Yesterday, over 150 social justice activists in North Carolina were arrested at the state legislature building after a civil disobedience protest over a bunch of new laws the NC state government is racing to implement that activists say are going to really hurt the poor in NC. One of the biggest problem areas is education. To share two examples, one bill says that charter schools can hire instructors that don’t have teaching licenses; another one transfers $100 million from public schools to for-profit private schools without subjecting the for-profit schools to the same accountability measures the public schools have like standardized testing. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a leader in the Christian neo-monastic movement who lives in community with the poor in inner-city Durham. On his blog today, he shared an open letter to his kids about why he chose to get arrested yesterday that exemplifies a basic contrast in the two visions for family that we encounter in the church today. Continue reading
It’s not often that something I read on Huffington Post gives me “hopey-changey” goose bumps. But CampusPride director Shane Windmeyer’s post about “coming out” as a friend of Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy is one of the most hopeful things I’ve read in a long time. I challenge you to put your ideology aside for a moment, whatever it is, and consider the witness of love that has happened between these two men. Continue reading
I spent Father’s Day in Durham with both of my two families: my white family and my brown family. In the afternoon, I went down to the Eno River to swim with my white family where I noticed with perhaps a little too much pride that we were the only white people there (I guess most white people stick to chlorinated pools). Then on Sunday night after I put my boys to bed, I went out to the soccer field to see my brown family (the mostly Mexican immigrant kids from my former youth group who adopted me into their family). I only had a few minutes with them because I was meeting my friend Mitch for a drink so I had to settle for a few quick hugs while the ball was at the other end of the field. Continue reading
I read a piece by Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, in which he describes what “values voters” supposedly want, and it’s gotten me riled up. I think of myself as a social conservative, but it has a specific meaning to me. I believe that the free market has made sex into a commodity and an industry and ruined for many people its capacity to be the most sacred physical intimacy that two human beings can experience. I deplore the way that the fashion and entertainment industries have turned into a demonic synergy that promotes debauchery. I’ve worked with economically disadvantaged teenagers for half of my adult life and I’ve seen first-hand how the “bling” culture promoted by the mainstream hip-hop industry has caused kids to define themselves in harmful ways and engage in risky behaviors that either put them in jail or keep them in the ghetto with babies they’re not old enough to raise.
So when I read Tony Perkins say that “government policies foster a deficit of character” that makes “mothers avoid marriage, and fathers flee responsibility,” I have to cringe. Poor girls are not going out and getting pregnant out of wedlock because they’ve calculated ahead of time that Uncle Sam is going to bail them out (which is largely a thing of the past anyway). The irresponsibility that leads to teen pregnancy has nothing to do with whether the public school has a daycare program so that teen moms can finish high school or whether they can get a discount for baby food through the WIC program when they go to the grocery store. They do what they do because they live their lives in emulation of the “gangstas” and “divas” in a globalized pop culture that has been produced by the invisible hand of the market place. If Tony Perkins gets his way and all the safety nets for poor people get cut, it’s not going to change the lifestyle choices of “mothers who avoid marriage” and “fathers who flee responsibility.” It will just ensure that once they’ve fallen in a hole, they’re not getting out of it. And then all of the “value voters” can look down on them and judge them with a clean conscience because “focusing on their own families” has helped to immunize them against any possible outbreak of mercy.
I’m very concerned with figuring out how to protect vulnerable kids from the nightmare world of commodified sex and glorified violence that surrounds us. Every day I worry and pray about the youth that I used to work with. And that’s why it’s preposterous to me that so-called “social conservatives” like Perkins promote the laissez-faire capitalism that very astutely uses sex and violence as its best marketing tool for selling products to adolescents. I’m not saying that the solution to the problem is to create more government bureaucracy. But laissez-faire capitalism and government bureaucracy are not the only two options we have for ordering human community. As Christians, we have a third option: the body of Christ, the form that human community takes when we renounce the delusions of self-sufficiency and individual responsibility (that people like Tony Perkins promote) to accept the fact that we are all entirely dependent upon God for any success we have ever had and consequently we should take responsibility for others in God’s family regardless of how or why they’ve come to be in a hard place.
Jesus says in Mark 3:35, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” His “family values” are straightforward: come be in My family because I value you. Jesus didn’t say that if we wait till we’re married to have sex and keep our kids from getting in trouble and becoming a burden on the state, then we earn the right not to be bothered by other peoples’ problems. That’s the anti-gospel of individual responsibility. That’s the way that people come up with the strange idea that fighting for lower taxes is somehow the highest expression of moral virtue.
The real gospel says that because of God’s recognition that we’re weak and broken people who live in a fallen world with dangerous temptations, He sent His Son to help us come together as one human family through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice that made it safe for us to be vulnerable with fellow redeemed sinners who become our “brothers” and “sisters.” Each of us has some kind of biological family within the mix of God’s family and we have a sacred calling to care for our spouses, kids, siblings, and parents in a unique way. But we have accepted an anti-gospel that opposes God’s kingdom if we idolize the nuclear family and think that our lives are supposed to revolve around saturating our kids’ lives with activities and achievements to put on their Ivy League college applications, which we start writing when they’re five years old. Tony Perkins has no answer for the epidemic of helicopter parenting, probably because “family values” like his are the basis for that phenomenon.
If we want to promote Jesus’ “family values,” then we will invest time and energy into being God’s family for those who don’t have stable biological families. We will raise our kids to be merciful towards less fortunate people and not to presume that misfortune signifies moral shortcoming. Our energy should be focused on neither defending the free market nor government programs (though I am interested to read Miroslav Volf’s new book on “how Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good”). We should be focused instead on building the kingdom of God where people are valued, where teenagers grow up in a dignity not derived in sexual desirability or gangsta toughness but in God’s love for them. We cannot build the kingdom of God if we buy into the anti-gospel of individual responsibility that tells us the most virtuous thing we can do is stay inside our white picket fences and focus on our nuclear families. Focus instead on the body of Christ; focus instead on God’s family; focus instead on the Kingdom.
Viridiana Martinez shared the following photo on her facebook page this past weekend:
If the bottom text is too fuzzy for you to read, the whole billboard says, “We follow Christ, so it’s basically a win/win for you to follow us.” The arrogance of this advertisement is astonishing. I get that this particular church is trying to make a play on words since the word “follow” probably refers to following the church’s actions online on twitter or some similar network. But this sign captures an attitude that a lot of us Christians seem to have about the relationship between our faith in Christ and our self-importance. Instead of renouncing our self-importance as followers of Christ submitted to His will (which is what it actually means to “confess Jesus Christ as Lord”), many Christians blaspheme their salvation by seeing their faith in Christ as the reason why other people should look up to and follow them.
In many ways, this is the story of Western Civilization. At least between 1492 and somewhere in the mid-to-late 20th century, Jesus has served as a hood ornament for our triumphant march across the globe to conquer and enslave other races. In all of the royal proclamations claiming the land of the New World for the kings of Europe, the land-grabs were explicitly justified by the purpose of establishing Jesus Christ’s reign over the territory conquered. I’ve read the journals of the Spanish conquistadors. They really did believe that killing and enslaving native Americans was the way to share the gospel with them. It’s horrifying but it really happened. It’s hard to tell how much cynicism was involved in the theological gymnastics they underwent to justify genocide.
The challenge to us today as Christians, particularly in white evangelical churches, is that we have inherited theology that has been warped to justify the sins of the past. The “family values” movement for instance was launched in the early 1970’s by the same segregationist church leaders who had just been bulldozed by the Civil Rights Movement. That doesn’t discredit the very legitimate concern of trying to keep teenagers from getting pregnant and ruining their lives. But when my “family values” become the basis for my feelings of moral superiority and my excuse for not loving my neighbor whom I have deemed “immoral,” then they have become squarely opposed to the whole purpose of Christianity both in my personal walk with Christ and in the social transformation of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.
Let me put it plainly. Jesus died to save us from the imprisonment of our self-righteousness. As long as we keep cataloging all our actions as proof of what good people we are, we can never enter into the joy of communion with God, because that joy depends upon being able to interpret whatever good deeds we’ve happened to do in life as gifts from God to us rather than resume bullet-points that we can use to argue God into accepting us. By trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior, I am set free from needing to prove my own righteousness. If on the other hand, I view my professed faith in Jesus as the legitimation of my self-righteousness (as many Christians do), I haven’t been saved at all but have turned the antidote for my fallen sinful condition into the source of my damnation. In the Bible, it says there’s one unforgivable sin: “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” There are many different interpretations of what this means, but I think we blaspheme the Holy Spirit when we glorify ourselves for whatever good the Holy Spirit accomplishes through us, when we feel compelled to say, Follow me because I’m doing it right. If I cling to the need to be important, have followers, etc, I am actively resisting God’s effort to transform me into a vessel of His love for the purpose of creating a world where His mercy reigns.
A good litmus test for whether Christians have actually accepted God’s mercy and the fact that they don’t deserve it is to see how easy they find it to judge other people whose lives they know nothing about, whether it’s gay people, undocumented immigrants, Palestinians, or any of the other modern-day equivalents of the 1st century Samaritans whom Jesus championed not because they were uniquely great people but because of how much his fellow Jews hated them. It’s one thing to confront people we know and care about regarding some sin or shortcoming in their lives if we think it’s hurting them. But when we rail against “those illegals,” “those gays,” or “those Arabs,” we’re not taking some kind of moral stand against sin; we’re just feeding the insatiable appetite of our self-righteousness and building a wall against the healing power of God’s mercy in our hearts. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 describes the mindset of far too many Christians in our country right now. For those of you who don’t know the story, a servant gets forgiven a debt by his master and then he goes and beats up another servant who owes him money. That kind of perverse hypocrisy is precisely what we engage in when we see Christ’s sacrifice as the justification for our self-righteousness rather than liberation from self-righteousness.
If we have really accepted God’s mercy through Christ, then we will treat and talk about other people with mercy. And not only that, but we won’t go around looking for other people to follow us. We will instead follow Christ into the world and seek His face in the eyes of other people whom we serve. Our goal as Christians should be simple: to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others. The first part doesn’t mean that I need to be the world’s savior; it just means I should be a servant to all in imitation and obedience to Jesus’ example. The second part doesn’t mean that other people are perfectly sinless like Jesus; it just means that Jesus cares enough about even the least of His brothers and sisters that whatever we do to them, we’re doing to Him. So let’s follow Jesus and stop looking around to see if other people are following us.