Saturday, January 31, 2015

I'm Still a Christian

“You still call yourself a Christian?”

I’d spent the past hour discussing theology, faith, the poor, racism, Ferguson, injustice, the church, and who knows what else, with a fellow follower-of-Jesus-Christ. 

This question wasn’t formed as an accusatory response to something, but an almost confused, slightly surprised, inquiry.

I wasn’t being asked if I was still a Christian because something I had done, said, or believed seemed to contradict the teachings of Jesus. Rather I was being asked if I still chose to identify myself with Christianity, to label myself as a Christian.

This question surprised me. Until that moment I hadn’t really strongly considered not calling myself a Christian, and so until that moment had not really formed a reason for why I still do.

“Christian” today is a loaded term. People more often think of churches with crosses and steeples, rules and street preachers, judgement and passive people, pamphlets and tracts handed out on street corners, and a prayer that supposedly solves all the world’s problems.

Christianity as a religious institution has, like so many other religions, done great harm as well as great good. It has, again like so many other religions, taken teachings and used them to justify incredible evil (the Crusades, slavery, oppression of women, just to name a few).

The term “Christian,” when it was originally used, literally meant follower-of-Christ. It meant living a life that mirrored that of Christ, in such a radical way that the government continually sought to take the Christians out because their radical love and kindness was seen as a threat.

Now that's the kind of Christian I can identify as!

But Christianity, Christians, and the church today are characterized by apathy and passivity. Collecting dust on church pews while the world outside is in desperate need of the unconditional love they claim to possess. If you have received beautiful, priceless, unconditional love and grace...shouldn’t you share it?

Yet somehow, Christianity has become more about “saving souls from fire and damnation,” a religion colored with brimstone and a red horned devil, instead of caring for the oppressed and marginalized, caring for the poor, whether their poverty be physical or spiritual. Somehow Christianity, once marked with compassion and radical love, has become stained with hypocrisy and judgement.

At the end of the book of Matthew, Jesus gives His followers a command, now termed the “Great Commission,” telling them to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, teaching them all Jesus had taught them.

This command was not about getting people to pray some certain prayer* so their lives would magically become wonderful and they could have 100% assurance they’d go to heaven when they died regardless of how the rest of their life looked simply because they had prayed a prayer.

The Great Commission is about living out the teachings of Jesus, which in turn makes disciples, changes our world, and brings about the Kingdom.

It is not about following enough rules to be perfect, not doing x, y, or z your whole life to be the “best Christian” out there. Jesus didn’t talk about following moral codes, but He did talk about loving God first, loving ones neighbor as one loves oneself, and caring for the poor and oppressed.

In Matthew 23, Jesus calls out the pharisees and teachers of the law.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”

How sad that when I read those verses I immediately think of the church today? Their hearts were far from God because they were so obsessed with rules that were no longer about honoring God but had instead become about making themselves look good. Whitewashed tombs, as Jesus calls the pharisees a few chapters later. Christianity today is a whitewashed tomb, “beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean, appearing to people as righteous but on the inside are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Jesus continues, “You have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

Let’s break this down even more, to see what true Christianity is all about.

Micah 6:8, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans in their distress.”

Psalm 82:3-4, “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless, maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Christianity is about following Christ. Following Christ is about living as He did. It is about loving Him, and loving others, and defending the poor and oppressed, the marginalized, the widow, the orphan.

Living a life like Christ means living in a way that invites others to participate. It is more about actions than words. It isn’t about beating people with Bibles until they fall on their knees to regurgitate a prayer, it is about hanging out with the homeless over a cup of coffee.

It’s about sitting down to hear someone’s story even if you have different beliefs and really just listening, not trying to hijack the conversation, twist it to your agenda, so you can get to the part where you get to talk about what you believe and why they should too.

How sad is it, that Christian’s actually acting like Christ (remember Ghandi’s quote?), would be so confusing and surprising?

Let’s remember the pharisees had a beef with Jesus for hanging out with “sinners,” tax collectors, and prostitutes.

Now if that’s who Jesus hung with, without judgement and forcing them to change who they were before they knew Him, then that’s who I spend time with. It’s not my job to change someone, to save them from hell, to convince them to live one way or another. As a follower-of-Christ my job is to love and serve, as Christ did. That’s a faith that walks. My faith** walks, my faith doesn’t sit in a church-building trying to be perfect.

And so when you ask me if I still call myself a Christian, I have decided my answer is yes. Not because I align myself with the religion of Christianity, but because I align myself and define myself as a follower of Jesus Christ. And I will continue to call myself a Christian because I know my faith walks, and maybe meeting more Christians who are followers-of-Christ instead of worshipers-of-rules will change what “Christian” means. Maybe calling myself a Christian and then actually acting like a real, Christ-following one can change a few people’s minds about that Jesus guy. Maybe they’ll even follow Him too.

*Note that the infamous “Sinner’s Prayer” is not actually in the Bible.

**My faith is not about a God who loves people based on their skin color, sexuality, or gender. My faith is about a God who died for all people, so all people could be be free.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Invisible Sound, Selma, and Ferguson Flashbacks

Silence. That invisible sound filling a space so thick you can barely take a breath.

Sometimes, there are no words.

The film ended, screen went black. Our ears strained to hear every word sung as closing credits and images flowed across the screen. Through the final words we sat, and as the screen went black and the theater silent for the last time, we were silent.

Silence. That invisible sound filling a space so thick you can barely breathe.

Flashback to the return journey from our first Denver Freedom Ride. Light had broken the heavy darkness of our night with tendrils of sunrise spread across the sky. We barely spoke. The night before had left us without words. BC broke the silence, “How do we go back to normal life after this?” And our response was that unbreakable, unanswerable silence thickly surrounding us.

Sometimes, there are no answers.

And that was what watching Selma was like.

No answers. Just my heartbreak flowing out my eyes in tears streaming down my face.  

Heartbreak so
Great I don’t
Know what to do with
Shattered pieces of heart
Cross my arms tight to
Hold it all together
My chest explodes
Broken bits
Keep it all together
So much
The break almost
Feels real
Eyes bright with pain
Heartbreak looks like
Tears falling
Streams, rivers flowing
Down face into
Clenched fists
Arms holding
Broken heart together
So real the pain
You can feel

It was like watching a documentary of Ferguson. Some of the very same things being said from King’s pulpit as I heard from the pulpits in Ferguson (the ones on the streets and coffee shops, and ones in churches).

It was like being there all over again. Tear gas and smoky streets, police in gas-masks and riot gear. The loudspeaker shouting, “This is an unlawful assembly. If you do not disperse you will be subject to arrest and other actions.”

Don’t ask what other actions are.

In the Selma-to-Montgomery March, “other actions” meant Bloody Sunday on Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Other actions” meant beating protestors with billy clubs wrapped in barbed wire - men, women and children alike.

“Other actions” meant a militant attack against unarmed, non-violent civilians.

And I could hear my voice on St. Louis streets crying along with a hundred more, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”

I was back to Monday, November 24, the night the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown was announced. The rows of cops in riot-gear, prepared for a fight before there was even an announcement made. The sound of shots going off, people running in all directions, smoke filling the air from smoke bombs, tear gas and pepper spray. Hiding in a church for hours, watching a live stream, listening to the sounds outside, reading text messages from those outside and those watching the news warning us of rubber-bullets, snipers on roofs, and the potential of police raiding the church we were taking refuge in. People coming in, tears streaming down raw faces from tear gassing. Waiting for teammates to get inside, worried sick they wouldn’t make it.

Words cannot explain watching Selma after being on the ground in Ferguson and Denver.

But what I can tell you is how utterly overwhelmed I am by how little has changed. Police brutality perhaps is not as overt. There aren’t rows of white people cheering on the police force literally beating black protestors and white allies to death.

But police brutality still exists. The product of a deeply flawed, broken, and systemically racist system.

In a speech, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded his congregation they were not fighting racist police, but a racist system.

Nearly the same thing Rev. Sekou told us again and again. This is not about bad apples (cops), this is about a rotten system.

The parallels, uncanny.

A cry from the pulpit for black lives to matter. A cry for no more death. The funeral of yet another killed black boy.

The fair voting act, which the Selma marches and movement was fighting for, may have passed. But we still have so far to go. We still exist in a system that is intrinsically racist and broken. We still live in a society that says, “We have a black president...what more do you want?” “I’m color blind.” Or, “The Civil Rights movement was fifty years ago, we’re past that. When can we stop talking about race and just move on?”

But then Mike Brown and Ferguson, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice...and we have so far to go.

It may seem as though our world has changed drastically in the past fifty years, but watching Selma, I realized in many ways it has not. Half of me feels weighed down by the overwhelming hopelessness of that. But part of me is lit on fire with a passion for justice and a desire to see reconciliation and restoration in this world. That part of me jumps at the challenge of fighting for a better world, a world marked by justice, mercy and compassion.

This is the burden and the joy of walking this journey, especially as one who places their hope in Jesus Christ. Carrying the tension of the pain and hopelessness of our current situation but also living in the light of the reality of hope for a future of restoration and perfect peace.

Rev. Dawn watched Selma with us. After the film we sat and talked for hours. She said, “I need it to not look so similar as it did fifty years ago. Because if it looks this similar as it did fifty years ago, it means my kids will be fighting for the same thing my grandparents were fighting for.”

All the pain we feel at tonight’s realization of how parallel Selma is to Ferguson does not, will not, leave us with unbearable hopelessness or a sense that this task is impossible or this battle unable to be won. No, we will fight. The pain points us to our vision and hope for the future. A future where our children will not fear for their lives because of the color of their skin, but, as King said, “will be judged by the content of their character.”

And so we still march, boycott, protest. Because as King cried from the pulpit, and we are still shouting from the streets, “No more!"