When I was a young teenager I overheard some grownups inside my home church talking about who God loved and who God didn't love. It was a casual conversation. They weren't preachers or teachers - just a couple of regular congregants shooting the breeze in a hallway. But I was a kid and an obedient kid at that, so when I heard any grownups talking about anything in the church building I tended to listen.
They agreed on a short list of the sorts of people God didn't bother with and the things that landed a person in one of those categories. It really unsettled me. I'd never heard anything like that from a grownup in a trusted place before and my parents didn't listen to any news or radio outlets at home that practiced any sort of talk like that. I went home with questions that day. I waited a week or so before I got up the courage to ask my Dad about all of this on a car ride.
We were cruising along and I asked Dad if he thought God was in the business of exiling people on purpose or disowning people. Dad took a deep breath and, in typical Dad fashion, dispelled the gloom with very few words. I'll sum up his response for you: God is the source of all life. In God all created people live and move and have their being (pause: that's from the BIBLE, folks, and we say it every Sunday in the liturgy at church). We don't get to know the details about God's mysterious love for humanity - we get to be alive, do the best we can at being kind, and do the best we can at loving all the other humans around us (because they're humans made by God).
Fast forward about ten years. A horrible tornado ripped through a community near my post-grad home and I went in with a crew to clear rubble and debris in a small, neighboring town. I overheard a minister discussing the loss of life with another local leader - they listed the ones who went to heaven and the ones who most certainly did not (because of their behavior and God's certain contempt for them). I think I would've felt a whole lot lonelier about overhearing such a horrible conversation if I didn't already have Dad's words floating in my mind - God is the source of all life. God reconciles all peoples to God's self. We don't get to know the details. Anybody who claims to know the details is a false prophet and a hollow, empty sounding gong.
Witnessed at the Store:
I've never written this story down before. I'm a little bit nervous about doing so. But it caused me to understand something important, so I'll share it with you.
The week before my wedding I was in my home town, Knoxville, TN, at the beauty supply store looking for fancy ribbons and stuff for my hair on the big day. It was early afternoon and there was a young lady about my age working the register. In the store there were only two customers - myself and an African-American lady who looked to be maybe 40 or so. She went to the register to check out before I did, so I ended up in line behind her. The girl behind the register stood there looking through a book and ignored her. It was quiet. The woman in front of me waited patiently for probably four minutes as the employee who should have been scanning her purchases blatantly refused to serve her. I'd never seen anything like that in my life. After those few awkward minutes the woman in front of me said, "Excuse me ma'am, I've really got to be going. Can you check me out please?" The girl behind the register looked up and looked back down again. The woman in front of me said something else to try to get her attention and was, again, ignored. She laid down her merchandise and left the store.
The girl behind the counter immediately looked up at me and said, "Not hard to tell why we owned them, right?"
I couldn't believe my ears. I drove home and tore into my parents' house. I told them everything. I told them how young the girl behind the register was. I said, "I thought that kind of behavior was generational! I thought people my age didn't believe things like that!"
My parents listened to me and unpacked the experience with me for a few days. How to appropriately respond to something like that? Yes, some younger people are raised with broken ideology and, yes, they sometimes pick up broken ideology along the way. No, behaviors like this are not strictly generational. Yes, we still have to pay attention and do our best to prevent things like that from festering in our communities.
Looking back, I wish I'd been less stunned by it. I wish I'd had the right words to express my total disagreement with the girl behind the counter. I wish, when the woman in front of me had been waiting, I'd piped up and called it out . . . . I wish so many things about that moment in time. If I had a time machine I'd do it all differently - please accept that as my confession. I failed in that moment. Looking back, I think I didn't believe what was happening as it began. I remember thinking, "She's looking up a bar code in that manual and she's going to ring her customer up any second." or "She's just a really rude employee and doesn't want to be here on a Saturday." But the truth was much uglier than that. That was nearly 8 years ago. It happened in a normal, public place. It was blatant.
A Song and A Starting Place:
Last night I sat down and recorded my faith-inspired thoughts in the form of a song. I have a small son who is learning how to see the world. We're fortunate, very much like my parents were, that we are raising him among folks from all over who look and sound different. He sees everybody with unspoiled eyes, as all new children do. He shares the same smile with everybody in complete innocence, as it should be. As he grows it will be the job of our family and community to help him navigate the complicated world we live in. We'll have to help him understand uncomfortable realities. We'll have to help him think of ways to do what is right.
Last night I watched footage from the demonstration in Charlottesville. I listened to interviews with protest organizers and heard about their ideology. Many of them are highly educated and very well spoken. I was chilled to the bone. Horrified by their words. But in the center of my heart there's a warm light still glowing and a sense of hope about people of faith. I think this is where our belief in God will, once again, bring us to a place of cooperation and solidarity.
Acts 17:28 says, "For in Him we live and move and have our being, as some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'"
Christ famously said that whenever we served anybody in need we would be serving Him. In other words - we aren't called to be Jesus to the "least of these." We're called to see Jesus in whoever is "least" at any given moment. After all - in God we all live and move and have our being. Jesus didn't show up to show us who isn't loved by God. Jesus showed up to help us understand that the worth of every human is found in God's creation and recreation. We don't get to decide who has no worth or who does have worth.
Anybody who walks around denying the sacred worth of God's own creation in another human being is spouting a broken ideology. I've heard it in church buildings once or twice in my life (never from a pulpit, thankfully), in a beauty supply store, and on the news. I've heard it in the form of racism and also in the form of presumption about somebody else's salvation or lack thereof. All of these things are wrong wherever we hear them, and I think we can all agree that these behaviors are unacceptable in the face of our calling to be Children of God.
Our cultural worship of "us vs. them" in politics is almost idolatrous. Many of us (myself included) relish the idea of aligning ourselves with a political party before we think carefully through how much we need each other. God's own beloved community has no political affiliation. God's own beloved community has only love and unity. I know it sounds too perfect. I know it sounds too difficult. I don't care. Let's try anyhow. And let's not pretend that these things will be any less true in a year just as they shouldn't have been less true 8 years ago when I stood in that beauty supply store.
I think the role of Christian folks in this discussion has to be clear:
Our job is to continue affirming that God is the only one creating humans and that our brothers and sisters of every color are children of God. We should be able to agree about that.
We should be able to agree that when supremacists gather they don't represent us in any way. We should be able to condemn their behavior without pause. In fact, we ought to do so now. Silence suggests compliance in this situation and it's not appropriate for us as people of faith. I've been encouraged to see friends who are "conservative" and friends who are "liberal" both meeting in the middle as Christians to say, "No. This is wrong. We agree that it's wrong. We will have no part in this behavior."
In this song you'll hear the line "We know that we are nothing and we lay our idols down."
Our cultural idols are things like political titles, political parties, and so on. I could argue that certain monuments are also idolatrous for some people, depending on the situation. I would ask that all of us who believe in God, affirm the presence of the Holy Spirit, and recognize the person of Jesus, would take a little time to reflect on what parts of our culture might be idolatrous in our own hearts. Here's an easy way to tell: if we feel more offended by the way somebody disagrees with our political thoughts and historical ideals than the behavior and ideals represented by supremacists we've got a problem and it should be addressed. Let's not allow ourselves to be distracted by golden calves on all sides. Let's not argue about those things. Let's agree that God has shown us how to love each other. Let's agree that we can show up to defend each other by showing goodness, mercy, and kindness in the face of great hatred.
Read your Bible.
Check out MLK's outline for the practice of nonviolent activism.
Touch base with friends of all different sorts and express your love for them openly.
Don't be distracted by political division. Meet in the middle of humanity instead.