A Public Faith(fulness)

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As Bob Trube noted in his blog entry yesterday, last Sunday he preached about the parable in Luke 18:1-8 that Jesus tells in order to encourage his disciples to be persistent in prayer—especially prayer for justice. Bob commented on recent events in which African American men were killed by white police officers and suggested that we not give up praying and acting for racial justice and reconciliation.

Brenda Account PictureI have long wondered why it is that African American Christians and white American Christians see things so differently. We’re all followers of the same Jesus, but our theologies have different emphases and we tend to belong to different political parties. (I’m making broad generalizations, of course, but there are observable tendencies here, at least among evangelicals.) I’ve learned a lot by listening to my African American students. I’ve also had my eyes opened by a book called Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith (Oxford, 2000).

Emerson and Smith argue that white American evangelicals have an “accountable freewill individualist perspective” on how the world works: things happen because individuals make free choices, for which they are held accountable by God. This perspective shapes the toolbox with which we engage the world: individualism, relationalism and anti-structuralism. I don’t know about you, but in my experience this is pretty much on-target. Evangelicals (my own context) believe that God deals directly with individuals, because God wants to form a personal relationship with each individual. Conversion is an event between the individual and God; church is a helpful but non-essential add-on. This view may be one reason why the number of people who identify as Christians but have no church connection is growing.

This “personal” (individual) perspective means that white Christians tend to be blind to structural sins like racism. Emerson and Smith define racism as “the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups.” If the topic of racism comes up, we inventory ourselves and decide that we aren’t racist. We harbor no ill will toward persons of another race; some of them may even be our friends. Our responsibility ends there. If other individuals are racist, they should repent of that, and everything will be fine.

This approach ignores the fact that sinful social structures take on a life of their own. America’s history of slavery is a case in point. People on both sides of that debate were Christians, and they argued from the Bible to prove their case. Most Christian slaveholders made no connection between their faith and freeing their slaves, because slavery was a socially accepted institution. The only reason the institution was eventually abolished was because society changed—in this case, through civil war.

Similarly, many people involved in the 1994 tribal genocide in Rwanda were Christians. Some of them were even pastors. One at least one occasion, a pastor offered sanctuary to members of the other tribe and then locked the refugees in the church and burned it down. These Christian murderers had accepted the validity of their faith for their personal lives but didn’t let it transform the tribal hatreds in their society.

When we hear about events like the shooting of an African American man by a white police officer, do we think of it only as an event between two individuals? Or do we reflect on the social context of the event, asking why there are still racial tensions in that community—or in ours? Do we jump in to defend one side or the other, or do we ask ourselves how we might contribute to reconciliation instead of division?

Prayer for justice is certainly one of our responsibilities in situations like that. But as Bob suggested, we should also consider what role the church should have—and what actions the church should take—in addressing the social realities that give rise to such situations. We should never accept the suggestion that our faith is valid only for our personal lives. Jesus is Lord of all, and he plans to extend his rule into all areas of life (1 Corinthians 15:22-28). He wants to renew the world and fix everything that’s broken (Romans 8:18-21; Revelation 21:1-5). What might he want us to do in his name? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that Christians listening to one another would be a good start.

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Crying Out Day and Night for Justice

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Bob Trube2I never saw this before.

This past Sunday, I preached on the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8. I’ve often heard others preach, and have myself taught the message of this parable that we should “always pray and not give up” (v. 1). I’ve thought in terms of things like seeing people come to faith, praying for the sick, praying about needs related to our work and our lives. I don’t think that is wrong, but as I studied this parable I was struck by the fact that the widow was seeking justice from the unjust judge (v. 3). Furthermore, in Jesus’s own application of the parable verse 7 says, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” Verse 8 reinforces this theme: “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

One of the basic things I learned about Bible study years ago was to pay attention to repeated words. They are a clue to what the writer or speaker considers important. Clearly in this passage, one of the things Jesus considers important is justice, and praying for it.

In recent months and weeks, we’ve been inundated with news stories about the death of a young black man in Ferguson, a black youth in Cleveland, and an older black man in New York City. In two of these cases, local grand juries refused to charge police with any wrongful death and there has been a great outcry in the press and in social media either decrying the injustice of these decisions and the deaths that occurred at the hands of police, or in defending the police officers, who often put themselves at risk in protecting public safety and have to make split second decisions that, if wrong, may cost them their lives or the lives of others.

While I personally have decided that it is fruitless to raise my voice on one “side” of this discussion or the other in social media, I will say a couple things. One is there is something wrong with this pattern with so many dying in the streets, some at the hands of police. It is clear to me that we still are a racially divided society. If nothing, the vehemence in the outcries on both sides of the discussion reveal we are a long way from what Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned as “the beloved community.”

It seems to me that in the predominantly white church community (the one I know best) we either resort to attempts at personal justification (“I’m not racist” or “I’m personally colorblind”). Or we attempt to join and justify one side of the outcry, and, from what I can see, simply perpetuate and deepen the divisions in our society.

None of this is to say that the bereaved and their communities shouldn’t pursue justice nor that police shouldn’t be supported in their hard work. In fact, in a society where the rule of law is upheld, our legal system should be the place where these things are adjudicated, and it is right for those who believe that justice is denied to continue to pursue it via legal means. It’s not a perfect system, but the best we humans can devise in a fallen world.

But the parable (remember the parable!) also exhorts us to prayer to God for justice as well. For those of us who are Christ-followers, obedience to Jesus means that we keep praying for justice. Our first work in these matters is to seek the Lord. But the parable also says it is to be our persisting work. And this is where I fall down. I see advances in civil rights. I see a president of African-American descent in the White House. I mistake progress toward King’s “dream” with fulfillment. And I stop praying.

What the succession of events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York do is challenge me to renew my efforts in prayer and become aware that this is an area where persistence is vital. As I look for God’s answers, such praying can also change me. Praying helps me listen both for God’s invitations to join him in pursuit of the “beloved community” and opens my ears and my heart to listen to other voices than simply the ones that most resonate with me, voices that need to be heard if real reconciliation and not simply self-justification are to occur.

I’ve concluded that I need to persist in crying out to the Lord to bring justice (all that that means) into the racial divides in our country. I pray the Lord’s prayer each morning and night. As I pray, “Thy kingdom come” I will include in my prayers the coming of Jesus’s just rule into our racially divided land. It occurs to me that I could be praying that the rest of my life. I hope not, but Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” What sustains our persistence over that “long arc” is the promise of a God who will grant justice, who will bring a kingdom of shalom.

Going Deeper question: For what do you believe God wants you to persist in prayer? How is a concern for justice a part of that?