Kingdom Resistance

Hey, it’s been a while. Not for lack of desire to get writing done, but for lack of capacity. Maybe some day, when I have more time, I’ll tell you about it. But here I am.

I’ll start with this: Happy New Year — both, belatedly, to 2017 and, as of tomorrow, to the Year of the Rooster!

Anyway, it so happens that I’ve providentially preached both of the Sundays after Election Day in November and Inauguration Day last week. As such, those occasions have forced allowed me to pray and think and reflect on my own response to those events and the non-alternative reality they reflect. In particular, I’ve been asking God what my calling is in the midst of this — as a man, as a husband, as an American, as a Christian, and as a pastor — and what our calling as a church is.

[Some of what follows is taken from one or both of the sermons I preached — “A Church for the City” on November 13, and “inSPIREd: Relational” on January 22.]

The last few months have felt like a setback for many of us as it relates to fighting poverty, prejudice, and discrimination; for those who care for the people in our society who are vulnerable or feeling uncertain or fearful about their safety or their future. Whoever you voted for, if you’re a Christian, I’m guessing you voted as faithfully as you could based on your understanding of the gospel and your judgment of the candidates and your view of politics. The gospel impacts every area of life — or at least it should — because Jesus has something to say about every area of life, because the kingdom of God means something for every area of life — that includes how we vote and what we do in the time between our votes.

Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970s, when his country was led by an authoritarian government; he said this:

A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that?

We are called to pray for those in leadership over us and to call them to account. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, as the church, we are not to be “the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.”

That’s why, in our church, we’ve sought to address issues like racial justice and racial reconciliation and the real sin of systemic racism; that’s why, in the aftermath of some of the violence last summer, we changed up our worship services to create space to grieve and lament and pray together; that’s why we’ve tried to push into some of those difficult conversations — as faithfully as we can, with as much grace and courage and humility as we can — all the while reminding each other of Jesus and the kingdom of God that challenges every earthly system and structure, reminding each other of the reality of sin in our own lives and in our world, and reminding each other of the power of God’s Spirit to bring good out of any and every situation.

I do want to say this, especially in light of the uptick in harassment and hate crimes (I just met with a rabbi today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and he was telling me about recent bomb threats) and the strange alternative-fact-filled world we find ourselves in: if you have a disability or are a woman, a person of color, an immigrant or a refugee, part of a religious minority, a member of the LGBTQ community, or otherwise care at all about the vulnerable — if you are uncertain or fearful because of things said or things reported or things experienced in recent months — especially by those who claim to follow Jesus — let me say I’m with you and I pledge to do whatever is in my power to continue to oppose injustice and discrimination against you, because I believe that is what Christ calls me to. And if you’re reading this today, and you’re not fearful or hurting right now, and you’re saying, “But what about me? Aren’t you going to oppose injustice and discrimination against me? Doesn’t Christ call you to that, too?” Absolutely, I’d do the same for you too.

So … what’s the calling?

Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s another way of putting it:

Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

How about this, from singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn?

Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

Or this, from Oscar Romero:

I am not with the right or with the left. I am trying to be faithful to the word that the Lord bids me preach, to the message that cannot change, which tells both sides the good they do and the injustices they commit.

To be of the kingdom of God means that Christians are exiles in this world, because we’re following and loving and serving and learning to live like Jesus, the king of the kingdom. Jesus, who chose to step into a hostile world, chose to be an exile, for the sake of those he loved — that’s what Philippians 2 tells us. Jesus, who was eternal but entered time, who was all-powerful but made himself vulnerable, who was in heaven but became flesh and made his dwelling among us — that’s what John 1 tells us. That’s who we follow; that’s who we’re called to be like.

This is the Jesus who said, “Love your enemy,” because he knew that only love can every chain, every destructive cycle, that, as Martin Luther King Jr. would discover centuries later, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is the Jesus who backed his words up with his actions, giving up his life so that we his enemies might have life, choosing to die so that we his enemies might not have to, offering grace so that we his enemies might be rescued and redeemed and restored, and taking onto and into himself the violence we wish upon each other, the violence of our sinful intentions, the violence of Psalm 137, and emptying it of its power. That’s what love does.

And this Jesus, after three days in the tomb, was raised to life, proving that sin cannot stop him, that death cannot hold him down, and that however bleak things may look, Jesus is risen, his Spirit is in us, and there is still work to do. As he said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

My calling is still the same; our calling as a church is still the same:

to speak out and to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ;

to be salt and light in a world desperate for resilient hope and amazing grace and persevering love and the justice of God;

to live as citizens and ambassadors of the kingdom of God;

to defend the image of God in every person, to speak up for the voiceless, to welcome the stranger, to offer healing to the broken and wounded, to give rest to the weary and downhearted, to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized, to preach good news to the poor;

to break every chain, to challenge every injustice and every -ism as an affront to a just God;

to point forward to a day when people of every nation and every tribe will gather at the throne of God to worship.

That’s my calling; that has been my calling during the previous administration—as imperfectly as I lived into that—and it will remain my calling during the current administration—as imperfectly as I will live into that. And that’s your calling too—but you may live it out in the context of a non-profit or a business, or through activism or advocacy, or working in government or running for office, or in a family or a school or a hospital.

So Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6 is particularly germane for us today:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Our boat is going in the same direction. The winds may have changed—and that may make things easier for some of us and that may mean a lot more rowing for others of us—but neither our calling nor our commission have changed. I know it takes hard work; it may involve putting our lives on the line to protect each other; it will involve having difficult conversations with people we know where we’re sometimes not even sure if we’re making any progress. But I firmly believe that God has placed many of you in the families and the friendships and the workplaces you’re in for a reason — to live in and to live out more of God’s kingdom reality in those very places and relationships.

At the Inauguration on Friday, part of Matthew 5 was read — the Beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here’s what struck me:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are the shalom-seekers. Blessed are those who will work to see relationships restored. Blessed are those who will put their lives on the line so that others might be made whole. Blessed are those who do not grow weary in doing good. For they will be called the children of God.

So let’s come together, let’s stand together, let’s hold together, let’s love our enemies together, let’s protest injustice together, let’s be gracious together, let’s listen and speak out together, let’s lock arms and recommit ourselves to following Jesus and being ambassadors of his kingdom together.

Grace and peace to you all, friends.

Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which
He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which
He is to bless us now.

– St. Teresa of Ávila

[Photo: From a cabin trip to Lake Anna earlier this month. It pretty well encapsulates what I’m feeling.]

Election 2012 Epilogue

A few thoughts in the aftermath of the election:

On Tuesday morning, I attended an Election Day prayer breakfast at a large African-American church. I had come into the day with a sense of excitement about the elections, knowing the tremendous responsibility and privilege I had as a citizen, and looking forward to being a part of the democratic process again (in this particular way)–2008 was the first presidential election I’d ever voted in, and I was eager to cast my ballot again.

But being there that morning, I was reminded of the solemnity and seriousness of the situation. The pastor was a man who, in his own lifetime, had known a time when he wasn’t allowed to vote; and the people around me were folks who never thought they’d see someone who looked like them in the Oval Office. It was a time when we came to God and asked that his will would be done, regardless of the outcome of the election, that equality  and justice and righteousness would increase.

It gave me a new and refreshing perspective for the rest of the day. Kathy Khang says it well in “It’s Easy to Forget Privilege When It’s Always Been Yours”:

there still are people who have no voice, who have no right to vote, but they are directly impacted by the politicians, referenda, judges, and local officials as well as the “agendas and policies.” As a Christian who is new to the process, it’s a privilege and responsibility I don’t take lightly because it isn’t a given. I’m not American born. We are not post-racial America, and the fact of the matter is the church isn’t either. We are working on it, but we aren’t there.

Also, Angry Asian Man highlights a historic election night for Asian Americans.

And on a related note, I wonder what the future holds for the Republican Party, which was trounced in the polls when it came to minorities (according to exit polls, Obama won 93-6 among African Americans, 73-26 among Asian Americans, and 71-27 among Latinos) and young people (60-36 among 18-24 year olds, 60-38 among 25-29 year olds, and 55-42 among 30-39 year olds). I guess we’ll see in the coming months.

In the meantime, I continue to follow the lead of Oscar Romero, former Archbishop of San Salvador, who said:

I am not with the right or with the left. I am trying to be faithful to the word that the Lord bids me preach, to the message that cannot change, which tells both sides the good they do and the injustices they commit.

Christ and his gospel above all.

P.S. I’ve always been a big fan of Nate Silver. And xkcd.

The Line: What Matters

Last night, I was privileged to be at the premiere of The Line, a documentary film by Emmy Award-winning producer Linda Midgett and Sojourners, in partnership with World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association.

The ‘line’ of the title is the poverty line, which currently stands at about $23,000 per year for a family of four; and the film delves into the stories of four people faced with poverty.

It is the poor that are mentioned throughout the Bible as of unique concern–these are the vulnerable and marginalized, these are the ones often oppressed and kept down by the systems in place, these are “the least of these.”

As Aaron said a few weeks ago at The District Church, “The test of true, biblical justice is how we treat the poor.”

Please take some time to watch the film and learn the stories and faces of just a few of the almost 50 million Americans living in poverty–they are our brothers and sisters, and we are called to be their keepers, to be their neighbors.

Don’t just be aware; do something, even something as simple as raising your voice.

You can find more info and action steps that you can take at thelinemovie.com.

6 Suggestions for Christians for Engaging in Politics

[Disclaimer: I wrote this before I read Bryan Roberts’ “7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics.” Go read that first–it’s shorter and funnier.]

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering into election season (i.e. that time when the general public begins to pay attention).

A couple friends who pastor churches in non-DC parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking–given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church–about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.

So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more–and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.

Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.

So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.

1. Offer Grace.

As Christians, we believe that–as Brennan Manning, Dorothy Day, and numerous others have put it–all is grace. Just as God has been gracious to us in giving us so much more than we deserve, so we are also called to extend that grace to others: don’t presume that just because someone disagrees with you, they’re somehow less clever or less informed; don’t assume that just because someone’s faith doesn’t work itself out the same way as yours, they must therefore not be a Christian. God’s grace is big enough to meet all of us where we are and move us on a journey toward him–that should always be the foundation on which we build.

2. Be Humble.

With grace comes humility–the understanding that there is a God and it is not us, the recognition that there is far more that we do not know than that we do, the attitude of not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3) but of thinking of others as better than us (Philippians 2:3). When we recognize that grace is a gift from God and that the God we serve is far bigger than any disagreements we might have–or even the greatest challenges we might face as a nation and as a world–we are free to work as hard as we can, speak as passionately as we can, and do as much as we can, to change the world for the better, all the while remembering that it does not all depend on us, and that God brings good out of even the most awful things. And so we may walk humbly with our God and interact humbly with one another.

3. Be Civil.

Rich Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary) has written a tremendous book called Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (that was republished recently), and last year did an interview with NPR about “Restoring Political Civility.” He talks often about the need for civility in discourse even as we maintain our convictions–to paraphrase: believing something strongly doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk about it, nor does getting along with people mean you have to check your beliefs at the door to find the lowest common denominator.

Grace and humility necessitate civility.

4. Work with Facts.

Jon Huntsman, Jr. (one of the Republican presidential candidates this year) said in a recent interview that one of the problems is that everyone appears to have their own facts, which means we’re not even starting from the same point!

Sadly, we live in a time when we can’t just take politicians at their word–there’s just too much spin (and even outright lying). So starting with the facts is always a good thing to do. Factcheck.org and Politifact are two non-partisan groups that do a great job running political claims and statements through the Truth-o-Meter.

Also, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has a very helpful blog–“Wonkblog”–that keeps me up-to-date with summaries of the latest goings-on.

5. Read and (Carefully) Apply Scripture.

Of course, facts aren’t the whole picture and focusing on individual facets of policy–even if they’re true–can sometimes obscure the larger picture; and we must always view everything through the lens of Scripture and the larger narrative of God.

Just this morning, I was reading Jeremiah 22 and was reminded of the standard to which God called the kings of Judah (and, by implication and extrapolation, any political leader):

Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (v.3)

Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. (vv.15-16)

According to this standard, neither of the standard-bearers for the major parties matches up particularly well. The middle class has gotten a lot of attention, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the size and health of the middle class is one gauge of the health of our society.

But a better measure is the welfare of the those who have the least. Scripture is full of references to the poor, and how God is particularly concerned with their plight; for instance, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Prov. 14:31).

This is the standard to which we should be calling our leaders: doing justice and righteousness; protecting the oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable; and upholding the cause of the poor and needy–those whom Jesus referred to in Matthew 25 as “the least of these.”

[Brief aside: check out “The Line,” a new documentary from Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association, that highlights this very issue. Trailer below.]


6. Be Prayerful

Ultimately, it comes back to God. As the people of God, it has to.

Prayer is not simply a way for us to petition God on the things we’d like to see happen, or to try to get God on our side: “Please let (insert presidential candidate) win!” or “Please keep (insert presidential candidate) from winning!”

It is also, and more importantly, the place where we come to meet with God, and to have our thoughts, our desires, and our wills, transformed by God to be more in line with who he is and what he desires–and reading and understanding Scripture is a good step toward being able to discern those things. Prayer is where we are changed, first–before that person with whom we’re disagreeing, before the policies and structures of our country, before the ossified injustices of our world. Prayer is where we grow our roots in God in order that we may bear fruit in the world.

In prayer, we are likely to be challenged to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; to lower the accusing finger, to replace the vitriolic Facebook post with a civil one, to refrain from posting that oh-so-funny-but-not-particularly-gracious tweet; to truly love our enemies–that is, any who are opposed to us–and to seek their good.

I wonder if we could truly make this “the most important election of our lifetime,” as so many are wont to say, by showing the world that, as Christians, we are beholden not to a certain political ideology or party, nor to a particular economic or social philosophy, but that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God, who live out our faith with the love and graciousness and conviction and humility that are characteristic of our family.

That would be pretty awesome.

[Photo credits: Romney & Obama, Joe Raedle & Olivier Douliery / Getty Images; Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary website]

Race, a black president, and the gospel

As I read, tears came to my eyes, my heart broke a little, and a sense of (what I pray was) righteous anger began to rise.

Bill Sanderson

I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest piece in The Atlantic magazine, entitled “Fear of a Black President,” which looked at race, racism, and how both had thus far impacted Barack Obama’s campaign and presidency, and the pall that they continue to cast over the future of this country.

I was heartbroken and angered at being reminded that this is the world in which we live. Where racism still flourishes. Where politicians can’t speak the truth openly or address issues head-on because it will rile up a small but powerful base of people who prefer ignorance or to maintain a status quo that privileges them. Where we are reminded that sin and brokenness and evil are real, not only on an individual level but become enshrined and ossified on a structural and systemic level, that they can become a part of a nation’s history and culture. Where, despite all protestations to the contrary, despite all the declarations about liberty and freedom and equality, our actions and inactions demonstrate that our actual values fall far short of the mark. Where, though large swaths of the country declare their followership of Jesus Christ, neither he nor his prodigal love and grace and welcome are to be found in the public square: not in our policies or our politics or our practices, not in our treatment of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant, nor–to speak more broadly–of our fellow human beings.

I was heartbroken and angered because I am complicit in this, as are we all. I am not a black man; I will never fully know or understand or experience the realities of life as a black man. I can empathize, I can learn, I can fight for equality, I can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ that breaks down all the barriers that humans have built to divide us–race being not the least of these–the gospel that raises valleys and topples mountains, and I can pray for change to come in the hearts and minds and lives of all people by the power of the Spirit of God. But I am who I am, and I am not who I am not.

As an Asian American, growing up in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, experiencing life in Southern California and now in Washington, DC, spending all of my life in cosmopolises, I have rarely been faced with overt racism. I suppose that in some ways, I have even benefited from it, perhaps unbeknownst to me, in the form of the myth of the model minority. I have never been told that I needed to be “twice as good” but “half as Asian.”

There is much in the Asian American experience to be mourned over too, much that remains largely hidden in the pages of history, not often brought to light, much that even I have yet to familiarize myself with. The Chinese people who came to work in gold mines and on the railroads. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

But injustice is injustice, and the first step is acknowledging the reality of the world in which we live and our part in it. I’m reminded of Nehemiah, who, upon hearing of the state of Jerusalem, came before God to confess and repent on behalf of his people and their history of disobedience. He didn’t apologize simply for the sins of others–as if he were blameless–but recognized his own complicity in the situation: “we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned” (Nehemiah 1:6).

The second step was to act: Nehemiah gained permission from the king of Babylon, whom he served, to return to Jerusalem and restore the city (Nehemiah 2).

Likewise, we are not called simply to be upset by the injustices of the world–whether it is abuse, modern slavery, sexism, or racism. We are called to partner with God in proclaiming the kingdom of God, in announcing–by the words that we speak, by the actions we take, by the lives we lead–that we are under new management, and that the God of the universe, who revealed himself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, is at work to make all things new.

There’s a misconception that the concept of forgiveness means that the offense doesn’t mean anything any more, that there are no consequences. But true forgiveness is acknowledging the reality of the offense and understanding the full impact of the consequences, and then restoring and renewing right relationship. And this is possible for us as Christians because Jesus took on himself the consequences of our offenses.

Saying that race doesn’t matter, or “They should just get over it,” not only misunderstands the reality of the offense and the full impact of the consequences, it not only denies complicity in the system and culture in which one lives; it prevents true reconciliation, true restoration, and true freedom.

From the day God broke my heart over issues of injustice, and over the years, as I’ve continued to learn just how big God really is, how expansive his mission, how all-encompassing his love, and how far he goes to reconcile all things to himself, until the day that I die, I have chosen to follow, to love, to serve, and to obey Jesus–whatever that means, and in this case, whatever that means for race and racism.

To be humble, cognizant of my part in a system built on injustice and oppression. To be attentive, discerning the movement of the Spirit of God to bring good out of all things, even the most heinous. To be loving, welcoming and honoring of all human beings, created as we are in the image of God. And to let my heart be broken by the things that breaks God’s; to be angered and upset by the things that anger and upset God–wherever one of his children is denigrated and oppressed and marginalized; and to be at work wherever God calls me to be at work.

And all by the grace of God.

I’ve included some excerpts from the piece below, but I’d encourage you to read it yourself. It’s worth it.

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police.

… aggregating his findings nationally, Stephens-Davidowitz has concluded that Obama lost between 3 and 5 percentage points of the popular vote [of the 2008 election] to racism.

While Beck and Limbaugh have chosen direct racial assault, others choose simply to deny that a black president actually exists. One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president. More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced “birther bills” demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship as a condition for putting him on the 2012 ballot. Eighteen percent of Republicans believe Obama to be a Muslim. The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961.

Thus the myth of “twice as good” that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans—­enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history—feel no anger toward their tormentors. Of course, very little in our history argues that those who seek to tell bold truths about race will be rewarded. But it was Obama himself, as a presidential candidate in 2008, who called for such truths to be spoken. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said in his “More Perfect Union” speech, which he delivered after a furor erupted over Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” remarks. And yet, since taking office, Obama has virtually ignored race.

The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.