percentages

What does “Christian” mean today in America? Not for those who consider themselves followers of Christ, but for those who do not: When you hear “Christian,” what words or images come to mind?

Let’s get real here. People see 81% (voted for Trump) and 76% (approved of the travel ban) and white evangelical Christians get branded racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and then are shoved into a box by liberal-minded people so they can continue in their ignorance at a safe distance from the rest of America. Now, the self-identified Christians contained in these numbers span a spectrum of experiences: some may consider themselves culturally Christian because of their upbringing; some obligatorily take the label “Christian” and agree with Trump on a moral basis; and some claim a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ as their Savior.

These nuances matter in examining Trump’s rise to power and the consequences for communities now suffering the brunt of his nascent orders. The shades within the data prompt more complicated questions about how Bible-believing Christians align with Trump’s policies even if they dislike the man himself, how race and class shape political beliefs for people of faith, and how the Church should deal with the burgeoning resentment it faces in the United States.

The response to the latter question might earn you a lecture about John 15:18-25, where Jesus declares:

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason’.[b

I’ve seen Christians proudly raise the banner for our status as foreigners in this world–in not of, present but separate. I resonate with the core truth that our primary belonging is in Christ and not the mores of our current society. Our attitudes and actions should be counter-cultural if those standards misalign with how Jesus calls us to live; we are to emulate him, not mimic the denizens on the It-List. Where I experience tension is when Christians use this passage to avow the persecution of American Christians and shrug off the ire of non-Christians as the same kind of lamentable hate John 15 describes. Christians start glorying in percentages and media attacks as proof of their righteousness, proof that we are right, they are wrong, and we must either endure their misguided slander like societal martyrs or challenge it as morally superior conquerors.

I want us to look at the last line of the passage again: “But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ Remember, this is Jesus talking. When he was on Earth, he was perfect, holy, loving…and many people hated him–enough to crucify him! The Pharisees and other religious folks’ rationale for killing him was founded on fearful, self-serving reasoning, not any actual moral high ground. And so in this passage, Jesus warns his followers that if they seek to be like Him, they will experience persecution. The world will not understand them. It will hate them instead.

But what if there was another reason for us to be hated?

For many years, Christians have had a reputation as being intolerant, dismissive, apathetic, ignorant, and largely irrelevant to the systemic problems shaping the lives of marginalized peoples. That is our tragedy, and we cannot just blame the media for it. We have to be willing to step closer to the question of why we are hated–and if not hated, then met with such friction.

Where is hate born? It can emerge from that destabilizing fear of what one doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to–like what the Pharisees experienced in respect to Jesus. But it can also come from hurt, and there are ways that as Christians living in America, we have collectively hurt many people.

Through the eyes of non-Christians-especially those with marginalized identities-they see us criminalizing trans people over bathroom stalls without caring about the staggering percentage of trans teens who commit suicide. They see us dismissing black people’s pain while chastising them as divisive for speaking out against racism. They see us getting defensive when the segregation and power imbalances in our congregations are challenged. They see us fall silent as hundreds of black men and women are unlawfully imprisoned each year. They see us reducing the plight of Latinx immigrants to a matter of “just following the law” or assimilation rather than us taking time to listen to their stories and look at our detention centers, our labor exploitation. They see us trying to change gay people before we allow them entrance into our sanctuaries. They see us forget the indigenous peoples of our land to protect our economic self-interests. They see us prioritizing hierarchy and tradition and theological debate over standing in solidarity with the suffering.

It is possible that what they are valuing represents the heart of Christ more than what our words and actions are conveying. Rather than promoting a compelling vision of a world being redeemed, walls torn down and people made equal, we too often advertise the failed systems of prejudice and oppressive powers of an old order.

But who is this generalized us anyway? The we?

I ask these questions because I’ve noticed that when other people rant about Christians or ridicule them on social media, their words are coded for white Christians. White is seen as the face of the church in America, the benchmark for our loudest and most featured voices. In media representation, we get either the white evangelical stereotypes or the soulful black Gospel choir tropes. But when it comes to conversations about social justice and Christians, the image of white Christians materializes first. And so when they are framed as corrosive, we all get burnt–the other “we” being Christians who are not white. Where do we feature in these media portrayals of Christianity, and are we included in the “hate” for it, even as we face our own oppressions?

I stand somewhere to the side in this space, apart from the pie chart dividing white Christians who echo Trump’s policies and those who don’t. I see the debates raging about where Christians stand, and everything is “white evangelical” this or that, and out of those rhetorical battles, the bitterness towards Christians as a whole grows. In this languaging, I’m grouped with the perceived oppressors, and my multiple identities don’t factor into the equation. Maybe I’m looked at with pity for remaining with a socially illiterate faith community. Maybe people are waiting for me to get further woke and leave it. Maybe it would be easier to do that after all the hurt I’ve experienced and witnessed within it.

But I have to ask myself: How big is my God? Is He bigger than the Republican party as it exists now, conflated with religion? Is He bigger than His white followers who inadvertently perpetuate harm towards me and towards marginalized communities?

I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that anyone who voted for Trump or even voted for the immigration ban is a bad person (and I don’t see my fellow Christians of color making that argument). That’s the old way of looking at things, where people can be divided and dismissed. These people are still my family in Christ, and they love Him and desire to follow Him. But they have their blindspots, the voids where that love is not found, and the consequences for people of color are well-recorded in history. Those blindspots must be accounted for and confronted.

What do I do with that? I will not demonize white Christians whose attitudes reflect the world that birthed Trump, and neither will I respect “opinions” that denigrate the dignity of human beings I am supposed to love and protect. There is a distinction between the two, even as I reject the idea that all white Christians can be subsumed into one ignorant collective and cut off. It’s not that simple, and we cannot reduce decades of racial tension in the Church to “good progressive white people” vs. “bad racist white people” when the insidious dynamics of racism defy dichotomies of good vs bad. Instead it fabricates a society where it is entirely possible to be kind, loving, intelligent, and follow Jesus and yet reinforce white supremacy and racism through one’s attitudes, actions, and participation in public life.

Whiteness as a construct infiltrates our institutions and results in policies that disenfranchise people of color in ways that would horrify our white brothers and sisters if they grasped the extent of it. As James Baldwin put it so eloquently:

“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” he said. “But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.

“That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.

“I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.

“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin said, his voice rising with indignation. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”

There is dissonance between the experiences of black, brown, Asian, and indigenous Christians and the experiences of white Christians that belies the systemic reality Baldwin exposes. The former peoples are not included in the percentages that rouse animosity towards Christians-even as we follow the same Christ-and our loyalties are constantly tested as we sit in churches that nurture our spiritual formation, but whose members will not march with us when our children are shot in the street nor question their own prejudices.

There are the individual dynamics that Christians with dis-empowered identities must wrestle with as we interact daily with white people whom we love and know love us yet resist engaging with the unsettling and even threatening truths embedded within our experiences. I say threatening because making the commitment to educate yourself about race will destabilize your comfort and worldview if you are white. There is a cost to entering into a battlefield where history is indeed our present and something that we always carry with us, as Baldwin suggests.

If we (we being Christians as a whole) want to understand the resentment towards Christians within America, we must navigate the kinetics of these systemic and individual realities. We must lament them. We must ask God for clarity and courage to change them. My white brothers and sisters must also consider the stresses endured by Christians of color as we rally against the temptation to be bitter and jaded in our pain. We may understand the ire towards Christians better than anybody because we must wrestle with it in our own hearts; we persist in asking God to cultivate the forgiveness and grace in us we don’t always feel towards our white brothers and sisters.

From this tangle of identities and tensions, I speak to the hate, draw near, and repent. To those we have harmed: I own the sins of my Christian community, including the wrongs done against me. I repent of that and submit to you. I get it–some of it. I am not white, and sometimes I wonder where others would fit me into this conversation. I’m a black, Latina woman with roots in Africa and China and defiantly American…and I’m a follower of Christ. I’m still reconciling that tension.

The Christ I follow isn’t some White God. He isn’t defined by the politics of my country. He isn’t the arbiter of imperialism, colonialism, slavery–no matter how his image has been manipulated for other ends. He is not diminished when those who follow him fail to share his love with those who most need that affirmation.

Tenets may be questioned and examined, but I have an eternal relationship with this Jesus who embodies what love and sacrifice and faith looks like in action. And the historical faith that is woven into my story has many of the same roots I do: it comes from the East, from Africa, from huddled groups of brown exiles praying for deliverance from oppression, from loud, praising peoples declaring the glory of God from prisons, from radical communities loving the poor, calling out injustice, and opening their homes to each other. Christianity isn’t White, and so it is a shame that our theological texts and Sunday School lessons have painted it so.

Jesus isn’t contained within the percentiles of whiteness, maleness, or any other category–but since we have divided ourselves and allocated power disproportionately to different categories, we must now grapple with our sins committed against others. We must trace the statistical lines that encase our hideous realities and turn to the God who transcends them. Part of love is being accountable to those you have harmed, and that is what I expect of each person who answers to any policy that sins against another person and causes them suffering. Percentages do not define us, but our lack of compassion and humility will define our witness as the Church in America if we do not repent of it.

If Christians are going to be disliked, mocked, or even hated, then I hope it’s for the right reasons. I hope that we are known first as those ridiculous people who reach out to those who oppose us and love them, those weirdos who give up our privileges and comforts to follow Jesus, those radicals who consider people of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, citizenship statuses, sexual orientations, and physical and mental abilities lovable and worth defending. I hope we are hated for being too much like this bewildering, offensive, audacious Jesus, rebels with a cause, heirs robed as servants, wielding grace as the hammer under which all things unjust crumble.

who are you voting for?

I’m voting for Black Lives Matter.

You won’t see that on a ballot, but faces come to mind when I get up before 6am to drive to the polls. Some of the faces I know; many I do not.

I’ve read articles about how Christians should vote–or NOT vote. I’m not discounting those, or the theology they invoke. But what I think is too often obscured in the steadily polarized debate is this simple truth, and it guides me today:

Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:1-4

The passage goes on to describe Christ’s humility as he made himself a servant, died on the Cross for the world, and was then exalted before all else. He had the choice to grasp the lofty stature he rightly deserved; he chose to lower himself instead. This passage echoes the heart of the greatest commandment: To love God and love our neighbor. To adhere to this, we actively consider not only who is our neighbor, but how do we prioritize their needs.

In contrast, the anxiety of the self has driven conversations around this election. People like Trump rise because of it, speaking to fears regarding the Other and the threats they pose, whether they be Muslims or immigrants or “inner city” black people. Concerns over homeland security and economic stability are warranted, but when they warp into a distrust of the dehumanized Other and distort the nuances of their experiences, the implications are dangerous. The logical culmination of this anxiety: political actions that will surely preserve our own livelihoods, our own prosperity and safety at the expense of the least of these.

Our directive should be to look to the shivering rather than grasping our blankets and wrapping them around our bodies. Who in our country is most vulnerable right now? Who should we be protecting first? 

The answer should not be yourself if you are a person with any privileged identities–race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status or otherwise. Privilege does not equate wealth or even physical assets, but it does signify that you have power. You have sway in certain spaces.

For those of us with both privileged  identities and identities that set us on the margins, the most vulnerable can include our own communities. This acknowledgment, however, does not negate our need to consider the neighbors outside of those communities as well and stand by them. I’m a black and Latina woman, and my country’s policies and structures often attempt to rob me and mine of opportunity and dignity, but I am neither powerless nor voiceless. We should not shy away from this power but rather own it, use it, because we mirror our God who not only wields his own power well, but also endows us authority to act justly on Earth.

One insight gleaned from liberation theology is that we serve a God who is indeed political. God cares about the physical and economic circumstances of the people He created.He cares about black neighbors in Flint demanding clean water and white blue collar neighbors struggling to feed their families when factories close. He cares about Lakota neighbors lacking electricity and heat and Latino neighbors being treated as “aliens.” He cares when the ones designated with less power in our country are persecuted. He cares when they are mocked and their struggles dismissed. If we are His hands and feet, we must care for them too, stand in solidarity with our neighbors.

I joined a prayer march on Saturday with my indigenous brothers and sisters, and they reminded me through their stories that we have been appointed stewards. We steward the Earth and its resources, but we also steward our relationships with each other because we recognize that we belong to each other. Created for interdependence, we don’t get the option of apathy. If my neighbor cries out for justice and I fail to hear them, I am not stewarding my connection to them well.

So with my vote, I do my best to position people in power who will also listen to the marginalized communities in my country and advocate for them. I seek senators, representatives, a President, who will dignify them. No one person perfectly embodies this orientation, but I get as close as I can, not fixed solely on party lines but the parity of the ground on which I stand; I want it leveled so those in the valley are lifted up.

I vote for them–for my neighbors. I vote for Standing Rock. I vote for the poor–black and white (the majority of which comprise the population on welfare). I vote for Muslims. I vote for LGBTQ communities facing alienation and violence. I vote for immigrants. 

Then, at last, I vote for myself, my mother beside me, my abuela waiting outside the door. We are the women changing the world with ballot sheets and ballpoint pens.

what is raised (a new world dawns)

Today the words “He is risen” and “He is risen indeed” will chime around the world as Christians of all tongues, cultures, and ethnicities greet each other. For those setting aside this day to celebrate Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the day symbolically marks the death of Death itself and the beginning of a new era of history: the Kingdom of Heaven now being ushered in on Earth.

As the chorus of “He is risens” surround me in a sunlit haze, I find myself pondering once more the grand upheaval of the Cross and the magnitude of what it altered so many years ago. All too often we get caught up in a lukewarm acknowledgement of the Cross and Resurrection, the reality of it swinging off our necks on silver chains or nestling comfortably in the fluff of a store-bought Easter bunny. We settle into the familiar rituals established by our church forefathers and foremothers and then dress ourselves in bright new clothes on Easter morning to symbolize the birth of our new selves.

Cross necklaces and fluffy bunnies and new clothes are not an evil; however, do they represent a condition of our souls where we are redeemed but too sanitized to submit to the full work of transformation that God wants to unfurl upon our lives?

When I say “sanitized,” I mean a type of de-fanged faith that enters eagerly into spaces of spiritual formation and personal growth and rituals yet resists the call to sink into spaces of suffering and tension. That kind of faith may still shape your character and draw you near to God, but it is also incomplete in its essence because it requires only a selective trust in God.

A selective trust in God implies that we trust God with the Level 1 or even Level 2 sins, maybe going deeper as our XP increases (yes, I am a gamer), but once we hit a certain level and encounter that monstrous, hideous boss we cannot name and do not want to, we try to guide God away from the sight (Nothing to see here Lord!) and change paths so we don’t have to see it again. However, we serve a stubborn, or rather, persistent God who does not allow us to re-load the game and pretend the monsters in the shadows don’t exist. He points to them again and again through friends’ words, through a video on Facebook, through online articles, through Scripture. We may keep resisting, but He will draw those monsters out to sharpen our faith into a weapon that can cut through darkness.

A toothless faith unwilling to confront the forces of evil shaping the realities of those around us and shaping ourselves, even unconsciously, will be in no position to carry forward the work of the Cross. To understand the work of the Cross, we must acknowledge what is put to death with Jesus, what is nailed to the blood-mottled beam along with his body: the norms and practices of a decrepit world order. Sometimes we call them our daily thoughts and habits. They may be the aspects of our lives so familiar and reflexive and even pleasurable, yet at their root contain the degenerative elements of sin.

What comes naturally: clinging to what we believe we deserve. Generalizing people into cookie-cutter categories for easy use. Listening to words that affirm us and make us feel comfortable. Gravitating towards familiar boundaries of thought. Preserving our reputations as good people. Dismissing anything that challenges that notion.

These often unspoken values inform our actions as we interact with others, creating a distorted filter when they blind us to the breadth and complexity of our sin and the ways in which it impacts other human lives. Our Claredon or Ludwig filters set, we miss the grievous wrongs we contribute to and miss opportunities to surrender those to God and undergo the continuing process of transformation as He removes the filters and endows us new eyes to see the world. Only then do we finally see the mess of the old world order in action.

The old world order is one where mocking gay people is meme-worthy. It is a world where the dearth of female voices in Congress, on church stages goes unacknowledged. A world of dismissals of #BlackLivesMatter for being too radical and of complaints about whining immigrants that should just be deported anyway. A world of pulpits instead of prayers with poor white folks on welfare and black folks imprisoned for minor drug offenses. A world where the poor lack agency to do anything but wait for a white savior to enlighten them. A world where our sanctuaries become havens for the privileged to retreat to and distance themselves from all the people they love whose sins they hate. A world where I don’t have to question the big -ISMS and -IAS (homophobia, racism, xenophobia, classicism, ageism, ableism) in my heart and in my Church.

A world mired in the grave of its false convictions that we have the right to dismiss the suffering of others if it is not relevant to us.

Christ put that world in all its defense mechanisms and justifications and ignorance to death. He nailed the couched kind of religion that requires worship songs but not works of sacrificial advocacy for our neighbors. He drowned our man-made divisions in His blood. Why do we then grasp for the trappings of what he interred rather than entering into the new World beckoning our minds and hands and feet?

We are afraid. I am afraid of probing my past and present to find the points where I have benefited from privileges fabricated from the exploitation of native peoples and their land. I tremble at the uncensored stream of thoughts pouring out of the well of  internalized racism within me. I avert my gaze from articles about the “safe activism” of middle-class individuals and my lips grip together when a friend talks about the ignorant remarks her classmates made about “crazy people,” mentally-ill people, when I can recall all the times I used to make similar jokes.

Apologies touch the surface, but repenting for the old world’s cracked bones beneath my skin necessitates an agonizing type of self-examination in full surrender to God’s judgment and His grace. For God will judge the way I treated my neighbor, and the way I failed to humble myself and learn and listen when on Earth. How can I claim to be the new creation declared in 2 Corinthians 5:17 when I am so invested in securing my old self? Colossians 2:-15 reiterates this:

 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

If Good Friday and the Cross remind us of what is put to death, Easter reminds us of what is raised. And as children born again, learning how to crawl and amble and bound our way through the puckered skin of a new world, we are what is raised. We are raised, not only to greater heights to view the latitude of the human story in its Fall and Redemption, but also to maturity in perspective because the best and perfect Father is the one raising us to represent His abundantly loving and just heart with everyone in our sphere of influence.

Jesus’ death conquered the old world order and its rulers, and his resurrection raises us into the roles of our inheritance: ambassadors of our Father (2 Corinthians 5:20). The one raising us gives us access to everything we need to act as vision-casters for those around us still struggling with the remnants of the old sin-gouged world already defeated. Our vision is not yet perfect but rather in process, and every time we surrender all thoughts and actions to God, even the ones we have yet to grieve or are most afraid to reveal, He clarifies our vision that much more.

My encouragement to my Christian family on this Easter Sunday: Inhabit the reality of one God is raising to be just, compassionate, empathetic, selfless, and kind, and cast visions of His restored and rightly ordered world. The cost will be our comfort and our carefully manicured privileges and reputations as we challenge distorted views and practices and engage with our individual and Church community sins. Let us face our monsters and realize that victory is assured; no one stands to condemn us. Only further growth and grace await those who reach out from the pits to which they have fallen and realize the great and wondrous thing it is to be raised from them to greet the light.