The Common Good

Dialogues with Harlem Heritage: A Church’s Prophetic Voice in the Context of Diversity

I stepped off the elevator and was greeted by three men with hoodies in church yesterday. My shoulders tensed for a few moments. Growing up in New York City, I’ve been groomed in paranoia and 20/20 peripheral eyesight. Yet after taking a second look, I smiled as I admired the theater props: Three hooded figures containing the faces of Hillary Clinton, Jay Z, and Trayvon Martin, with a caption reading, “We are Trayvon Martin.”

Metro Hope Church meets weekly at Harlem’s National Black Theater, so our church gatherings can often be a dance in improvisation as we’re frequently welcomed by new sets. One summer we were greeted by a gigantic “tree” protruding from center stage. It made this preacher’s imagination run vivid with all sorts of sermon possibilities.

But the hooded figures that greeted me last Sunday were a tribute to Trayvon Martin called, Facing our Truth: 10 Minute Plays on Race and Privilege. This month also happens to be the month that Trayvon Martin was born, and a month for celebration of Black History. These convergences do not escape me, nor does the distinct mission of our church in Harlem.

No stranger to dialogue on race and privilege, our church will often reflect on Dr. King who once lamented, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America … 11:00 on Sunday morning …we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

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Marked with Ashes and Bearing the Cross

With the exception of “WWJD” bracelets, there are few times when outward physical appearance reveals Jesus followers in the public square. Other religions often require their faithful to move through the mundane activities of life outwardly proclaiming the core of their faith. For the traditional Hindi it is the saree or the sherwani. For the Muslim it may be the kurta or hijab; for the traditional Jew the yamaka or headscarf. Every day around the world these men and women move through life, often in cultures unlike their own — marked.

Once a year the global body of Christ reveals itself to the world en masse. Foreheads marked with ashes, the global church moves through the first day of Lent with the sign of the cross in plain view for all to see. In the midst of the mundane, those ashes blend with sweat and soot and reveal to the world just who is a follower of Jesus in their midst.

It is a profound feeling to move through the streets of Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, or Huntsville, Ala., with your deepest beliefs marked on your forehead.

The Lenten mark of the cross, in tangible form, brings the church into solidarity with Jesus’ 40-day struggle in the wilderness — the place of desolation, the place of waiting and wandering, temptation, and confrontation with the limitations of our human-ness.

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What Kind of World Is This?

SNAP began in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act as part of his unconditional “War on Poverty.” In his remarks upon signing, Johnson said: “I believe the Food Stamp Act weds the best of the humanitarian instincts of the American people with the best of the free enterprise system. Instead of establishing a duplicate public system to distribute food surplus to the needy, this act permits us to use our highly efficient commercial food distribution system.”

Johnson continued: “It is one of many sensible and needed steps we have taken to apply the power of America's new abundance to the task of building a better life for every American.”

Imagine. Fifty years ago the Food Stamp Act was viewed not as charity, but rather as an ingenious utilization of American enterprise in order to help “build a better life for every American.”

And it is genius.

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The Justice of Eating

Many of us may not know what it is like to be hungry, to regularly miss meals, or to consume a diet void of essential nutrients to live a healthy life. Poet, diplomat, and politician Pablo Neruda captures this feeling well in his poem “The Great Tablecloth.” Just before the holidays, millions of Americans learned what some aspect of hunger felt like as they saw a reduction in their SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits.

On Nov. 1, every SNAP household saw its grocery budget reduced when an $11 billion cut went into effect — the equivalent of 10 million food stamp meals a day. And the program isn’t out of the woods yet. The House and Senate have begun to finalize a farm bill that will impact vital anti-hunger programs. A compromise proposal expected in the coming weeks could further cut SNAP by as much as $8 billion, at a time when lawmakers need to protect and strengthen it.

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Faith-Based Hunger Games

The central figures in four of the planet’s largest religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – were all once homeless. Moses was encamped in the Sinai, unable to return to the Promised Land. Jesus was born in a manger. Buddha wandered through the wilderness seeking enlightenment. The Prophet Muhammad was forced out of Mecca.

Is it a coincidence that each of these figures was, at key parts of his life, dispossessed from the society around him? Hardly. This is a clear message that even the most powerful can be made powerless.

In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, believers are directed to give a set portion of their harvest to people in poverty and immigrants. It is neither voluntary, nor are the amounts to be based on charitable whims. It is a commandment to automatically give a specific percent, making it an anti-hunger tax of sorts. In fact, both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that justice is a higher calling than mere charity.

In Mathew 25, not only does Christ proclaim that those who clothe, house, and feed the “least of these” are engaging in acts equivalent to directly aiding the Lord, he also preaches that those who refuse to aid the poor are consigned to damnation.

Most secular ethical traditions also make societal actions to reduce hunger, poverty, and homelessness a centerpiece of their teachings.

Virtually every elected official in Washington claims to abide by these ethical and faith-based traditions. Indeed, many have used their professions of faith to advance their political careers.

Yet many of these same leaders repeatedly take actions opposite to the values they espouse.

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The Power of Fasting

Do you believe in the spiritual realm? I mean really believe; not in your head — in your disciplines?

Do you believe that spiritual power can alter, transform, or even redeem social, institutional, structural and even legislative power?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’m not sure I really believed … until recently.

On Sunday mornings, in the midst of our safe sanctuaries, our five-song worship sets, our 15-minute sermonettes and our one-hour services that can be timed with an egg timer, how does our worship and our practice offer witness to the reality of the spiritual realm? How do our disciplines engage the inner world beyond the good feeling we get from songs that comfort us? Comforting songs are valuable in our worship. In fact, God uses those songs to remind us of the ways the Holy Spirit interacts directly with us, knows us, and knows our most intimate needs. But how does our worship — how do our congregations’ spiritual disciplines strengthen our understanding and engagement with the powers, the principalities, and the world beyond our own homes and sanctuaries?  

 “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

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Why Racism Is (Almost) Omnipotent

I must use the adverb “almost” because there is a necessary distinction between all and some. It is the difference between mighty and almighty.

But we must never forget that whatever is mighty can harness the power to destroy lives, families, communities, institutions, and nations. This is what racism does on a daily basis.

We have, to some degree, lost the will and/or the capacity to identify and challenge this destructive and powerful force in our culture and institutions.

This Advent season presents the church with a great moment — an opportunity — to sharpen its discernment. It is an opportunity for the church and the world to experience a new birth in love, racial justice, and reconciliation.

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Why Racism Is (Almost) Omnipotent

I must use the adverb “almost” because there is a necessary distinction between all and some. It is the difference between mighty and almighty.

But we must never forget that whatever is mighty can harness the power to destroy lives, families, communities, institutions, and nations. This is what racism does on a daily basis.

We have, to some degree, lost the will and/or the capacity to identify and challenge this destructive and powerful force in our culture and institutions.

This Advent season presents the church with a great moment — an opportunity — to sharpen its discernment. It is an opportunity for the church and the world to experience a new birth in love, racial justice, and reconciliation.

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Advent: Fasting for the Reign of God

There is an awesome moment in the opening chapter of the book of Luke where the writer frames his gospel as an epic celestial battle taking place in the heavenly realm: This is the story of the reign of men vs. the reign of God.

Luke makes it clear. What happened in these pages began in the days of King Herod of Judea (Luke 1:5). King Herod was a product and protector of empire. His father was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar. He subsequently appointed Herod military prefect of Galilee. After the death of Julius, Antony, and Octavian, Augustus Caesar favored Herod and gave him the name "king of the Jews," eventually becoming governor of Judea.

Herod was most concerned with maintaining his power — at all costs. He built the Roman Empire at his own people's expense. He built great monuments and structures, including the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple, enslaving his own people to do it. He used the Jews' labor to erect temples to pagan deities, and, paranoid of anyone who might usurp his power, Herod schemed against his own family, executing three of his own sons for insurrection — one only a few days before his death.

Enter a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth.

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Advent: Fasting for the Reign of God

There is an awesome moment in the opening chapter of the book of Luke where the writer frames his gospel as an epic celestial battle taking place in the heavenly realm: This is the story of the reign of men vs. the reign of God.

Luke makes it clear. What happened in these pages began in the days of King Herod of Judea (Luke 1:5). King Herod was a product and protector of empire. His father was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar. He subsequently appointed Herod military prefect of Galilee. After the death of Julius, Antony, and Octavian, Augustus Caesar favored Herod and gave him the name "king of the Jews," eventually becoming governor of Judea.

Herod was most concerned with maintaining his power — at all costs. He built the Roman Empire at his own people's expense. He built great monuments and structures, including the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple, enslaving his own people to do it. He used the Jews' labor to erect temples to pagan deities, and, paranoid of anyone who might usurp his power, Herod schemed against his own family, executing three of his own sons for insurrection — one only a few days before his death.

Enter a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth.

+Continue Reading