In 1808, black congregants at my church would be ushered to a segregated section of our sanctuary, the “slave loft.” One Sunday, a group of traders from Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) came to worship at The First Baptist Church in the City of New York. The Abyssinians walked out in protest of the segregated seating, and eighteen of our black congregants joined forming the core members of what would become Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.
I wonder if the white members thought the Abyssinians were being divisive? That their cry against injustice distracted from the gospel? That their protest during a worship service was disrespectful?
Who knew church minutes could be so damning.
The injustices of the moment are never as clear as the injustices of centuries past. At least not to the masses. What minutes from our church meetings will make someone cringe in two hundred years? What blindspots will our grandchildren see so clearly?
In elementary school I loved coming home, turning on the TV, adjusting the roof antenna (this was the 90s), and watching Batman: The Animated Series. I also secretly loved Power Rangers but would deny it vehemently at the lunch table. Perhaps no other cartoon at the time had such a wealth of interesting villains: Penguin, Joker, Mr. Freeze, Scarecrow, the Riddler, Two-Face. You can still picture those villains, right?
These villains are memorable because they so obviously looked like villains. They stuck out. Dude has green hair, an elaborate costume, and wears black eyeliner? Definitely a villain. (Or in a K-Pop boy band.)
It seems contemporary white Evangelicalism only calls out injustice if it’s as obvious as a Batman villain. It has no problem calling out abortion, genocide, or religious persecution, but when Christians of color mention a prejudiced judicial system, mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, or citizenship for Dreamers they’re quickly asked not to bring “politics” into the church. After all, won’t that distract from evangelism?
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? — James 2:16
“Besides,” Evangelicals say, “we’ve abolished slavery, we’ve gotten rid of segregated seating and ‘Whites Only’ signs, and Bob Jones University lifted their ban on interracial dating in 2000[!]. What more is there to do?”
Christians of color have had to find their allies outside of Evangelicalism. Is this the Civil Rights Movement all over again?
“There are no atheist soup kitchens,” jokes Marc Maron, a self-avowed atheist, in one of his stand-up routines. That might be changing.
While abolitionists from centuries past and civil rights leaders in recent times often saw their mission as integrally tied to the Christian gospel (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, likened his mission to that of the Old Testament prophets and the Apostle Paul), more and more of today’s cries against injustice are happening apart from the church. Millennials are more likely than any other generation to identify as “nones,” those with no religious affiliation, and that percentage is expected to grow.
Yet for their lack of “religion,” charitable giving and volunteering have increased among Millennials. Corporations are feeling pressure to develop a social conscience. And social media, for all its foibles, has brought previously ignored conversations like #blacklivesmatter into national prominence. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss hashtag activism, but could anyone have imagined that in one year #metoo and #timesup would contribute to the ousting of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Bill O’Reilly, and Roy Moore? Certainly some Evangelicals have been vocal, but the church has been less of a catalyst and more of an auxiliary in the national conversation.
When did gospel centrality turn into gospel singularity? The gospel changes everything becomes the gospel is everything. Faith is measured by how well someone can articulate doctrine instead of how well one loves their neighbor.
“Abraham’s faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did…You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” — James 2:22, 24
Less than twenty blocks from First Baptist Church sit two public elementary schools, P.S. 191 and P.S. 199. In New York City, elementary students are required either to attend the public school in their zoning, apply for a charter school lottery, or pay for private school. The district which includes both schools also houses several world-famous cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Opera, Juilliard, and the New York Philharmonic. As a result, numerous luxury apartments have sprung up within the vicinity except for a few blocks occupied by the Amsterdam Houses, a 1,000 unit low-income apartment complex (“the projects”) managed by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Historically, the projects were zoned so its residents would attend P.S. 191, and the luxury apartments were zoned so its students would attend P.S. 199. Recently, the city proposed rezoning the neighborhood to integrate the two schools.
“The rezoning debate cast a harsh light on the differences between the two schools, which are only nine blocks apart. While P.S. 199 is mostly white, with high test scores and a parent-teacher association that raises $800,000 a year, P.S. 191 is mostly black and Hispanic, with low test scores, and many students that come from an adjacent public housing project...Though the current principal at P.S. 191 has made significant improvements, and it is no longer on the list of dangerous schools, some parents living in the blocks to be rezoned said they would not send their children there. Some said they would simply move.”
— The New York Times
The reasoning went that children whose parents were paying upwards of $6,000 for a two bedroom apartment deserved to go to the better public school. The wealthier parents organized and protested the city’s rezoning, and it got heated. Hell hath no fury like a PTA scorned.
That’s when one of the neighborhood’s local elected leaders stepped up. “We need churches now more than ever,” remarked Council Member Helen Rosenthal during a citation she gave at our church’s 125th Anniversary service (though our church dates back to 1745, we were celebrating 125 years at our Upper West Side location). “How does a city like New York still tolerate segregated schools in 2016?” she asked.
Maybe New York isn’t as progressive as it thinks it is. Maybe our church wasn’t loving its neighbor the way we should have been.
Her words led us to do some soul searching. We’ve been a part of the Upper West Side for 125 years, but if we closed our doors tomorrow would any of our neighbors notice? Why did it take a politician to make us aware of the needs of our community? Why weren’t our neighbors from the projects worshipping with us? However social justice and evangelism were supposed to fit together, we weren’t doing either. That next semester, I enrolled in a graduate program in education.
Surprisingly, the rezoning passed. Year one of the integration has begun. One noticeable difference: the city built a brand new building for P.S. 191, the previously under-performing school, just in time for the white kids’ arrival.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, he asked his disciples to pray so they wouldn’t fall into temptation. They fell asleep instead. A mob appeared to arrest Jesus. The disciples awoke, and Peter, wielding a sword, took a swing at one in the mob and cuts off his ear.
“Put your sword away, Peter,” Jesus said. “All who draw the sword will die by the sword. Don’t you realize I could stop all this from happening if I wanted?” Then he healed the man’s ear. And they arrested him.
Maundy Thursday. Put your sword away, Church, and pray. You think justice will come from a power grab? From brute force? From a Republican? From a Democrat? From a Supreme Court Justice? Don’t you realize I could stop all this from happening if I wanted? Look who you’ve hurt in the process. Pray.
The mob led him away to be tried. He was falsely accused and wrongfully convicted. They spit on him, beat him, then led him up a hill. They drove nails into his hands and feet, and crucified him. They taunted, “If you’re really God come down from that cross!” He forgave them. Then he died. An innocent man executed by an unjust system.
Good Friday. Lasting justice will cost something. Hashtags and zoning ordinances might change behavior, but they cannot force a privileged white family to love — truly love — the poor black kids in the projects across the street. While our education system might be rife with inequality, Jesus’ death on the cross shows no partiality. I am equally responsible for Jesus’ death as my neighbor. And Jesus loves us the same. And like Jesus, I’m called to lay aside privilege, comfort, and power for the good of my neighbor. Love.
Upon seeing that he had died, his disciples took down his body from the cross and buried him in a tomb.
Holy Saturday. Silence. Grief. Confusion. We often jump from Good Friday right to the resurrection, neglecting Holy Saturday. Amidst the silence, the lack of answers, the injustice, we can lament. When our brothers and sisters cry out for justice, we immediately try to find answers and fix things. Callously, others think that posting a study or sharing a statistic about black on black gun violence or white supremacists will help “put things into perspective.” There’s a reason so many of the Psalms and Prophets are lament. What’s the reason so many of our sermons aren’t? Lament.
Early in the morning, women go to Jesus’ tomb and discover the stone has been moved. An angel tells them, “He is not here, he is risen!” They tell the others. Later, Jesus appears to his disciples. He shows them his pierced hands and side. Among his first words as Risen Lord: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them they are not forgiven.” It goes over their head. The disciples ask if he is going to restore the kingdom now. They’ll need the Holy Spirit to show them that justice is not the same as vengeance.
John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, illustrates through hundreds of pages and three generations how cycles of brokenness begin and perpetuate. Almost every member of the Trasks, the story’s central family, has been mistreated, dehumanized, or sinned against in some way — by parents, spouses, siblings, and friends. As a result they begin to mistreat, dehumanize, and sin against others. No amount of time or distance seems to break the cycle. Not even a move from New England to California. Grandchildren pick up traits of grandparents they’ve never met. Cal Trask, part of the third generation, begins to feel he will inevitably follow in this same course of evil. And it’s no wonder, his father has lied to him and always favored his brother instead. When Cal acts out after his father rejects a gift, the inadvertent consequences lead to his brother’s death and his father suffering an incapacitating stroke. Cal is ridden with guilt. He confesses everything to his father.
Just as fate seems to have tightened its grip on another generation of Trasks, Cal’s father, at the behest of his servant Lee, does something no one has done in 600 pages — he forgives. He makes peace with his son by mustering up enough strength to utter one word — timshel, Hebrew for “thou mayest.” To be forgiven is to be released, to be able to choose. Was Steinbeck echoing the resurrected Jesus’ first words to his disciples?
If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven;
if you do not forgive them they are not forgiven.
In the original language Jesus uses two different verbs, but in English it’s translated “forgive” and “do not forgive.” Literally, Jesus says:
If you release anyone’s sins, their sins are released.
If you grasp onto anyone’s sins, they are retained.
East of Eden ends pointedly with the granting of that release. Will forgiveness finally break this downward spiral? The rest of Cal’s story is up to our imagination. The Gospels end similarly, with a message of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and Jesus’ charge to take that message to our neighbors in word and deed. Might this message break history’s downward spiral? Scriptures show us a glimpse of the final chapter, but the in-between is left to our imagination.
And when we forget the message or we fail to stretch our imagination, God sends prophets to call us back to the way of Jesus. In the case of the Trasks, it was Lee, the Chinese-American house servant of immigrant descent, who provides one of the few voices of reason [or redemption] in the novel. In the case of nineteenth century First Baptist Church, African visitors were the ones to challenge the disconnect between gospel and justice.
What have we forgotten? Where are our blindspots? Where does our faith need challenged, our imagination stretched? If history, or church minutes, are any indication, we should probably ask the marginalized.