Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

My Uneasy Relationship With Our Pro-Life Politics

The reader hardly needs me to point out that there has been a media firestorm surrounding controversial new laws in both New York and Virginia in recent weeks. Both New York State bill S240 and Virginia House Bill 2491 have proposed significant changes to legislation around reproductive rights, particularly loosening restrictions around abortion, which has unsurprisingly ignited massive backlash from more socially-conservative people. As a moderate-left individual (politically) who is at the same time conservative on this particular issue, I have to admit that there is something about the broadly Christian rhetoric I’m seeing that makes me uncomfortable, which is what I want to dig into in this post.


But before progressing any further, I want to state clearly and unequivocally that I am both pro-life and anti-abortion. I believe that legally protecting an individual’s choice to quickly and easily terminate unwanted pregnancies is a tragic direction for a society to pursue, and I do lament, along with the pro-life community, that this seems to be the trajectory our culture is continuing in. This discussion is about to complicated, so hear me loud and clear at the outset: loosening restrictions around abortion is a bad idea, normalizing abortion is morally problematic (to say the least), and I want the number of abortions in our country to be as close to zero as possible.

Having taken that stance, I want to confess 2 areas of tension I experience with the way American Christians engage our culture on this issue.

Concern #1: On being politically manipulated.

The political history regarding the prominence of abortion as a rallying-cry for evangelicals is much more complicated than most realize. There is an ugly and oft-ignored racial component to the movement that has been exposed by historians like Randall Balmer. As the argument goes, the founders of the “Moral Majority” shrewdly leveraged abortion as a unifying cause to rally evangelicals against electing Jimmy Carter for a second term. While defeating abortion was the presenting issue, a deeper motivation was to protect the many recently-founded private Christian schools’ tax-exempt status, which was under threat in a post-Brown v. Board of Education society because most of these schools did not admit black students. They were even commonly referred to as “segregation academies.” The looked-for “savior” of these institutions was then-governor of California, a man named Ronald Reagan, who specifically promised to protect their tax-exemption, if elected as president, during an early campaign speech at Bob Jones University. Running on explicitly-segregationist rhetoric, however, is not palatable to ostensibly-Christian voters, and alas, abortion was discovered to be much more motivating as a cause. If this narrative is true, and I think the data is convincing, then people voting against abortion were at the same time voting for racial segregation and the continued disenfranchisement of black people, even if they didn’t realize it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that we should not be naive about the motivations of our political system. We should be much more careful about allowing worldly political agendas to define our voting patterns, and by raising any single issue to non-negotiable status, we signal to politicians that “it doesn’t really matter what else you believe or contend for, as long as you say that you are against abortion” and the result is that we evangelicals become a all-too-easily-manipulated voting bloc.

Rather than being the “conscience of the state,” to use MLK’s memorable phrase, I fear we have become a simple lever that the state can pull to get votes, knowing we won’t think twice if we hear the right rhetoric about abortion laws.

The church can, and must, be better than that.

Concern #2: On the unmet expectations for a moral America.

There’s a striking theme in the social media uproar that I consistently see from Christians regarding abortion, and it goes something like, “This is yet more evidence of the continued moral degradation of our society!” Our culture, the thinking goes, is careening into a moral cesspool, and the loosening of abortion laws is simply confirming this trajectory. This is an important spark for the emotional panic and outrage.

But there’s an unspoken logic behind this thinking, because you can’t lose something you never had. So if our society is, in fact, morally de-volving, the implication is that we had already morally evolved. Or, to put it more bluntly, once we were good. Now we aren’t.

And I’m not so sure about that.

Christopher Columbus claiming the “New World.” Colonization was justified on religious grounds by the Doctrine of Discovery.

Christopher Columbus claiming the “New World.” Colonization was justified on religious grounds by the Doctrine of Discovery.

Time and space don’t permit an in-depth discussion of this, but I contend that any intellectually honest reading of history exposes troubling moral issues (indeed, right alongside high moral aspirations, what Lincoln famously called the “better angels of our nature”) at the core of our nation’s founding. Such issues notably include the Enlightenment-drenched racial doctrines that protected the practice of chattel slavery, and explicitly-religious ideas like the “Doctrine of Discovery” that sanctified the expulsion, forced assimilation, and slaughter, of Native people.

The point here is not to paint America as the worst country in history, as that would also be unnecessarily simplistic, but rather it is to acknowledge that, in spite of Winthrop’s vision of our country as a “city on a hill,” the functioning of our laws and institutions has always been deeply morally-compromised. Abortion is awful, but we aren’t suddenly sliding into a moral abyss. The Trail of Tears was also awful. Practicing race-based chattel slavery, and literally going to war with ourselves because we couldn’t disentangle ourselves from the systemic and economic implications of it was also awful. Currently holding one of the highest incarceration rates in the global community is awful.

Now hear me carefully on this, because I am not arguing that we have no grounds to declare abortion immoral simply because our country does other things that are also immoral (a logical fallacy popularly known as “whataboutism”). Rather, I am arguing that if you want to make broad statements about the moral state of America, pointing specifically to legislative changes as evidence, you must broadly consider our legislative history.

Here is why this matters: think about what perpetuating this narrative about America’s morality signals to all the communities of people who were already suffering (and continue to suffer) the effects of immoral legislation for decades and centuries before Roe v. Wade. Convict leasing, redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration are American legislative issues that have been disproportionately harming black and Latinx Americans for a long, long time, and to say that we are now a “country with immoral laws” indicates that you either didn’t know, or worse, didn’t care, about the very real injustices happening on a legislative level before these recent changes.

Don’t stop calling abortion immoral. But do stop selectively utilizing it to perpetuate a false narrative about the moral state of America’s legal system. Better yet, let go of your expectations for a morally-perfect American government. That was never God’s plan for the world. The actual plan has already been launched in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and it’s called the “Kingdom of God,” which you can participate in right now.

Conclusion: A Kingdom-Witness Against Abortion

I’m proud of the historic stance Christian communities have always taken against abortion, even within the ancient Greco-Roman world in which child-exposure was practiced when infants were not wanted. Contending for life, in every sense of that word, is an important and necessary implication of what it means to believe that the divine image is imprinted in every individual, regardless of how society might define their worth.

But the way in which we contend for life must not be controlled and manipulated by worldly politics and social media virtue-signaling. We risk compromising our witness, and our integrity, when we give such corrupt systems undue influence in how we operate. Yes, we happen to live in a participatory democracy, so by all means, vote against any and all laws that are diametrically opposed to the way of God’s Kingdom. But even more importantly, live as if that Kingdom was present and breaking through right now. Because I believe it is, and that’s the best news we can offer to a confused and hurting culture.

The 8 Best Books I Read in 2018

Reading is a big part of my life. It’s how I interact with big ideas, historic and cultural trends, and how I sharpen my own thinking. For me, reading regularly (I aim for a 60-90 minutes every day) is a rough equivalent to showing up at the gym or running. It’s a discipline, and is both improved and more enjoyable with regular practice. Out of the 96 books I read in 2018, here are the 8 that have stuck with me the most (in chronological order, according to when I read them).

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari


Harari is an historian of the highest caliber. He makes no pretense to be a simple modernistic-objective-observer of historical data, but acknowledges the inevitable role that the writer must play in interpreting the data he is collecting. The question then becomes, “how compelling is the historian’s interpretation?” And for my money, Harari paints one of the most interesting, sweeping accounts of human history, putting forward fascinating explanations for the rise of economic systems, religious thought, and cultural trends, all in an accessible package that is hard to put down.

Stamped From the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi


I knew this would be a hard book to read, simply because of the nature of the subject matter, but I was shocked by how Kendi handles such painful material in both a gracious and bold manner. The book is painstakingly researched and footnoted, and Kendi proposes a crucially important innovation in conversation around race in our country’s history. Instead of utilizing the typical two-category system for historic thought (racist and anti-racist), Kendi proposes a third stream that has been present in both white and black intellectuals throughout American history: assimilationist. This seemingly simple move opens up a radical new category for understanding the legacies of racial doctrine, and it’s a profoundly helpful move for parsing out the complexities of figures like MLK and W.E.B. DuBois. This is an essential text for anyone who wants to get a firmer grasp on the history of race in America.

Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright


I’ve been a massive fan of Tom Wright for years. His historical acumen, paired with a pretty theologically conservative framework, make him a unique figure in mainstream scholarship. He also has an amazing ability to write both complex, academic work as well as approachable, breezy, popular-level writing. His biography of Paul lies somewhere between these two poles, and to my mind, is the perfect level of accessibility. There is a narrative here, which does give a sense of “life” to the book, but Wright also isn’t trying to write a novel. The result is a deeply-informed, hypothetical proposal of how Paul’s life may have unfolded, and the context in which his famous writings were produced. For anyone interested in the enigmatic writer of over half the New Testament, or anyone who has adopted the popularly-accepted, negative view of St. Paul, this book is an absolute must-read.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X


As this list makes evident, one of my major interests is the history of race in America, and more broadly, the West. I had always heard that Malcolm X is one of the more misunderstood figures who stands in the middle of this history, and now that I’ve read his autobiography, I too see him in a new light. Here was a bold, uncompromising visionary, who was courageous in the face of (literally) life-threatening work, was willing to be misunderstood, but was also humble and able to change his deeply-held views when corrected. MLK is rightly praised for his work in the Civil Rights era, but we ignore Malcolm at our peril. I recommend this for anyone who thinks they have an idea of the man behind the reputation, but hasn’t read his words directly.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt


I picked up this book both because I’m a fan of Jonathan Haidt (the Righteous Mind is one of my all-time favorites), and because it is focused on what is happening with the increasingly fracturing and divisive culture of universities today (I spend most of my time on university campuses). I was blown away by the case that Haidt and Lukainoff lay out, and found that it not only explained what I’m seeing on-campus, but in fact could be applied to the entirety of our culture right now. Their work draws on subjects like history, psychology, sociology and politics to make a comprehensive argument, and they propose hopeful, practical steps for moving forward. For anyone who has been scratching their head at the vitriol around subjects like race, social justice, gender, or sexuality, or for people (like me) who have just felt like “something is off” in our cultural moment, this is an essential read.

Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond


I can vividly remember asking a friend in high school, “Why were Europeans the first ones to come up with the technology necessary to cross the ocean?” Notwithstanding the fact that the assumptions this question rests on aren’t actually true (the Chinese had a much more advanced navy, much earlier in history), the fact that I was asking it, and the fact that my friend didn’t have an answer, are emblematic of the problematic way we popularly understand world history. There is a very pernicious, underlying assumption of “white-European” superiority that props up our own understanding of how and why history unfolded the way it did, and Jared Diamond takes a ruthless axe to the root of that tree in his masterful book. In the place of this popular narrative, he proposes a painstakingly-researched case for why Mesopotamia, followed quickly by Europe and parts of Asia, developed things like farming, domestication, writing and technological innovation before the rest of the world. His argument doesn’t contain a shred of racial doctrine, and in fact, is one of the best antidotes to this harmful way to understand the world. For anyone who found themselves pondering the question at the beginning of this paragraph, you absolutely must read Jared Diamond.

Faith in the Shadows by Austin Fischer

I grew up conservative-Evangelical, and in that subculture, especially if you’re a people-pleaser like me, you learn that it’s simply easier to avoid asking thorny questions. Questions like, “Why exactly does the earth need to be 10,000 years old?” or “How exactly is God still ‘good’ if he doesn’t stop genocide and throws people into eternal torment?” Austin Fischer is a pastor who not only understands the emotional weight of these questions, but has genuinely asked them himself. In his courageous book, he faces them head-on, and gives the reader permission to do the same. The result is a powerful meditation on what exactly it means to be a faithful Christian when answers to all the above questions simply can’t pull you through.

A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy, and Triumph by Sheldon Vanauken


Sheldon Vanauken’s masterpiece has been on my reading radar for years, and oh, how I wish I had read it before now. It’s a well-known work, so it hardly needs me to defend it, or to explain why you should read it, but it is truly one of the most moving accounts of love, loss, faith, and doubt that I have ever read. Vanauken’s command of language (he is a poet) makes an already-powerful story overflow with beautiful and evocative imagery. His meditations on theological ideas are equally captivating and memorable, and the first-hand correspondence with C.S. Lewis (letters are included throughout the book) is simply a cherry-on-top of a book that could stand on its own.

8 Honorable Mentions:

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher & Christ-Follower by Gary Moon

Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction by John Fea

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context by Myron Penner

Is Politics Your Religion?

Let’s be honest, admitting that you’re at all “religious” right now is comparable to what lepers must have felt as they shouted “unclean!” while walking the crowded streets of ancient cities. Millenials are the quickest to say, “I’m spiritual, but NOT religious,” and many surveys of demographic data shows that “none” is the fastest-growing religious affiliation in America today. But, to me, all these gymnastics around the word “religious” and “religion” just reveal the fact that we are all really confused about what they actually mean, so I want to break down this concept.


The practice of religion throughout the sweep of human history and cultures is vast and complicated, and while one blog post won’t nail it down, I’m convinced that continuing to avoid the term “religious” will only contribute to further confusion, not resolve it. Especially in our cultural moment, identifying the religious impulse we all share may actually help to identify a way forward through our bitter divisions and antagonisms.

For the purposes of this argument, I contend that religions have, at minimum, three common components: a claim about human purpose (What is the point of existence? What is the ‘good life?’ Or, you could say, what is ‘salvation?’); a claim about what threatens this purpose (What is wrong with the world? What is the ultimate problem? What barriers stand between us and our collective/individual salvation?); and, importantly, what are the rules/rituals/practices for participating in the effort to avoid the threat and advance the good. So, in sum, religion proposes an understanding of our purpose, our problems, and how we should engage in practices.

Defined and understood this way, it should be apparent that religion, and the religious impulse in all of us, is unavoidable, whether it is highly organized or unstructured, zealous or lazy, profound or trivial. I’ll get to politics, but first let me give some examples to flesh out this definition.

First, in an ancient, agriculturally-based, pagan society organized around tribal deities, the immediate purpose was to survive and perpetuate one’s lineage. The problems that threatened this purpose were legion - war, conflict, disease, infertility, but especially droughts, floods and agricultural crises. The practices, therefore (in addition to sensible farming) were to show devotion, loyalty, and worship to the god(s) who were understood to command the sun, rain, flooding, storms, fertility of the soil, etc. In larger, more bureaucratic, societies, such practices were mediated by priests and structured religious systems, which were understood to have direct access to the deities in question. After all, if you imagine yourself as a peasant farmer eking out an existence in such times, you would be grateful for a priestly-figure who has spent their life communicating with and understanding the deities that could snuff out your crops, and therefore could more effectively communicate your needs to the gods, and be make it more likely your worship/sacrifices would be received positively. Your very existence literally depended on all of this working out.*

As a side note, imagine the power these priests and religious systems accrued in such a world, where everything was understood to be subject to the whims of the gods. This power would be intoxicating, and it should be no surprise that the corruption of religious systems was (and is) common. We even see this in the degradation of the temple and priestly system over the course of the Old Testament, which Jesus judges harshly in his famous temple protest depicted in the four Gospels. But I digress….

Now, I can hear you saying, “This is all well and good as an insight into ancient history, but I can’t see any connection to our culture right now. Haven’t we moved past all that pagan, agricultural stuff? What’s your point?”

boromir spiritual-relious.jpg

See, it’s the “Haven’t we moved past that stuff?” language that I have an issue with, and I hear it all the time. But I submit to you that, even though a modern, late-capitalist, democratic, technologically-based society looks quite different from the ancient, tribal, pagan, agriculturally-based society in the above example, we would be foolish to say that we don’t wrestle with our own questions of purpose, problems and practices that function in a similar way as those ancient religious systems did. We just aren’t honest about it.

I’ll explain what I mean with a current example.

Imagine a young adult who shows up for a weekly (daily?) ritual at a chic coffee shop, books in hand, orders a latte, and spends over 5 minutes positioning the drink, and a book or two, precisely for a quick picture, followed by another 5 minutes trying various filters and captions for a social media post, finally uploading it only to find out that the drink is now too cold to be enjoyed. And the individual can only make it through 2 pages of their chosen book before checking to see how many people have interacted with the new post, and then of course returning the favor by clicking on, sharing, and ‘liking’ similar posts from friends at various coffee shops in various cities.**

This situation can be understood religiously. The individual’s purpose is to be seen by, and connected to, as many people as possible, but only as an online image/persona that portrays exactly how this individual wishes to be known, in this case as literate, hip, trendy, and with great taste in coffee. The problem is crowded social media spaces, competition from more aesthetically-pleasing profiles and posts, and on a deeper level, probably profound discontentment and insecurity with one’s actual person-hood, and maybe loneliness and dis-connection from others. The practices to combat this are crafting perfect pictures, memorable jokes/captions, and submitting them to the “cloud” for judgement. The priests are our peers and the religious system is techno-algorithms, mediating the worthiness of our sacrifices, elevating them or rejecting them. Salvation is to go “viral,” damnation is to be publicly shamed, or simply ignored. The hours we spend on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter probably rival the hours our peasant ancestors spent at the local temple.

Now, let us move to the topic at hand: politics in our cultural climate through a religious lens. Consider the passionate, active, politically-engaged individual. This person may wear a MAGA-hat, attend rallies, and regularly jump into heated social media exchanges. Or they may wear a #BLM or #MeToo T-shirt, attend protests, and also regularly jump into heated social media debates. Their purpose: to see the perfect social order, the utopian organization of our political system, finally realized. This is the goal, and it is of ultimate importance. The problem then becomes those who are contending for a different vision of social organization, of political governance. In such a religiously-charged atmosphere, those with different socio-political visions do not simply have different ideas that can be discussed, but are no less than an existential threat to our collective salvation. They must therefore be condemned unequivocally, with a zealous, religious passion. Political groups become religious organizations, and are formed around the common practices that emerge: chanting slogans and mantras (“Lock her up!” “Not my president!”), wearing markers and vestments (hats and T-shirts), sharing hashtags, disrupting events and speeches, shouting people down via social media outlets, shaming them in public, and massive communal protests and marches. Some members engage in evangelizing efforts, recruiting others to their cause, and others become prophets, delivering judgments and disastrous predictions in an attempt to scare us into proper action.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with impassioned civic participation. History is replete with great civic reformers who passionately disrupted the status quo, and part of the gift of participatory democracy is the opportunity to do so.

But, to my mind, there are at least 3 disturbing issues at play in our politics-as-religion cultural moment: 1) a deep hypocrisy; 2) short-sighted vision; and 3) exclusivist practice.

First, it’s simply hypocritical to deny that one is at all religious, while indulging in religious impulses and practices through the guise of politics. Just own it. We are all religious, and we simply direct it in different ways. And especially in the absence of a meaningful explicitly-religious community, it makes sense that political structures in a participatory democracy would provide opportunities for individuals to find identity and common purpose. But I would contend, in an ultimate sense, that political machinations cannot provide what healthy religion can.

Which leads to my second concern: short-sighted vision. If we let politics define our notion of salvation, I’m worried about where that leads us. What happens if “your side” gets enough power (whatever that means) to implement its perfect social vision? Are we then “saved?” Are you that confident in your political party’s ability to realize a utopia? How long will it last? Or do you expect it to be global in scope? What if it doesn’t work the way you imagine? What about all the others who don’t align with this vision and will presumably still be citizens? Do you really think they will all simply “repent” and join the ranks? Or, more likely, will they be embittered by their own loss of power and influence in such a way that foments yet more anger and division, thereby fracturing the utopia you hoped to create? These questions, I think, start to reveal that political-religion can only take us so far.

And, finally, political-religion is remarkably exclusive. Political parties are not only marked by boundaries around policy ideas, but these boundaries are defined by what they are set against. Free-market economics are decisively not socialist. Pro-life is not pro-choice, and conservative-traditional marriage is not progressive-marriage-equality. These boundaries function, and are effective at galvanizing action, only as long as those who disagree are present and active. To create in-group identity and purpose, an out-group must be created and maintained. Political-religion must exclude, or it loses its purpose.

But what if there was an actual religion that proposed equal membership and participation of all peoples? What if such a religion put forward a vision of human purpose that transcended cultural difference, while not shying away from the problems that impede us and have wreaked destruction in our world? What if this religion enabled us to rightly own the fact that we have screwed up, while instilling hope for genuine change and the assurance of the ultimate redemption of all things? What if such a religion invited all to practice collectively, knowing that in a mysterious way we will be contributing to our Good Earth’s renewal without also shouldering the impossible burden that it’s all up to me and my tribe. What if this religion wasn’t dependent on dry, rote, static practices, but was able to adapt to every human culture without losing its central, hopeful purpose? What if someone once lived and walked among us, loving indiscriminately, calling out corruption, showing us how this religion could function and gently inviting us into this better way? And what if we killed him in response, thinking his way was foolish and impossible? And what if, somehow, he didn’t die?

What if….

*Looking back on world history, most of us obviously don’t believe there were actual, divine agents behind every religious system like this, but it was an effective way of making sense of the world. There is, of course, a ton of literature on the history of ancient world religions for further study. I particularly like the account in Yuval Harari’s book ‘Sapiens.’

**I made up this specific instance, but it’s based on many, many real-world observations and inspired by accounts in both Alan Noble’s new book, “Disruptive Witness,” and James K.A. Smith’s book “You Are What You Love.”

One Christian's Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Debacle (and the state of our culture)

Just last week, my wife and I finally got around to finishing the drama mini-series “The People vs. OJ Simpson,” which is obviously based on the real-life events surrounding the infamous double-homicide case that enthralled the entire country in the mid-90s. It’s a powerful story, and a well-done adaptation that captures the many variables and complexities that ultimately resulted in a ‘not guilty’ verdict for Simpson. After reflecting on the cultural forces at play during the Simpson trial, I was struck by a notable parallel to our current political and media storm surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings.

See, in the Simpson trial, the prosecution was concerned about, and constantly working to direct the jury’s attention towards, one very specific thing: the evidence (DNA, witnesses, clues, etc.) that pointed to the guilt of Simpson in this one, particular event (two people that were found murdered).

On the other hand, the defense was concerned about, and constantly working to direct the jury’s (and, arguably, the entire culture’s) attention away from the specific evidence in question and instead towards cultural issues surrounding the homicide itself, most notably pervasive racial prejudice in the LAPD that was well-known, well-documented, easy-to-prove, and also systemically unchecked.

In short, while the prosecution was focused on putting OJ Simpson (an individual) on trial, the defense seized the opportunity to put the entire Los Angeles Police Department (an institution) on trial. The result is a complicated mix of questions surrounding an individual’s actions (Did OJ do it or not?) and whether the culture/system surrounding all these events was fundamentally broken and trustworthy (Can a police force that knowingly employs racist and misogynistic officers really be trusted to properly handle evidence that could convict a black man of homicide?).


And all this brings me to last week, and the chaos surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. To my mind, there are actually very similar questions at play today. On the conservative/pro-Kavanaugh side of the equation, I am seeing posts and hearing comments focused on his individual guilt or innocence pertaining to this specific instance of alleged assault over 30 years ago. These are questions and comments like, “How can a 36 year old testimony be trusted?” or “How can we let hearsay, memories and conflicting personal stories drive the process of sorting out whether or not an individual is qualified to serve as a supreme court justice?” or “Well, most individuals couldn’t stand up to such ruthless scrutiny of how they acted in high school.” And on the progressive/anti-Kavanaugh side, most of what I’m seeing is instead pointing towards the systemic and pervasive nature of sexual assault against women in our culture, particularly the ways in which our institutions are designed to reflexively protect men in power, the real and longstanding trauma that sexual assault inflicts on victims, the cost of coming publicly forward with an experience, and the damaging message that would be sent towards the many, many victims of sexual assault that are watching this situation play out, especially if Ford’s testimony is simply dismissed and Kavanaugh is placed on the highest court in the land.

So do we focus exclusively on the question of individual guilt/innocence and the qualifications of Kavanaugh, as the conservatives would like? Or do we take into serious consideration the systemic-cultural implications for both our culture and legal system, especially for women and victims of sexual assault throughout our country, as the progressives would like?

My contention is that both matter, and that we cannot so easily tear them apart. It is indeed important to know, if possible, whether the individual in question is guilty of the specific charges that have been brought forward. Similarly, the public deserves to know whether or not he (or Ford, for that matter) has lied under oath in these testimonies. But it also remains true that this event cannot be torn out of its cultural context. More than any other time in my life, our culture is openly reckoning with the ways that men in powerful positions have abused their influence and done real harm to women, and the ways in which our institutions have perpetuated these patterns by protecting men and silencing their victims.


From what I can see, there is no way forward in our cultural moment. Perhaps Kavanaugh is innocent of all wrongdoing, and this entire situation been stirred up by shrewd political maneuvering on the Left, who knows that weaponizing a story of sexual assault will strike a chord in the era of #MeToo and Trump, all to keep a conservative judge off the court. Or perhaps he actually is guilty of attempted rape, and then proceeded to lie about his past behaviors while under oath, which should fully disqualify him from serving. But if he is confirmed on the court, victims of assault will see this as yet more evidence that it simply isn’t worth coming forward with their own painful and vulnerable confessions, that our institutions are more interested in self-preservation than just and equal treatment of all, even if that means running roughshod over marginalized people. If, on the other hand, Ford’s allegations do ultimately keep Kavanaugh off the court, an entirely different segment of the population will interpret it as another step on our mass descent into moral relativism in which truth and evidence no longer matter.

And this might feel like a curveball at this point, but this is where I believe deep Christian thinking can save us. And we do need saving.

At the risk of using religious jargon, I truly believe that only a robust understanding of what Christians mean by “sin” can account for the state of our culture. Because “sin” is not simply a matter of doing things you aren’t supposed to do, or breaking rules, or harming people on an individual basis (though it does include all the above). “Sin” is, in a deeper sense, our inability to fix ourselves, to rid ourselves of greed, of the temptation to grasp for and abuse power, of extreme self-protection even at the cost of harming the most vulnerable, and our propensity for constructing systems and institutions around us that, as we participate in them, amplify all these behaviors. If, as Christian orthodoxy claims, we are all individually “sinful,” then so are our institutions, and here’s the really chilling part, we can’t fix them. After all, we are the ones who build them.

So regardless of where you personally land with Kavanaugh, I think we can all agree that the deep brokenness (dare I say, “sinfulness?”) of our political/media institution has been on full display throughout this whole ordeal. And if you believe we humans have what it takes to pull ourselves out of the mess, then more power to you.

I, for one, will be looking for a savior elsewhere.

Is it possible to be a Christian and a Patriot?

It’s no secret that our culture is deeply and bitterly divided right now, particularly along the lines of political partisanship. In fact, Pew research has found that the Democrat-Republican fault line seems to be the single strongest dividing wall in our population right now, no small feat in a country with our history.

“Let him begin by treating the Patriotism . . . as part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the state at which the religion becomes merely a part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce. . . Once he’s made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.”
— -Screwtape to Wormood in The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)

As a Christian, and as someone who has recently watched people leave my own congregation over sharp political disagreements, I have particular concerns about how these divisions are impacting the American church. What does it communicate to a watching world when Republicans and Democrats can’t worship alongside each other? When people identify with these partisan groups to such an extent that the ‘other’ must become a hated enemy? Is our only choice, then, to form homogenous, politically-like-minded congregations that all go their separate ways on Sunday mornings? And, most importantly, what does this all this imply about how powerful we believe the Gospel of Jesus really is?

Well, if you can’t be in a Jesus-shaped faith community alongside someone with conflicting political views*, then on a functional level, your country’s political ideologies have more formative power in your life than the Gospel of Jesus. By letting these political antagonisms determine where and with whom you worship, you have effectively handed meaning-making power over to what Paul called the ‘principalities.’

And that, to my mind, is beyond tragic.


To be clear, I understand the temptation here. I even feel it, regularly. I was just as emotionally engaged in the last presidential election as many people, and I also struggle at a deep level when I find out someone in my community voted for a political candidate who is diametrically opposed to what I believe is best for my country. And the struggle has weight, precisely because my political values are formed by my religious convictions (as are, most likely, the values of the person on the ‘other side’). So what are we to do? Pretend the differences don’t exist on Sunday mornings? Swing the pendulum back and completely disengage from thinking about anything deemed “political?”

Historically speaking, we live at a pretty amazing time. It’s not only possible for the average American citizen to have deeply informed political ideas, but it’s also possible to work towards the implementation of those ideas in our own nation-state. We aren’t cut off from the actions of our political leaders, simply trusting in the “divine right of Kings” and hoping for the best. Nor are we living in a feudal society that is rigorously stratified by clan, family name or caste. There’s a way in which we should be thankful for all of this (I’m personally pretty happy that I don’t need to pay fealty to some Lord/Noble that I have no reason to trust, just in order to keep my land and eke out an agrarian existence), but there are other ways in which we should be cautious. I believe the current divisions mentioned above are a result of how we have not been as careful as we should be in forming political identities, particularly in the American church.

In the age of the classically-liberal, democratic, highly-individualistic, nation-state, one great temptation is to believe that my ideas about how political governance should be executed are the most important thing about me. And if the flourishing (however you define that word) of your nation is indeed the most important earthly project you have access to participate in, then this actually makes complete sense.

But if you’re a Christian, you (we) should be operating within a radically different paradigm. The success of the nation-state is decisively not the most important thing we invest our lives in. And this is especially thrown into sharp relief when the success, growth, or even simply ongoing existence, of a nation is advanced through the destruction of other image-bearing humans, who may also be our own co-citizens (to use Paul’s word in Philippians 3) of God’s Kingdom.

A 12th-century mosaic depicting the 3 temptations of Christ.

A 12th-century mosaic depicting the 3 temptations of Christ.

Jesus was offered significant political power at the beginning of his earthly ministry (Matthew 4), which is written as a genuine temptation that he had to refuse in order to instead inaugurate God’s Kingdom. Paul was found repeatedly at-odds with the Roman government throughout his life, and was ultimately executed by that Empire, as eventually was every apostle that we have record of. Jesus himself (the one we profess to follow) was put to death through political machinations (see especially John 18) and executed as a treasonous criminal.

So, can one be a Christian and a Patriot? Well, obviously the way you answer that question hangs on how exactly you define those two labels. Paul exhorted us to practice benevolent citizenship in his letter to the Roman church. In the old testament, the exiled Jewish community was to work for “the good of the city” in Babylon, in the midst of a pagan culture (Jeremiah 29). So to the extent that practicing good citizenship is in alignment with Kingdom work: turning the other cheek, or loving one’s neighbor, then by all means, bring Christ-living to bear on your citizenship. Do it for the glory of God.

But zealous national-loyalty (in the form of Patriotism) is not the same as “good citizenship.” And when the demands and values of one’s national identity begin to conflict with one’s allegiance to the King of Kings, one's "hidden identity in Christ" (see Colossians) a choice must be made. We are called to find meaning and purpose, not in the power and ensured success of the nation-state we happen to find ourselves in, but in the one who gave his life for others, forgiving those who killed him, so that we could go and do likewise. In the one who did not consider a short-cut to political authority as a worthy end, but instead emptied himself to unleash the world-renewing power of selfless love.

Jesus has launched a new Kingdom. Will you join?


*Please note how I worded this sentence. It’s one thing to leave a community because of how it is being led, and quite another to leave because you just can’t be in the same room as another peer who thinks differently. It may be a legitimate choice to walk away from a faith community that is being led into dangerous, or harmful ideology that intersects with political partisanship. But that gets complicated fast, and should never be done flippantly.



3 Questions for People Upset About the NFL "Kneelers"

Ah yes, another media/cultural controversy that sparks outrage on multiple fronts, and is eclipsed and basically immediately forgotten by another outrageous event in a few days. And that sentence could describe almost every major news event for the past 18 months or so.* But I’m specifically referring to the recent back-and-forth surrounding the NFL protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick.

For those not familiar, just google Kaepernick. His protest (kneeling during the performance of the national anthem at the beginning of every football game) unleashed a wave of similar protests throughout the NFL, which of course unleashed a fury of responses. In May of this year, the NFL officially put out a statement and policy indicating that players “shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem,” and those who choose not to stand “may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.”

This is a pretty big deal, on multiple levels. A lot can be (and has been) said about it, and I have found myself in many conversations with individuals who have strong opinions in different directions. My personal opinion can be summed up pretty succinctly: I think the protests have been respectful and effective, and have generated much-needed conversation about some social issues that need attention in our country.

If you heartily disagree with my perspective, hold off on cranking out an angry comment. Instead, I have a few genuine questions for you. I don’t expect them to change your mind. But please consider them.

1. What *precisely* is upsetting you?

NFL Kneelers.jpg

This almost seems too obvious to ask, but I actually think it’s important to be clear about what precisely bothers you about this whole thing. Is it because you (or a friend or family member) are part of the military, and kneeling during our anthem feels disrespectful towards that service? Or maybe you know someone who actually died while serving the country in some way, and the flag is emblematic of that sacrifice? Or is it because you see NFL players as rich, entitled athletes who are supposed to simply entertain us? Or, try to be honest with yourself, are you bothered by the racial aspect of this whole ordeal? Do you feel like it’s being unnecessarily “racialized?” Or maybe you’re genuinely uncomfortable by being prodded to think about social issues at the beginning of what’s supposed to be mindless, athletic entertainment?

See, these are actually quite different responses to the same event. I can actually understand someone whose father or brother died in Afghanistan (for example) feeling a little tweaked to watch a wealthy football player refuse to stand for the anthem. I have less sympathy for some of the other responses, but that’s not even the point I’m trying to make here. The point is that these responses are different, and in order to have an intelligent conversation about this we need to be talking about what’s *actually* going on. A conversation about military service and sacrifice will have a much different starting point from a conversation about race and social issues in America, which is also different from a conversation about entertainment, the money athletes are paid in our culture, and the merit of using your celebrity platform to make a public protest. But we can’t make any ground if we can’t clarify what we need to discuss at the outset.

2. Can you articulate the protesters’ viewpoint(s)?

One of the most helpful ground rules that I’ve found for interpersonal conflict management is: “Can you articulate the opposing perspective in such a way that one who holds that perspective would agree that you understand?” If so, the opposing party will almost always feel heard, the conflict will be de-escalated, and fruitful dialogue can continue. And I really think we would do well to apply this to the NFL-protest situation (and conversations about social issues in general).

Momentarily set aside your personal feelings and opinions, and simply listen to various protesters. One thing you’ll find is that they are not univocal. Some emphasize police brutality, others are more concerned about incarceration rates and criminal justice policies, while others are hoping to shine a light on issues like poverty and education in black communities (in some cases, even regarding the specific communities and neighborhoods those players grew up in). You may already have strong feelings about the topics they are raising, and that’s totally fine, but you may also find out 1) that these protests are drawing attention to complicated issues in our culture and 2) that what you are upset about may or may not even connect directly with what the protesters are trying to raise awareness of.

Either way, you’ll have a richer, more informed perspective of your own, and that’s never a bad thing.

3. How do you feel about Tim Tebow?


Ok, this seems out of the blue, but hang with me for a moment. In 2017, theologian and provocateur Michael Frost wrote a great piece for the Washington Post, comparing Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow’s on-field displays, and how the divergent reactions to the two of them illuminate the growing cultural rift in our country. Especially if you’re a Christian in America, read that article.

Tebow Kneeling.jpeg

But the reason I’m bringing up Tebow at all is because I have noticed (anecdotally) an interesting pattern: I’ve conversed with many people who are against the protests because “the players shouldn’t be using their athletic platform to make these statements,” or “they’re getting paid a ton of money to play a game, and they should just focus on that and be grateful,” or even just “it’s distracting and making me uncomfortable when I want to watch a fun competition,” but then these same people adore the way Tebow outwardly displayed his faith (personal views!) on the field by painting scripture references into his eye-black, or even kneeling in a prayerful posture! The double-standard here should be painfully obvious. If you’re anti-Kaepernick, but pro-Tebow, perhaps a re-examination of the consistency of your opinions is in order. Don’t pretend you have the ethical high-ground, that you simply want players to focus on what they’re being paid a boatload of money to do, if in reality you are only comfortable with certain expressions of political/social/personal views (ie. when they neatly fit within your own cultural, economic, religious, and yes, even racial, background). So if you like Tebow, and think his ability to express his faith commitments on the field is worth protecting, then to be consistent I believe you should contend in equal manner for the same rights-to-expression of the players whose views don’t like up with yours.

In reality, I’m just arguing for ground rules of healthy dialogue across disagreement. And it speaks to something about our cultural moment that these ideas need to be emphasized so much, but if we can clearly express what precisely upsets us, if we can fairly articulate the real issues the “other side” is engaging with, and if we’ve ruthlessly examined any invisible double-standards in our thinking, then maybe, just maybe, we can actually have a conversation.


*Incidentally,  this environment makes it quite challenging to keep up a blog that engages current events with any amount of thoughtfulness….

What's the Point of Talking About 'White Privilege?'

“God didn’t make a mistake by making you a ‘white’ person.”

I say this gently, looking across the table at the young, white college student. The conversation is raw. Both of us are crying. The student responds.

“Well, I feel terrible all the time for being ‘white.’ I’m constantly told I have ‘privilege,’ but it doesn’t feel like it because my family is really poor. I’m confused about this, but if I ever try to talk about it, I get shut down. I can’t be honest with anyone, which makes me sad and angry.”

white privilege.png

So goes many, many conversations I have with students in my campus ministry work. These are people who have been left feeling genuinely hurt, confused, or even embittered by the way ‘privilege’ is frequently discussed on campuses today, particularly as it is connected to the racial/ethnic identity they occupy (‘white’). I also run into similar perspectives from people outside the campus culture, especially in more evangelical churches, who see all this focus on ‘white privilege’ as only either promoting further division in an already-divided cultural climate, or unhelpfully “beating up” white folks without proposing a way forward.

Is conversation about ‘white privilege’ really such a dead end? If it is, should we just avoid the topic? Or is there a productive way to engage?

Why We Shouldn’t Talk About White Privilege

Jordan Peterson, a psychologist whose work I really respect, makes a strong case that ascribing ‘privilege’ to a group of people, based solely on their ethnic/racial grouping, is actually a racist move. He rightfully points out that there are many, many other aspects of identity that impact one’s amount of cultural privilege (attractiveness, wealth, language skills, physical ability, sexuality, gender, etc.), and that it may be more accurate, and helpful, to speak about ‘majority-culture privilege’ rather than simply ‘white privilege.’

white privilege meme.jpg

Dr. Peterson makes important arguments that those of us on the left-leaning sides of these conversations need to consider carefully. To understand the impact of anyone’s identity on their lived experience in our culture is to consider a complicated intersection of factors, and to the extent that leaning hard on ‘white privilege’ does indeed result in a dramatic reduction of these “identity factors” to one alone, namely that of ‘whiteness,’ is to mishandle a thorny, layered, and important discussion. What happens when the 'white' person being berated for their unearned privilege afforded by skin color, has at the same time experienced social marginalization for being shy, or unathletic, or unattractive, or poor, or having a learning disorder, or is an immigrant, or a first-generation student, or doesn’t conform nicely to gender and sexual stereotypes? What happens when this person is told that those other aspects of their lived experience don’t matter, that it’s simply all about their 'whiteness,' and if they can’t deal with it, then they are an un-woke, close-minded, bigot?* This is a potent recipe for deep confusion and bitterness, and I am seeing the fruit in those tearful conversations referenced above, when I’m face to face with young people who are deeply struggling with guilt and self-loathing, because they’ve been told over and over again that their life has been made easy for them in a way they didn’t earn as a result of one aspect of their identity.

I’m genuinely concerned about all of this. So, why in the world do I keep pouring time and energy into having conversations about ‘white privilege,’ despite the fraught nature of the topic?

Why We Need to Talk About White Privilege

See, I’m convicted that, when handled well (dare I say “lovingly?”), it is precisely the engagement of the topic of ‘white privilege’ that can result in healthier historical awareness, interpersonal compassion and even individual health and responsibility on the part of everyone who lives together in this messy, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic socio-political community we call ‘America,’ and yes, that includes us ‘white’ folks. It’s a hard road, to be sure, but avoiding it won’t get us anywhere in our cultural moment.

While I just argued that we should avoid the trap of reducing a person to their racial/ethnic grouping alone, we must avoid the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. It would be utterly irresponsible to pretend that ‘whiteness’ doesn’t impact our lived experiences in America. We absolutely need to talk responsibly about how and when the category of ‘white’ was created, how the boundaries around it have changed over time, how those deemed to be ‘non-white’ have borne the negative impacts of systemic exclusion, how all this has had an undeniable, culture-and-institution-shaping impact over literally centuries of our country’s history, and yes, how ‘white’ people today truly have inherited some benefits from this.**

That last part (inherited benefits) is the tricky one. But let me give you one example of how this looks.

Screenshot of FHA policy that supported racial categorization in home distribution.

Screenshot of FHA policy that supported racial categorization in home distribution.

It’s a matter of public record that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) radically restructured the laws around the home-buying process in America in the 1930s. Rather than requiring 50% down payments for properties, the FHA wanted to make mortgages and loans available to more folks, making it possible for lower- and middle-class people to buy homes for the first time.*** Speaking as someone who recently bought a house, I’m grateful. But here’s the kicker: it was made explicitly clear that ‘non-white’ (esp. African-American) people would not have access to those loans. You can probably guess the results. People in the ‘white’ category suddenly had access to private property, de facto white-only neighborhoods (particularly in suburban locations) were created, and to keep property values high, African-American people were excluded.

“Ok, fine, but that was in the 1930s,” I can hear you saying, “that doesn’t affect me now. I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for that!”

I want to argue two things: 1) Yes, of course, you shouldn’t be made to feel individually guilty for FHA policies implemented in the 1930s 2) But it certainly does affect you.

Significant inter-generational wealth in our country is passed down through property ownership. So even though none of us implemented discriminatory and racist policies all those years ago, many of us still ‘benefit’ from them today. My wife and I were able to buy a house last year because of financial help from our parents, who were able to be supported financially by their parents, who were supported by their parents, all of whom had easier access to wealth-generating policies because they were deemed ‘white’ (this is also not to say they "didn't work hard" - don't get tripped up on that, they certainly did). A healthy awareness of these benefits is precisely where the ‘white privilege’ conversation should take us.

Keep in mind that this is merely the use of one example (property ownership). I haven’t even mentioned things like access to education, lynchings, imbalanced policing, or incarceration and execution rates. And with all due respect to Dr. Peterson, I don’t believe the more vague term “majority-culture privilege” will cut it, at least in our context. Any intellectually-honest look at our nation’s history reveals a pattern of delineating who exactly is ‘white,’ followed by diverting wealth, status, and access to that category of ‘white’ folks, while putting up serious barriers around the ‘non-white’ citizenry. Like it or not, it’s all inextricably bound up in these racial categories. It is irresponsible, therefore, to avoid talking directly about those racial categories today, as we try to sort out the mess we find ourselves in.

Yes, your experience of privilege is going to be determined by more than just your racial identity markers. But, at least if you live in North America, you are smack in the middle of a society with a long history of attributing explicit benefits to those in the ‘white’ category. This affects all of us.

So if you have been unfairly “beat up,” simply for being ‘white,’ if you have been made to feel intense guilt, or blame, or self-loathing, then I am truly sorry. But even so, I implore you not to overreact, pushing the pendulum back and writing off the whole “privilege conversation” as liberal dogma. Just because a conversation may have been mishandled does not mean it isn’t a conversation worth having.

So, yes, I believe God didn’t make a mistake by making anyone ‘white.’ But humans have certainly made mistakes (to put it lightly) in the ways we have oppressed and categorized people along racial lines. I may be idealistic and naive, but I believe there must be a better way forward.

Let’s talk about it.


*By the way, this all “cuts the other way” too. I hope most readers would agree with me, that we should never reduce the identity factors that impact the experience of a person of color to their racial grouping alone. I’m simply contending for consistency.

**Ok, I can't pose that list without citing some back-up resources to chase down. On the historically-recent creation of 'whiteness' as a label, see Nell Painter's "History of White People." An accessible introduction to the systemic nature of race-based policies, see either Ken Wytsma's "Myth of Equality" or Emerson and Smith's "Divided by Faith." For a strictly economic argument regarding the ongoing benefits handed to white folks in America as a result of the practice of chattel slavery, see Edward Baptist's "The Half Has Never Been Told." For more focus on the historic impact of legal policies shaped around "whiteness" and "blackness" see Michelle Alexander's "New Jim Crow" and Douglas Blackmon's "Slavery By Another Name." And, finally, for a near-exhaustive look at the complicated interplay of race, philosophy, and public policy in America, read Ibram Kendi's fantastic "Stamped From the Beginning." Whew.....

***Incidentally, part of the motivation of this was to incentivize private property ownership, a proactive move against the growing threat of Communism in other parts of the world.

Why John Piper's View of Women in Seminary Matters

A few weeks ago, noted pastor, writer and scholar John Piper published an interview on his blog (Desiring God) in which he explicitly stated his reasoning for believing that women shouldn’t be professors in seminaries. And let’s get this out of the way: as someone who believes in and contends for the full ordination of women in ministry leadership roles, I obviously have significant differences with his viewpoint. I mean, my last blog post was about the insidious effects of “patriarchy” on Christian institutions, so, yeah, you could say I don’t land in the same place as Piper…

But my point in writing this reaction is decisively not to lob exegetical-or-theological grenades at Piper, nor is it to expound my own scriptural-theological reasons for my perspective, which I have given significant thought to. Rather, I want to point to two specific ways in which his view should matter to us, particularly if you (like me) are concerned with the state of Christian witness in our cultural context.


First, Piper’s consistency is actually to be admired, as it reveals the true point-of-disagreement in this conversation.

If you read the transcript of this statement, one of Piper’s key concerns is consistency of thought, and I actually found this refreshing, because inconsistency plagues conversations and debates of this issue in the Christian-church world. For example, I’ve found myself in plenty of conversations that end up with my partner responding with something like:

“Now, even though I don’t think women should be teach or be pastors, if I heard a woman in my congregation giving pastoral guidance or encouragement to a man, I wouldn’t stop her!”

Or, “...I wouldn’t stop a woman from ‘sharing her testimony’ before our church.”

Or, “...I think it’s fine for women to lead Bible studies or youth group meetings, just not teach with authority in front of the whole congregation.”

These rebuttals (and the endless variations) simply cloud the issue. It’s the speaker’s way of attempting to soften an ideological core belief by signaling their own practical belief that women actually can and should wield spiritual authority in line with their gifts. But it doesn't work. How exactly is a “woman giving pastoral guidance” to an individual man different from authoritative instruction, especially if that guidance is explicitly rooted in scripture? And how is a woman instructing male high-schoolers (who, incidentally, would have been adults in the world of the Bible) different from teaching men in the sanctuary on Sunday morning? Or, similarly, what about teaching a Bible study in a home on Thursday night where adult men are present? You can’t “have your cake” (women shouldn’t teach!) and “eat it too” (but, to avoid sounding like a chauvinist, I'll say they can lead Bible studies and youth group and share their testimony).

And this is where Piper’s consistency is actually helpful. It cuts through the middling back-and-forth, and highlights the true ramifications of a ruthlessly-consistent perspective: not only should women not be pastors, they should also not be part of the formal, institutional process of training and equipping said pastors. I’m surprisingly grateful for this, because I believe it’s an example of the type of honesty which could help us get out of the weird middle-ground in which many of our communities languish in half-baked ideas and hide from their unavoidable, practical conclusions.

So, if you would consider yourself a “traditional-complementarian” (in the line of Piper), but you are uncomfortable with his conclusion about seminary professors, then I hope his statement will provoke you to deeper reflection. If you are comfortable with it, then bravo! You have a consistent paradigm, and now we can lovingly talk honestly about our differences.

Second, this statement is wildly tone-deaf to our cultural moment.

Even though Piper’s post (and any blog post, for that matter, including this one) can and should be evaluated for thoughtfulness and consistency on its own terms, nothing exists in a vacuum. Such public statements can and should also be evaluated according to the context into which they are given. And on this count, Piper’s pronouncement here is a massive failure.

For example, imagine I receive an exciting promotion at my job. I would be excited to deliver this news to my friends, but imagine one such friend was currently unemployed and struggling with career opportunities in general. This reality would (hopefully) impact the way I deliver the news to him, and this would not be a betrayal of the good news I want to bring. It would, in fact, simply be more thoughtful and loving.


Now, considering the prominence of the #MeToo (and even #ChurchToo) social movements in the wake of all the celebrity scandals, and the ongoing conversations in our culture about the importance of women’s voices and the difficulty women face in forging careers, I simply cannot think of a worse time to broadly argue that women should not be teaching in the major educational institutions that shape the leaders of the church.

Our role, as Jesus-People, is to proclaim (and embody) the Good News of his rule and reign among us today. And an important part of this role, as Jesus-proclaimers, is to carefully consider the context into which we are making this good-news-announcement. And though Piper would probably say he wasn’t endeavoring to proclaim the Gospel in this particular moment, he was articulating what he sees as an important outworking of the Gospel. And simply put, the timing of this was a tragic misstep.

So, regardless of where you personally land with Piper’s statement, I hope we can all learn in this moment. I hope we can be similarly honest about our convictions, and I hope we can display a better sensitivity to cultural moments. Ultimately, I hope we can all proclaim the Gospel of Jesus in thoughtful and winsome ways to a culture that is in many ways primed to hear it.

Dear Christians, We Gotta Talk About Patriarchy

There are so many forces working against thoughtful conversation in our culture right now. It’s difficult to bring up a buzz word like “patriarchy” without evoking powerful emotional reactions, and, frankly, I would rather just sit in comfort and avoid the conversation (an option all-too-available to me, being a majority-culture-dude).

But 2017 was full of Women’s Marches, then the #metoo campaign swirled through social media feeds (and I was shocked and dismayed to see personal friends confess their own painful stories), and then Time Magazine named the “silence breakers” as the People of the Year.


And then, if that all wasn’t enough, just a few weeks ago, a pastor at a megachurch in Tennessee (Andy Savage) admitted to inappropriate sexual conduct with a teenage member of his youth group 20 years ago, when he was serving as the youth pastor at that particular church. The response to his confession, which happened before his congregation on a Sunday morning, was a standing ovation.

So, in the midst of this cultural reality, both outside and within the church, it feels irresponsible to continue to avoid the “buzz word,” the proverbial elephant in the room. We really, really need to have an honest conversation about “patriarchy.” Even if it might (probably will) get uncomfortable.

What is “patriarchy,” really? Is it something that actually affects us today, or is it a intellectually-empty term for progressives to virtue-signal about so that they can feel better?

What actually is “patriarchy?”

In a writing move that would thrill my high school english teacher, here is the Merriam-Webster definition of “patriarchy:”

“Social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children . . . control by men of a disproportionately large share of power.”

Or, a patriarchal culture is one in which men have dominant social control, men are the primary decision-makers and information gate-keepers, and (this is an important part!) women and children are subject to the ramifications with little-to-no recourse (notice especially the phrase “legal dependence” in the Webster definition). This can be small-scale, in the case of a patriarchal family or local community (church, school, small-town political structure) and can be as large-scale as cities, nations, and religious movements.

Is our culture really “patriarchal?”

From a zoomed-out, dispassionate perspective, holding to the definition above, it’s hard for me to understand how one could honestly say our American culture is not patriarchal. Politically, all our presidents have been men, 19.8% of our members of Congress are women and currently just 6 out of 50 states have women serving as governors. In terms of wealth, the 10 richest people in America are all men. The dominant, culture-shaping athletic organizations (NFL, MLB, etc.) are men-only. And in popular culture, which is admittedly more difficult to quantify, the majority of successful film directors, comedians, and even novelists are men.

My overriding point is that, in America, men broadly control the legislative power, the money, and even the institutions that entertain and inform the public. We can have thoughtful conversations about why this reality exists*, whether it’s inherently a good or bad thing, about how various waves of feminism have challenged and shaped it, and about how “hard” or “soft” our current patriarchy is, but we absolutely cannot get to those important conversations if we cannot at least call our culture what it is.

We live in patriarchy.


So, why do Christians need to talk about this?

Ok, let’s think back to the Andy Savage incident mentioned at the beginning, which was really the “inciting incident” for my writing of this post. I believe what happened with Andy Savage is an example of how a larger patriarchal context can infect and distort a religious tradition that is practiced within it. Even more pointedly, as a Christian who wants our culture to know the Real Jesus, I see this distortion wreaking havoc on our witness. This should be an urgent matter for us, and I want to raise two specific concerns.

First, we need to honestly examine how our power structures mirror the world, rather than the Kingdom. Jules Woodson, the woman that Savage abused, indicates that he promptly apologized, but that the leadership of the church at the time (all men, apparently) pressured her into silence, which lasted for nearly 20 years. In the meantime, Savage continued to have a successful career in evangelical ministry. We can’t know to what degree this abusive encounter traumatized and psychologically damaged Woodson over those intervening years (or even Savage, for that matter), but in the light of Woodson’s testimony and Savage’s confession, what we can plainly see is how patriarchal power structures protected and empowered one individual while simultaneously dis-empowering and silencing another. These power dynamics look a lot more like those that empowered Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken than those formed by the words and example of Jesus, who said to his earliest followers: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.”** If our churches do indeed look more like the Senate or Hollywood than the Crucified One in their use of power, then we should stop and take notice.

Second, we Christians should be powerfully convicted by the fact that Woodson’s “recourse” was made available to her through “secular” culture, and not her own faith community. Remember that a signifier of patriarchy is the “legal dependence,” or powerless position, of women and children. Some would argue that the fact that Woodson was able to bring her own story to light today is a mark that we, as a culture, are moving away from harmful patriarchy. This is certainly true, and it is to be celebrated, and insofar as things like the #metoo movement and Women’s Marches continue to break down the patterns that leave women in powerless positions, we should all be grateful. But while we may be, in a broad cultural sense, moving away from patriarchy in America, the incident with Savage displays that the church (at least his church) is, in direct contrast, moving much more slowly, or is outright resistant to moving at all. In other words, the church did not make Woodson's confession possible. Our non-Jesus-claiming culture did.


And here we are much closer to my own heart in this situation. See, our witness to Jesus happens both in individual action, as when we serve others and verbally confess Jesus' Lordship, and in the corporate structures we build to empower and deepen our witness in our social communities. And if our structures 1) generally look more like the surrounding culture than the culture Jesus inaugurated in his ministry and 2) are more stubbornly resisting the dismantling of harmful patriarchy than the so-called "secular" culture around us, I believe we are facing a impending crisis of meaningful witness to our world, and even more so, of integrity to the mission and ethics Jesus calls us to. Patriarchy is one, among other, cultural principalities and powers that is behind this crisis.

To be Christian, at the very least, is to claim Christ as the perfect "image," embodiment, and "revealer" of God to us, the God whose heart is clearly to “defend the oppressed . . . to plead the case of the widow.”***. And in a culture that so dearly needs the liberating Good News of Jesus, in which the voiceless are heard and the oppressors are freed from power structures that dehumanize them, we all need the Lord to do a new, mighty work.

May we more truly follow the One who gave his life for others, may the "first be last" among us, and may the life-giving Gospel flow through our communities, rather than being stymied by our grasping for power, as we see the Kingdom unfold in our midst, as it is right now in heaven.


*Addendum: Where exactly did “patriarchy” come from?

The roots of patriarchy probably formed as ancient human social groups organized themselves to protect women during their most vulnerable months of pregnancy and childbirth. After all, if you are an ancient, hunter-gatherer society, pregnant and nursing women are both extremely vulnerable (due to physical conditions and the demands of keeping newborns healthy) and vital to the survival of your group (due to, well, having the babies). So, men assume the de facto role of “protector/warrior,” then these groups grow larger and particularly strong men are appointed as “communal protectors,” who then have significant decision-making and culture-shaping power. Voila! Patriarchy is born! I recommend the work of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen for in-depth study and commentary on this process.

In such an historical context, a restrained patriarchy that exists to protect the vulnerable is certainly not a bad thing. Whether or not such beneficent patriarchy ever existed in actuality is debatable. I, for one, find the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) to be a fascinating account of ancient people slowly emerging out of a destructive patriarchal system towards a more egalitarian expression. See William Webb for an interesting scholarly treatment of this “redemptive movement.”

**Matthew 20.25, The Message translation.

***see Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1 for texts about Jesus revealing God, and Isaiah 1.17 for a text about orphans and widows in the Old Testament.

Jesus, Born in America: A Christmas Story

AJ had been off death row for 3 months. Wrongfully accused and imprisoned, he was eventually exonerated through the efforts of his public defender.

And he still couldn’t get a job.

Branded with his background, a glaring gap of work on his resume, and, yes, a few non-violent drug offenses in his less-than-wise, post-adolescent years, any interviews (if he ever was called in) screeched to a standstill when his “incarceration” came up.

“Thanks for your time. We will call you.” If he heard that phrase one more time, he might burst a capillary. And why couldn’t they at least look him in the eyes when they said it? It was enough to drive a man to rage, or despair.

Or to a parking lot to sell drugs.

parking lot at night.jpg

“Nothing too hard, nothing that will kill anyone,” AJ said to himself over and over. Just enough to make ends meet. But it was December, a cold one, and that heating bill needed to be paid. And he had Jordan to think about. He pulled his ragged coat a little tighter around himself as he crossed another street. Passing under streetlamps, just outside the city, he found The Spot.

A huddle of guys, some he knew well, some he didn’t. Two cars, one with muffled bass and rhythm thumping through the closed windows. Despite his longing for a different life, he was glad to see his friends, some of them in remarkably similar situations. But they never talked about that.

“Hey AJ,” Mark grinned at him, “you made it. The cold slow you down?” His right hand raised, AJ smirked and they shook, embraced in a quick half-hug.

“Yeah it’s bitter tonight,” AJ admitted. “Let’s get this done so I can get home.”  

“Man, you guys were right, he doesn’t like to waste time,” said one of the men AJ had never seen before.

“Here you go,” Mark said, cutting any responses to the other guy off. He slipped him a wad of bills, AJ handed him a small bag. AJ shuddered a bit as he pocketed the money, from the cold. Possibly.

“Much as I would love to stand here, shivering at midnight, I got a kid to get home to.” AJ turned around.

That’s when the spotlight caught him.


It was brighter than any light he had seen. Spots swam around the edges of his field of vision, and he couldn’t help but stop moving, shut his eyes, and drop to his face on the pavement.

The guys behind him were scattering, their voices seemed so far away. “What the….” “Did he bring the cops?” “How didn’t we hear them!?” “What is going on??”

In his stunned silence, AJ choked back a sob. He made it three months on the outside. Three months. Jordan would wake up to an empty apartment. His boy would wake up to Dad in a cell. Again. Was Jordan’s life ruined? Was his own? He couldn’t face the enormity of these questions. A few tears slid out of his closed eyes, and the frantic mutterings of his friends were cut off by a loud voice.


The cop was using a megaphone, obviously, but it somehow sounded unlike any that AJ had heard before. Not tinny. More real.


So AJ wasn’t the only one who threw himself down without thinking. He recovered some semblance of dignity on realizing this. But even rising to his knees, he couldn’t stand fully, and he certainly couldn’t look up. The light was just too harsh.

“What do you want…..we aren’t…..” Mark’s strangled whisper was interrupted by the voice.


He was telling them about a meeting?? Weren’t they being arrested?


This only increased AJ’s confusion. If that was possibly true, then everything made less sense. There had to be a massive mistake.


At this, a few more spotlights clicked on. AJ could feel both the brightness and the heat intensify. A different voice came from behind him, almost above him.


Was some political revolution happening? In the middle of the night, in December? Here?? And why in the world would police come at night, just to announce this to them? Nothing was making sense.


Another possible explanation was that this was all a crazy dream. AJ was seriously starting to wonder if he had actually ever left his bed. And it got weirder. Multiple voices began speaking simultaneously. It was eerie, terrifying, but their tone was almost comforting. No cops that AJ ever interacted with behaved like this. But if they weren’t police, who were they?


Ok, these most definitely weren’t cops. Maybe AJ wouldn’t be trying to sleep in a cell tonight, after all.


The spotlights, all of them, immediately clicked off. The darkness, in comparison, was suffocating. AJ’s mind was reeling. Minutes of silence dragged by, and as he slowly stood up, he was not surprised to see that no one else had left either. The silence somehow felt sacred, and none of them wanted to ruin it. Eventually, AJ looked into Mark’s eyes.

“I guess I will be staying out a bit longer tonight, after all.”

A smile tugged at the corners of Mark’s mouth as he nodded back. They looked around the circle, and without exchanging any more words, every man turned and walked towards the nearest high-rise apartment building, wondering what they would find in the basement.

12th Century Fresco of the Annunciation to the Shepherds

12th Century Fresco of the Annunciation to the Shepherds


This scene is an imaginative reconstruction of Luke 2.8-20, in which angels appear to shepherds outside Bethlehem, announcing the birth of Christ. Shepherds were outcasts, overlooked, possibly criminals, and definitely socially-marginalized people in the ancient world, but our modern imagination has "cleaned" them up. In our art, songs, and Christmas pageants, the shepherds are gentle, pastoral, tidy characters. I wanted to offer a corrective to this, by imagining God's incarnation announcement being given to socially-marginalized men in our setting today. One of the (many) scandals of the incarnation is the fact that shepherds were first trusted with the news. This Christmas, remember not only that God came to us in Jesus, but the way in which that happened. Through marginal people who were overjoyed and overwhelmed to be the bearers of the world's greatest news. Peace and Goodwill towards Men.

Three Confessions from a Tortured Evangelical

I’ve written elsewhere about my soul-struggle with growing up in American Evangelicalism, particularly of the White variety. In light of all this, I was recently asked by someone, “Why do you still identify as ‘evangelical’ at all?”

It’s a good question.

And like most good questions, there is no simple answer. But in our outraged-and-divided cultural moment, I believe honest, humble reflection is needed more than ever. And in my experience, honest confession, rather than indignant finger-pointing, is a great step towards understanding and healing. So while much of my previous writing on this topic has been outward-facing-critique, this post will be inward-facing-admission, honest confessions about my struggle in this season.

Here are a few reasons I consider myself a “tortured evangelical.”


Confession #1: It’s extremely tempting to over-identify with the “political left,” in an effort to set myself apart from our tradition’s recent history.

The Republican-partisan efforts of the “Moral Majority” movement of the 80s and 90s are well-known, and also well-documented is my generation’s (Millenials) disgust/frustration with that particular chapter of our tradition’s history. But because all social engagement in our country is framed in an overly-simplified, binary, “right-left” paradigm, my desire to avoid any association with Republican-entangled-evangelicalism tempts me to throw myself wholesale into the Democratic-Left.

And honestly, in the spirit of open confession, I’m actually more comfortable there.

That comfort is (or should be) troubling, because there are so many morally-problematic issues with the so-called “left” that I am somehow much more willing to swallow, provided doing so will remove any and all identification with the Falwells, Robertsons and apparently 81% of evangelicalism. Ideally, I know, I shouldn’t allow the combination of America’s two-party framework and our deep political anxiety to determine the boundaries of my own identification with other Christians in my country. I would so much rather be identified with a socially-engaged-orthodox Christianity that transcends partisan lines. But that’s really, really hard to do right now.

Hear my confession.

Confession #2: If we can’t start talking about something other than “changing individual hearts,” I seriously might have a stress-induced aneurysm.

Divided By Faith Book.jpg

In their paradigm-shattering, essential work, Divided by Faith, sociologists Emerson and Smith contend persuasively that White Evangelicals in America have a very specific “cultural toolkit” composed of “accountable individualism,” “relationalism” and “anti-structuralism.” That’s a lot of “isms,” but the point is that the way we practice our religion, our faith, radically relies on an individual ethic. According to the framework provided by our American brand of evangelicalism, all problems in the world ultimately boil down to misguided individuals who need Jesus in their hearts. If all individuals simply “got saved,” then their relationships would also be fixed as an outworking of this personal transformation, and all manner of social ills (poverty, racism, greed) would cease. And I’m just not buying it anymore.

This is decidedly NOT to say individualized forgiveness and transformation aren’t important aspects of Christianity. They absolutely are. But imagine a sound board, one you might see at a live concert. This board has the capacity to produce amazing sound, if all of its many channels are in balance. It is my firm conviction that the “individual heart transformation channel” of American evangelical practice has simply been cranked so loud (and maybe other channels have been muted?) so as to produce a distorted, even ugly at times, sound.

So many times, I have attempted to introduce conversations about how systems and structures of the world (dare I say, ‘principalities and powers?’) are, in fact, at work against the Gospel of Jesus, and that these systems are by-definition bigger than individual hearts and therefore can’t be addressed by only speaking to individual hearts, and that it is my deeply-held conviction that the body of Christ needs to stand in active prophetic opposition to those very systems, critiquing them in word, defying them in communal-embodied action.

And so many times, I have been shut down, silenced, or made to feel that my convictions are inappropriate (at best) or crazy and nearly-heretical (at worst).

I get that talking about something bigger than individuals is scary and overwhelming (so is sin and death). I also get that talking about systems and structures isn’t an effective way to elicit individual responses to an individual invitation to accept an individuated savior. So be it.

In the spirit of admission, I have been pushed at times to the brink of despair at the sheer force of resistance to having these discussions within the American evangelical tradition, to adjusting the volume on the proverbial sound board. I have, at times, felt utterly alone and wondered if I could continue in the only religious tradition I have known. I would love nothing more than to be part of a thoughtful evangelical movement that engages in both personal-individual and social-communal transformation, but in honest moments over the last year, I have wondered if such a movement exists. I don't want to give up, but it's never felt so difficult.

Hear my confession.

Confession #3: I genuinely don’t know what to do with the label ‘evangelical’ anymore.

Third and final, with all this in view, I just don’t know what to do about the label ‘evangelical.’ On one hand, it’s a near-empty term for pollsters and pundits to throw around, only applying to extremely shallow, civic-American, conservative-traditional religious identity that may or may not have anything to do with a crucified and risen, 1st-century rabbi.

On the other, it actually stands for a beautiful tradition (formed by the likes of Carl Henry) that grew and formed within the unique freedom accorded to American Christianity: a socially-engaged religious movement that was neither the cloistered fundamentalism of its time nor the politically-active-but-historically-and-doctrinally-detached mainline option. I love that idea. I really, really do.

Is Carl Henry’s hope for a healthy evangelicalism, still under that label, even possible anymore? Has the term been emptied of meaning beyond repair? What does someone like me do to move forward?

My confession: I don’t know.

Dear Christians, We Gotta Talk About Guns

I can vividly remember standing at the bus stop when I was 10 years old, and seeing a rabid fox slowly approach us on the nearby railroad tracks. It walked slowly in circles, kept falling over, and we (my brother, my neighbor, and I) got increasingly nervous as it drew closer. Thankfully, the bus arrived before too long, we quickly boarded, and my neighbor’s dad grabbed his rifle, shooting the diseased animal shortly after we pulled away.

I was glad my neighbor had access to a gun.

And then, I hear of yet another horrible shooting in Las Vegas, which has filled up all our news and social media feeds. I am not glad this person had access to a gun. And predictably, comments, conversations, and arguments about gun legislation rage back-and-forth in the wake of the event, with no obvious progress made on either side.

It’s hard not to despair, in the face of such tragic and needless loss of life, especially when ensuing conversation seems to only further entrench people in their already-held views.

And it’s even worse for me, speaking as a Jesus-person, to see Christians amongst the entrenched.

This post is not about a specific direction for gun legislation in America, nor is it really for those who don’t purport to follow Jesus or have any faith-claims (though, if that is you, I hope you might find what follows to be interesting). Rather, based on my own experiences in impassioned and divided conversations with people in the same worshipping communities, I want to propose some basic ground rules to help us Christians cut through the chatter and have more productive conversations about a pressing issue in our culture.

So, here are 2 suggested ground rules for discussions (with other Christians) about guns:

1. Don’t Make Lazy Comparisons


At the risk of sounding too simplistic, remember that we are talking about weapons with immense destructive power. To flesh out this point, consider two frequently-referenced scripture passages by those who want to protect gun-ownership rights: John 2 & Luke 22. In John 2, Jesus famously storms into the Jerusalem temple, flipping over tables and sending out the money-changers, seemingly in a rage. In Luke 22 (verse 36), Jesus specifically tells his followers to “sell their cloaks and buy a sword,” apparently to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy that Jesus would be found “among transgressors.”*

I’ve heard defenders of gun-ownership employ both these texts, the violent behavior in the temple and the explicit endorsement of weapon-ownership from Jesus’ own lips, as scriptural support for owning guns today. And although I have serious exegetical/interpretive issues with either of these texts being handled in those two ways, I want to make a simple, even blunt point:

We aren’t arguing about owning swords or whips today; we are talking about guns. Placing these items under the same vague category of ‘weapons,’ and then treating scripture as if it handles the issue broadly, is lazy at best, and downright manipulative at worst.

Kids don’t accidentally kill themselves by playing with their parents’ whips. Mentally unstable individuals don’t kill dozens of people in public gatherings with swords. They aren’t the same thing, and it's maddening that we even need to be reminded of this. But if we have any hope of moving towards thoughtful conversations, we need to get over this absolutely ridiculous conversation-stopper. Guns carry enormous destructive power, and we need to talk about them that way.

2. Don’t Obscure the Conversation With Vague References to “Sin”

A second rhetorical move I have noticed that Christians tend to make is something like, “The problem isn’t really guns, the problem is the hatred and murderous tendencies of the human heart. The real problem is sin!” Conversation shut-down.**

rock meme.png

This obscurantist move is wildly frustrating, especially because (in many cases, at least) the same people who are trumpeting this argument have no problem talking passionately and in specific terms about other societal and legislative issues like abortion or marriage.

Yes, I too believe that the problem-behind-the-problem is always “sin.” But sin shows up in specific ways. To further this point, imagine a parent who refuses to confront a child’s selfishness and therefore, especially over time, enables and inflames that very behavior, eventually creating a monstrous, self-absorbed adult. Similarly, our stubborn refusal to name specific cultural sins actually enables the behavior to run amok and, over time, creates a cultural monster. And, frankly, I’m beyond tired of our weak responses.***

We have many specific sin-problems in our culture. Some of them are sex-and-objectification-of-bodies-problems. Many others are greed-and-wealth problems. And, most certainly, at least one of them is a tragic gun-and-violence-problem.

So especially to my brothers and sisters in faith who are reading this post, for the love of God and God’s children who have been consumed by this monster as we have tried to ignore its presence, join me in confronting it.


*Space doesn’t permit an exegetical treatment of Luke 22 here, but a frequently-overlooked detail in this story comes right after Jesus’ command, in verse 38. The disciples say “Lord, we have 2 swords here,” and he replies “That’s enough!” If Jesus was really providing a robust defense of weapon-ownership, it seems a little strange that he was OK with only 2 of his many, many followers carrying a sword. Furthermore, it’s even stranger that when precisely one of those swords is used to strike the guards who are arresting Jesus, he yells “None of this!” and actually heals the guard’s injured ear.

**Interestingly, this same move is made frequently in conversations connected to race, wealth inequality, and justice issues. Frankly, I’ve come to believe that the Conservative-Evangelical tactic of labelling the “real problem” of an issue as “sin” is really just code-speak for “this is uncomfortable for me to think about.”

***Please note that I am not making the argument that no Christians should own guns. I have good friends who own guns for sport and hunting, and I have even joined them at the occasional outing to a shooting range. Take my argument on its own terms: we have a larger problem in our country that needs naming and confronting.

How (Not) to Talk About MLK

This is part 4 of a series called “Why White People Can’t Talk About Race.” In the first post, I carefully defined race-ism and further argued that rampant individualism makes it nearly-impossible for White people to engage honestly with the notion that race-ism is an alive and active socio-cultural problem in America. A major reason most White folks can’t engage with this possibility is because of the way our country’s history is frequently stripped of its racialized reality. In short, we radically misunderstand the history we stand in, and the previous 2 posts were an attempt to correct such misunderstanding of the frequently-overlooked racial components of the story of America up through the early-to-mid 1900s.

Unfortunately, our misunderstandings don’t stop at 1950.

See, especially for us White Folks today, it’s easy to look back and say, “I would have walked right next to MLK!” or “I would have joined a sit-in protest!” But, statistically, we probably wouldn’t.


Even in the throes of 1960s Civil Rights, most Americans did not approve of MLK, Freedom Riders or sit-ins. In fact, those disapproval numbers are even higher than the current disapproval numbers for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Let me spell out the implications of that: if you are uncomfortable or ambivalent regarding Black Lives Matter, or are angry at Colin Kaepernick, then, strictly by the numbers, it is even more likely that you would have stood against Martin Luther King and Civil Rights.

To be sure, I am absolutely not trying to make a simplistic argument that Black Lives Matter and MLK are the same. They are not, and it is certainly possible to have a thoughtful, critical perspective of today’s protests without also being anti-Civil-Rights. But I urge you, in humility, not to give yourself more credit than is due.

The bald truth is that, if you are a White American (like me), most of us would likely have been uncomfortable with what MLK was doing in the 60s. Most of us would have rather him just calm down, stop stirring the pot, and let things work out on their own time. And we would have been wrong.

And lest you think I’m only talking about Conservatives, you’re not off the hook if you’re a left-leaning, moderately-progressive, White American (also like me). We need to remember that MLK wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” specifically to liberal community leaders who were urging him to slow down his movement. That’s sobering.

All this is to set the stage for the key argument of this post: that the greatest, most iconic hero of modern Civil Rights for Black Americans is frequently twisted into an unrecognizable, mythical figure who preached a soft, fuzzy ‘dream’ of equality that doesn’t disturb White Americans’ idolatrous love of comfort and the status quo. And even more tragically, this distortion is frequently employed today to perpetuate harmful misunderstandings of our current moment.


I can’t say this strongly enough: if you use Martin Luther King's work as confirmation of your own discomfort with movements like Black Lives Matter and the kneeling NFL players, then you are in actuality an active participant in the same cultural forces that are working against the ‘dream’ he was talking about in that speech you won’t stop quoting.

Yes, Martin Luther King had a beautiful vision of a society founded upon love and equality, in which all races could peacefully coexist, hand in hand. Yes, he boldly proclaimed that the way towards this vision was through self-giving servanthood and non-violence. Yes, these words should still stir our souls.

But if you think he would tell protesters to calm down, remember that he said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”*

Also, remember that he was arrested almost 30 times, many of which were for charges related to “civil disobedience” and happened after he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech.

If you think he was only concerned with changing the so-called “hearts” of racist people, rather than changing legal institutions in America, remember he said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”**

And that, “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”***

And finally, maybe most importantly, if you think that MLK would unequivocally condemn protesters that become involved in riots, then read his own words given to the American Psychological Association, in which he drew on Victor Hugo’s quote: “If a soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. . . The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.****

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brilliant man with a complicated personal life. He was flanked and supported by many unsung heroes of the Civil Right movement. He was a fiery, prophetic critic of American laws and governance, but he was deeply patriotic in his belief that our society could be fixed. His work and legacy defies shallow categorization.

I can’t claim to know exactly how he would comment on our current racial and political climate, but I'm willing to bet that whatever he would say would make many of us White Folks convicted and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I know that we need his voice now as much as we ever have.

His real voice. Not carefully-selected soundbites from one speech that allow us White Folks to distort the legacy that he literally gave his life for.


Sources for Quotes in this piece are linked below. All emphasis was added by me:

*Letter from Birmingham Jail

**Speech at UCLA in 1965

***Beyond Vietnam

****MLK’s APA Convention Speech

You Probably Weren't Taught This Stuff in School

Or, Why White People Can't Talk About Race (part 3)

This is part 3 of a series called “Why White People Can’t Talk About Race.” In the first post, I argued that rampant individualism makes it impossible for most White people to engage honestly with the idea that race-ism is a socio-cultural problem in America. The claim that America, as a society, is “race-ist” then needs to be backed up by history, and the second post was a brief survey of the frequently-overlooked racial components of our history up through the Civil War.

Again, my goal in all of this is to help us White folks understand how deeply racialized our own history is, not to senselessly “send people into a guilt trip,” but to help us all have better conversations about one of the most divisive topics of our time.

I ended the last post by taking on the common lie that the Civil War “wasn’t really about slavery.” Unfortunately the parts your history teacher probably skipped don’t end there…..

Slavery Didn’t End With Emancipation

We all know and love Abraham Lincoln. His life and presidency is a cornerstone of most history curricula, particularly focusing on moments like the Gettysburg Address and, especially relevant to this discussion, the Emancipation Proclamation, which famously freed slaves across the country.

Except that it didn’t.

Stop and think about this scenario: a country is founded and forcibly occupies lands on the basis of the settlers’ self-perceived racial-ethnic-social-religious superiority over the indigenous population. Very soon (around 1619) this country then begins forcibly importing slaves from Africa and building a robust economy on the free labor supplied by them. The less-than-human status of Africans was legitimized both by politicians who argued that the best social role for Africans was that of slaves, and by the dominant religious institution, who argued that the “race” was “cursed by God.” The government-shaping documents preserve the less-than status of African people. They cannot vote and are considered 3/5s of one person. The institution of slavery grows in power and social influence for 200 years, shaping the culture and economics of the country for all that time. Internationally, slavery is made illegal (1807) but this country continues to practice it. There’s simply too much money tied up in crops like cotton, which depend on the free labor of the now-millions of slaves in the population, and the institution still continues to grow. The inhuman and brutal practice of racialized slavery is not without controversy and dissenters, and this all reaches a fever pitch. A president is elected on the basis of his promise to fully end chattel slavery, and the country tears itself in half because the Southern states refuse to give up the practice. A brutal civil war ensues, in which more than 600,000 people are killed, and upon the Northern victory, the elected president issues a proclamation in which every slave is declared free.

Do you really think, especially from the perspective of the Southern states, after multiple centuries of building an economy and culture, all the while collectively easing your socially-shared-conscience with the understanding that African people were sub-human, then seceding from your country and going to war explicitly to perpetuate this racially-stratified society, then losing in this very war and being told by the winning President (whose election is part of the reason you left in the first place) that you had to immediately free the more-than-3-million slaves whose free labor formed the backbone of your economy and way of life, that you would just salute and say, “Ok, Mr. President! Whatever you say!”????

No, you wouldn’t. And unfortunately the South didn’t.

Instead, they set up systems like “sharecropping” and “debt peonage,” in which White business owners would “offer” to pay for the upfront fees for a Black person to work for them (equipment, transportation) under the promise that this worker would be free when they could “work off the debt.” Usually, though, through the “magic” of accounting, which, of course, the employee never had access to review, the debt just never seemed to get smaller.

Or, worse yet, were the “vagrancy laws,” that Southern states “coincidentally” passed in the years immediately after the Civil War. According to these laws, Black men could be walking home from a job at night, be stopped by police without reason and charged with “vagrancy.” The individual could be jailed and go to court on this charge, and even if they were found “not guilty,” they could be indebted for the legal fees incurred by the court system. And here’s where it gets really disgusting: this innocent person would be required to work off the debt under the “peonage” system briefly explained above, sometimes being sent under “convict leasing” laws to work in mines for the booming Southern coal industry.

In these mines, overwhelmingly filled with Black “convicts,” the workers would be shackled to their beds, worked tirelessly for obscene numbers of hours, and whipped and flogged by White bosses if they didn’t get the share of their work done. And yes, many men died in these situations.

Question: what’s the difference between “slavery” and the situation described above? Answer: nothing.

So, Emancipation was certainly a step forward. But let’s not kid ourselves, slavery absolutely, tragically, did not end with Lincoln.

It Gets Worse….

And, believe it or not, we haven’t yet hit the worst part of our racialized history as a country. The late 1800s and early 1900s are labeled the “nadir (lowest point) of race relations in America” by historians. Frankly, it’s at this point that our past can get a little overwhelming to take in as a White-Euro person, so if this is at all hard to read, remind yourself that it’s better to understand these things than to blindly ignore them, even (especially?) when it’s uncomfortable. Time and space don’t allow as much detail as I would like, but here are some of the reasons this is called the “nadir:”

Jim Crow Laws

For a period of time after the Civil War, federal troops occupied the formerly-Confederate states to facilitate a period of redevelopment and “reconstruction.” Some progress was certainly made during these years, but to appease frustrated Southern governments, a political deal was struck between Republicans and Democrats called the “Compromise of 1877,” which resulted in the removal of Federal troops from Southern States and ultimately a massive backwards leap in race relations, embodied by the so-called “Jim Crow Laws” that took hold in these same states, popularly understood as the legal reasons for “colored only” restaurants, train cars, and drinking fountains.

There’s no getting around it. Jim Crow laws were put in place to perpetuate “second-class” status for Black people right after they had just been freed from institutional slavery. Incidentally, official segregation of government offices happened under Woodrow Wilson in the early 1900s, the first post-Civil-War-Southern-President, who was vocally supportive of segregation policies.

The point is this: we like to talk about Abe Lincoln and Emancipation, but we like to ignore what happened right afterwards. Jim Crow laws were simply one example of the fierce backlash to the Emancipation of Black people that happened in this era, and they would not be officially repealed until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

The “Great Migration” & “Sundown Towns”

So many African-American people moved out of Southern States to the North and Midwest in such a short period of time during the “nadir” that the phenomenon was labeled the “Great Migration.” Essentially, the realities of culturally-intense Southern racism and the lack of economic opportunities after the Civil War combined to make a move to another city an obvious solution for many, many Black people. But the “Great Migration” would show that race-ism was not only a Southern problem.

Sometime during the “nadir,” the term “sundown town” became common parlance for any all-white town that actively refused to allow Black folks to move into the neighborhood. The term simply refers to the reality that any Black person caught there after sundown would be killed (ie. lynched). While such towns obviously existed in the South, they also represent the backlash of the North and Midwest to the sudden influx of people of color. Even socially-progressive New England has a history with this, and recently Goshen, Indiana publically acknowledged this tragic part of its past.

These social realities shaped the lived experience for generations of African-Americans, pressuring them to cloister in lower-socioeconomic-urban centers and essentially giving our cities the “shape” they still have to this day.

Lynchings and the KKK

What do you call it when people groups are suppressed by fear? When this fear is embodied in mob “justice,” which is known to publically execute members of the marginalized group in horrific ways, without due process or any semblance of a trial, for the express purpose of striking terror into other members of this people group, so they will “remember their place” in society? In other words, what is it called when people “believe in” fear as the best way to exert dominance over others?

I believe we call that terror-ism.

And White people were rampant terror-ists during the “nadir.” Statistics on lynchings are notoriously hard to nail down, but they range between 4K and 5K lynchings between 1880 and 1950. The peak seems to have been 1882, in which around 230 people were executed this way. Such lynchings were either done by hanging, shooting, burning, or public torture, and the victim’s families and friends simply had to endure, knowing that no government intervention was coming.

Yes, it was horrible.

And is it really surprising that a people group who endured this for decades would not be so quick to trust the same government and criminal justice system that let it happen?

And finally, a major proponent of lynchings and violence during this period was the recently-formed Ku Klux Klan, founded by disgruntled Confederate soldiers after the Civil War who were adamantly opposed to the direction the country was moving in. Frankly, I don’t want to devote much space in this series to the KKK, as they are rightly, publically understood to be an evil, heinous blot in American history. However, I do bring it up for two reasons: 1) the second wave of the Klan (re-founded in 1915) exercised such influence in political discourse and public policy for decades that they cannot be ignored; 2) the KKK did not spring out of a vacuum, but were yet another ingredient in the vicious cocktail of anti-Black race-ism in the “nadir.”

Attitudes Towards the Chinese

An image capturing the anti-Chinese political propaganda at the time of the Exclusion Act of 1882.

An image capturing the anti-Chinese political propaganda at the time of the Exclusion Act of 1882.

Though conversations about race in America largely focus on relations between White and Black people, unfortunately the “nadir” was also the point at which tensions reached a new high between White-Americans and the Chinese. In 1882, the American government passed the “Chinese Exclusion Act” to prohibit any further immigration from the Chinese people. This is especially significant because it marks the first time the federal government made such a restriction along ethnic-racial lines. As with any landmark legal decision, there are a multitude of complicated factors, but much of the discussion revolved around the fact that Chinese laborers were willing to work for much lower wages than American citizens, the impact they were having on the availability of jobs, and the stress their immigration might have on government resources (sound familiar?!).

The unintended consequences of this law were profound, including (but not limited to) the negative social attitudes towards Chinese people and the ways the law actually incentivized human smuggling in the following years. But remember that this is all happening in the midst of the lowest point between White and Black people in America, and I believe it sheds light on the ways America has always determined “White-Anglo” person to be the “ideal citizen,” if not in intent, certainly in public action.

The next post will catch us up to today, making the case that all of this isn’t just “in the past,” but has actually built the foundation of the home we are still living in.


*Further Reading & Resources

Essential reading on the post-Civil War era is Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery By Another Name.”

As referenced in the previous post, James Loewen’s works: “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Lies Across America” cover all these topics.

A fictional, but extremely well-researched, story documenting the impact of the slave trade on a family from Ghana is Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing.” I highly recommend it.

On the ways the “Great Migration” impacts us today, see Ken Wytsma’s book “The Myth of Equality,” especially the chapter titled “How Our Cities Got Their Shape.”

Why White People Can't Talk About Race (part 2)

The Parts of Our History Your Teacher Skipped*

The previous post in this series ended with a bold claim: that America is a race-ist country. This needs more space to be unpacked, and we White folks, especially, need to wrestle with it.

Please understand that this isn’t meant to be a tirade against America. The goal of this entire blog series is to highlight the reasons I believe White Americans have serious difficulty engaging in the topic of race, and I’m convinced that one of the biggest factors is that we simply don’t understand how racialized our own history is.

Some of the paragraphs below may be surprising, controversial, or even angering to you. I will do my best to cite and link to sources, and there is a reading list at the end, so you can chase these ideas down on your own.

Just remember, something that happened in history isn’t “your fault.” But like I said in the last post, that’s not the point. Rather, the point is this: is it possible that America, as a whole, has “believed in” race as a way to categorize people? Will an honest look at our history give us an answer to that question?

To that end, here are some parts of our history that I’m willing to bet your teacher skipped:

1) The Part Where Our Founding Ideals Were Racialized

Did you know that the phrase, “merciless Indian savages” was written in the Declaration of Independence, right below the more-famous phrase “All Men are created equal?” It’s hard to understand how Native men could be truly considered “equal” if they are defined as “merciless savages.” From the very beginning, Native Americans were considered less-human than the White-Anglo settlers. And do remember, this document was written by Thomas Jefferson, and painstakingly reviewed by the “Founding Fathers” before being signed by everyone and sent to King George. They, apparently, all approved of this phrase.

Have you ever considered the subtle arrogance smuggled into the phrase “Columbus discovered America?” It’s hard to “discover” something that’s already occupied. Did you know that this term comes from a document issued by the Pope in 1493, called the “Doctrine of Discovery?” Did you know that this doctrine made the permissible (on the basis of the church’s authority) that lands occupied by non-Christians (ie. “barbarous peoples;” ie. “Indians”) could be “discovered” and “claimed” by those in the Christian-Catholic church (ie. Europeans)? This document propped up the assumed superiority of Euro-Christian culture, and was even cited by the Supreme Court up through the 1800s as a proper basis for continued American Westward expansion.

So, to start with, “our” lands were certainly “discovered” well before 1492, and we would do well to change our language accordingly, lest we continue to subtly perpetuate the idea that America wasn’t occupied by “real” humans until the Europeans colonized.

2) The Part Where American Chattel Slavery Was Indescribably Brutal, And Built the Foundation of Our Economy

American slavery is certainly covered in most history textbooks and curriculum, and there is a general awareness that it was a “bad thing.” But an intellectually honest look at this chapter of our history leads to a few inescapable conclusions that are not emphasized enough: 1) while slavery existed in other societies, ours was a particularly heinous and de-humanizing version; 2) it was unique in its dependence on recently-created racial categories; 3) it built the foundation of American capitalism.

It bears repeating that this exploration is not simply to make White people feel guilty. I can’t emphasize this enough, because when slavery enters the discussion, White folks inevitably shut down and defend themselves with, “I didn’t own slaves! I can’t do anything about the past!” So if you’re feeling that urge right now, just identify it and remind yourself that you aren’t individually guilty for this phase of our history. But, again, that's not the point.

Yes, slavery has existed throughout human history in various forms, but in terms of the humane-ness of practice, American chattel slavery is easily near the bottom of the list.* Abuses were rampant, slave-rape was common and overlooked, and families were devastated (which, incidentally, is why many African-Americans today cannot trace their family heritage beyond a few generations, an experience that many White-Americans cannot relate with). We need to be honest: American slavery was bad, worse than most.

Second, American slavery relied on racial categories in a way that didn’t truly exist before. Yes, other societies, like the ancient Greco-Romans, did consider some tribes (not "races") to be more barbaric than others, but such people groups were never pre-emptively ascribed the rigid social role of “slave” based solely on their “racial grouping.” No previously-existing, institutionalized, slave-owning system relied on the now-familiar “White” and “Black” categories to determine status.

The rationale for all of this was the perceived inherent sub-humanity of Black-African people. The Christian church (a key culture-shaping institution) was, tragically, a key player in propping up these social categories, as preachers would commonly teach that Africans were descendants of “Ham” from Genesis chapter 9, who was cursed by his father, the famous Noah (a claim, it should be noted, that absolutely cannot be substantiated and is not taken at all seriously today). All this to say that American chattel slavery was racialized in a unique way, and the foundations of our society were built on the same assumptions that maintained the system: that Black people were inferior, incapable of a social role above that of “slave,” and it was therefore the best way to set up a society.

Third and final, we need to recognize that American Capitalism (which we all participate in) was birthed from the free labor that slavery provided, and this isn't just about the Southern states. In his important book, economist Edward Baptist (see reading list at the bottom) estimates that 50% of the American economic system was directly tied to chattel slavery, not only through the obvious crops generated directly from slave labor like cotton, but through the clothing, materials, and tools that the Northern industries generated to maintain the practice nation-wide. If he’s correct (and I think he makes a persuasive case) the implications are chilling.

So you probably already knew about American slavery, but it cannot be overstated how brutal the institution was, the de-humanizing impact it had on everyone in its reliance on racial categories, and the unique ways it created our economic system, the effect of which did not (could not) simply, abruptly end when slavery ended.

3) The Part Where the Civil War Was Really About Slavery

Then we get to the Civil War, another well-known chapter in American history. I was explicitly taught something like this: the war was primarily about “states’ rights.” The Southern states seceded because they didn’t like government over-reach, and simply wanted to keep their ability to maintain their own way of life. Sure, slavery was happening at the time, but the war wasn’t **really** about that.

This is a nice, neat, overview that helps us White folks romanticize the Civil War, and perhaps even give a measure of sympathy to the Confederacy. Even the movie Gettysburg, which I generally love, preserves this explanation. There’s just one problem: it’s a false and dangerous revision of history.

The irony of all of this is that, yes, there is a sense in which “states’ rights” and “way of life” are the bedrock of the Confederate secession, but it all inevitably gets back to slavery and social race-ism. The Southern states were adamant about their “rights” to continue the slave-owning practice, which is precisely what upheld their “way of life.” Not convinced? Just read the “Declaration of Causes of Secession,” the document written and ratified by the Southern states, laying out their reasons for seceding from the Union. Notice especially phrases like the “subordination and political and social inequality of the African race.” Take slavery out, and the whole thing falls apart.

Still not convinced? Read the “Cornerstone Speech” by the Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, so-named because he identified the “cornerstone” of the government they were trying to form as resting upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”*

The Civil War was about slavery. Full stop. The country was actually ripped in half over the belief that Africans were less-human than Whites, so we need to stop obscuring that truth with romanticized notions of “states’ rights,” “libertarian-small-government-ideals” and the “Southern way of life.” (Incidentally, this is why the Confederate flag should absolutely not be displayed outside government buildings.)

Unfortunately, despite the ravages and horrific death-toll of this war, the enslavement of Africans did not end with its conclusion and the famous “Emancipation Proclamation,” and we are actually still living in the ripple effect.

More on that in the next post.


*Further Reading & Resources

The title of this post is a not-so-sly nod to James Loewen’s work, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” which I highly recommend, along with “Lies Across America.”

On how bad slavery really was, see “The American Slave Coast” by Ned and Constance Sublette.

A fictional, but extremely well-researched, story documenting the impact of the slave trade on a family from Ghana is Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing.” I highly recommend it.

On the constantly-changing racial category of “White,” see the illuminating “History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter

On the economic implications of slavery, see “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist.

On the theological interplay with race and racial categories throughout history, especially an enlightening look at the colonization of the “New World,” see Willie Jennings’ “The Christian Imagination.” Note that this is a dense book!

On the reasons for the formation of the Confederacy, read Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech.”

Why White People Can't Talk About Race

I grew up under the impression that “religion” and “politics” are the touchiest subjects to bring up in social settings, but I don’t think that’s true anymore.

If you want to get emotions riled up, simply bring up the topic of “race” in a room full of White Americans. Just make sure you are near an exit, or have a getaway car warmed up and running.

In my work on college campuses in New England, I regularly engage people from various perspectives in different controversial topics. And, truly, more so than politics, science, sex, and even religious convictions, White Americans (I'm generalizing here, of course) just don’t want to talk about race. It’s actually kind of astounding. Over and over again, when I ask White folks (young and old) about race and ethnicity, I get some variation on these responses:

“I’m not racist! Why are you bringing this up?” OR “This conversation was going fine before we started talking about ‘race.’ Can’t we just go back to that?” OR “I never owned slaves! I can’t do anything about the past, so what do you want from me?!”

In other words: “I would like nothing more than to shut down this conversation.”

This has happened over and over again, even with people that I know, from first-hand experience, can have honest, intelligent conversations about other touchy subjects. It’s happened way too many times for me to continue to pretend I don’t see a troubling pattern, and has caused me to ask, “Why can’t White people talk about this?”

In this series, I want to intentionally unpack a pattern that I’ve come to see in conversations about this topic with White people. Generally, when race comes up, the conversation can’t get anywhere because 1) we no idea what “race-ism” actually is 2) we have no idea what created race-ism in America (ie. our history) 3) and we have no idea what to do about it (ie. we feel overwhelmed and helpless).

As a brief aside, I have no desire to “beat up” White people in this conversation, and I certainly don’t make any pretensions to be an expert. My own journey in understanding my ethnicity, and how that impacts my life and those around me, is still ongoing. I want that to be clear. But I also can’t keep setting the topic aside to avoid discomfort. My goal here is simple - I want my fellow White Americans to be able to have less combative, less emotional, but more confident, honest and vulnerable conversations.  So if you’re a White-American, and you’re still reading, I hope what follows will stretch your thinking in a loving way.

Race-ism is Bigger Than You*

The knee-jerk response I mentioned above, “I’m not a racist!” seems simple enough, but it actually presupposes a deeply flawed and unhelpful understanding of the term it’s leaning on, and if we can’t get on the same page with how this word actually functions, we have no hope of moving anywhere.

So, let’s break down the loaded term “racism.”

At the risk of simplifying too much, it helps to think of the suffix “ism” as “belief in.” So, to offer a few examples, “athe-ism” can be thought of as “belief in….no god.” Or, “human-ism” as the “belief in….the capability of humans to organize and advance society.” Or, “scient-ism” as the “belief as the only basis for knowledge.” Or, “capital-ism” as the “belief as an effective organizing principle for an economic system.”

“Race-ism,” then, in these terms, is the “belief in….race as a valid indicator of the intelligence, physical capabilities, or otherwise social-contributing-potential of an individual or group of people.”

So, to preemptively attribute any characteristic, or any social role, to a person or group by virtue of their racial category is, by definition, “race-ist.”

In light of all of this, when I’m talking to a White person about these issues, and they quickly retort, “But I’m not racist!” they are probably, technically correct. In general, most people, in my experience, are not textbook “race-ists,” in the sense that they, individually, truly don’t believe race is a valid way to categorize people.

But most people who respond this way don't realize they have assumed we are talking about individual commitments. To approach this from another angle, imagine the following conversation happening in the area of economics:

Sam, is a politically-moderate American hasn't really given much thought to economics. He is a comfortable, middle-class guy who gets into a conversation with Bill, a Canadian Economics professor who leans more Socialist. Bill begins to point out what he sees as the flaws of capitalism in America - the ways it encourages consumerism (another ism!) as a way of life, or the wealth inequality it can produce - and while he is railing against American economics, Sam gets increasingly frustrated and shouts a simple rebuttal: “But I’m not a capitalist!”

Bill pauses, scratches his heads and says, “Ok....I thought we were talking about the economics of your whole country. Come to think of it, I never even asked about your individual thoughts on economics, so why are you getting so defensive?"

“Well you're obviously trying to make me feel bad for things I can't control! It's not my fault the 'rich get richer' or that corporations call the shots here!” replies Sam.

Bill pauses again, considering how to proceed. "Ok, I do agree that it certainly isn't 'your fault' that it all works this way, but at the same time, you do live in America, right? You do have a job and take compensation for it? You do pay taxes, right? Buy groceries? Rent or own a home?”

“So, what then?! Am I supposed to stop taking money?? Should I live on the street?! It's not my fault I was born here! I'm just trying to live my life! Stop making me feel so bad!!" Sam is getting pretty upset at this point.

Bill puts up his hands. "Whoa, whoa, I never said I'm blaming you. You keep jumping to that. I'm just trying to help you understand that your life is tied up in something bigger than you. I'm not saying you need to move to Russia, become homeless, or something like that. But wouldn't you rather be more aware of your part in the economics of your country, so you can make better choices about things like jobs, homes, and what to do with your resources?"

"Actually, no, this is all too overwhelming. I felt a lot better before we talked. I'd rather go back to that." Sam replies honestly.

Take out "economics" and insert "race," and you have a template for how most of these conversations go.

My core argument here is actually pretty simple: any productive conversations about race in America are going to by-definition be about social forces that are bigger than you. Jumping immediately to your individual commitments about race actually keeps you from seeing the very thing we all need to talk about. We White folks are so culturally conditioned to make that individualistic-jump that we frequently don't even realize it, and it derails the whole thing. So stop doing that.

In other words: you (individually) probably aren’t “race-ist.”

But that's not the point.

But this is just the first step. To have better conversations about this, I now need to make the case that "bigger social forces" do actually exist to perpetuate "race-ism" on a large scale in America.

To do that we basically need to "un-learn" what we were taught in high school history class. More on that in the next post.


*Space doesn’t allow for a discussion on the term of "race" itself, which is actually extremely recent. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a helpful, brief overview of the historical development of the idea.

A Few Thoughts About the Bernie Sanders Controversy

In what feels like a lifetime ago, I wrote an impassioned explanation for my support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. As a Christian and vocational minister, I knew that public support for a Democratic-Socialist candidate for President would turn some heads.

And if it didn’t then, it certainly will now.

The recent controversy surrounding Bernie’s aggressive interrogation of Russell Vought during a Senate hearing has lit up the blogosphere. Thoughtful responses have appeared in places like The Atlantic, The Hill and the conservative Gospel Coalition. In my own social media circles, in particular, I’ve noticed many evangelical-types interpreting this situation as evidence of our society’s inevitable descent into a Godless-Socialist-Nightmare-State. 

As an outspoken Sanders supporter, I’d like offer a few thoughts.

Bernie Was Wrong

First, it’s important to understand (and admit) that Bernie made some key missteps in his rhetoric and understanding. And momentarily setting aside the political questions around the protection of religious expression in the Constitution, I think decoding his logic is important, because it’s actually very common in our increasingly pluralistic-globalist setting. 

Bernie re-framed a theological claim (the Muslims do not “know God” because they have rejected Jesus) as a socio-religious claim (that the Muslim faith is an inferior belief system to Christianity). This, then, was subtly re-framed a second time as an anthropological/ethnic claim (that those from majority-Muslim parts of the world are an inferior/backwards ethnic group), and these interpretive steps are all summed up in the racially-charged accusation of “Islamophobia,” which was leveled at Vought in the Senate hearing.

If you watch the footage of the conversation, it’s obvious that Bernie and Vought are at a communicative dead-end. One is asserting a theological claim rooted in his personal religious belief, and the other is pushing back on what he sees as a universalized anthropological claim about a group of people.

These are complicated issues, to be sure, but in short, Bernie was careless with his language. As a fan of his, and a Christian myself, I am disappointed. But I still think the exchange is illuminating for our cultural moment.

Evangelism, Politics, and our Complicated, Confusing Time

Though Bernie’s conduct has been widely critiqued, even from left-leaning news sources, because of his obvious use of an inappropriate religious “litmus-test” to attempt to disqualify Vought from public service, he nevertheless articulated a gut-level opposition to Christianity that is increasingly wide-spread and verging on conventional wisdom. And we Christians can take at least one important lesson from this.

A common piece of advice I give to friends and peers who are having communication difficulties is: “It doesn’t matter what you say; all that matters is what they hear.” The back-and-forth between Vought and Sanders is a clear case-in-point of this. In our current socio-political climate, any public condemnation of another religion, no matter how carefully spoken, will be heard as something along the lines of Jerry Falwell blaming 9/11 on gays and lesbians. You can feel the exasperation dripping from Bernie’s words as he keeps hammering Vought on his condemnatory language. I encounter this same exasperation weekly on the college campuses I frequent. It could be simply rephrased as, “You believe what?? You’re one of the people that are holding our society back!” or, in Bernie’s words, “you’re not someone who this country is supposed to be about.” 

If you haven’t been convinced yet, this event should serve as more evidence that we are living in the aftershock of the crumbling of American-Christian Civic Religion. As the edifice of our historically-majority-accepted religious practice continues to topple, those of us who wish to continue to present Christianity thoughtfully in the public square need to grapple with our language, being more concerned with what society hears, than even with our own ability to articulate doctrinal points which, until recently, were generally accepted.

This is all a good thing. Being forced to stop and reflect on how our society hears and understands us, as Christians, is profoundly healthy. Being forced to listen first, speak later, and offer compelling reason for belief puts us in good company. Paul, the great apostle and early Christian writer, put it best in his letter to the church at Colossi:

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation always be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4.5-6

Dear American Christians, Do Not Worship the Idol of 'Safety.'

One of the major reasons I have remained a committed Christian in my adult life is because of the Biblical notion of 'idolatry.' It just makes so much sense to me.

At the risk of over-simplifying a massive theological/anthropological concept, the Biblical writers convey to us something like the following narrative: Humans were made to reflect God's image in the world. That's our purpose. However, doing this faithfully requires us to live with God, truly. In other words, to actually trust the God who made us to guide us through this lifelong experience of "image-reflecting." You could call this ongoing process "having a relationship with God," though that phrase can be so popularly over-used as to empty it of meaning.

In any case, this living-and-walking-daily-in-trust-of-our-Maker is far from easy, namely because it keeps us humble (because we must consistently admit God's power in the world eclipses our own) and vulnerable (because living this way, especially in the midst of a world that largely lives in direct contrast to it, confronts us with a risky, and possibly painful, lack of control) and patient (because, as mentioned already, it is a lifelong pattern that is never simply "solved" or "mastered"). 

Did you catch the reasons this type of life is hard? Humility. Vulnerability. Patience.

Life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.
— Thomas Merton

This is far from an exhaustive list, but exercising these virtues while we live in and among other humans is consistently difficult. To put it simply, it is very tempting to build a life in which we do not need to practice any of them. The idea of a life in which we can exercise powerful control without accountability (contra humility), protect ourselves from any meaningful risks (contra vulnerability), and see change and transformation occur on our own timelines (contra patience) is powerfully seductive. A life of unquestioned power and control, without risk? Sign me up, please!

Hopefully you see the cocktail that is brewing here. The Biblical authors (especially the prophets of old) saw this with clarity. Rather than living in daily, humble, risk-taking trust in God, we feel the constant pull to scrap that whole idea and find a replacement for God that ideally gives us license to carry out our lives without those uncomfortable virtues mentioned above. You might even say we are tempted to "exchange the glory of the immortal God" for something else.* But despite our moral gymnastics and maneuvering, something will still drive our existence, our telos, even if it's simply the notion that "I want to have as much leisure time as possible, so I'll work my tail off to get to retirement ASAP." Whatever it is, that "thing" will then tell us when we have finally arrived, finally achieved, and have finally fulfilled our purpose. Something drives us. Something tells us when we are "ok." We can't wriggle our way out of this reality. We just can't. 

The problem crops up when that "thing" isn't God. And this process, of swapping a "God-life" for a life that's easily controlled on our terms is well-attested to in Christian scriptures. It's called "idolatry," and while ancient cultures physically constructed idols out of metals and wood, sacrificing to them for strong harvests and fertility, we undergo the same exact process today through different cultural means.

You see, I believe such an idol has a stranglehold in my country right now. It's an idol that promises a life free of harm, and it's particularly seductive because it clothes itself in moralistic notions of protecting our children and our neighbors. This idol is Safety or Security. And, furthermore, if we imagine this idol as a ravenous lion, our current president is tossing juicy, raw steaks down it's throat.


As has already been widely reported, Donald Trump threw the media, the transportation system, and the political establishment into a firestorm when he signed an Executive Order over the weekend, banning immigration from 7 Muslim-majority cultures in the Middle East. This action should not surprise us too much, as he was consistently vocal about restricting such immigration throughout his toxic campaign. And to be sure, while I have significant concerns about the politics of this order, as well as the likely backlash from it, my primary concern in this piece is specifically how Christians in America should respond.

So, if you don't call yourself a "Christian," then I encourage you to read what follows in a spirit of openness to the "Jesus Way." If you are a Christian, this might be challenging to you.

Allow me to be blunt. If the idea of a possible attack in our country (despite the repeated, verifiable, and overwhelming unlikelihood that refugees will ever be the source of such an attack) makes it impossible for you to extend compassion to our Middle Eastern neighbors who are fleeing war-torn destruction (many times with their own children in tow), then I humbly suggest that something other than God is enthroned in your life and heart.

Maybe, though, you are compassionate. Maybe you begrudgingly agree that many, if not all, refugees are probably innocent, and that you even feel bad for them and their situation. But if you still dig in your heels and believe they need to find somewhere else to go - after all, we need to be "America first" for a while - then I challenge you to recover the vision of a God who is no respecter of nations, who made it explicitly clear that our neighbor (whom we are to love without conditions) is not restricted to our own tribe.**

Finally, on a more sympathetic note, maybe you are simply scared, worried about the state of the world, and you are concerned for your family and friends, particularly those in large cities, who could be on the receiving end of a devastating terrorist attack. Maybe your heart is torn, but you feel that this imperfect immigration ban is still the best we can do in a bad situation. I get it. I really do, and I would be dishonest to say that I never have the same thoughts. But I would still challenge you on 2 counts:

1) I would argue that your notion of "neighbor" is still too small (see my note below on the Good Samaritan). We Christians cannot prioritize the safety of "our own" over anyone in need. I recognize that this flies in the face of the nationalist agenda of the current administration. So be it.

2) The impulse of self-protection is blatantly anti-Christ. Strong words, I know. But before your hackles go up, consider the radical notion of dying for your enemies. Consider the radical notion of an innocent man literally laying down his life for others, precisely while they were opposed to him.


If we are to be shaped by such a life, and I believe we are, then we must take this seriously. It is simply impossible to use the logic of Jesus to legitimize the action taken by our president last weekend. Perhaps you can legitimize it on purely political logic, and that's fine with me. In fact, if you are not a Christian, and you earnestly believe this is best for our country, I don't have a quarrel with you (though I still remain unconvinced, even on political grounds), but the minute you call yourself a Jesus-person, Caesar must be replaced.

You see, Safety does indeed extend a promise (you can life a comfortable, risk-free existence) but smuggles alongside it a deadly condition (you must only ignore the real suffering of other image-bearing humans). We make this pact at our peril, and at the expense of our humanity.

Safety must be named for what it is: an idol, a false god. It must be unmasked. Because we cannot serve two gods, for surely one of them will master us.***


*See Romans chapter 1

**See the oft-quoted parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. It is crucial to note that Jesus told this parable explicitly in response to a man trying to test the boundaries of the question, "Who then is my neighbor?" It also should be noted that the Samaritans were despised and distrusted by the Jewish people, and the idea of a Samaritan as the hero of a story would have been remarkably distasteful.

**See Matthew 6.24

My Favorite Books in 2016

So, 2016 blew.

The perils and low-points of 2016 have been well-reported: we were dominated by a toxic, relentless political election; refugee crises and global civil unrest stoked fears (and hopefully compassion); race relations in America boiled over as police violence was continually reported; and there even seemed to be a deadly plague striking down one beloved musician after another.

But in the midst of all the suckiness, I was able to find comfort and challenge in some amazing books. So even if you aren't a reader, I commend the following to you.*

Favorite Memoir: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson's work as a justice advocate in the American South for over 25 years is beyond inspiring, and it is brilliantly captured in "story form" in this memoir. I was quite literally moved to tears by his account of real people who suffer as a result of our deeply flawed system. and the emotional impact of "Just Mercy" is intensified because of Stevenson's own relentless hope, which infects the reader in profound (dare I say, spiritual?) ways. Particularly in our political climate, this book is an absolute must-read.

Near-Favorites: Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans & Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Favorite Non-Fiction: Gettoside by Jill Leovy

Investigative reporting doesn't get much more enthralling than Jill Leovy's account of crime in South L.A. The "true crime" element is such that, at points, I nearly forgot I was reading non-fiction. The people are real, the broken lives are real, and the social commentary that Leovy threads throughout the story is real. Books like Gettoside are precisely what our fractured society needs, as it has been proven over and over again that the need for social change is best communicated through story. And it's a damn good read, to boot.

Near-Favorite: My Brother's Keeper by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen & Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious by David Dark

Favorite Fiction: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Certainly one of the older books I read in 2016, I was struck by the relevancy of Bradbury's commentary on humanity and society. Like the best science fiction, Bradbury transports the reader to another world (in this case, Mars) and uses its setting to make sharp observations about us. The setting of Mars is fully-realized, and Bradbury brilliantly uses the short-story/novella form to weave together multiple plots. The reader is left with some seriously haunting images and memorable characters, and in the case of the Martian Chronicles, the total is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Near-Favorites: Home by Marilynne Robinson, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman & the Expanse Series by James S.A. Corey

Favorite History: Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

I decided to separate 'non-fiction' from 'history' because there's just way too much good stuff in both categories! Even after making this distinction, though, choosing a single favorite was a difficult task.

Nevertheless, Douglas Blackmon's searing account of the post-Civil War era of race relations is both astoundingly-well-researched and a gripping narrative. It isn't hyperbolic to say that this book absolutely shatters the popular notion that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the conclusion of the Civil War (which is what I was taught in grade school). This simply isn't true, and those who are skeptical of this argument now have the onus on them to disprove Blackmon's research. 'Slavery by Another Name' is what I think of as a "Pandora's Box Book" in that the reader cannot unsee what Blackmon painstakingly exposes. It's hard for me to think of a better book for our time, and I absolutely cannot recommend it highly enough.

Near-Favorites: America's War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew Bacevich, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Leowen & The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist

Favorite Theology/Philosophy: The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins is an electrifying and controversial thinker, and I imagine future generations may look back on him as a Kierkegaard-of-our-times. Thankfully, though, his writing is quite a bit more approachable than Soren's, and I found myself completely taken with his most recent work. In 'Divine Magician,' Rollins pulls on the well-trod territory of the Garden of Eden, but in his characteristic way, rips it wide open with a radical reading, pulling on insights from psychology, philosophy, sociology, and even popular culture. He is clearly brilliant, but has no interest in flouting his intelligence behind opaque writing and inaccessible ideas. To top it off, he is funny, incisive, and (dare I say) pastoral in his concern for people. Those willing to momentarily suspend 'traditional' questions about things like "the historicity of Adam and Eve" or "authorial intent in exegesis" will find much to gain from Rollin's interpretation here.

Near-Favorites: The Christian Imagination by Willie Jennings; Men and Women in the Church by Sarah Sumner; Theology in the Context of World Christianity by Timothy Tennent & The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright 

Onwards to 2017! May you be a better year than the one we just slogged through, but even if you are not, I have no doubt I will find some great literary companions to keep me company.

*Note that this is not a review of books actually published in 2016. They are included here simply because I got around to reading them this year.