It Will Never Be My Name in the Headlines

I want to start this by saying I don’t generally like to be very controversial on the Internet. This isn’t to say that I don’t have opinions on controversial things—I certainly do—but that I’ve mostly refrained from using social media and this blog (which I haven’t posted to in ages) to express my opinions. This is partly because of my conflict-avoidant Scandinavian upbringing, partly because I know there’s a lot that I don’t understand and many pieces of the puzzle I lack (including in what you’ll read below), and partly because I don’t want to be just another loud, angry, indiscernible voice amongst the cacophony.

But today, I am hurting, I am seething with frustration and anger, and I don’t think I can maintain my self-respect if I don’t explain why: Philando Castile (or any number of the Black people killed by police officers recently) could have been someone I love.  Philando Castile (or Lavish Reynolds) will probably never be me.

I was born and raised in White America. I’m from rural Montana and proud of it, where even nonreligious people believe in God, in family, in loving their country, and in lending a helping hand to their neighbors. Rural communities have each other’s backs, and that is a value I’m proud to carry with me today.

I went to D.A.R.E. as a kid. I was taught to respect and trust police officers and authority figures in general. Although I have yet to meet a single perfect cop (because no one is), I believe that the vast majority of them put on their uniforms every day to do what their badges declare: to protect and serve their communities. I vividly remember a poster in our local IGA of a police officer drinking lemonade at a little girl’s sidewalk stand. This is how I grew up viewing police officers, and as far as I know, it still fits my sleepy little hometown.

I was raised in White Evangelical America, where we listened to talk radio, memorized Psalm 139, and voted pro-life. Psalm 139 is still one of my favorites, and I’m still avidly pro-life. This is the general context I’m coming from, and the context I hope to address.

I was in my last semester of college at the University of Montana when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. It struck me as a bizarre situation, like part of a world to which I did not belong. I followed the news as it unfolded with the rest of America, and I remember thinking that even though the situation was fishy, there just didn’t seem to be enough evidence to convict Zimmerman beyond reasonable doubt. And even though UM is probably the most ethnically diverse 220 acres in all of Montana, I still managed to stay emotionally distant, like a lot of America. I still failed to consider that there might be something bigger going on in Trayvon’s death than a trigger-happy vigilante, like a lot of America.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. This was the first death of a Black person that shook me, not because of the protests or the controversial details of the incident, but because for the first time in my adult life, I really paused to listen to Black voices. And I started to hear a different narrative about violence and fear and the justice system I had been raised to trust. I began to actually hear my Black friends as they told me about getting pulled over while driving the speed limit, being followed in stores, and far more terrifying things that are not my stories to tell. I was in unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and even shocking territory.

That summer, I was talking with a friend of a friend who is a police officer, asking him what it is like to be a cop in the midst of the tensions caused by Michael Brown’s death. This police officer, who I still believe puts on his uniform to serve and protect, told me that he could not do his job without racial profiling.

If the notions I had about the fairness of the American justice system were shaken by Michael Brown’s death—along with the subsequent grand jury proceedings—they were shattered as I watched, with the rest of the nation, as police officers forced Eric Garner onto the concrete and choked the life out of him. The pieces of my shattered faith were ground to dust as I watched Laquan McDonald die. The dust was blown into the wind as I saw a police car pull up to an isolated park bench and its occupants shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death without warning.

To my people, my White people, who I love and deeply respect, I know what many of you are saying. You’re saying that Michael was smoking weed, that he should not have stolen those cigarillos. He shouldn’t have resisted arrest (which we do not know for certain). True, but I know of large White men from my rural Montana community who, in their misspent youth, committed much larger robberies while intoxicated, ran from the police (resisted arrest), and are still alive. College classmates ran when the cops came to bust up parties, and rather than being fearful, we could joke about how it was a good thing Missoula cops loved their donuts.

To my people, who I love and deeply respect, I can hear and have heard what some of you have had to say about Laquan. He had a history of violent behavior, he was mentally unstable, he was a criminal. He was breaking into cars. I can say the same thing of White men I know who have lived to tell about it. But Laquan had a knife! I know. I was once mugged at knifepoint, and even if I had had a gun, I would not have used it. It is always, always better to deescalate the situation, even at the expense of personal property. There’s also so much I could say about how our society fails men and women with mental health issues on a daily basis, but suffice to say this: nowhere is that failure more apparent than in communities of color.

To my people, who I love and deeply respect, I can guess what some of you are thinking: Tamir Rice should not have been playing with a toy gun in a public park; he was big for his age; his parents should not have let him play with a gun without the orange cap which marks it as a toy. Let me remind you, my people, that my siblings, my friends, and I played with toy guns throughout our childhood, sometimes in public parks. Some of those toy guns didn’t have orange caps. Many of us were shooting real guns by age ten or twelve, sometimes without parental supervision. Many of us were big for our age. Not one of us was ever perceived as a threat.

Please, these are not singularities. I could go on, and on, and on reminding you of times in recent memory when Black men and women were abused, mistreated, and yes, killed, before our very eyes, while for the most part similar situations are handled much differently when the suspects are White.

My beloved people, I am not defending criminal behavior. I am not saying that the emerging details of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths at the hands of police officers are insignificant. I am not saying our nation’s police officers set out to brutalize our Black brothers and sisters when they put on their uniforms. Let me reiterate, I believe they put on their uniforms to protect and serve their communities. What I am saying is that in so doing, our police officers have stepped into a system that regards Black men and women as inherently more threatening than White men and women.

This is a well-documented fact that even includes the way Black and Latino officers perceive civilians of color[1]. The desire to protect and serve, combined with an innate view that the darker someone’s skin is, the more of a threat they are, creates an atmosphere where men and women of color are more likely to be searched, shoved, and shot by police officers than if they were White. Many of our police officers, regardless of their skin color, operate under a narrative where a Black person is an object of fear first, rather than someone to be protected and served.

And they operate under this narrative because we, a majority White nation, have allowed it. We have allowed it with our disbelief, our silence, and our refusal to listen. We have allowed it with our dismissal when we have listened, our discomfort, and our calls for understanding when we are the ones who don’t understand. We have allowed it with our votes, with our inability to comprehend a bigger picture on crime, poverty, and race, and with our assertions that we are incapable of racism because we have Black friends.

So please, my beloved White people, let’s not allow this anymore, for the love of our God whose image was imprinted on Alton Sterling’s Black body, for the love of our God who knit Philando Castile together in his mother’s womb. Please, do something. Right now, our brothers and sisters are in agony. Let’s allow ourselves to hurt with them, rather than demanding that we wait for more information before validating their anger and pain. If you are still dubious about the realities of the racial system we all live in, read articles and books of whose premises you are skeptical; I would be more than happy to suggest some resources that have deeply challenged me. Listen, really listen, without passing judgment, to the stories of our Black (and Latino, Native American, etc.) brothers and sisters. Allow a new perspective and our God’s heart for justice to inform the way you vote, not just in national elections, but especially in your local elections. Please, let us love our Black neighbors, whether across the street, across the tracks, or across the country as we love ourselves, because they are precious to the Father.  And because, for those of us who have been blessed with Black friends, it could have been those we love.

[1] See Lorie Fridell’s contribution in this article.

When I Was a Black Man

When I Was a Black Man

Stirring words from one of my Seminary Brethren.

Theism, After Lunch.

I have not told this story publicly, and Joelinda and I have not been sure of how/whether it was helpful to share. A version of it has been sitting in my blog drafts for well over a year. But. MLK weekend seems as good a time as any. 

You see, there was a time before Joelinda and I were dating that we had the police called on us.

We were walking through the front yard of an apartment complex because a friend, Britt, was letting us in the side door of the apartment in which she lived. We did this regularly.

We were let inside, and about half an hour later, there was a knock at the door. An officer, who I will make a point to say was very kind and professional, was called because a neighbor expressed concern about the safety of the elderly woman who resided in…

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Scorning Its Shame

One of my professors read the following excerpts from the works of Cicero in class this week, and I have been mulling them over ever since:

To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is–What? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed. (Against Verres)

The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.  For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things [that is, the procedures of crucifixion] or the endurance of them, but the liability to them, the expectation, indeed the mere mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man. (In Defense of Rabirius)

There is no parallel in modern Western culture for the shame crucifixion incurred.

Western theologians have spent a lot of time, ink, and oxygen explaining the work of Jesus’ death on the cross as a work of justification, and rightfully so.  I’ve read many times that it took a divine being to bear the fullness of God’s wrath and judgement on sin.  All have sinned, all are guilty, but Jesus’ death makes us innocent.

The cross of Christ certainly means our innocence, but it also means more.

Is it possible that just as it took a divine being to bear the wrath our sin warranted, it also took a divine being experiencing one of the most vulgar, humiliating, degrading executions devised in all of history to bear the shame our sin brought us?  If Jesus exchanged our guilt for his innocence, I think he also exchanged our shame for his sonship, his identity as the beloved Son of the God who spoke yet unknown galaxies into existence.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame…” (Heb. 12:2)  What was the joy set before him?  What did he stand to gain by dying as he did, scorning the shame of the cross?  He gained you and me.  He gained a world that he is continually, progressively reconciling and recreating to be what he planned from the beginning.

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

(“The Love of God,” Frederick M. Lehman)

Finals Week [Ad]venting

While slogging through commentaries on this fine Saturday evening, I happened upon this gem in Hendriksen’s New Testament Commentary on Matthew:

…the sojourn of Jesus on earth must be viewed not primarily as a series of things that happened to him, but rather as the accomplishment of tasks assigned to him.  Other children are born.  They are wholly passive at birth.  He, too, was born, but he also came.  Moreover, he came with a purpose: not to take but to give, to give his soul as a ransom in the place of many, to seek and to save that which was lost.

In the chaos, stress, and exhaustion of the next several weeks, I need to take a few moments to remind myself that Emmanuel came, and that he accomplished the tasks set before him: to ransom, seek, and save us.  It is finished.

We’re not fine.

“I’m fine.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“Everything’s fine.”
“Fine, then!”

Fine. A word that almost always implies the exact opposite of its definition.

Most of us come from cultures where if you are not ‘fine,’ you keep it to yourself.  Actually being healthy is far less important than appearing healthy.  And if not healthy, then ‘fine.’ “Soldier on” and “Pull yourself together” are often the most empathetic pieces of advice we’re offered. We’re trained to believe that ‘fine’ is our default setting, and if we’re not fine, then we need to muster our courage and/or self-delusion in order to restore our fineness.

But the truth is, the default of humanity is not physical, mental, and emotional health. The default of humanity is not even ‘fine’; the true default setting of humanity is depression, anger, and volatility. It is the propensity to hurt others, both accidentally and intentionally, and to act from our own festering wounds.

The default setting of humanity is depravity.

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a five-point, T.U.L.I.P.-picking Calvinist, but I’m on board with Total Depravity. I see it daily in the news, in my fellow seminary students, in my friends and my family, and especially myself. I see it in the in the kindest, most selfless people I know who sometimes bristle defensively and act maliciously.

The reality of total depravity has been weighing on me a lot lately. Between all of the geopolitical calamity of this summer and the “typical” heartache that comes with being human, I’ve been overwhelmed. Yet in the last week God has been reminding me of something that injects hope into my faltering spirit. He’s been reminding me that although the default setting of the human heart is depravity, the default setting of his heart is redemption.

I am not fine; neither are you, and neither is our world. We are egregiously far from fine. But we are not beyond our Father’s reach.  He is, was, and always will be a redeemer, and nothing – not ISIS, not Boko Haram, not Hamas or the IDF, and certainly not my own depravity – can change that.

Homesickness

I remember with perfect clarity the first time I felt totally content. I was fifteen, and it was my fourth year of summer camp in the Absaroka Mountains. Ever the introvert, I had sneaked away from a camp worship meeting and climbed to a clearing overlooking the chapel. Enfolded in familiar forest sounds, sweet, blissful peace washed over me. I was loved, I was accepted, I was safe. I was home.

Retreat HouseFast-forward nine years and I am sitting in a sweltering, turn-of-the-century mansion on Massachusetts’ North Shore. Content, more or less. Loved and safe, surely; and yet I wonder when I will go “home” again. Campus housing, no matter how picturesque, certainly isn’t it.

I have lived in many different places, and none of them are truly home. The rust-orange Boise-Cascade my parents moved into last winter houses all of my possessions—save what I could shove inside two suitcases—but it’s not really home to me.

If home is where the heart is, then I am in trouble. My heart is scattered, bits of it permenantly lodged in Anacostia, in Masiphumelele, in my late grandparents’ house, in Missoula, and in that clearing above the Boulder river where I first began to grasp God’s love for me.

I say this because I know countless people who feel the same way. We Millennials are taking our sweet time about settling down. We’re afraid of putting down roots for fear of being stuck in the wrong job or relationship or whatever; yet, unconsciously, we’ve been planting roots – loving and being loved – all along.

My heart is in a dozen different places, and as the adventure of living footloose and fancy-free subsides, I find myself wishing I could go home.

Someday, whether in five years or fifty, I will go home again. And in the meantime, I am deeply, profoundly grateful for the parade of beautiful and loving people who have touched my heart and have made me at home in their lives. I hope to pay it forward one day.

“…that he shall put them safe off his hand on the shore, in his Father’s known bounds, our native home ground.” – Samuel Rutherford

“to long for the endless immensity of the sea”

There’s an anchor for my soul
A mighty weight that holds me fast
Strong and steady against the swells
With billowed sails and splintered mast

Creaking, breaking, tearing, splitting
Havoc wreaked by storm-tossed seas
This rope and iron weigh me down
Yet waters stay beneath my feet

There’s an anchor for my soul
A mighty weight that holds me fast
Keeps me afloat although assailed
By flaming arrows and cannon’s blast

I’ve searched for harbors countless times
Sought refuge in the warmth of shallows
Lulled by sirens’ songs of safety:
Trade freedom for relief most hollow

Yet there’s an anchor for my soul
Almighty weight that holds me fast
By hope secure I am held
Free indeed on oceans vast