Race and Racism

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“Black Lives Matter” – Michelle Higgins @ Urbana 2015

Many evangelical and conservative Christians, especially older white Christians of conservative persuasion, are weary of the popular slogan: “Black Lives Matter.” Some are even angry at the actual movement that is associated with this name and believe it is harmful to our culture. I’ve heard various responses regarding this negative view of the slogan and the movement but the most common is that this is a bogus notion because Christians should say, and believe, that: “All Lives Matter.” The truth is, as often is the case, much deeper and more socially and personally nuanced.

It is true that “All Lives Matter.” From conception to the grave life matters. This is, at least for the broad tradition of Christian faith and practice, the truth. This is why I believe the death penalty needs to be abolished. It has become a “cruel and unusual punishment” in its present form. (This assumes it was right in the past and I even question this conclusion on ethical grounds as I understand the New Testament and the teaching of our Lord.) I also believe environmental concerns must become the concern of the

Reading Maya Angelou

IMG_5286I owe a debt of profound gratitude to my friend Vill Harmon (second from left in this photo with my good friends and two ACT3 board members). Vill is the secretary in the office of Ecumenical and Interreligious for the Archdiocese of Chicago. In July (2015) Vill and I shared a conversation about our background, especially in terms of race and the South. Vill is African-American, and a great friend. I have come to cherish her advice and joyful spirit. When Vill encourages me to think about my past, and the present issue of race in America, I try to listen. In July she told me I should read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), written by the famous Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014). (Maya’s first name came from her brother Bailey when she was a child.)

9780812980028Maya Angelou was an author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of

The Killing That Stunned America: April 14, 1865

assassination1One hundred-and-fifty years ago on this day America was emerging from its long nightmare, a war between the states that we call the American Civil War. More Americans died in this four-plus year conflict than in all other military operations in our entire history put together. During this great ordeal brother killed brother and entire families were torn apart. Towns and cities were devastated across the South. Though slavery was formally and legally ended what followed was another one-hundred plus years of “virtual” (economic and social) slavery that created major problems we are still unable to solve as a free people. We have, if I read present events correctly, never fully recovered from this time. We are defined by race (itself an artificial and unscientific distinction) as much as any modern and free society in the world.

As a son-of-the-South I can tell you that the memory of this Civil War abided in my own family heritage as something that we understood as deeply life-changing. (I can still remember hearing the War referred to as: “The Way of Northern Aggression.” If you think

Two Modern Films That Define Us as Americans, Part Two

11181470_oriIn complete contrast with American Sniper the new film McFarland USA is a Disney movie. It is also based on a true story. It is an against-all-odds story of the 1987 McFarland high school cross country team in an economically challenged community in the central valley of California. Some reviewers think the film is “corny” and hopelessly romanticized. I found it pure, unadulterated inspiration. Kevin Costner plays the lead role as a high school teacher and coach who is stuck in a small town with a largely Hispanic population of poor immigrant farm workers. (The issue of documented or undocumented people never arises in the movie but reality says both kinds of immigrants are in the story!) The story revolves around a family of four moving to this small California farm town of McFarland, which really is the name of the town. (McFarland is about ten miles from where one of my best friends lives, Rev. David Moorhead. David a Reformed Church in America church-planting pastor in Shafter.) Costner’s character takes a job as a science and physical

“Crips and Bloods: Made in America” – A Disturbing Film That Needs to Be Seen

220px-Crips_and_Bloods-_Made_in_America_FilmPosterThe first image that you see, in the opening scenes of Stacy Peralta’s powerful documentary, “Crips and Bloods: Made in America,” is the central Los Angeles skyline turned upside down. I was enraptured with this image and thus was immediately taken into this urban scene in a unique visual way. It is both striking and unnerving. With this image of Los Angeles, Peralta telegraphs a theme that will resonate in chilling ways throughout this film–geography matters. Through the medium of this film you are entering a world that’s been truly turned upside down over the last five decades, the world we know as south central LA.

This geography has been more violent than any place of geography in the United States for the past twenty-five years. Into a social and cultural vacuum created by numerous social and familial problems arose the famous gangs that we know as the Crips (Blue) and the Bloods (Red) gangs. But where did this story begin? How could more people die in these few square miles than have died in most war zones

Waiting for Another MLK – What Can We Do As Christians?

My good friend Rev. Carlos Malave, the executive director of Christian Churches Together USA, shared a lovely meal with me in Louisville just a few weeks ago. Carlos was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church but eventually became a Presbyterian minister. He was drawn to ecumenism while a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he was influenced by another friend, Dr. Cecil (Mel) Robeck, Jr. Carlos says of this part of his journey: “What really clicked was a church history class taught by  Robeck, an Assembly of God pastor but a really strange Assembly of God pastor because he was a leading Pentecostal ecumenist. That was captivating to me, his call to work for the unity of the church.” Carlos finished his degree at Fuller and went on to serve as an associate for ecumenical relations in the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Unknown-3In a recent letter to leaders in CCT, titled “Waiting for Another MLK,” Carlos eloquently wrote this appeal:

Are we waiting for another Dr. King? As I collect

Three Films on Race and Racism That Will Help Us as Christians

Seeing popular movies will never change your heart at the deepest level. Yet movies are a powerful art form that can reach into your human heart and this power can deeply impact us, both personally and corporately. I believe 12 Years a Slave does this as well as any movie about race that I have ever seen. Indeed, it is the only full-length feature film to present slavery from the perspective of the slave. Think about that statement for at least a moment. Amistad was a magnificent movie but it was actually about the social and political struggle for abolition in America. So was Amazing Grace, but it too was about abolition in Great Britain. Both of these superb movies deeply move the heart. Roots was the closest thing that we’ve ever had to 12 Years a Slave but Roots was a fictional television series. 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story and moves the viewer profoundly if you will allow it to touch you.

In the light of the power of this amazing story, and because of the artistic medium of modern film,

What Has Trayvon Martin to Do With Faith, Grace and Freedom?

Unknown-1The Trayvon Martin case, hotly debated several months ago and now off the front page, offers a unique opportunity for Americans in general. It offers an even more important opportunity for Christians in particular. Can we deeply ponder where we are in terms of race and racism in our nation? I do not know but I am resolved to be a peacemaker and to try harder than ever.

As I have stated in a number of other contexts I am a minister in the Reformed Church in America. Just two years ago my church adopted a fourth confessional standard, along with the three historic standards of unity created by the Reformed side of the Protestant Reformation (i.e., the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of the Synod of Dort). This forth statement originated among Reformed Christians in South Africa. Our church body, in adopting this new standard known as the Belhar Confession,  became the first American church to formally adopt it.

The Belhar Confession has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in Southern Africa. This “outcry

Was Lincoln Right About God’s Providence and the Great Sin of Slavery?

American slavery was evil, completely and totally evil. It was a form of human condemnation to a frequently violent life and an even more tragic death. There is nothing benign or acceptable about the institution or its practice. What we as a nation did in defending and protecting this evil is hard to fathom living in the legal freedom of the twenty-first century. We legally deprived millions of Americans of life, liberty and any meaningful pursuit of human happiness. This is just fact!

Unknown-3Today many talk about the Constitution with a reverential respect that borders on the sacred. I celebrate our Constitutional republic. I truly do. It is a blessing in numerous ways. But I cannot shake this sad, agonizing sense that so few of us understand the deep stain that slavery gave to our collective character. Had all of this collective evil ended in 1865 it would be a memory that would still haunt us. But slavery was followed by a century of legal segregation, “separate but equal.” (What a complete misnomer if there ever was one!)

12 Years a Slave – A Film That Reaches Into the Heart

tbn_f6dd3fb22c34f02cSteve McQueen’s stunning visual portrayal of the story of Solomon Northup, a black musician living in Saratoga Springs, NewYork, with his wife and two young adoring children in 1841, is nothing if it is not one of the most moving films I’ve seen in many years. 12 Years a Slave is art but it is art at its highest and noblest best, thus it is more than a film with a great story, or great action and stunning visuals. (All of which it has.) It is a film about America in the middle of the eighteenth century that causes the problem of slavery to come alive for modern viewers. There should be no mistake about the perspective the film adopts since it makes the American experience come alive in a way that far too few of us have understood at a deeply emotional level.

Richard Cohen, a syndicated Washington Post writer, wrote a particularly moving editorial on this film a few weeks ago, in which he said, “[The film reveals what] we obscured, we covered up – we


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