #blacklivesmatter or other phrases without hashtags; for those who see the description “largely peaceful”–this is what “largely peaceful” means. It means you begin by finding a friend and promising to lookout for their well-being for the next three hours.

I’m going to give you the takeaway up front: these marches are a theological statement. The church–especially the black church–is so woven into these marches that they are a theological act. When we talk about “creative nonviolence,” it’s not sitting in an office writing books and praying. It’s getting into the streets and introducing yourself to a stranger. Continue reading

Violence and Non: Police Brutality and the Pacifists

“The black experience is the feeling one has when attacking the enemy of black humanity by throwing a Molotov cocktail into a white-owned building and watching it go up in flames. We know, of course, that getting rid of evil takes something more than burning down buildings, but one must start somewhere.”
-James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

When I saw the images of violence in Ferguson, especially the photo from August of black men gathering to light a Molotov cocktail, I thought of James Cone’s quote above (note: I couldn’t find a photo credit for the image; if you can source it, let me know). I read James Cone as a 17-year-old, in a Liberation Theology course taught by a pacifist professor at a pacifist college. I remember the quote now because we were shocked as students–who the hell says “burning buildings feels good, but let’s do more”? I believe in nonviolence, still. I pastor at a Mennonite Church, a historic peace tradition that has always claimed pacifism. But I wondered, as I turned over the image and the quote in my mind: What can I, as a pacifist, say about violence in Ferguson? Continue reading

Defining Racism

My post the other day was a little… provocative. I was pleasantly surprised, the comments (on the post and in social media) were largely thoughtful. I agree with many: racism is more spectrum than category; flowcharts privilege the binary and the binary is bullshit; my focus on black-white race relations is also a binary; race relations is a problematic term anyway; and plus, it’s rude and polarizing to call someone racist.

This last one I agree with less. In the circles I run in–this is at least partly generational–“racist” isn’t an pejorative term. It doesn’t connote the KKK as much as the flaws we all have: “hey, that’s racist, please check yourself.” So I apologize to those who took “racist” as an insult. It’s not. It is bad to be racist, but it’s also honest to be racist. Again: only once you admit the problem can you begin solving it. So let’s roll back a couple steps and define “racist.” I’m going to use a story about white/black, because that’s my own experience. Continue reading

Is Your Church Racist?

This Sunday, one of the freshmen in the youth group asked, “Is our church racist?” I wasn’t sure how to respond–you don’t want to tell a 14-year-old everyone who has raised her is racist, unless you’re really, really convinced that it’s true. (Luckily, I didn’t have to say anything, because I work with excellent co-teachers who are quick on their feet.)

But. Her question provoked me. There are lots of white churches. What makes a white church racist? So I made this handy flowchart.


Continue reading

Ferguson, the Rivers of Babylon, and Racism

In my congregation, there is mixed feeling about what happened in Ferguson. In my heart, there is not. I, as a young white adult who has lived in predominantly black communities, am absolutely convinced this has everything to do with racial inequality. I value the dissenting voices in my congregation, but since I have this space I want to explain how white voices (especially skeptical ones) can makes sense of the outcry following yesterday’s announcement.

Yesterday, the Grand Jury in Ferguson announced their decision not to indict the police offer who killed teenager Michael Brown in August. Two days ago, I finished a sermon series on the Psalms. But today I have one more Psalm, for Michael Brown. Continue reading