body of christ
I’m a Christian, but I’m not a natural evangelizer. Talking about my faith has never come easily to me, and I prefer to quietly live my beliefs rather than speak about them. Even as a legislative advocate for the Episcopal Church, I am more at ease discussing policy ramifications than quoting scripture. Still, one urgent policy issue in particular has forced me to reconsider my distaste for religious language and challenged me to voice my faith. Galvanized by the urgency of this challenge, I’m ready to evangelize — about climate change.
JERUSALEM — One out of four Christians today is Pentecostal or charismatic, which means one of every 12 persons living today practices a Pentecostal form of Christian faith. This, along with the astonishing growth of Christianity in Africa, are the two dominant narratives shaping world Christianity today. Further, the gulf between the older, historic churches, located largely in the global North, and the younger, emerging churches in the global South, often fueled by Pentecostal fire, constitutes the most serious division in the worldwide Body of Christ today.
One can also frame this as the divide between the global Pentecostal community, and the worldwide ecumenical movement. Each lives in virtual isolation from the other, and both suffer as a result. I call it ecclesiological apartheid, with its own endless, winding walls of separation. And these walls need to come down, for the sake of God’s love for the world.
It’s become my passion, in whatever small ways, to make some cracks in these walls.
This extravagant love poured out on my behalf felt like an offer of grace from God, a reminder that though the man I had dated couldn’t love me as I should be loved, God would make up for the rest. It was a convicting moment — I have often viewed this type of love and friendship as a consolation prize for not having a significant other. What a small way to live and love when you only expect love from spouse and children and see the love of friends and family as lesser. How could such a small group of people really show all the wonder and magnitude of God’s unfailing love toward us?
I was listening to public radio in Boston recently when a public health expert half-jokingly noted that to find the hotspots of anti-vaccination fervor you could follow these steps:
1. Look at a map of where the Whole Foods are located.
2. Place a pin down where there is a Whole Foods.
3. Draw a 10-mile radius around the pin.
The point being — and this expert was only kidding a bit — that anti-vaccination is largely found among white, highly educated, wealthy advocates.
To me, what’s more obvious about this is when we are white, highly educated, and wealthy — like many of our mainline Protestant congregations — then the feelings of being in control and being free are so important that we are willing to risk the health and lives of others for the sake of being some sort of adjective like “natural” or “free.” Vaccines, designed to protect, become oddly reversed as a possible threat to freedom and “natural living.”
In reality, it is only our privilege that allows us to consider not vaccinating. The same sin that has deeply troubled our sexuality is also at the root of this crisis — the deep-seated belief that the highest good will be that we are free to do whatever we want to our bodies. This continuing belief in total freedom not only fails to take seriously human failings but continues to create crises wherever it goes.
When we view this world as a place where we can make decisions about our lives without regard to the impact to our neighbors, we have failed to heed Jesus’ own words that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have failed to hear from the apostle Paul that our bodies are now God’s temples, and that they are now for the sake of the world.
The stories of young black men being killed by white police are sparking a national conversation. However, public responses to these painful stories reveal an alarming racial divide. From an unarmed teenager killed in Ferguson, Mo.; to a 12 year-old boy shot dead in Cleveland; to a white police officer on video choking a black man to death in New York City; and a startling series of similar stories from across the country and over many decades — our reactions show great differences in white and black perspectives.
Many white Americans tend to see this problem as unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances. Black Americans see a system in which their black lives matter less than white lives. That is a fundamental difference of experience between white and black Americans, between black and white parents, even between white and black Christians. The question is: Are we white people going to listen or not?
White Americans talk about how hard and dangerous police work is — that most cops are good and are to be trusted. Black Americans agree that police work is dangerously hard, but also have experienced systemic police abuse of their families. All black people, especially black men, have their own stories. Since there are so many stories, are these really just isolated incidents? We literally have two criminal justice systems in America — one for whites and one for blacks.
Are there police uses of force that are understandable and justifiable? Of course there are. If our society wasn’t steeped in a gun culture, many of these shootings could be avoided. But has excessive, unnecessary, lethal force been used over and over again, all across the country, with white police killing unarmed black civilians? Yes it has, and the evidence is overwhelming. But will we white people listen to it?
One of the greatest sermons I ever heard on the subject of communion was offered by the head pastor of a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Princeton, N.J., back in the late 1980s. This pastor spent most of that sermon talking about the cross and how Jesus’ body was literally broken. I can still hear the crunch of the nails going into Jesus’ wrists that I heard in my mind’s ear that Sunday. And this wasn’t Easter week. It was just a communion Sunday.
Toward the end of his sermon, the pastor brought out a piece of saltine cracker that lay in the communion plate. He cracked it and then he said this: “Every time I take communion I hear the crack of the bread in my mouth and I bite and remember the crack of Jesus’ bones … and I remember that I did that.”
I wept as we took communion that day.
But isn’t that really about dis-union — the dis-union of Christ’s actual physical body? The cracking of his bones, the breaking of his legs, the piercing of his flesh; the cross seems to be more about a breaking apart than a bringing together of Christ’s body.
Right now when I see the lived reality of the church in our world, it seems we are more in a state of dis-union than communion.
Editor's Note: The following transcript is from a homily given in Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. As part of the “From Segregation to Integration through Conversation” faith and learning series, the text for the day was 1 Corinthians 12:14-26.
The color of my skin is white. I am Caucasian. I am white, from head to toe, in case you had not noticed. It is quite possible that you had not noticed, because in case you have not noticed, most days in this place, most all of us have skin that is white. And as those of us that experience winters in Minnesota know better than most, in the midst of a “white out” it is difficult to notice anything that is not white.
While there are some special days with some special circumstances and some special exceptions, we in this place tend to be white people surrounded with other white people. Because the fact of the matter is that most white people in most places tend to have social circles that are mostly filled with other white people.
As was recently reported by the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 American Values survey, when respondents were asked to identity as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey, the results revealed just how segregated white social circles actually are. As reported by the study, the social circles of white people in the United States are 91 percent white. In addition, the analysis also showed that over 75 percent of white people reported exclusively white social circles, without any minority presence whatsoever.
All together, the Public Religion Research Institute showed the sociological fact that, even in an increasingly diverse multi-cultural nation, birds in the United States with white feathers — such as my own — continue to flock together. In other words, contrary to the common cliché often given in response to these difficult topics, when it comes to white American people, the facts reveal that "some of our best friends" simply are not black.
Diedrich Boenhoeffer wrote about it. Pastors preach about it. Churches strive for it.
It is a concept that has had a long history in the American church. It can come in many forms. Bringing a meal to a stressed out new mother. A church ice cream social. Youth group. Singles ministry.
But what does community look like when working on a social issue?
For human trafficking, that community comes in the form of partnerships. The 2000 federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) originally addressed human trafficking by creating the three 'Ps': prevention, protection, and prosecution. But after implementation occurred, the anti-trafficking community realized there was something missing. Thus, in 2008, the fourth 'P' —partnership — was added.
In recent years, my family has navigated some rough patches: death, cancer treatments, open heart surgeries, chronic disease, etc. Now, I’m certain this isn’t everyone’s experience, but mine has been that in these times of trauma or tragedy, family comes together to stand with one another as we wrestle through life’s crap. We aren’t picking fights, we are crying on each other’s shoulders.
In recent months, our human family has been enduring an especially rough patch.
Whether in remote villages or urban centers, few have been untouched (in some way) by the realities unfolding.
As I observe our corporate response to tragedy as a human family, and evaluate my own response in the midst of it, I have noticed something disturbing unfold. Rather than rally together as a family navigating a season of trauma, we have used this moment to divide, stir hatred and misunderstanding, point fingers, and more than anything, view those on the opposite side of an issue as less than human.
It was July 19, 2013, and we were leaving New York City for a spiritual retreat, six days after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman “not guilty” in the death of Trayvon Martin. The sadness, anger, and weariness was well worn on the liturgies, prayers, and preaching of many of the churches in our Harlem neighborhood.
We found ourselves joining local church leaders and a few pastors in a conversation about justice that would eventually make its way toward a broad range of matters: the gay rights of questioning teens, clean water for children in Africa, and many of the frequent places conversations go with folks who are concerned with “loving our neighbor.” And so we sat, we listened, and were genuinely moved to openly share about the challenges and opportunities that have come with cultivating safe spaces for GBLT folks in our church community. TOGETHER we also inspired one another as we offered our collective experiences with integrating the arts in fundraising for international relief efforts.
And as Jose and I sat, listened, and shared TOGETHER, we found ourselves with heavy hearts waiting …“Would the conversation broach the tragedy of Trayvon Martin?” It didn’t.
And as we sat TOGETHER in sacred solidarity with compassionate, justice-minded pastors, who happened to be white, somehow we found ourselves feeling quite alone. So we mustered the courage to ask, “How have your churches responded to the Trayvon Martin verdict?” My question was met with silence. The silence that met us did not betray aloof or timid spirits, but rather uncertainty about whether their one voice could really make a difference, or that somehow they did not have the right to “speak on behalf” of brown and black realities.
You are dying. I get it. Because so am I.
And, speaking as one of your pastors, I think this is a very good thing.
To be clear, I don’t have cancer. No doctor has told me to set my affairs in order. But each morning, I wake up feeling a little bit older. Each morning, I notice a few more crinkle lines around my eyes, a bit more resistance when I change what I eat or how I move. Each morning, I am reminded, whether I like it or not, of my own mortality.
I cannot escape my mortality. I will someday die. Scripture reminds us that “all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls” (1 Peter 1:24). I know that I am no exception to this rule; I am limited. And I live in a culture where the trend is to try to erase these limitations, where I can blur my wrinkles, try fad diets, renew my strength with the latest energy drink.
But these things are illusions. I am dying.
I have to say, one of my very favorite things about Jesus is how he does whatever he wants to and could really give a hell about how other people feel about it. Yeah. I just find that endearing — especially when he irritates the nice religious people. That’s secretly my favorite.
In our Gospel text for today Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on a Sabbath when he sees a woman with a crippled back. He saw her, called her over and said “Woman you are set free from your ailment.” He reached out and touched her and she stood upright for the first time in 18 years and praised God — which seems like a win. Except for that then the leader of the synagogue throws a little tizzy about how that kind of thing should not be happening on the Sabbath. Further proof that super religious people can just be so helpful, can’t they?
Especially when they seem to value parameters over people – which should sound like a familiar story …
Stories of churches denying your call to ministry because you fall outside the parameters of which gender is allowed to be ordained and stories of churches denying you the Eucharist because you fall outside the parameters of what kind of sexual orientation is allowed to receive the means of grace and stories of churches denying you a place in community because you just weren’t sure if you believed in God and that falls outside the parameters of doctrinal purity – well, these kind of stories are sadly bordering on cliché around here. We hear them all the time.
Jim Wallis sat down after the George Zimmerman verdict earlier this month to give his thoughts on race, faith, and truth.
"We live in our different worlds. That's not what we're supposed to do as the body of Christ."
A respectful, bright young high school student asked me yesterday if Baptism and the Eucharist were not merely symbols.
The first thing out of my mouth, I suspect more or less unconsciously (I've never answered in this way before) was:
"When Paul talks about Christ being 'in us' or about 'putting on' Christ does he mean to invoke a metaphor or a reality? Does Jesus really make his home in us by the Spirit or do Christians, when speaking in this way, generally mean that Jesus lives in us only symbolically?"
This hit home — for him, for thirty young adults, and for me.
Last spring, I heard a terrific talk from Shane Claiborne at the Festival of Faith & Writing. Claiborne, a prominent voice in progressive Christian circles, lives in Philadelphia’s inner city, where he and the other inhabitants of the Simple Way community practice a “new monasticism.”
They value hospitality and communal living, seek to build relationships with those living in their neighborhood, and are concerned with issues around poverty and wealth, power and violence. From the descriptions I’ve read, the Simple Way practices similar values to the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., where I worshiped for most of my 20s. The Church of the Saviour had the unusual distinction of taking both Jesus and social justice seriously. It was a community in which I was comfortable speaking like an evangelical, while voting and approaching social issues like an Episcopalian.
Listening to Claiborne speak back in April about justice and love and how our stories illuminate God’s kingdom, I felt at home. Here was the kind of guy I used to worship with in my earnest urban-dwelling days. His message, his words, and his stories felt intimate, familiar, and inspiring.
That is, except for this one story...