In 2016, I met Steve Wiens, a pastor in Minneapolis. I knew I liked Steve from the beginning. I didn’t know that Steve would become one of the rarest gems of the human experience—a friend.
In his new book Whole: Restoring What’s Broken in Me, You, and the Entire World, Steve invites us to stop reading the scriptures. Instead, Steve invites us to experience the scriptures. Experiencing the scripture changes our paradigm, it allows us to imagine the many ways God dances in our modern context. It provides a mirror, showing us when we are the villain, when we are the exiled, when we are the oppressed, and when we are the oppressor. It shows us what shalom might mean, what it might require.
Today, I’m sharing an excerpt from Steve’s book Whole, an excerpt that touches on experiencing the scriptures in light of the racial tensions in modern America. It’s an important read. Come along?
I am Pharaoh“Oh no,” Dee said, sitting across the table from me at Breaking Bread Café in North Minneapolis.
“What?” I asked cautiously. I had been talking to her about the Exodus as a broad theological concept that I was interested in writing and preaching about.
“I always get nervous when white pastors use the Exodus narrative and act as though they’re the children of Israel instead of the Egyptians.”
Dee and I are both church planters in our denomination who are learning what it means to see to the shalom of Minneapolis. Dee is one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. She’s prophetic, wise, funny, and passionate, and she’s more than six feet tall. She’s a powerful presence, and she’s becoming a good friend.
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I took a month-long break to enjoy the end of summer, then came back yesterday with my first Tiny Letter installment in a month. Though I don’t generally repost the content in full here, today I am. We’re at a crossroads, a point of decision. This piece represents an invitation, especially to my white friends. Come along?
On the White Racists
It’s been a few days since the powder keg blew at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The images made the internet rounds late Friday night, images of White Racists (some say “Nationalists,” but proper nouns have their purpose), unhooded but holding tiki torches. They gathered in Emancipation Park around a statue of Robert E. Lee, and they chanted slogans like, “Blood and soil!” and “One people, one nation, end immigration!”
They were ivory skinned. They were lamplit. They were up to no good. They were fueled by demonic lusts.
Saturday, the violence erupted, and by now, you’ve no doubt seen the footage. A Dodge Charger driven by a neo-Nazi mowed down counter protestors as if they were only blades of grass. A black man was beaten by another group of White Racists in a parking garage. You may have seen; you may have seen; you may have seen. The images were unrelenting.
All this violence came because some caucasians with a demonic ideology and a social media platform decided to reassert their power. Make no mistake, they wanted one thing: Make America White Again. They wanted to reassert their manifest destiny, to regain control of a country that was never theirs in the first place. These small men sought to justify, maybe even revere the land grab from the Native Americans, the years of slavery, of Jim Crow, of mass incarceration, of redlining.
The presidential response was anything but presidential. After a series of milk-toast tweets ignoring the racial component of Charlottesville and the passage of two days, President Trump spoke to the press and read a well-crafted statement in which he finally condemned racism. Then, yesterday afternoon, President Trump addressed reporters the way he so often does—with the grandstanding bluster of a bully. Answering the questions of the news media he’s deemed fake with gesticulating hands and a sour expression, he refused to speak clearly about race violence. He blamed the violence on both sides. He equivocated, said not all the people marching with the White Racists were bad people. And then, in the coup de gras of statements, he justified the protests, giving this slippery slope argument:
“[T]hose people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It’s troubling, really, how he’s playing The Great Bait and Switch, muddling the questions with something less than junior-high logic. I suppose this is the art of the deal. But what’s more troubling is how many of my friends, both online and in my local context, say the same things.
“We shouldn’t erase history,” they say.
“Removing statues won’t change a thing,” they say.
“Where does it stop?” they say.
These are the wrong questions when it comes to rooting out the sin of racism. Particularly, with respect to the question of removing icons of racisms and slavery, “Where do we stop?” is a small-minded query. The right question is this: “Where do we start?”
Where Do We Start?
Today, I’d like to offer a few starting places for folks like me, by which I mean those of us who are white people of faith.
Start by opening your ears to the voices of your African American neighbors who’ve been warning us for years about the systemic racism in the world around us. They’ve told us to root it out, to eradicate it. They’ve warned us, said if we don’t, that racism will form and foment and become something more overt. To my brothers and sisters of color, let me be clear: You were right.
Start by confessing your own complicity. For example: it’s taken me too long to speak out against the monument to the Confederate soldiers in my own community, to call for its removal.
Start by opening your imagination to the meaning of the First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” For example: let’s be clear and say that we’ve worshipped too long at the altar of the god of racist supremacy and power for too long. And even if we haven’t worshipped at those altars, haven’t we turned a blind eye to that worship? Let’s tear down the icons, the statues. Let’s grind them to dust in our gristmills.
Start with true repentance. For example: let’s sit in the dust of those crumbled icons, those lamentable statues, maybe don a little sackcloth while we’re out it. Let’s mourn the ways the demonic religion of racism runs so thick in our family blood, the ways its DNA shows itself in the demonstrations in places like Charlottesville.
Start with peaceful but firm action. For example: let’s call the President to repentance. Let’s teach him how to say the easy thing: “tear down the high places, the altars where we’ve too long worshipped evil.” And if he won’t, let’s call him to accountability.
If you are practitioner of faith–particularly a person like me, white–it’s time to consider your response. You can sit quietly, yes. You can justify and equivocate if you’d like. You can unsubscribe from my newsletter, too; you can avoid confrontation. These will be the easy options. There is another option, though, one which incarnates the way of Jesus.
Be baptized with the tears of your repentance.
And rising from that baptism, act as God’s living sacrament, the embodiment of grace for the sake of your neighbor. Act as his agent.
I met Velynn Brown–slam-poet, writer, and speaker–at a writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon. It was early spring, and the cherry trees were shedding their blossoms on the parking lot of Warner Pacific College. Velynn and I shared a retreat conversation, one in which I praised the beauty of the cherry-blossom carpet and the pink-skirted azaleas. She spoke of nature, too. “See the black sap tears on the fir? God is crying with us.”
Velynn stood in the shadow of Ferguson, in the fresh grief of the brutal detention and subsequent death of Freddie Gray, and she asked me, “do black lives matter?” Sure, we’ve all seen the hashtag. But when your sister looks you in the eye, when she removes the “#”, inserts spaces, and slaps it with a question mark made for you, the equation changes.
Velynn is a poet and passionate social justice advocate. She’s a joyful psalmist and a modern incarnation of lamentation. But more than any of these things, she is my sister. I trust her. I’ve invited her to share words with us via my Tiny Letter, and she’s offered a piece of poetry. Sign up to receive the Tiny Letter by clicking this link, and I’ll make sure you receive a copy of her words. They’re powerful and good.
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