"Goodness in the in-between," Dead Faith, and Soul Care for Activists: Reflections on the Calvin College Consultation on Worship and Inequality

I just had the privilege of attending a consultation on “Income Inequality, Congregational Life, and the Practices of Christian Worship” at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I know that’s a mouthful, but the consultation was essentially a gathering of 50-60 diverse Christian ministry leaders who came to discuss the intersection of racial inequality and church ministry. My sisters and brothers in the room were all gems, and I will be processing what I’ve learned for days to come. Unlike some conferences which are personality driven, and which might feature the voices of just one or two Christian “stars,” this event drew us all to the table as equals and learners to honestly discuss the state of race and inequality in the evangelical church in America.

The conference was well timed for me as a follow up to the Voices conference I attended in Philadelphia several months ago. Voices happened the week of Charlottesville and gave us POC’s in attendance the chance to honestly and safely share our deep pain from the recent election and the horrific events of Charlottesville which were unfolding in our midst.

This week at Calvin College was a healthy follow up for me. Enough time has passed for my emotions to settle since the initial trauma of the election, and I now feel ready to process on a different, but related, level. I present this post as a way of processing my own thoughts from the gathering in Grand Rapids. Perhaps some of what I’m thinking might resonate with what others are also now experiencing.

It is as bad as we thought.

First, I realize that things have not gotten better since Charlottesville. Instead, the race-baiting and racism towards POC in the U.S. has only continued from our president and his proposed policies. Within the evangelical community, the responses have been “clarifying” in both heartening and saddening ways. I have seen many powerful Christian leaders of Color take strong public stands for Jesus and Justice, and I have been encouraged to see many Christian allies rise up in solidarity for POC. This was made abundantly clear to me as I heard from many amazing sisters and brothers in Christ at the conference at Calvin College. At the same time, I have witnessed many other self-professed Christians dig in their heels in their support for Trump and his racist ways. This I cannot understand. And, I have heard of others who were once very vocal in their support of Trump during the election, but now are quiet, perhaps out of a sense of regret. I wish that they would speak up because their silence hurts.

Things are as bad as we thought they were going to be, and they are not getting better. Over the past six months, DACA has been rescinded and inhumane arrests and detention of immigrants has continued. For example, just a few weeks ago a 10 year-old girl with cerebral palsy was arrested and detained by immigration agents after receiving emergency surgery. Racism against our Muslim and Middle Eastern friends is still on the rise, and just a few days ago our president retweeted racist media created by a right wing extremist group in Britain. During this past week our president also used the racial slur of “Pocahontas” in the presence of Native American WWII veterans in the Oval Office. The critical issue of unjust racial policing practices has gotten buried in a sleight of hand rhetorical move which tries to frame the “bend the knee” protests as an issue of nationalism, rather than for what they are—a spotlight shining on the killing of Black and Brown human beings made in the image of God. Policies which level the playing field of educational opportunity are under attack at Harvard, and we Asian Americans are being used as a racial wedge group. POC continue to suffer from a huge wealth gap and find themselves increasingly displaced through gentrification. All of this racial dysfunction was clarified for me during our time together at Calvin.

At the same time, I received much hopeful spiritual clarity from my friends during the conference at Calvin College. I take back to L.A. a wealth of biblical insight to strengthen me in the days to come. Here are a few:

Goodness is in the “ in between.”

I learned this truth from Lisa Sharon Harper (author of The Very Good Gospel) based upon Genesis 1:31. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” What I learned from Lisa is that the “goodness” referred to in this passage refers to the healthy relatedness of human beings with God, one another, and all of God’s creation. When things are right between God, us, and creation, then we experience “shalom”— the wholeness and healing which God originally intended for us before the “fall.” When we devalue the image of God in others through racism or sexism--on an individual or social level-- then it is “not good” because things are no longer well “between us.”   When we abuse the earth and creation which God has given us to steward, then we rupture the proper relationship between human beings and creation. It is no longer well “between us.” And when we fall out of relationship with God, then our relationship with one another, as well as creation, collapses as a natural result. It is God who made both us and creation, and it is only God who can redeem us, transform us, and empower us to live in proper relationship with God, creation, and one another. Only God can make things well between us. When we thrive in our relationship with Jesus Christ, then we will also thrive in our relationship with one another and the earth. There will be “goodness in the in-between.”

 Dead faith claims to be alive and authentic, and it must be mercifully exposed.

I learned this important lesson from Mika Edmondson (author of The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theodicy) based upon James 2: 14-17.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We fall out of right relationship with our sisters and brothers in Christ when our faith is not accompanied by works of compassion and mercy. It is “not good” when we see a brother or a sister in physical need and yet respond, in Mika’s words, with “a word of blessing without an act of blessing.” This kind of faith is disembodied and denies the important physical connection between believers. You are not my sister or brother in Christ simply in an abstract ethereal way defined in the heavens and yet to be experienced in some future moment to come. You are my sister and brother in Christ in flesh and blood, right now, on this earth—as well as in heaven, and in the future resurrection of God’s creation. If I say you are my sister or brother, yet ignore your physical suffering, then, as I learned from Mika, this is “religious cover up”—my faith claims to be alive, but since it is not accompanied by works it is dead. Lord, grant us all more living faith, expressed through an abundance of merciful acts of justice and compassion,

 Soul care for activists: Sabbath, Love your Enemies, the Beloved Community

As part of our time together at Calvin, I shared a little bit about J4R’s work of “soul care for activists.” I was asked this morning, how we do this. Though we are just now formalizing our work and thoughts in this area, three things came to mind:

  1. Sabbath: As activists for Jesus, we need to take time each week to rest. This is how God made us. We need to set aside time each week to remember that we find our life only in Christ, and that our justice comes from His hand--not from our strategies and methods. We need to take time to connect deeply with Jesus-- in His Word, in worship, and in community. If we don’t do these things we will, sooner or later, burn out. “So then, a Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest…” Hebrews 4: 9-11.
  2. Love Your Enemies: Jesus activism operates in a unique way. As followers of Christ, our method is love--love of God, love of our neighbors, and even love of our “enemies.” If we yield to the temptation to hate our enemies, then we will eventually become consumed by our hate and bitterness, and, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, our bitterness will “defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). Our model is Jesus who confronted his Roman colonizers with love and the Cross: “You have heard that it was said, ’You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 43-45). This is not popular, especially in some activist circles, and yet, as followers of Jesus, we have no other option.
  3. Beloved Community:   As Dr. King said, the goal of social justice is not social justice; it is the Beloved Community. The goal of Christian social justice is the Beloved Community comprised of people of every cultural and ethnic group in Christ. The goal is shalom--the wholeness, healing and right connectedness of all of humanity, and all of creation, with God. No one, and nothing, is left out. Racism and sexism are “not good” because they rupture the proper relationship and relatedness of human beings with one another. Justice restores the right relatedness of all of God’s children in Jesus Christ, one to another, and all to Christ. In the book of Revelation, John paints a compelling vision of the Beloved Community:

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This is the end goal of Christian activism.

Sabbath, love of enemies, and the Beloved Community—these three things will take us most of the way there.

That’s all y’all. Hope that some of this might be encouraging to someone. Thank you David Bailey and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship for organizing us, and inviting us, to this special gathering.

In the hope of Christ,