What ELSE Can I Do?

My dad used to say that I was a charter member of the “Do Daddy” club. Always a curious person, I bombarded him with questions about what he was doing or going to do and why – “Whachya gonna do, Daddy?” He would then let me watch and listen as he explained what he was doing and, equally important, why he was doing it. Of course, that only led to more “do Daddy” questions. As I got older, I was able to participate, joining him with the never-ending farm work. I loved doing stuff on the farm and often looked for more things I could do – “What ELSE can I do, Daddy?”

A couple weeks ago in the posting, What Can I Do?, I addressed the question that many woke white Americans are now are asking. Beginning to realize that there are such things as unjust racial policies and white privilege, we all want to know what we can possibly do to make a difference. I directed us to Jesus as a start point, reiterating that “I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change.” So we correctly ask, “What ELSE can we do?”

I have been privileged to spend some time the past ten years with Dr. David Livermore, a social science researcher who has devoted his career to helping people develop their cultural intelligence. He helps clients objectively discover their cultural intelligence, describing it as one’s Cultural Quotient (CQ). As a Christ-follower, Dave has the privilege of helping people all over the world develop their CQ.

According to Livermore, the development of one’s cultural intelligence starts with their CQ Drive (see graphic). CQ Drive is asking me how much I really care about developing my cultural intelligence. Am I willing to put in the work necessary to let God create in me a heart for those who are racially or culturally different than me? Am I willing to spend time with Jesus to let his heart for the other permeate my own heart? Am I willing to listen, learn, and understand?

As God draws our heart into alignment with his, the next thing we can do is learn and gain an understanding of the culture and the world of another. This requires me to listen and learn from those who live in that culture. This cannot happen without intentionality, effort, and humility. It’s the next step in answering the question, “What ELSE can we do?”

How do we do this? The best way, of course, is to learn directly from someone from the culture that we want to understand. We also need to know the story behind the story – the history. Right now, many of us want to better understand the world of our fellow Black Americans and fellow Black Christ-followers. We want to understand, Why are people angry? Why so upset? Didn’t we elect a black president? Pass civil rights laws? Isn’t racism illegal now? These are the tough questions we ask and were posed by Phil Vischer (creator of Veggie Tales) in his podcast Holy Post.

So what ELSE can we do? Certainly we can watch Vischer’s video! And if your CQ Drive pushes you to know and understand better, let me suggests some resources worthy of your time and persistence:

  • Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody
  • Cultural Intelligence (Youth, Family, and Culture): Improving Your CQ to Engage in a Multicultural World, David Livermore
  • Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland
  • Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith
  • Do All Lives Matter? The Issues We Can No Longer Ignore and the Solutions We All Long For, Wayne Gordon and John Perkins
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World of Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson (the movie as well)
  • Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (also a movie)
  • The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities, Adrian Pei
  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (Vischer’s video addresses some of her content)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (an old classic)
  • White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum  (This is the only book from this list I can’t vouch for personally.  It’s next on my reading list.)

We start by allowing God, through Jesus and reading books like the ones above, to develop in us a CQ Drive, followed by CQ Knowledge. Then we can begin to move toward action that can make a difference within our spheres of influence. And we all want to make a difference, don’t we?

What is Justice?

This is a continuation of conversations started a couple weeks ago in the postings My Journey Into Racism and What Can I Do? As we continue this conversation, let me be clear as to the reasons why I decided to address racism in a blog-site focused on practical theology. My reasons are (1) to not remain complicit through silence, (2) to work through my own understanding of systemic racism and the role I play, and (3) to invite fellow Christ-followers to do the same.

The term Practical Theology implies an understanding of God, his worldview, and how that informs the way we live our lives – the way we relate to others.

What could be more practical than gaining an understanding of God’s heart for all people, not just the predominant group? We do not need to spend much time in scripture to become aware of God’s desire for justice and mercy is for all his people, not just the predominant group (thus Micah 6:8 – And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God). We do not need to spend much time with Jesus to see that he walked away from the predominant group in order to seek the outsider (see Jesus’ Mission Statement).

We cannot act justly, let alone love mercy, if we do not have a clear biblical understanding of justice. But what is the biblical/theological understanding of justice? Fortunately, the BibleProject has created a six minute video that paints a very clear picture of the biblical understanding of justice. Enjoy – it’s captivating. Then be watching for my next post, What ELSE Can I Do?

 

What Can I Do?

“What can I do?” is the question that I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations since May 25, the date of George Floyd’s death at the hands of former police officer, Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s death has launched world-wide protests and conversations related to systemic racism. While a segment of our society refuses to believe that systemic racism exists, an even larger segment has come face-to-face with its reality and ugliness. And its left us stunned, numbed, and in a quandary about what we can do to thwart such rampant oppression. It’s a natural response to injustice. We are passionate about a need for change and want to do something.

My confrontation with the ugliness of racism came to a head twenty-five years ago (see My Journey Into Racism). I was outraged and immediately wondered what I could do? What could one outraged and frustrated Jesus-following engineer do to have any impact on systemic racism? It’s a natural question. But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “What can I do?” maybe we should be asking, “Who can I be?” When confronted with issues like systemic racism, the first response of Westerners, and certainly Americans, is to jump right to doing. And there certainly is a place for that. However, as I read scripture, it is increasingly evident that God is primarily interested in actions that are natural extensions of who we be.

All during his ministry, Jesus was confronted with groups that focused primarily on outward actions, disregarding the inward being and its attitudes. This was especially true of the group known as the Pharisees. We tend to imagine them as an evil group of oppressors, kind of like those racists, of which we assume/hope are not. In truth, the Pharisees were a grassroots group that wanted to address the issues of a nation gone awry, that had moved away from God’s vocation as a called people. So they banded together and asked, “What can we do?” For a century or so prior to Jesus’ arrival on the scene, the Pharisees worked hard to get the Israelites back on track. In doing so, they focused on actions (doing) and missed the opportunity for God to address and transform their hearts.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, they had lost sight of their original intent of systemic change, actually becoming a systemic problem in and of themselves. Today we might refer to this as Mission Drift, which occurs when one’s passion for a cause outruns their passion for Christ. The Pharisees were passionate about the re-institution of the Mosaic Law into Israel’s life and practice. Over time, the Law became more important to the Pharisees than God himself, which is idolatry in it’s truest form.

As a result, they did not know God’s heart for the “other” which led them to become an oppressive separatist group, focused on their tribal rights and neglecting the needs of others. They missed God’s heart to such a point that they could not recognize Him when he stood right in front of them (Jesus). Jesus called them out on their miss of God’s heart – Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders (Matthew 9:13, Jesus quoting from Hosea 6).

What can we do? We can find ways to let God’s heart for the outsider permeate our heart. Right now, many of us are incensed with the injustice we’ve recently witnessed, and rightly so. We are passionate about being participants of change, and rightly so. We cannot, however, let our passion for justice outrun our passion for Christ or we might someday also hear Jesus say, “Go figure out what this Scripture means…”

Actually, that’s exactly what we can do right now – go bathe in scripture and figure out God’s heart. The best way to do that? We can never go wrong by focusing our attention on Jesus. As the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), he can give us a clear understanding of God’s heart.

I’m going to be frank here: I am continually amazed at how few of us who call ourselves Christ-followers have ever completely read through the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). We settle for bits and pieces here and there, learning about him without really knowing him. Continuing the frankness: if we aren’t willing to do this, then how serious are we really about affecting systemic change?

As we get a clear understanding of God’s heart, we are better equipped to speak into the lives of people in our circles of influence. It gives us credibility (who is more credible than Jesus?) when in conversations with Christian friends that display racist tendencies (unfortunately, many exist). We can point them to Jesus – who he is, what he did and said. They can argue with us, but they can’t argue with him (though they might try). Our job is not to change minds. Our job is to point people to Jesus and let him do the heavy lifting. If people have ears to hear, they will.

Note: I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change. Stay tuned for more thoughts on this worthy topic.

My Journey Into Racism

I want to (need to?) write about my journey toward an understanding of racism. The events of the past few months – the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – have caused me to reminisce about my journey with God in trying to understand racial injustice, especially as a white man of privilege.

My journey began in the mid-60s. As a high school student I struggled to understand the Civil Rights movement and its off-shoot events. I was enamored with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work as he attempted to bring the country’s attention to the plight of the Negro population. I don’t remember hearing the term “racism.” What I do remember was this: There is something radically wrong, though I couldn’t name or articulate it. I wanted to understand, but did not have anyone to process with me. Most of the people in my life wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. off as a trouble-maker. I could not. His assassination in Memphis had a profound impact on me, a farm boy in rural Minnesota.

1968 – My freshman year of college at NDSU. I lived in a dorm made up of 2-room suites. One of my “suite mates” was Leon Carroll, a sophomore from the South side of Chicago. I’m sure I “whelmed” him with questions and wonderments about life on the south side of Chicago. He helped me understand the life of a young black man in America. Though I didn’t know the term, I began to understand systemic racism. Kids of means could go to college and avoid the military draft and thus the Vietnam war. Most of Leon’s high school friends were drafted and already serving in Vietnam. Leon helped move my understanding forward.

Late 70s – As a volunteer Young Life leader, I was privileged to attend a national conference where Young Life staff wrestled with the makings of a of a new Mission Statement. The final Statement included an incarnational commitment: To seek out and welcome all those whom God directs to our ministry, male and female of all races, salaried and volunteer, with a diversity of Christian traditions linked in our common purpose, and to honor their calling and encourage the fullest expression of their gifts. Young Life was making an unprovoked statement about women and minorities in ministry. No other evangelical organization dared touch such topics. I was proud of Young Life, though I could not articulate why. I was still trying to understand.

1980s – We moved to Muskogee, OK, for an engineering job. It was my first time experiencing economic disparity. And the disparity ran along color lines. Whites were privileged to live in the newer parts of town. Our realtor – a white, “upstanding, Christian man” – steered us away from older housing developments that were being “invaded by the Blacks,” jeopardizing future home values. The factory where I worked was on the “wrong side of the tracks.” I saw serious poverty for the first time in my life. I began to understand that something was amiss, something greater than simply personal prejudice.

1994 – We found ourselves in the heart of the South (Memphis, TN) when my position was relocated to the company’s corporate headquarters. What we experienced in Oklahoma was mild compared to Memphis, located at the head of the Mississippi delta where manual cotton-picking reigned supreme through the 19th century and into the mid-20th century. I watched my kids wrestle with extreme prejudice and racism at school and among their Christian friends. It was confusing for them. It was confusing for me!

We attended a church in a white suburb, started by a couple former Young Life staff. Though both white and leading a predominantly white congregation, they determined not to be a typical southern church, encamped in the the suburbs, distanced from the plight of the city. They were intentional about educating people with an understanding of God’s heart* and how such an understanding might affect the way we lived. A few times a year, they hosted an Urban Plunge, where participants spent several days in the heart of Memphis, living at the downtown YMCA. The intent of a Plunge was to prick consciences and educate the participants. Plunges always began by spending several hours at the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (which most white Memphis native had never visited), generating robust and emotional discussions.

To this point in my life, I, like most white Americans, viewed racism as simply prejudice fueled by hatred. I think many still do today. What I didn’t understand, but learned during my Urban Plunge experience, was that racism isn’t just a derivative of personal prejudices. I learned the sociological description of racism – the ability and wherewithal of a dominant social group to suppress and keep subservient another sector of society. I began to understand. Racism, by its very nature and definition, is systemic. As we continued to live in the Memphis area, the systemicness of racism became clearly evident everywhere I went. Black people had to prepay at the gas station. I never did. Black people did not get to sit in the prime seats at high school sporting events. We didn’t have to bag our groceries. Black people did. I was told, “We have to provide jobs for the those people.”

I will continue to describe my journey in subsequent posts. For now, this is what I would like us to consider: We cannot treat racism as simply a personal ideology with the assumption that we can’t possibly be racist, referencing the adage, “I don’t hate anyone.” As part of the privileged and dominant group, I, as a white male, am part of a system that suppresses and keeps another people subservient whether I like it or not. Once we begin to understand and accept this, we can begin to make a difference.

Here’s the rub for us: The problem is so massive and pervasive that we feel there isn’t anything we can do or say to make much difference. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. So we retreat into doing and saying nothing. However, silence is complicity. Silence can speak volumes.

* And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)