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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

Jimmy Carter: A Full Life

Jimmy-Carter-headshotLike so many I have had a mixture of feelings and responses to President Jimmy Carter over the years. It seems to me that most critics, left and right, have freely attributed to him the label of “poor president” or “political failure.” I wonder what history, long after his death, will actually say. Many thought that Harry Truman was a failure until after his death. Maybe Carter’s legacy will meet a similar fate but I have my doubts. If a president is known for his legislative accomplishments then Carter will always be seen as mediocre at best. Among conservatives he is loathed and even seen as the definition of failure and disappointment. (This was true at least until we elected President Barack Obama, who is now classed as lower than Jimmy Carter ever was by the same critics.)

It is ironic, perhaps, that Jimmy Carter is the only U.S. president I actually met in person. (It was brief and not memorable.) I have been to most of the presidential libraries and museums and read a great

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 Week That Dramatically Altered the Culture Conflict and the Future of the Church

th-1Response to the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage has been all over the map, to say the least. We have seen some amazing celebrations and all the expected denunciations from many Christians. At First Baptist Church in Dallas the pulpit was adorned with red, white and blue last weekend. The pastor called the ruling “an affront in the face of Almighty God.” Robert Jeffress, pastor at First Baptist Dallas, said the court had acted in a way that represented “depravity, degradation and what the Bible calls sexual perversion.” The White House, in contrast, was bathed in the rainbow colors of the LGBT movement. Many other churches, mostly Protestant mainline congregations, called attention to the decision with prayer and joy.

The pastor at First Baptist in Dallas said he was not discouraged at all. He added, “We are not going to be silenced. This is a great opportunity for our church to share the truth and love of Jesus Christ and we are going to do it.” Now, if ever there was a line I personally agreed

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

Nature’s God: The Origins of the American Republic and Why It Matters (Part One)

Unknown-3The American patriots who were directly responsible for the founding of our nation were considered, by almost all orthodox Christian ministers at the time, to be “radicals” and “atheists.” So goes the essential claim of philosopher/author Matthew Stewart in his exciting new book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (W.W. Norton, New York, 2014). His claim is, at least to my historical mind, beyond reasonable doubt. What is more intriguing to me is why and how we have lost our collective awareness of the real philosophical and religious origins of our nation.

The standard narrative goes something like the following as I understand it:

American was founded by deeply religious men. Some of these men were deists but even these deists respected Christianity. For this reason they favored it, at least in terms of the dialogue about the nation’s political and religious future. Most of the framers and founders were members of churches and most all of them were honest, Bible-believing, orthodox Christian men. Yes, they used ideas they borrowed from men like John Locke but even

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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