Human Rights

A History of (Non)Violence

I WALKED THROUGH the halls of the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Ala.—slowly. Original documents lined the walls of the nation’s central memorial to the local actions that helped trigger the national mass movement for civil rights. To skim would have been a sacrilege. Each document was evidence. Evidence of struggle. Evidence that America’s apartheid happened. Evidence of a miracle.

The museum is like a labyrinth. Each room builds on the last, adding color and depth to a reality most of the nation has only experienced in the two-dimensional contours of sepia-toned documentary footage and pictures.

I entered the room with the kitchen table where Martin Luther King Jr. dropped to his knees and prayed, weeping, scared, and still holding onto the last vestiges of his personal dream for a middle-class preacher’s life. For my tour group, the room was about that table, but the documents lining the walls like wallpaper caught my eye.

One stood out. It was a full-page newspaper ad with a letter from the White Citizens’ Council of Montgomery to the blacks of Montgomery. The letter pleaded with the black citizens to “stop their violent attack on their city.”

The first time I read “Stop this violence,” I was befuddled. What violence?

I scanned my memory for any trace of violence in the Montgomery bus boycott by the blacks who engaged in economic protest, refusing a public service that proclaimed and enforced a spiritual lie: Blacks are less than human. They had dropped one too many coins into the slot only to have to give up their seat to a white person if the bus was too full. The blacks of Montgomery refused to comply any longer with their society’s sin. They couldn’t continue taking up the public shovel to heap another pile of dirt on the carcass of their deadened dignity. So they walked.

And weeks into walking, the White Citizens’ Council called their protest “violent.”

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The Cost of Discipleship

BORDERED BY strip malls, chain restaurants, and drug stores, four-lane Hillsboro Pike in Nashville, Tenn., carries cars from the Vanderbilt University area out to suburban neighborhoods. Every afternoon, thousands of drivers heading home from the city crest a ridge and pass a long, red-brick church.

That church, Calvary United Methodist, is where I was confirmed, participated in youth group, and sang in the choir. In the archives room off the education wing, a visitor can open a filing cabinet drawer, flip past photos of youth group retreats and church league basketball games, and find a manila folder labeled “Rev. Dr. Sam Dodson, 1958-1965.”

The folder is thin, but its contents are weighty. A letter to the local Methodist bishop from the church’s board explains that Dodson cannot adequately minister to his congregation while participating in political activities and suggests he be demoted to assistant pastor. A newspaper clipping from 1965 announces that Rev. Dodson and his family will be moving to Athens, Greece, where he will head St. Andrew’s American Church. I recognize some of the names signed to letters calling for Dodson’s demotion—an usher who pressed strawberry candies into my palm whenever I asked, a woman who looked me in the eye when I was 11 and told me I would be a leader in the church someday.

During the months and years immediately after the relative success of the 1960 sit-ins and before the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed Congress, a wide range of activist groups and individuals in Nashville sought to desegregate restaurants, movie theaters, churches, schools, and recreational facilities, many in predominantly white areas of town. “The ‘Whites Only’ signs were down, but we had not yet seen the white mind behind those signs,” remembered Kwame Leo Lillard, a college student in Nashville in the early ’60s who participated in Freedom Rides to the Deep South to desegregate interstate buses.

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In Over My Head: Freedom and LGBTQ Inclusion

Head contour with rainbow flag in the shape of a heart. Image courtesy bymandesi

Head contour with rainbow flag in the shape of a heart. Image courtesy bymandesigns/shutterstock.com

I am in over my heart on the LGBTQ situation and the church. I am also in over my head. As a Christian ethicist who believes Scripture is the measure for matters of faith, doctrine, and conduct, I have to say my head hurts to the point that it aches. It aches because I know that how evangelicals have taught me about loving LGBTQ Christians is myopic, and we need to think through many questions anew.

There are themes I am clear on: the place of love, the importance of family, the image of God, the mystery of bodies, the centrality of children. When it comes to faith, doctrine, and conduct, I plan to occupy myself for a long time on these themes to engage the questions that I am still unclear on. These include: What is the ideal marriage? Who is deemed family? What kind of sex reflects the character of God?

A few years ago, my then 7-year-old son was flipping through a children’s Bible during church when he came to a picture of Jacob and Rachel. He looked up at me and challenged, “What’s this? One wife? Where are the rest of them?”

Clearly the illustrator had an interpretive lens for choosing not to portray the messiness of the patriarch’s family and children. Our world simplifies and sanitizes marriage and sex to the point that we evangelicals endanger the kind of complex thinking on family structures that Scripture itself narrates.

Fortunately I am in a church where questioning over your head is okay. Formed by people who first called themselves Mission Friends, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) was birthed as a renewal movement in the late 1800s. We affirm our freedom in Christ to breathe life into our faith and ground our wisdom in the midst of complex ethical questions. The New Testament’s word on freedom sets the tone. John’s gospel tells us that if we continue going back to the word, we are his disciples. Those who receive Christ and have faith in his name are free to become children of God (John 1:12). Paul emphasizes that those who love Christ are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). Galatians reminds us that freedom to live a new life is evidenced by such fruits as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:16-25). The letter to the Philippians promises that what God has begun will eventually be completed (Phil. 1:6).

In the midst of this celebrated freedom, the ECC acknowledges that it is a fragile gift. One of our forebears called this gift of freedom in Christ a “turtle without a shell” — how free it is to live unencumbered, yet how vulnerable to lose one’s protective layer. While I don’t want to say we Covenant evangelicals always use our freedom well, we do have historical precedent for thinking in morally complex ways.   

When Love with Limits Isn’t Love at All: Thoughts on Exclusion in a Time for Inclusion

A door opens to light. Image courtesy Peshkova/shutterstock.com

A door opens to light. Image courtesy Peshkova/shutterstock.com

I’ve always cringed when I hear someone say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.”

In the end, I don’t quite know how to do that. I get the sentiment, and I think it basically comes from a well-intentioned place. Essentially, when someone says this, I think they’re trying to be kind and caring for the person above and beyond any kind of vice or sinful deeds that person has committed. You know: Man, I really love Steve but I hate his alcohol addiction. Deborah is a wonderful friend but her tendency to gossip is really not so wonderful. James has a heart of gold but I just can’t condone his adultery.  

We love and affirm people but we don’t affirm the things they do that hurt themselves, others, or are an affront to God’s dream for them and their God-given potential.  

But sin is not just the things we do (or do not do — there are both sins of commission and omission). Sin is something we can’t quite shake. While we’re first created good, as Desmond Tutu has reminded us, we certainly fall short (always be sure to remember Genesis 1:31 as the first word and Genesis 3 as the second).

Sin is a reality of our brokenness this side of Jesus’s return and that fully realized realm of God where there will be shalom and no one will hunger or cry anymore. Sin isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. So many want to make it out to be a laundry list of "don’ts" along life’s way — our faith, in the end, teaches us that it’s so much more than that.  

I reject the whole notion of love the sinner but hate the sin — it misses the Gospel point that we are more than our inadequacies or things that we’ve done or not done that have missed the mark. We are better than our sin — we are created in the beautiful image of God.  

 

Christians Strip on Court Steps to Protest Detention of Asylum Seekers

Image courtesy Louise Coghill, photography and Adam Elovalis, design.

Image courtesy Louise Coghill, photography and Adam Elovalis, design.

A group of Christians protesting detention for asylum-seeking children stripped off their clothes on the steps of the magistrate's court in Perth, Australia on Wednesday.

The group, Love Makes a Way, had just pleaded guilty to trespassing in Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's electorate office in December, where they had staged an eight-hour peaceful sit-in and several members were reportedly strip-searched.  

From the court steps, National Director of Common Grace and Sojourners contributor Jarrod McKenna quoted from the book of Matthew before he and others in the group began stripping off their garments — this time, willingly. 

We Need to Talk About Modern-Day Slavery

Freedom concept. Image courtesy frank_peters/shutterstock.com

Freedom concept. Image courtesy frank_peters/shutterstock.com

In his annual State of the Union address last week, President Obama began his foreign policy focus by saying, “If there’s one thing this new century has taught us, it’s that we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores.” 

Unfortunately, an insidiously prevalent challenge and hugely profitable crime facing the world — modern slavery and human trafficking — was not mentioned in the President’s list of current global concerns facing the U.S. on Tuesday night. To be fair, he has given a major address on the topic before. But no president has ever raised the issue in his big annual address.

That needs to change.

Incidentally, the President just finished a multi-day trip to India, home to almost one-half of the world’s enslaved people. In a surprise and welcome development, he brought up the topic in his last speech there — a pointed one on human rights — saying, “Together, we can stand up against human trafficking and work to end the scourge of modern-day slavery.”  

Raising the issue in this context is an important step in naming the problem. Indeed, one of our country’s most effective tools for fighting slavery — the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report — consistently pulls its punches specifically on India, declining to hold them fully accountable for the massive level of human exploitation there. Given India’s size and wealth, our larger foreign policy apparatus deems it more important to avoid “risking” other geopolitical concerns with the diplomatic fallout that could come from telling the truth on slavery. 

In Over My Heart: Friendship and the LGBTQ Church

Hearts together making a rainbow. Image courtesy Yulia Grigoryeva/shutterstock.c

Hearts together making a rainbow. Image courtesy Yulia Grigoryeva/shutterstock.com

I am in over my heart on the LGBTQ situation within the church. As a Christian ethicist, life-long evangelical, and devoted Christ-follower, my heart aches to the point where it’s breaking.  I have friends, students, and family who are gay or lesbian, and my faith in Christ would be worse off without them. Among other things, they witness faithfulness to God amidst exclusion and persecution.

Fortunately, I’m in a church where being in over your heart is a good thing. Now called the Evangelical Covenant Church, my denomination’s founders called themselves Mission Friends at the outset. We began as a renewal group in Sweden around the practices of reading Scripture and hospitality. We began out of a love for spiritual formation, and we countered the dominant culture by allowing all people to be readers of Scripture.

Scripture reading in rural Sweden developed as a subversive practice. Though they were few and poor, lowly and insignificant, our Covenant forebears enacted justice by crossing prohibitive lines of class, gender, and age. Three things sustained them: the Jesus of the word; a new spirit of freedom and joy; and the word of God and the sacraments. As a result, these faithful groups gained the capacity to hear God’s word through the hearts and minds of individuals who differed from one another.

This practice of diverse interpretation amongst lay people forged ahead through the strength of friendships. The name “Mission Friends” grew under the Psalm 119 banner, “I am a friend of all who fear thee,” and the people of the movement treasured friendship and unity in Christ above any doctrinal or confessional statements. They believed that friendship is not only the method of advancing the gospel — it is the heart of the gospel. Friendship reflects in the simplest terms the way that the Evangelical Covenant church does ecclesiology, or life together.

 

Did Jesus Really Never Say Anything About Homosexuality?

A gay couple holding hands. Image courtesy EpicStockMedia/shutterstock.com

A gay couple holding hands. Image courtesy EpicStockMedia/shutterstock.com

In the realm of biblical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, I’ve always found one — “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality” — to be particularly weak.

After all, Jesus also never said anything about rape, molestation, bestiality, torture, cyber-bullying, insurance fraud or elaborate pagan rituals involving self-mutilation and child sacrifice. That does not, by default, earn any of those things the Lord’s unconditional seal of approval.

What’s more, I’m not sure if the argument’s underlying premise is even true. Because, in the Gospels, Christ may indeed have failed to specifically broach the topic currently preoccupying the American Evangelical church, but he did address the subject, in a manner of speaking, in Matthew 22 and Mark 12.

In those two brief, but pivotal, passages of scripture, Jesus captures the essence of the Christian ethic, mission, calling and faith in an incredibly simple and beautiful way. And he did so, interestingly, not as a standalone teaching, but in answer to a question from his critics.

It starts when a group of Pharisees, taking the tag from the Sadducees — who had been silenced in the previous back-and-forth — descend on Jesus, with the goal of ripping open a can of good, old-fashioned pwnage, first-century style.

The Torture of Our Hypocrisy

Solider in isolation painted with an American flag. Image courtesy CURAphotograp

Solider in isolation painted with an American flag. Image courtesy CURAphotography/shutterstock.com

We remain bound to such a torturous future, because we continue to condone what we condemn. Over the past several decades our U.S. State Department has condemned Iran, North Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and numerous others for their use of torturous techniques such as waterboarding, stress positions, forced standing and nudity, threats of harm to person and family, sleep deprivation, use of loud music, prolonged solitary confinement and the seclusion of prisoners in small spaces. But the recently-released U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detention and interrogation program revealed that the U.S. has done exactly to others what we have so adamently condemned of others. In other words, if hypocrisy is a mask, then not only does our nation seem to wear one, but our faces have clearly grown to more fully fit into it.   

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