Fishing with Superpowers

Fishing with Superpowers

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22 NRSV)

In his upcoming book Postcards from Babylon Brian Zahnd observes that the original Jesus movement was not a pietistic religion of private belief about how to go to heaven when we die—it was a countercultural way of public life. It threatened the religious and political establishment because it actively “challenged the dominant myth that Rome had a manifest destiny to rule the nations and a divine right to shape history” (Zahnd). There is no doubt that—as Roman contractors—Peter, Andrew, James, and John knew what was at stake if they followed Jesus.

Under Roman occupation fish were claimed as revenue for the empire.[i] By closely regulating fishing through licensing, quotas, and taxation, Rome maintained its control over vital food supplies.[ii] Rome established an economic and political monopoly[iii] that benefited the social elite at the expense of subjugated masses—people whose very survival depended on the natural resources seized by the empire.

Rather than resist, some chose to profit from the oppression of their own people. Peter, Andrew, James, and John appear to have shrewdly involved themselves in the Roman hegemony by purchasing a contract to operate a commercial fishing enterprise.[iv] They obtained the right to fish the sea in exchange for a quota of fish and taxes on their catch and transportation.[v] While collaborating in imperial injustice ensured they made a decent living, socially, “fishmongers” were considered on par with “moneylenders”—they were publicly despised as greedy thieves.[vi]

No doubt these Roman contractors were very aware of the subversive nature of Jesus’ preaching about the in-breaking kingdom of God. No doubt they realized they personally had a lot to lose—the imperial system was their bread and butter (providing them with economic security). Yet, in spite of the immense risks and sacrifices involved, Peter, Andrew, James, and John shifted their allegiance from Caesar to Christ. Together they formed an alternative community that challenged the status quo, resisted imperial abuse and oppression, and emancipated their neighbors[vii] by powerfully announcing and enacting the revolutionary news of God’s in-breaking kingdom.

Surely these first followers of Jesus would wholeheartedly agree with Zahnd when he argues, “If Christianity is not seen as countercultural and even subversive within a military-economic superpower, you can be sure it is a deeply compromised Christianity.” Stanley Hauerwas warns:

The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community Of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic)

So, is our Christianity merely a pietistic religion of private belief about how to go to heaven when we die or is it a countercultural way of public life? 


i Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2005), 120-121.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

A Letter to a Hurting Friend who Can No Longer Trust in God

A Letter to a Hurting Friend who Can No Longer Trust in God

Dear Friend,

Four months ago my mother and younger brother both died in the same week. I had to give the order to withdraw life support from my little brother and hold his hand as he left this world. That experience has left an undeniable mark on my soul; the pain is still beyond words to describe. I write that only to let you know that I am no stranger to pain and doubt. I believe God is big enough to handle my questions, my doubts, and even my anger. I believe that God understands, but even if He didn’t, I’m not sure I would really care. I think that’s okay too.  I am writing to thank you for sharing your doubts about God’s “sovereignty” with me and to offer some further reflections on this subject.

My friend, I cannot even begin to imagine the suffering and anguish you have experienced. I am so sorry you have had to go through this. It’s funny how easy it is to offer neatly packaged Bible verses in a sterile church which, ultimately, feel hollow in the face of real suffering. While I continue to believe that God is all powerful, through our conversation, I realize that I need to clarify what this all-powerfulness may actually look like. If you can bear with me, I would like to offer what I believe is a biblically faithful view of the sovereignty of God and the problem of our suffering.

If we were to open a systematic theology text book to the section on the doctrine of God we would likely be confronted with a list of God’s attributes beginning with words like omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere) and so on. Yet, the central “attribute” of God, from a biblical perspective, is love. It has been said that love is the first and last word in the biblical portrait of God.[i] Emil Brunner considers the statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8) to be the “most daring statement that has ever been made in human language.”[ii] Richard Rice considers this to mean that “love is not a mere quality that God happens to have in common with other beings; it is the very nature of God himself.”[iii] Through God’s self disclosure in Christ we have come to know that he eternally exists in divine community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love is not something that God chose to do in relation to his creation; it is his very nature from eternity – seen in the Father’s love for the Son, the Son’s love for the Father, the Spirit’s love for the Father and Son, and the Father and Son’s love for the Spirit. To enjoy the love of God is to participate in the divine nature. The revelation of God as the one who loves should inform all of our further understandings about the being and actions of God.[iv]

Creating a world where love could be genuinely experienced and expressed required God to give humanity real freedom to be for him and others.[v] In so doing God’s world consequently possessed the potential to soar to unimaginable heights; to participate in the very life of God himself. The unfortunate, or shadow side, of this is the reality that humans could use this good gift of freedom to be against God and each other rather than to be for them.[vi] For God to respond to the rebellion of “sin” in this world by removing human freedom would be essentially to destroy the very humanity which he desires to save. This is apparently not a viable option in the mind of God – he loves humanity. Because humans have real freedom they are in a sense co-creating this world with God for better or for worse.[vii] God’s sovereignty is not exercised over a world in which he has absolute control and determines everything; instead, God rules over a world in which creatures can disobey and things go contrary to his will; yet he can deal with whatever situations arise.[viii]

If God is both loving and all powerful why is there still pain and suffering in the world? Doesn’t his goodness motivate him to action? Doesn’t his power mean that his will is unstoppable? But there is still evil in the world. Since the central characteristic of God is love, surely he despises the evil which causes such suffering within his creation. It seems then that we must conclude, because evil and suffering are still present in the world, God must not be powerful enough to do anything about it. This seems like the unavoidable conclusion to which logic leads. That is unless our definition of power is itself evidence of the very evil of which we speak.

Power, as generally understood in our world, is the ability to bend others to our control; to manipulate, subdue, and force.[ix] If this is what we mean by power then God may prove to be quite powerless after all. But, if we consider power as God defines and displays it, we will find a power which “runs counter to virtually every conventional human concept.”[x] The all-powerfulness of God is found in his “superior self-possession of the love which surrenders itself.”[xi] It is the “irresistible force of God’s self-surrender, the strength, the almightiness of God’s self emptying and other-centered love.”[xii] Almightiness and love are not polar opposites pulling against each other in the being of God; they exist in “reciprocal relation.”[xiii]  As Michael Jinkins states:

“Any view of the love of God that does not understand the fierce, burning power of that love, the positive force of that love against sin, evil and death has resigned itself to sentimentalism, because the wrath of God is nothing less than the burning passion of God turned against all those things which threaten to destroy God’s good creation.”[xiv]

The biblical grand-finale of God’s display of power comes as quite a shock for those of us raised on the tales of armies drowned in the Red Sea, temples pulled down on Philistines, and giants slain by shepherd boys. The climax of God’s self revelation paints a most unthinkable picture; God on a cross[xv]; the creator in human flesh; bleeding, gasping, dying – suffering; God with us. It is at this sight, according to Mark’s Gospel, that a Roman centurion, representing a culture obsessed with power, exclaims “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). It is when we encounter God on the cross that we come to understand true power and indeed recognize him as all-powerful. It is the gospel of kingdom, made available to all through the death of God on a cross, which Paul proclaims as the very power of God for those who believe (Romans 1:16). Both God’s love for us and his power toward us become most visible “in the helpless and broken figure of Jesus of Nazareth hanging dying on the cross.”[xvi]

In Romans 8:28 we are told that, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Far from saying “everything happens for a reason” this text communicates the idea that, though God does not cause, or even “allow” everything, he can be counted on to take whatever comes, whatever he’s given, and work to bring good out of it for those who love him; even if the good he brings out was not part of some original plan on his part. This is an often random and tragic world. In it we can find a measure of comfort knowing that we are not alone in our suffering. The God who hung and died on the cross will never leave us or forsake us. As we follow in the way of Jesus our sufferings are given meaning and we place our hopes, not in this age, but in the age to come in which God will “wipe every tear from [our] eyes”, where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for [this] old order of things [will have] passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

My friend, I am truly sorry for your loss. I know that my words can never take away the pain you endure. I pray that the God who suffered will reveal himself to you as the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (1 Corinthians 1:3-4). Jesus reminds us that in this life we will have troubles, but we can face every day with courage because he has overcome the world. The God on the cross is also the God of the empty tomb. May God’s richest blessing be with you and your family.

Your Friend,



[i] According to Richard Rice God’s love is viewed as his central characteristic throughout both the Old and the New Testaments. Richard Rice, The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 18.

[ii] Rice references Emil Brunner’s view that the statement “God is Love” is the “most daring statement that has ever been made in human language.” According to his view this statement is the closest that the Bible comes to giving us a definition of the divine reality. Ibid., 20.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Rice makes the argument that, because love is the central characteristic of God’s revealed nature, it must play a central role in all of our understandings about God. He states: “According to the Bible, God is not a center of infinite power who happens to be loving, he is loving above all else. Consequently, when we enumerate God’s qualities, we must not only include love; to be faithful to the Bible we must put love at the head of the list.” Ibid., 21.

[v] The freedom which human beings are given is significant freedom to be for God and others. In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve had a seemingly endless variety of possible choices from which to feed themselves and be for God. Unfortunately they chose to focus on the one way to exercise their freedom against God. Ray S. Anderson, Theological Anthropology and the Revelation of God: Course Lecture Outlines (Fuller Theological Seminary), 23.

[vi] Evil can be understood as the shadow side of the Good. It is not a self-existent entity but rather exists as the absence of the good. In his work Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis described evil as the rot on the apple; The apple can exist without the rot, but the rot cannot exist without the apple. Anderson, Lecture Outlines, 23.

[vii] Because human being exercise their free will and make choices over which God has no control, it can be said that humanity is co-creating the world and bear a tremendous responsibility for the way things are. Clark H. Pinnock, The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 112.

[viii] Though God is not directly responsible for much of what takes place in the world, he chooses to be responsive to our situations, actions and prayers. He has the ability to handle every situation which arises. Ibid.

[ix] While power is generally considered to be the ability to accomplish ones desires in spite of all obstacles and usually carries with it the idea of force an coercion, for God to exercise this kind of “power” would be contrary to his divine nature, of which the chief characteristic is love, and would ultimately destroy humanity by arresting their free will. Michael Jinkins, Invitation to Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 84.

[x] An understanding of God’s power, like an understanding of the kingdom of God, is not what we often take it to be. Jesus’s teachings usually turned conventional thinking on its head and caused those who claimed to see to become blind. We must come to God on his terms and not attempt to impose our terms upon him. Ibid., 83.

[xi] God’s power is seen in his selfless giving of himself for the good of his creation. It is a power which is unlike any power we recognize in this world; which usually amounts to the means to accomplish selfish desires. It should not surprise us that God’s power is qualitatively different from the evil power of those who oppose him. Christ did instruct his followers to overcome evil with good, bless those who curse them, pray for those who spitefully use them, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek…etc. Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 84.

[xiii] God’s love and power are not at odds within him. They are functionally inseparable so that one does not act without the other. Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Anderson recounts an experience he had in Pastoral ministry to a woman who was dying. Those he could not explain why God would not heal her he could assure her that God was indeed with her and for her as she died. He used the idea of God on the cross to communicate the idea that God is intimately acquainted with suffering and could identify with her in the time on her deepest need. She found tremendous comfort in the God on the cross and was able to face death with peace. He states that “God’s providence is expressed through his partnership with human persons in suffering, which is the divine power to be present as advocate in the context of suffering and for the purpose of redeeming those who suffer.” Anderson, Lecture Outlines, 36.

[xvi] Michael Jinkins, Invitation to Theology, 86.

Out of Touch in La La Land

Out of Touch in La La Land

“… Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned…” (Matthew 4:12-17)

At 4:30am on January 17, 1994, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake rocked Los Angeles. Shaken citizens woke up in darkness—power had been knocked out citywide. In the minutes that followed 9-1-1 dispatchers received multiple calls from alarmed residents reporting a strange phenomenon. A sinister silvery cloud, which appeared to be glowing, streaked across the night sky over the city. That cloud turned out to be the Milky Way (the galaxy we live in). They had never seen it before because the city lights had always block it out (so much for “City of Stars”).

Ironic. At one time Angelinos went up to the Griffith Observatory to be in awe of the heavens. Today we mostly go up to admire ourselves, looking down rather than up. The light of our civilization blinds us to the light of the universe. It’s strange when you think about it. Maybe we’re more out-of-touch with reality than we think in “la la land.”

I wonder how those in Galilee of the Gentiles felt about being characterized as out of touch—“sitting in darkness.” How could that be? They had the “light” of their religious heritage and the “light” of the Roman civilization! Rome gave them the world—peace, stability, and seemingly endless economic opportunities. If anything, they had too much light! Yet, as good as things might have seemed to some, their “light” was blinding. Christ came as a great light, offering true enlightenment to humanity. 

Today, American Christians inhabit another enlightened civilization. We’re fond of our nation’s religious heritage and we raise the torch of liberty for the world. But could we actually be the ones sitting in darkness? Is it possible that the light of our culture is blinding us to the truth? Jesus warned his first followers to beware—this is a real possibility:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)

Could Americanized Christianity be blinding us to Christ? Think about it—it wasn’t to pagans, but to Bible believing people, that Jesus came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

In The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions, Ian Mobsby argues:

The problem with many contemporary expressions of church is that at their heart they are consumptive—conforming to the values of business and the global market. Many churches are unaware that this practice colludes with empire, division, privilege and an oppressive view of the world. This worldview is maintained by simple dualistic thinking that does violence to creation [including humanity] by demeaning it to the status of a commodity. (The Gospel After Christendom, 105)

Maybe American Christianity is more out-of-touch with reality than we realize.

Just When I Thought I Was Out…

Just When I Thought I Was Out…

But when [John the Baptist] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. (Matthew 3:7-8)

In Godfather III Don Michael Corleone had become a rich and powerful figure in both the underworld as well as the legitimate business world. The film opens with Don Corleone being disguised with public respectability by the Church in exchange for a huge sum of money. Later, Michael travels to the Vatican to finalize a business deal with corrupt Church officials. If successful, it would make him one of the richest men in the world. While in Rome, he meets Cardinal Lamberto—a true priest. In one of my favorite scenes Cardinal Lamberto retrieves a stone from an ancient fountain and smashes it to reveal that, even though the stone had been lying in water a very long time, the water had not penetrated—the stone was perfectly dry on the inside. He then explains to Michael:

The same thing has happened to men in Europe. For centuries they have been surrounded by Christianity, but Christ has not penetrated. Christ doesn’t live within them.

We find a similar situation in Matthew 3:1-17. Just like the corrupted government officials of Judea, the Pharisees and Sadducees were involved in a great hypocrisy. Disguised by religious respectability and pious confessions of faith, they preyed on the masses to enrich themselves. Those responsible for liberating people with the Word of God, instead used holy words to extort and enslave their brothers and sisters. A “Holy Land” had become a vast criminal enterprise—a sanctified protection racket—with holy men acting as a religious mafia hidden in plain sight.

Enter John, known as The Baptist. He’s as mad as hades and he’s not gonna take this any more! It had become clear where the true loyalties of the religious elite lie. The interests of a corrupt ruling class had become the interests of a corrupted religious elite. The two were deeply entangled. But God was not fooled! Justice was coming. And religious vipers would not be able to slither away fast enough to escape the flames.

While Pharisees and Sadducees may be a thing of the past, this does make me wonder. Shouldn’t American Evangelicals at least be uncomfortable when seeing a preacher—who makes nearly a million dollars a year as a front-man for two “non-profit” organizations— publicly pronounce rain as a sign that God has blessed a ruthless billionaire? Think about it. No, wait, seriously, think about it.

According to Philip Yancey, “C. S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics.” Politics entice us to trade love for power (the ability to bend others to our will against their own). Yancey observes that this is “a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.”


Dios con Nosotros: A Threat to National Security?

Dios con Nosotros: A Threat to National Security?

A child, considered a threat to national security, narrowly escapes a mass execution by being smuggled across the border to live as a refugee. No, this isn’t “fake news,” this is the picture of God-with-us (Emmanuel) painted in Matthew 2:1-15.

Matthew 2:1-15 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born…

At a time when so many families in South East Los Angeles have been demonized and are living in a constant state of panic, Matthew 2:1-15 challenges me to check my privilege and love my neighbors. The message couldn’t get any clearer—God identifies with the vulnerable.

God identifies with the vulnerable even when the political elite plot against him. His reaction to the arrival of Christ exposed King Herod for what he really was—a cold, calculating, deceptive, and violent opportunist. While Herod may have provided some with the illusion of traditional values, civic righteousness, national sovereignty, and economic prosperity, in reality he was an agent of imperialism (Rome). His faith was in an alternative gospel—peace through militarism and materialism. His allegiance was to an alternative son of god—Caesar Augustus. 

God identifies with the vulnerable even when the religious elite betray him. They weren’t actively plotting against Jesus like Herod, they were resisting him indirectly. Maintaining plausible deniability, they camouflaged Herod with the appearance of religious legitimacy. Appearing pious, they were deeply embedded in the same hypocrisy as their government—so wrapped up in the idolatry of empire and self-preservation they could not afford to discern the truth. Privately they may have looked down on Herod, but they were more than willing to allow him to do their sinning for them.

Pondering this familiar story I find myself asking, are things really that different today?  I can’t get that image out of my head—a child, labeled a threat to national security, smuggled across the border, surviving as a refugee. This is God-with-us. Dios con Nosotros. 


She Just Called Me a Nazi!

She Just Called Me a Nazi!

She snapped to attention, executed a salute, and exclaimed “Heil Hitler!” That’s how my professor responded in 2003 after I observed that George W. Bush had been re-elected and she hadn’t moved to Canada yet. How did I react? Stunned! Like, What the heck just happened? She just called me a Nazi! Fast forward a decade and I was in graduate school studying the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–a German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazis–when things started to dawn on me.

In 1943 Bonhoeffer wrote After Ten Years attempting to take stock of the lessons he had learned living under Nazi rule for a decade. In this paper he asks the question “Who stands fast?” Who was it that recognized the evil of the Nazis and did something about it? The tragic fact is that the vast majority of Germans did not. Even more tragic was the fact that the majority of German churches had not. Religion, as it had been practiced by the German Christians, had failed to produce the kind of people who could discern evil masquerading as good and take responsible action against it. But how could this be?

As it turns out, Hitler had his own theologians. Influential men like Emanuel Hirsch, Paul Althaus, and Gerhard Kittel were engaged in ecclesiastical infowars against Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church movement. Here’s an example I came across in my course notes from 2013:

In 1933 Paul Althaus spoke of Hitler’s rise as “a gift and miracle of God,” and of 1933 as “the year of Grace…the Easter moment.” He wrote “The German Hour of the Churches,” and ideologically united theology, nationalism and the Church resulting in a nationalistic deification of the State. Hitler was equivalent to Martin Luther and even Christ himself. German Christians were to become “Nationalistic Christians” and this movement brought about the “Reich Church” and its “Deutsche Christen theology.” Germany was the new Israel. The churches gloried in their patriotism, displayed national flags and honored the war heroes. The Nazi Stormtroopers often married in the Deutsche Church with the symbols of both Church and State. Althaus believed the Christian church had become too feminine and wanted instead a “muscular Christianity.” Those attracted to this movement were strongly anti-intellectual and anti-theological.

Creepy, right? Dr. Gene, if you’re out there, I think I finally get your 2003 Nazi salute (she must have literally exploded when Trump got elected). So then, which German Christians were able to recognize and stand against the evil of the Third Reich? Bonhoeffer answers:

Only the [person] whose final standard is not [their] reason, [their] principles, [their] conscience, [their] freedom, or [their] virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when [they are] called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible [person], who tries to make [their] whole life an answer to the question and call of God.

This is definitely worth thinking about.

A Culture of Resistance (Matt 1:1-17)

A Culture of Resistance (Matt 1:1-17)

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham… 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. (Matthew 1:1-17, NRSV)

A genealogy? You’ve got to be kidding!

Why would Matthew begin his Gospel in the most boring way imaginable? The answer is, he isn’t! There is something else—something powerful—going on here. At a time when Evangelicals have enough influence to get a presidential candidate elected, we might find it surprising that Matthew was originally written by and for marginalized Christians to help them resist the political and religious establishment of the first century.

These opening seventeen verses ground the struggles of God’s people in the grand story of God’s mission to liberate humanity. These verses offer perspective and hope. They exclaim what Martin Luther King Jr observed in the 20th century—that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He, too, learned a lot about struggling by faith.

On March 8, 1971, while the world was watching the world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a group of seven men and one woman (including two professors, a day-care provider, and a taxi driver) broke into an FBI field office and stole all their files. What they found exposed COINTELPRO—a massive top-secret FBI counterintelligence program used to monitor, manipulate, disrupt, and neutralize social and political movements in the United States. Among those targeted by the FBI was Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I first learned that Dr. King and civil rights organizations were being spied on, harassed, infiltrated, sabotaged, blackmailed, and publicly maligned by the federal government, I was shocked. Nobody taught me that in school! Why hadn’t I learned about that?

Concerned with the resurgence of American nativism, nationalism, and white supremacy during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I went looking for role models of resistance within the Evangelical Church. Surely white Evangelicals did not stand by silently while their black brothers and sisters were mercilessly deprived of justice in the 1960s. Right?

Wanting to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before, I posted a question in an online forum of nearly 2000 Evangelical ministers. I asked, “Does anyone here know the names of white ministers who publicly stood with Martin Luther King during the civil rights era?” The response I received was shocking—dead silence. For two more days I asked the same question before I finally received a reply I was not prepared for. No one in this online forum, not even a reputable church historian, personally knew a single white minister who stood for justice with Dr. King. Not one.

I went on to discover that, not only had many white Evangelicals abandoned their oppressed brothers and sisters of color, many were actually the oppressors. Call me naïve, but I was utterly disappointed and heartbroken.

In A Letter from a Birmingham Jail dated April 16, 1963 Dr. King laments:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

Lord, have mercy.

How did these African-American Christians endure so much without losing faith? The political establishment was against them. The religious establishment was against them. Their movement was discredited and demonized—labeled illegitimate and illegal. They were marginalized, abused, and betrayed. It was in these seemingly hopeless times that they persisted by faith in peaceful resistance singing “We shall overcome…”

The first century Christian readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have had a lot in common with the twentieth century Christian leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, we are already overcoming but have not yet fully overcome. The struggle continues. Will we refuse to understand? Will we remain so distracted by our individual stories that we fail to recognize the grand story? Will we be more cautious than courageous? Will we remain silent behind the security of stained glass? How will we respond when enemies are powerful? When allies betray? When friends are silent? When evil is called good? When good is called evil? The author of Hebrews urges us onward:

… since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, NRSV)

Welcome to the resistance. We shall overcome.

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton

Shortly after Julie and I moved to South Gate the movie Straight Outta Compton hit theaters. Having grown up on NWA, I decided that the only appropriate thing for me to do was watch Straight Outta Compton in Compton (only a few minutes away). Problem was, as one church member from Compton quickly informed me, there wasn’t a movie theater in Compton–not a single movie theater. Wait what? Yeah, that’s right. That meant that anybody from Compton who wanted to watch the movie had to go straight outta Compton to see it!

When I finally did see the movie–in Long Beach–I was struck by the fact that the members of NWA weren’t so much gangsters as they were artists protesting the struggles of young black men in America. As a kid, I didn’t pick up on that as much. It began to dawn on me—even though I’ve been able to quote the lyrics to “_ _ _ _ the Police” since I was as an angry white teenager, I still had a lot to learn about what they actually meant. This was a wake-up call. For me, as a follower of Christ seeking to love my neighbors as myself, I was going to have to start really listening to them and trying to understand their struggles from their point of view.

In the aftermath of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, Harvard professor Cornel West wrote the book Race Matters. He argues that we are living in one of the “most frightening moments in the history of [the United States of America].” Historically, democracies tend to be rare and short-lived because they are undermined by two factors—poverty and paranoia. Poverty generates despair and paranoia gives rise to distrust. West contends:

Race is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia, despair and distrust… the degree to which race matters in the plight and predicament of fellow citizens is a crucial measure of whether we can keep alive the best of this democratic experiment we call America.

Serious public dialogue about the role of race in American society, in West’s view, must to be reframed because the current conversation fails to comprehensively address the issue. The bottom line for West is that, for liberals, black people are to be “included” and “integrated” into “our” society, and for conservatives, black people need to learn how to behave in a manner that gains them acceptance into “our” society. In both views, black people are implicitly understood to be outsiders to American life rather than essential elements of that life. He wants to expose and then talk about how race really functions in America.

West offers two key insights for understanding what’s going on: First, nihilism is at the core of the current crisis in black America; second, unchecked market-driven capitalism tears down the buffers to nihilism. Before we stop listening and dismiss West as just some kind of communist (how dare he offer a critique of our economic system!) let’s remember that our economic system is just another human system—The Wealth of Nations is not the 67th book of the Evangelical Scriptures. Surely our economic system has flaws! What if West is right about one? We’ll have to keep listening with an open mind to find out.

West defines nihilism as, “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” Humanity in general grapples with the problem of nihilism; as far back as the days of king Solomon people realized that life seems meaningless; the writer of Ecclesiastes writes, “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” West argues that contemporary, consumer-driven, American culture has devastated any sense of hope or meaning the black community once had (more will be said about this below). This is a critical issue because, “without hope there can be no future… without meaning there can be no struggle.”

West describes culture as, “what human beings create… in order to convince themselves not to commit suicide.” As shocking as his rhetoric is, he may have valid point here. What else is human culture but a human project that attempts to fabricate some sense of meaning, value, and purpose for those who share it? While it can certainly be argued that contemporary American consumer-culture is toxic for all Americans (and I would argue that it is), it is especially toxic for African-Americans. Consumer-driven capitalism has eroded and failed to replace the institutions that granted and sustained hope and meaning in the black community for centuries—institutions such as the once vibrant and influential black church. West contends that corporate marketing institutions have a disproportionate amount of wealth and power and exercise a disproportionate influence on how culture is shaped in America. Their prime motivation is to make profits and their basic strategy is to convince Americans to consume. When hope and meaning are tied to one’s ability to consume, where will those who do not have the means to consume find hope and meaning? West concludes:

Like all Americans, African Americans are influenced greatly by the images of comfort, convenience, machismo, femininity, violence, and sexual stimulation that bombard consumers. These seductive images contribute to the predominance of the market-inspired way of life over all others and thereby edge out nonmarket values—love, care, service to others—handed down by preceding generations. The predominance of this way of life among those living in poverty-ridden conditions, with a limited capacity to ward off self-contempt and self-hatred, results in the possible triumph of the nihilistic threat in black America.

West offers an intriguing perspective. Has American market-driven capitalism and consumer culture disproportionately oppressed and impoverished African-Americans? Before Rap music sold-out to the consumer-culture and began reinforcing the nihilistic cycle, rap artists used to regularly confirm West’s views from the streets. Anthony Criss, better known by his stage name “Treach” of Naughty by Nature, writes:

A ghetto bastard, born next to the projects
Livin’ in the slums with bums I said now why Treach
Do I have to be like this, mama said I’m priceless
So I am, I’m worthless, starvin’, that’s just what being nice gets
Sometimes I wish I could afford a pistol then though
To stop the hell, I woulda ended things a while ago
I ain’t have jack, but a black hat and knap-sack
War scars, stolen cars and a blackjack
Drop that, and now you want me to rap and give
Say something positive, well positive ain’t where I live
I live right around the corner from west hell
Two blocks from south shit, and once in a jail cell
The sun never shine on my side of the street see
And only once or twice a week I would speak
I walked alone, my state of mind was home sweet home
I couldn’t keep a girl, they wanted kids and cars with chrome
Some life, if you ain’t wearin’ gold, your style was old
And you got more juice and dope for every bottle sold
Hell no, I say there’s gotta be a better way
But hey, never gamble in a game that you can’t play
I’m gonna flaunt it, gonna know when, know when and not now
How will I do it, how will I make it, I won’t, that’s how
Why me huh? (Ghetto Bastard, 1991)

I’ve been able to quote Treach’s lyrics ever since I was as a kid too. I suspect I might still have something to learn about what they mean as well.

My faith in Christ moves me to listen to, learn from, and show love for my neighbors–especially for those who struggle. I plan to keep working on that.