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.

don’t catch fire as you rise

Wax dripped onto my fingers as I gripped a candle in the midst of hundreds. I stood in Washington Square two nights ago, catching snatches of the speakers’ declarations, a litany of “Stand up, fight back”s and “This is what America looks like”s and “No ban, no wall”s. The memory of the press of people at my shoulders bolsters me now as I consider the past few days of controversial Executive Orders and the resulting protests.

It is a complicated day to be an American. It gets even more labyrinthine when you are a woman of color and a Christian. I find myself caught between multiple communities, affirming some words, hesitating with others, all the while trying to be consistent in where I stand. I must contend with the condemnations of the Women’s March that I walked in as well as the constant charges from other Christians to “give Trump a chance” and “wait and see.” I understand their reluctance to judge Trump’s actions–it can be perceived as an exercise of grace for a new leader.

Yet Trump has had more than a year-decades in fact-to demonstrate what kind of man he is and what he values. Words reflect the orientation of the heart, and I take his words seriously, as well as those from the constituents he surrounds himself with, many of whom at the worst have ties with nativist, neo-Nazi, and other discriminatory organizations and at the least offensive are unqualified for their positions of influence.

One hand grips this understanding. Then there is this:

Do I believe in a God big enough to transform Donald Trump’s heart, lead him in paths of wisdom and mercy? Yes. The answer will always be yes, as much as it was for Paul, as much as it was for me. When I align with Michelle Obama’s stance that “When they go low, we go high,” I choose to believe in God’s boundless ability to cultivate love in any person and use their life for good purpose–I refuse to doom them to eternal depravity, and it’s not my role anyway. Out of this, I choose to refrain from attacking Trump’s family, from engaging in aggressive actions against those who voted for him. Even if he doesn’t change, I still choose this. Going high means we don’t get to satisfy our desire to hurt others who have hurt us, no matter how justified it may be, and only God can enable that kind of grace.

I want to do the hard thing: acknowledge the imago dei in others AND hold them accountable for their actions–especially when those actions carry so much weight for communities already facing intense marginalization. There is a way to do both, and that path leads to the Cross. “We have the privilege of loving our enemies,” a friend told me yesterday. “And God’s like ‘You weren’t able to do this before. Not without me.'”

I had never thought about it in that way before. I get the privilege of loving my enemies. Before Christ, there was NO reason to do this–it makes no sense, it feels wrong even. Unfair. That is the Gospel though: the unfairness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us because how dare He choose to love the unlovable. How can I stand before God and reject the humanity of another person He created when I have been reborn through this Gospel?

I think it becomes harder to receive this message when others have co-opted it to silence you and soften the edges of horrific realities. I have witnessed too many white Christians appropriating the grace of the Gospel to dispel the pain of their sisters and brothers of color. I went to a Christian college and felt the sting when me and other black students were criticized for “creating more division” and “being too angry” when we talked about the racial problems on our campus. By the time a blatant incident of racism happened and no one at school could ignore it, the chimes of forgive forgive forgive forgive from our white classmates pricked at calluses built over years of dismissal and apathy.

Looking back on that experience, I’ve realized that the barriers became so thick because I felt like we were being asked to extend a hand, extend trust, extend grace, with no assurance that the other students even acknowledged our pain or would take steps to stand by us in the future. Some of us had been burnt too many times to risk it.

I’m sharing this now because I want to emphasize how hard Jesus’ teaching is when he tells us to love our enemies–and it may not even be our enemies! It could be loving our friends and neighbors and co-workers-and even family-who have committed microaggressions against us, who have offended us with their words spoken out of ignorance, who have perpetuated a passive acceptance of the world as it is because they haven’t seen it for the specific challenges we experience–or have been unwilling to. Where we locate the resistant tension in our hearts when we think of these people in our lives, that is where all the implications of “do good to those who hurt you” becomes a serrated truth, cutting deep.

I get the privilege of loving others when it feels impossible to do so. That is what Christ enables us to live out in our everyday interactions with others, whether that be on Facebook, in the work room, or at the dinner table. But what does this love look like? Does it look like holding hands and smiling at each other, pretending that our houses aren’t burning behind us? Does it mean we wave off Trump and get over it?

Well…no.

There is grave injustice at work in our country, and there are forces actively spurring the flames of disunity and fear. We shouldn’t diminish the wrongness of that. I am furious, and every time I see another Executive Order, I feel like screaming to the sky “Come, Jesus come!” Our church is in a fractious state, our conversations with neighbors brittle with unspoken grievances. We must stand where are and look around; this is where we are starting. Loving each other within this space of tension and uncertainty and breaches of understanding means that we choose to wrestle with the pain, with the current division and still face the Cross together as we do this.

We call out evil when we see it. We humbly challenge each other to consider experiences we aren’t familiar with (I’ve been learning a lot about the experiences of my low-income white sisters and brothers lately). We mourn the pain of others even as we invite them to enter our own. We speak out when we’ve been sinned against and repent when we sin against others, individually and as a community. We say NO to any laws and actions that harm our neighbors. We resist racism and sexism and xenophobia and persecution of any kind that grieves God’s heart. We acknowledge unbalanced power dynamics in our relationships, in our systems, and we dismantle them, guided by those who have been disempowered. That is love that rises to survey the mess and embraces the incisive truth-telling and white-knuckled dialogues that form the foundations for bridges.

Exposing the pain, exhaling it, tangling and untangling it with another person willing to work through it with you, as equals, is one of the most terrifying and healing choices you can make. I had one of these conversations with a friend, a white woman I love dearly, and I’ll never forget what she told me, or the validating balm it was for my grief and outrage:

I’m sorry that in the great gamble of history, for some reason, people who look like me, people with my color skin, came out on top. I don’t know why that is when it could’ve have easily been the other way around. I’m sorry for the ways me and my people have hurt your community. I’m sorry for the ways I’ve oppressed you or silenced you and your community–especially unintentionally…The greatest injustice is that you were made to feel guilty for doing the things to survive, to feel safe…I don’t have a right to your trust. I have to earn it…Will you forgive me?

I did. And she forgave me for all the times I’ve painted her with a broad-brush, dismissed her as another white person I struggled to trust, failed to empathize with the suffering she has seen and experienced in the South. We’ve had a lot more of these conversations in the past year–and it’s hard. It’s confusing and tense and cathartic and vulnerable. We have found communion within burning wreckage and discovered ways to build a friendship that allows us both to rise without blistering.

In some ways it’s easier and harder to do this with a friend–what about with a stranger? Someone on the Internet? That person at church whose politics make you grit your teeth?The politician who makes himself an dart-board for mockery? Can we pursue this type of radical, counter-cultural, Gospel-seeded love with them too? I am asking myself this question now as I struggle between the reflex to pile insult and indignation and the awareness of how my actions testify to Christ whom I claim dwells in me. There is a difference between the righteous outrage that illuminates wrong and the bitter rancor that can warp our vision. We cannot shame and demean another person and face the Cross at the same time. Neither can we go high and still grip stones to throw.

on the other side of empire 

Never an honest word

But that was when I ruled the world – “Viva La Vida,” Coldplay

Greatness. Buzzword of the 2016 election, it casts resplendent visions of either America’s industrious past or its progressive future. Republicans and Democrats alike twist in rhetorical gymnastics to grasp the word that could frame their argument for what America should become. Both sides camber our history to supplement their vision, give hands and feet, wood and grit to the past that will pave the future. The histories taught and remembered breach an ever-widening cavity between the peoples of our nation; it’s a question of memory, and more importantly, what we choose to remember.

In my last blog post, I grieved the lack of a common historical narrative in my country, the lack of a unified embrace of the past in both its achievements and its deficiencies. This election reflects that stark division as it becomes more and more evident how differently Americans understand what our country was and what it is today. Acknowledging that history equates to an assemblage of diverse perspectives funneled to provide illumination upon past events, how do we reconcile the differences when the potential for reconciliation as a nation now teeters on a glacial ledge?

We first point to the elephant and donkey in the room: our assumed greatness is overshadowed by our abuses of power.We do not want to see this, decrying it as a “dark” view of America, harsh and unyielding, but to scale upwards, away from the ledge, we must comprehend the scale of our sins:

Our nation birthed out of the exploitation of indigenous peoples, propping up doctrines of discovery to rationalize genocide and innumerable broken treaties. We called them savages and herded them into the penned scant of land they reside today–and we expect them to prosper there.

Our nation thrived off the theft of human bodies branded inferior because of a racial system calculated to justify the superiority of lighter-skinned peoples. Americans with lighter skin became “White” and accumulated financial and social advantages. Those relegated to “Black” accumulated struggle. Both became peoples socially contrived for estrangement.

Our nation expanded by latching onto the lands settlers coveted, leaving burned plains, buffalo carcasses, and the bodies of those whose ancestors once named the mountains and rivers. The trauma of that history endures.

Our nation built itself by engineering ethnic bodies to construct its railroads and develop its technology and cultivate its fields. Then it marched them to the gates when they were no longer convenient labor.

Our nation set its moral plane by declaring its intention to welcome all “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” yet it barred those labeled undesirable, our anxiety cataloged from anti-Irish policies to the Chinese Exclusion Act to current anti-refugee sentiments, collective inaction, and Islamophobia.

Now our nation holds sway over nations in the Caribbean and Pacific. Those peoples still cannot vote for the President, a person across the sea whose agenda will shape their own lands–much like the rally of colonies that once railed against a distant King during the first crawls of our country.

Now our nation intervenes in hundreds of Third World countries: setting up and deposing dictators in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East; turning a blind eye to the exploitative business practices of transnational corporations in South America; installing bases for what some suggest amounts to a global network of militarized overseers.

I stop here because one blog post cannot contain the scope of centuries. I offer a cursory overview only, the introductory monologue to the complex American stories absent from our films and speeches and classrooms.

I also use the pronouns “our” and “we” intentionally, stepping back from the reflex to detach myself from these past events because “my ancestors didn’t do it.” As an American citizen,  I reap the benefits winnowed from these bales of policies and practices. My harvest is complicated by the fact that I am a Black and Latina woman, a daughter of immigrants, but I align myself with these histories in order to take accountability for the spoiled generational yields of my country.

No nation abides in perfection. I do not diagram my nation’s offenses to condemn it to the grave. The United States encompasses its freedoms and opportunities too, virtues that drew my parents here. However, within the political arena, thrust like a shield by gladiators on the convention floor, the word “greatness” all too often obscures the wrongs committed. Whatever political sides we fall on, we must exercise caution so that in our eagerness to proclaim the triumphs of our country, we do not stumble into the same patterns of our American progenitors, seized by ignorance and misplaced pride.

Our nation’s pedestal of power has always borne a cost. Keeping it “great,” making it greater in the ways advertised this election season may require more of the putty of marginalized bodies to cement the bricks. Reggae artist Ziggy Marley once sang: “Don’t know your past, don’t know your future,” and the lyrics ring true for America. Our historical amnesia prevents us from understanding what acts shaped the contours of our national identity…and who we mutilated in the process.

We live in an Empire, a land stoking the fires of conflict because of our very birth. Our rise to power is steeped in the blood of indigenous peoples, black peoples. It is creased into the callouses of Latinx and Asian immigrants. It is sunk in the scarred wallows of the lands we conquered.

In reading the Bible, the rise and fall of empires emerges as a constant theme. We see Egypt, then Babylon, then Rome. Similar descriptors accompany the role of empires in Scripture; they are portrayed as realms where injustice, depravity, and persecution abound. With each ascent of empire comes the portents of their imminent collapse, ridden with crumbling towers and lands laid waste as God rectifies injustice. Liberation theologians touch on this theme, pointing out God’s consistency in overturning oppressive systems and once-lofty kingdoms. The greatness posed by these empires was doomed from the outset because the willful ignorance and inaction of their citizens sustained their decay. If America has forged itself into the new Empire, where then are we headed?

I do not desire to see my country collapse into ruin, its buildings made dust. I live here, my friends and family live here, and I want it to be a place where all peoples have the opportunity and resources to flourish. But as an insider on the other side of empire, I acknowledge how my nation has grieved God in the way it has treated the least of these: the immigrant, the poor, the widowed, the hungry. We have not listened to them when they speak out about their oppression (the sheer number of protests against immigration reform and #BlackLivesMatters points to this failing). We have not mourned their bodies. That inaction has molded our present situation: We are being judged by those we have wronged, and how those wounds throb.

Donald Trump prods the rankled fears of an empire confronted by its own past. The great issues now shaping American discourse spring from the narrative of our particular empire. Every problem is sown from our sordid history, whether it be the dissension centered on issues of racial inequality, the charged discussions around undocumented immigration, the anxieties fixed on ISIS terrorist acts, the weariness over our economic recession. There are reasons why so many white Americans are disillusioned, discouraged, and angry, why they seek leadership that will dispel the hurt and make our nation “great” again.

Through the eyes of many conservative, particularly white Americans, our country is a noble land threatened by outsiders leeching resources and religious extremists demanding American blood. Some of them have seen their own towns and cities emptied of economic promise, have seen headlines of police officers shot and then the juxtaposed images of black people rioting. Moving to reclaim a past vision of American splendor makes sense in this light. People’s anxieties mount when the story behind our nation’s problems feels hidden–or worse, incomplete. Scapegoating the people (usually minorities) that appear to complain and create more problems provides a quick solution to displace the fear. Once  the obstacles are removed, America can be restored to a moral and prosperous land.

But the problem of our nation’s current course is not isolated to conservative Republicans. Many Democrats also capitalize on the yearning for American greatness, contextualized within calls for social reform and economic overhaul. Reform is no evil. Changes in unjust policies should be encouraged to address the needs of disenfranchised peoples; however, I question our national impulse to seek “greatness” when the pursuit of this brand of medication exacerbates our illness. My diagnosis: our Empire, conceived in corrupt policies and sustained by an inoculating stream of romanticized histories, has been sick for a very long time. Now that America is thrashing on the operating table, we are divided in understanding the origins of its disease.

Our nation, mired in racism, xenophobia, and economic disparity, threatened by the ire of countries across the sea, is now being judged by the least of these, the survivors of our empire–and we have been found wanting. How do we respond to the brokenness we have generated? Too many Americans clutch their opinions to their chests, afraid that one word from those hurting will unravel everything they thought true about our country. They are afraid of what knowing the truth will cost them. I empathize with those of us on that journey of waking up to those histories; the process goes beyond disorientation–it is exhausting.

The route to resuscitation, awakening to the raw realities of our nation, can lead to despair. I have agonized over the sheer breadth of my country’s sins, haunted by those still experiencing the impact of those violations–including my own ethnic communities. In those moments, I feel helpless; the shadow of America looms large.

There is another way of waking to a tarnished inheritance: repentance. It is the antidote to moral paralysis, the path of conviction rather than guilt. Repenting as a community for national wrongs committed rips the veil between convenient ideals and harrowing truths and calls us to change, by increments, between conversations, page by page of learning, and in great leaps so we can contribute to others’ welfare. As beneficiaries (and also victims) of this empire, we are in the position to ignite transformation.

When a community commits to the process of repentance, they choose to recognize the tragedy of their past and present acts and look into the faces of those wronged. We acknowledge how our actions-and those of our ancestors-established an abusive cycle of interaction between our peoples, and in humility we pursue justice with them. Part of this process necessitates submitting to the authority of our non-Western neighbors, the colonized and exploited. Other countries have already engaged in Truth and Reconciliation commissions to address national sins and establish new relationships between estranged peoples. Our nation has not–yet.

We must galvanize our local and national leaders to prioritize this movement towards repentance and true reconciliation. The work begins in our own lives, eddying to our churches and neighborhoods. We can re-learn our histories, widen ourselves to accommodate changing paradigms, and then allow them to alter our daily routines and political actions. We can ask better questions and seek truth. Instead of fearing a diversified and browner America, we can open up the spaces of seated power in our country to include non-majority people (people of color, women, those of low socioeconomic status, immigrants) in Congress, in Christian leadership conferences, in films and television without denouncement or self-conscious remarks about it being “PC” or a “liberal agenda.” It is an agenda, but not one that white Americans should fear, nor one staked by liberals. This is a plan for prosperity, a biblical blueprint for restoration so that all lives touched by our country thrive…and it requires our participation.

Counter to what early colonists testified, America is no Promised Land. We are not the great Christian nation struggling to get its bearings–we are broken. However, we can embody a land promising integrity and love in our future actions. Repentance is the trail of tears we must tread, surrendering to the God who will redeem a history of strife so we can radiate the best of our identity: the kaleidoscope of immigrants from every corner of the world and resilient cultures sown from our own soil. Since our nation is great in influence, wealth, and reach, we are in a position to model to the world what it looks like to be great from a position of deference, not to threats or collectives with evil intent, but to our own illusions of superiority.

Just think: what would it look like for our nation to seek forgiveness for rash militarized interventions in the Middle East? What would it look like for America to give reparations for the Black livelihoods forever altered by slavery? What would it look like for our country to acknowledge its broken treaties and restore land to the First Nations? What would it look like for Americans to petition for liberation and political rights for our neighbors living in the conquered territories? What would it look like for us to welcome refugees and immigrants and open our homes to them? If this seems radical to you, maybe your imagination needs renovation.

Won’t laying down power make America weak? If we are this anxious about losing our status as global superpower, maybe we never deserved the power in the first place. Instead of seeking the peaks, we should move towards the valleys where the marginalized peoples crowd. We have much to learn from those we have wronged, and their voices in our histories will inform our future domestic and foreign policies. It does not make us weak to lay down this power of being the loudest and largest in the room; it makes us wise. This does not entail dismissing external threats like ISIS; neither does it diminish the complexity of our economic problems. In contrast, when we cultivate an awareness of where our nation is positioned and why, we can use that knowledge to chart a just course with eyes fully opened.

Progress does not always equal expansion; instead, it can signify letting go of long-fortified privileges to create space for the people who need it most to flourish. Like energy, nothing is lost or destroyed. They gain, and we all become greater for it.

In his convicting work Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah explains that the book of Lamentations challenges us to “…accept historical reality and to embrace God’s sovereignty over history.” Taking it a step further, he exposes the systems of oppression that the church has participated in and suggests that now is the time for American Christians to “relinquish a historical dominance and embrace a greater mutuality, equality and reciprocity in twenty-first-century world Christianity.” I echo his call that now is the time for Americans to take ownership of our past and reach deeply into it to find the stepping stones to justice and unity. Rather than remaining captive to leaders who blurt quick and antagonistic answers to placate Americans’ fears, we must be willing to take the aching and arduous journey of lament.

Our national debt runs deep, and I encourage each of us to take the time to mourn the events that brought us here. Lament moves into repentance once we see clearly where we’ve gone wrong. Then with open hands we lay our nation before God and seek ways to restore the broken shalom with the nations, with our own peoples, whom we have injured. Our country still grips the power to shape the destinies of other countries; we must learn to steward that power better, lay it down if God wills it. This is how an empire kneels. This is how we become a land of the free.

 

 

none is good 

I originally wrote this for Tumblr but wanted to share it here:

Trash.

Disgusting.

Shit.

The trio of damnation on any social media site. These words erect a barb-wire fence around the individual who has erred so horrendously that no word or action stemming from them afterwards will be acknowledged. They become no more than an SNL punchline to mock, a post to type layer after layer of scathing comments under until it resembles a stairway descending to hell.

The crimes committed range from as large as misogynistic characterizations in a movie, acts of infidelity, endorsement of policies that would disenfranchise an entire marginalized population to the individual levels of a racist comment on Twitter, a personal interaction reeking of homophobia.

Do not mistake me–these words and actions wield the power to devastate and kill and alienate. People must and should challenge actions that index problematic attitudes and broken systems of power. If we do not, we bear some responsibility for the consequences they will reap for those already disadvantaged by society.

However, when we label a person “trash” in opposition to their words and actions which anger us, we dehumanize them into an object which we can readily abuse and cast away from our community forever. In our minds, they no longer deserve a place amongst us, not even where the dogs sit under the table. I understand this compulsion; when I see a comment on YouTube spiked with sexism, I want to shut that person’s mouth and shove them as far away from me as possible. When I see pictures of another black teen bruised from a hate-crime, I want to rage against all white people. For that moment, I wish I could just purge the world of stupid trash that write and act in such awful ways.

That. Not who. In the midst of my justified anger, grief, and pain, I cease to recognize the person behind that comment, behind that beating as human. By calling them trash, I not only distance that person from their humanity, I also distance myself. I assert myself as morally superior, more knowledgable, more progressive, and in some ways, I’m right. There are opinions and ideologies that are simply better, less oppressive.

In the other ways that matter most, I am utterly wrong.

In my desire to separate myself from all the “trash” that oppresses people in big and small ways, I fail to comprehend that by my own definition of problematic, I belong in the trash heap too. Maybe I didn’t type that ignorant post on Tumblr or exploit immigrants to line my pockets. Maybe I’ve never screamed racist obscenities at a political rally or threatened to deport Muslims from our nation.

Instead, I stay silent and passive instead of speaking up about racism in church. I cling to hateful, petty thoughts about people in my head. I appropriate indigenous symbols and language for my own entertainment. I watch TV instead to avoid spending time with a lonely friend. I still struggle to see black men as beautiful because of my internalized racism. I lie to get what I want. I act out of ignorance and make excuses when I’m called out for it.

The potential to say and do problematic and oppressive things lies in me, and it’s not dormant. While I don’t have the products like Joss Whedon or the power of Donald Trump or the history of a Kim Jong Il, I have the power to hurt people, and that matters. I don’t get an exempt card because I’m “not as bad as that guy.” I don’t get a free pass because I’m a woman of color. I’m accountable for what I do in my sphere of influence and how I treat the people within that sphere. When I do wrong by them, I am trash….

…or I should be. In an interaction with a rich young man who wanted to assert his superiority in the community, Jesus said this:

Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matt. 19:16b-22)

In the King James Version, Jesus says “None is good,” and he meant it. From the perspective of God, we are all fallen. None of us is kind, loving, respectful, harmonious, and selfless 24/7–we are not perfect, and we fall gravely short of the way God designed us to live. Within this paradigm, the mountains of human morality are soil heaps in comparison to the peaks of His holy standards.

In this divine landscape, so radically foreign and impossibly counterintuitive to our own, Donald Trump and I dwell in the trash dump together. My mind can barely wrap around that idea because it feels so wrong, it rails against everything that feels just. I can rationalize it all I want–that doesn’t make it any less true.

Within Jesus’ message remains this amazing, beautiful thing called grace. Grace represents favor undeserved, unconditional love given when we have broken all conditions. Grace represents forgiveness for wrongs done and a commitment to reconciliation and union. Jesus gifts that grace to us and continues to love us even when we are profoundly unlovable.

We are not Jesus. I watch a racist pundit on the news and feel like punching him in the face. I grit my teeth at a particularly offensive Facebook post. But the miracle is that when I lean into the grace that I have been given so freely, God enables me to extend that grace to others.

What can grace look like? It can be as simple as not immediately shutting down a conversation with someone on the opposite end of an issue even if they speak hurtful words out of ignorance. It can be listening to a person’s pain across partisan lines, across color lines. It can be sharing a meal with a person who has wounded me. It can be the seemingly impossible forgiveness towards the Wall Street tax collectors and politicians who have prostituted themselves for profit.

We demonstrate grace through the way we challenge problematic words and actions, encouraging an elevated dialogue rather than insult-slinging. We show grace by eliminating the word “trash” from our vocabulary, recognizing that we interact with humans just as pervasively broken and divinely created as we are.

Grace rejects the quick path from hurt to hatred to war by advocating for a type of conciliation and hope our world barely grasps and dismisses as weak.

It is then crucial to emphasize what grace is not:

Grace is not appeasement. 

Grace is not accommodation.

Grace is not blindness.

Grace acknowledges grievances, acknowledges loss of trust, loss of credibility, loss of relationship and carves a path towards transformation. It reminds me that the racist pundit on TV has the potential to be an a**hole, but also that he has the capacity to change in fundamental ways. I know he can because Christ has changed my life in endless fundamental ways even as He peered right into the darkest and most disgusting parts of me. I want to contribute to that change in other people and in society. I want to keep challenging what is problematic yet avoid losing myself to bitterness and resentment and rage in the process.

I also feel the legitimate tension of how grace is always seemingly asked of those marginalized towards those who have oppressed them. It can feel like such a heavy burden to be constantly pushed into that position or else deemed unrighteous for being frustrated and angry. We must acknowledge the reality of that experience of being sinned against, and the trauma it causes. A person with privilege must understand the gravity of what they ask for when they demand that people of color and others of targeted identities show grace. It is a divine enabling of forgiveness, not an obligation to ignore the consequences of individual and collective sin.

Extending grace is difficult, especially when our compulsion is to require others to change in the ways we want and show remorse in order for us to forgive them. I still resist the unearned status of grace when all I desire is for the people who have hurt me to repent and atone for it. However, my reflex towards punishment and a list of red-lined conditions is not grace.

There are times where you may need to remove yourself from an abusive and/or toxic conversation or environment. There are times where radical action is needed to hammer home a vital message or cause. There are times where we must challenge those with privilege and power to hear those hurting, but those situations are not mutually exclusive from grace. In God’s framework of grace, there is no damnation, no demonization, only broken people communing in a bruised and bloodied world that God invites us to help make healthy and whole as a community.

None is good. None is wholly irredeemable either. That is the space between trash and human.