Wednesday, September 30, 2015
I would like to discuss several different words or phrases in this article. Obviously the two words in the title of this piece are good words, things we should be in favor of and want to see happen. One might often link these two words together and assume that if we have reconciliation, specifically here I am speaking of racial reconciliation, then that will satisfy the quest for justice. My answer to that would be that true reconciliation should and ought to lead to a pursuit of justice, but that the trappings (or even the feelings) of reconciliation don’t necessarily lead to justice.
Some people, and it might be correct to say “white people” seem to think that reconciliation is when they recognize their prejudice or bias, repent of it, and try to make peace with black people (or other minorities) they have excluded or feel alienated from. When those who were former strangers and even enemies make peace and come together and establish a relationship there are some strong feelings of love, forgiveness, and unity. Those are good, if not great, feelings. Reconciliation is a good thing, and should be pursued by those who have alienated others or been alienated by others. However, it doesn’t automatically result in a consequential removal of disparity.
That there is bias, and has been bias, there can be little doubt. Some may be in denial but it is hard to deny the racial and indeed racist history in our American heritage. That there is disparity across the statistical spectrum of racial demographics is a matter of fact. Despite the achievements of the black middle class, despite individual success stories, despite the reality of some wonderful black families and black entrepreneurs, black intellectuals, and black entertainers and athletes, nevertheless the statistical disparities in almost every area are dramatic and sometimes horrifying.
Single parent homes, failing schools, unemployment, renters not owners, low skilled and low income employment, inadequate intellectual formation for school, school suspension and expulsion, drop-out rates, graduation without literacy, juvenile detention, adult arrests, violent encounters with police officers, insufficient legal representation and plea bargaining, convictions, felony convictions and loss of voting rights, incarceration, length of sentencing, rates of violence, rates of STDs and HIV/AIDS, death by homicide, early death, early infant death, obesity and diabetes and other health issues, toxic proximity environmental health issues, failure to achieve loans for farmers and home owners, loans only given at higher rates; these are all categories in which there is statistical disparity.
Why do bad neighborhoods exist, why do bad schools exist, why is there no work and no men to do the work? Some still in their oblivious disconnect will make it simply a matter of personal initiative and responsibility; “He’s lazy and I’m not!” You will notice that some of the disparities above might be true even for middle class or wealthy African Americans. Test after test for hiring, purchasing homes, admission into schools, and treatment by government officials continuously reveal patterns of bias. Bias continues to create and reinforce disparity.
Does bias and disparity relieve anyone of personal responsibility? Of course not, and the glory for any individual who rises above the obstacles is what Americans love to hear and believe about themselves. Sometimes this is true, and often it is not. Do bias and disparity make it harder for people of color to achieve? Absolutely! Does it absolve the gang-bangers, dope pushers, and those who commit criminal acts even in the name of feeding their families? Again, of course not! Did bias and disparity help form the neighborhoods and communities where such things flourish? Again, absolutely!
Do bias and disparity help to crush hope? I ask ridiculous questions here. Will the end of bias in individuals help to end disparity? Ah, that is the question I am really trying to get at. Certainly if someone is racist and full of prejudice and they truly see it in themselves and repent of it, but then they begin to treat people fairly and give everyone the same opportunities they formerly denied to people of color, then justice begins to take shape; at least in their personal sphere.
However, the systemic and structural aspects of historical bias and disparity still need to be identified, dismantled, reformed, and sometimes whole new systems and structures need to be created. This is where justice is harder, more expensive, longer, and often more confusing. This is where issues become economic and thus political. It is often in the face of such barriers that some people deny the disparity, (which is to deny white privilege) avoid the guilt and shame of it, and disparage the discussion of such things. It is also where some of those who have suffered from the bias and the disparity don’t want to talk about it because they think it will just continue alienation.
Friendship is often the beginning of restoring things to justice. Two people walking down the street holding hands, with only one having something to eat, only one having clothes to wear, only one getting respect and greetings as he passes along, only one not attacked by criminals while the other continues to suffer seems to be a strange friendship. While we may never achieve full equality as human beings surely , if we are friends, we can eliminate some of the disparity. Surely if I have something good in my right hand I will share it with the one holding my left. Surely if the one I allow to hold my hand is attacked, his fight will become mine.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Recently I was at a committee meeting and it was discovered we needed more people to serve on it. As we discussed potential candidates to fill up the committee I mentioned someone I will refer to here as “So and So.” So and So happens to be a good man, and would have made an excellent member of the committee since So and So is capable, a good leader, wise, and easy to work with. Unfortunately for us So and So said, “no!”
I admire So and So for saying “no.” He said “no” because he is at the stage of life where he has to care for an elderly family member and cannot risk taking on more commitments. He has said, “yes” to his family and this forced him to say “no” to us. His “yes” is enhanced by the times and circumstances in which he chooses to say “no.” It is not that he was saying “no” to something which was a bad thing, or outside of his field of knowledge, or even outside of his responsibilities. He is part of a larger group that decided to form the committee and as a member of that group he shares a responsibility to make the larger group successful.
Yet, he is one among many (all) of us who have to make choices about our time and how we will spend it. We all have the same amount of time in any given day and the same amount of days in any given week. We are different in the amount of days we are given, but while we have them they are all exactly the same size. Obviously part of living a good life is making choices not to waste our lives in what might hurt us or other people. In short a righteous life is saying “no!” to things which are wicked or sinful or evil. Let’s grant that some of those choices are not so easy to make for many of us but it is fairly easy to see doing “bad” things as a bad choice.
The problem in saying “no” for many of us is learning how to say “no” when it is a choice between what is good and what is best, or what is good and what is actually the right thing for us to be doing at the time. These choices are not so easy especially if we have a personality that hates to think people might be disappointed in us. These choices are not so easy when we know we could actually help in the situation; that we have the knowledge, skills, energy, and resources to make a difference. Yet, we must give it up so that we might do something more responsible. It is hard to make such choices when the good thing that opposes the right thing is actually more fun to do than the exact right thing we ought to be doing.
Again, we are not talking about the choice between sin and righteousness here, though it might be a choice between being sinful versus being righteous. Yes, we can be sinful in doing something good which robs us of the time to be doing what we should. Sometimes we can get away with the inferior choice because no one sees the best thing left unattended. No one who sees us doing something ordinarily good has any reason to condemn us. In fact, they might heap praise upon us for being with them, or helping them, or serving some need.
Some of us make incorrect choices in commitments of our time because we are “people pleasers” and some of us make bad time choices because we are driven by guilt or some over- developed sense of being essential. All the times we say either “no” or “yes” we sacrifice its opposite. If I say “yes” to you I must being saying “no” to someone or something else because time is also bounded by space. I cannot be in two places at the same time.
Choices come with a cost and it obviously takes wisdom, sometimes gained only through hard experience, to be able to count that cost before making a decision and not simply paying the cost afterwards. Regret, frustration, broken relationships, stress, burnout, and anger are all prices to be born from being over committed.
On the other hand there are some who make such choices (especially in saying “no”) out of selfishness or laziness or irresponsibility. That too carries a cost, both personally, in our families, and socially. That is another kettle of fish as they say. Primarily I am speaking to those who are usually driven to agree to help, attend, serve, and do but who just hate to say that very blessed and essential word which can help us retain sanity, physical health, and familial connections. I am saying that “no!” is sometimes a good thing to say. I wish I was better at it.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Recently I had the privilege to sit in a room with several (six to be exact) African American women who were graduates, or soon to be, of three different Reformed seminaries. These women had been or were in Master of Divinity programs. Needless to say, but needful for you to know, they are smart, gifted, and love Jesus. I did not take a poll to see if each was committed to complementarianism, but took it that most of them were. That they were Feminists, in a less liberal/radical but yet determined fashion with a more respectful and kind demeanor, would I think also be fair. For a fuller self-disclosure I see a profound philosophical difference in a feminism of Biblically informed justice rather than an imposed feminist ideology upon a non-authoritative Bible, or a complete rejection of the Bible as the Word of God.
I was delighted to be with them and honored to be part of their conversation. I am also curious to see what God is going to do with them and how the larger church will treat them. I earnestly hope that years from now they will sit down somewhere and talk about how God led them, used them, and kept them. They represent a tremendous resource for the people of God and I certainly hope they will be treated as the treasure they are.
I have fears for them as well. I am sure there are more women who are not women of color who have also earned a Master of Divinity degree and have had, or have, their own struggles. Black women M.Divs are going to have even a harder challenge in a predominantly white Reformed community. I have fears for them, but I am not afraid of them, as I suspect some might be.
What do you do with a bold, gifted, and theologically astute black woman? The short answer is “nothing”, that is not our place, and might be intimidating to try. It is God’s place and my hope is that the rest of us would open the doors so He can do as He wills, especially in denominations that don’t accept women as pastors and preachers. This is where the fear of such women might be a problem, to suspect they are attempting to change the rules, that if we let them do anything in the church they will overthrow our view of the Eldership and the standards for ordination. You can’t be around these women long to realize that some of them have stronger verbal and oratorical skills than many of our preachers. To fear them would be a real failure of trust and faith in God, and a lack of respect for the humility in these women.
Their education and giftedness are assets for the church but like all the rest of God’s folk are only applicable according to character and servanthood. Education, intelligence, and giftedness become intimidating for us when we only look at an individual on that basis. Sometimes we meet people via introduction with all their credentials, sometimes we know of folks according to their Curriculum Vitae. People known on that level are either wonderfully impressive or scary, and we tend to put them in some kind of box that limits our relationship. The experience and expertise we bring with us does not qualify us for spiritual service. Spiritual service rests on spirituality and godliness, and then the position is filled according to qualification after that foundation is set, or should be.
As a former pastor and older leader in the church I am concerned for them, and jealous to see them included and well used for God’s glory. I hope for godly husbands for them, even though it is not necessarily God’s plan for all of them or none of them to be married. I do not necessarily think they all need husbands to be happy or well used. Yet, I assume some of them may want that and I hope men of God will see into their characters and personalities and pursue them as God directs. Too many Christian men have no courage in pursuing strong women when my experience tells me that what one might see as strength on the outside does not preclude humility and gentleness in relationship and in the home.
One of my concerns for all congregations is the lack of imagination we have in religious vocational positions. We have “offices” that are entered via ordination and thus reserved for men. We seem a bit schizophrenic in determining what ministry can be done in and through the church. Sometimes we proclaim all the members should be doing ministry, and then we insist that only “ministers” do ministry, and we get real sticky about titles. We have had Directors of Christian Education, we have had Church Administrators, we have had Directors of Urban and Mercy ministries, Directors of Music and Worship. We have had Counselors, we have had Directors of Children’s Ministry, we have had youth workers at various levels. We have had Directors of Women’s Ministries, ESL, Special Needs, etc. All of these positions can be filled by ordained pastors, and as far as I know all of them can be and have been held by women who are not ordained.
When we send folks to the mission field the possibilities seem even greater. Works of mercy, medical, development, orphanages, schools, higher education and ministries of all kinds have been done by women who come from denominations that preclude them from the pulpit, but who have given them very powerful, meaningful, and effective areas of ministry. This is not an embarrassment, nor is it hypocritical, but it is sometimes not celebrated and advertised as it should be. I would love to see a comprehensive list and description of such religious vocational ministry, and I would love to see women come together to encourage each other in these positions. I would also like to see more active mentoring of women to pursue these positions rather than leaving it seemingly (I am a Calvinist) to serendipitous chance, or the unavailability of a qualified male.
This is a call to recruit these women into ministry so that the church will be blessed and they will be fulfilled and will fulfill their calling to serve Jesus.