Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thinking about Social Justice, anti-intellectualism and the gospel.

I was directed by a friend recently to read a series of blog posts by Kevin DeYoung on his blog at the gospel coalition. Kevin is a guy who from what I can tell has jumped to a wide audience in the "I'm not emergent" crowd because of his books. His intent as a young pastor to take the gospel and the reformed faith in general seriously is something I respect. . . and while I don't live or interact with folks in a context where I have to tell anyone that I'm not "emergent". . . I'm not.

Kevin decided to do a series of posts this year about the careless way that passages of scripture are regularly used by those that are activist-oriented among the growing "social justice" movement among young evangelicals. 3 Cheers from me! Let's be careful with the word of God!

I am a huge fan of CCDA, regularly attend the conference for the past decade and regard myself as enormously influenced by John Perkins. I am also concerned about the direction of the movement theologically once Dr. Perkins passes away. I sincerely hope that the theological commitments of Dr. Perkins are retained within the larger body of the movement after his passing. With Kevin, I too am concerned about the way scripture is used by many coming into the movement of CCDA and/or "social justice".

The current generation of young believers is simultaneously doing 2 things -- taking social justice, racial reconciliation and beloved community seriously and . . . . leaving the church in hoards. I don't believe that this is sustainable. So while I cheer on those who want to wade into the deep waters of social justice, I don't think they are gonna last long. . . unless they hold on to the core truths of the Christian faith, particularly as it understands the nature of the Atonement and the message of the gospel. . . writ not just "large" or "wholistic" but with specificity, care and thoughtfulness. . . a theological rigor if you will.

The current movement of many who use the term "social justice" is in fact all to often careless, even reckless with scripture and theology. Too often what is now making up the Christian left is just mimicking the Christian right and moving to re-write scripture to assume that through the blood of the Cross Jesus isn't "making all things new" but rather making all things political!

So I'm with Kev D on this: we need to use scripture carefully. Much more carefully in fact.

But that said, his series has initially struck me as an comfort for folks who already agree with him. Is his church and primary audience really using scripture recklessly in THIS regard?

I sense that his audience (in part based on my own Reformed/Evangelical heritage) already revolts against "social justice" first and foremost due to political philosophy. Is Kevin's goal to give careful thought to what the bible says about justice? Or is it to add theological/scriptural ammo to political convictions already established? I would say that he would have to work hard to not do the latter. . . more to come.

Check out his series here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

To Change the World?

This year is the 20th anniversary of The Christian CommunityDevelopment Association. CCDA is one of many Christian groups of folks working to "change our world".

Those of us in the movement have been inspired by John Perkins and Wayne Gordon and many others to address injustice in our society as Christians, motivated by what is often called a Christian worldview. . . . we sense a call to leave the world different than we found it.

So how's it going?
James Davison Hunter, who wrote a book that impacted a lot of us about 20 years ago (Culture Wars) has a new book that raises important questions about what it means to effect change in our world. His new book is called "To Change the World, the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World".

For many of us (whether we admit it or not) "worldview" thinking that has been advocated for by folks like Chuck Colson and James Dobson has shaped our approach. We think that if we can just get enough people to think the right thing, we can effect change.

Now I realize that these 2 guys are not often called upon within CCDA as role models. . . but we have clearly absorbed some of their approach in what might be called a "hearts and minds" campaign. Hunter argues for new ways of thinking about culture, institutions and the nature of power. He then constructs a response that he calls "faithful presence".

Whether we agree with Hunter or not, it's pretty clear to me that we at CCDA believe in what a guy named Wolterstorff calls "World-formative Christianity". We think we can and should change the world at CCDA. . . and for us it's grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In a conversation with my friend Rudy Carrasco this week, we chopped it up about engaging a bunch of CCDA folks to reflect on the book and to present posts here on the City Grace blog.

Our goal is to spark a conversation and healthy debate about who we as a CCDA movement are trying to influence, what we could be doing differently, where we are falling short and where Dr. Hunter's book helps us or falls short.

We are also scheduled to have a workshop at the conference this year, hosted in Chicago, at Sunshine Gospel Ministries to discuss the book and the ideas that come out of our blog entries this summer. We've invited Dr. Hunter to join us for a conference call to interact with some of our feedback. . . as of now, his office has him set to join us.

Rudy and I are in agreement that we ought to be thinking carefully about what we do and how we do it at CCDA. We should be open to (and bringing) critique and healthy debate to this movement. There are many sub-topics we can debate such as the nature of justice, power, equity, and freedom . . . and of course what programs, advocacy, congregational life and other "practical" elements can/should be done.

But how do we actually effect this change? let's talk about it!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

High Standards and Diversity

Leaders within Evangelical institutions often say to me things like "we want to be more racially diverse, but we just find that our high standards won't allow us to do so. . .". Denominations looking for pastors and schools looking for students are among the most common.

I have been thinking about institutional power, oppression and issues around social justice that beg the question about what we as believers in Jesus Christ should recognize, and if/how we should respond to them, and how we can call others into the Micah mandate.

I visited Jubilee Youth Ranch this week and had a great time spending time with the staff there. One of their staff members is a young man who grew up at a ministry like ours in Pasadena called Harambee. As we spoke and talked about getting inner-city kids into college we told me his story. He had been the "poster child" for Harambee. He had good grades, didn't get into too much trouble, but still, for him college seemed an impossible and scary thing.

Until he visited Nyack college. He found that this evangelical school had aprox 60% non-anglo student body. They set up a summer program for HS youth, who, even if they hadn't completed their HS diploma, could be admitted to college! Having graduated HS, he thought to himself, "If they'll do that, then they must be really ready to work with me too!" Clearly they were (and are!) serious about providing sound biblically based liberal arts education for the growing non-white world.

If you came up with a line up of Christian Colleges and universities who use the "wish we could be more diverse but must be committed to excellence" mantra you'd find that maybe one or two are schools can compete academically with the top non-Christian schools. Wheaton maybe? All the others are neither competing academically at the highest levels, NOR addressing the fact that the future of the evangelical church is primarily non-anglo by enrolling, educating, equipping our non-white brothers and sisters. Nyack is a rare exception.

Nyack has high standards and will likely effect and equip the future of the US evangelical church far more than the its counterparts that lack this form of commitment to diversity. That is a high standard of excellence in my mind, that comports with the Micah Mandate.

Monday, April 26, 2010

To understand the violence, in part.

Dream Deferred, by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Preaching Social Justice, Requires Preaching Shalom, Requires the Gospel

The Millenials Generation (1982-2002) of Evangelicals are latching on to the the issues of social justice in a way not seen by their forebears, yet are leaving the church in an equally staggering way. This is not sustainable.

In a recent 2 part sermon series at Northwestern University, I was asked to address what Christianity brings to the table on the topics of reconciliation and social justice. I began by talking about how Martin Luther King Jr. came to the table of the justice issues of his day, as an outflowing of his Christian convictions -- his Christian worldview.

The call to social justice is a call to what Dr. King often called "The Beloved Community", something that is effectively a description of the biblical notion of "Shalom", or "the way it's supposed to be". Christianity, in its core commitments, recognizes that in the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative, things of inherent value lie broken and in need of restoration -- a restoration set in motion in and through the Cross of Jesus Christ.

"For in Him (Jesus), all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross" Col 1:19-20

This recognition that things are broken, in need of restoration (to Shalom), and that Jesus' work on the cross becomes a calling to his followers to respond to injustice. "all things" are being reconciled to Himself. . . to the way they are supposed to be.

As much as Dr. King's Christian worldview brought him to the table of dealing with justice issues of his day head on, it didn't keep him. Jesus did. The personal power of redemption and relationship with Jesus was the thing that allowed Dr. King to preserver through the impossible odds faced in the walk toward social justice. It was the higher calling of Jesus and the gospel that allowed him not just to face insurmountable odds, but even death.

As I reflect on the tendency of the current generation to embrace social justice and yet to leave the church, I realize that there is a great deal of skepticism about the roles of institutions. Yet, this also belies a loss of comprehension of the power of the gospel. We are called to embody the gospel in the broken places and among the broken people of or world in ways that help us shed our American Idols of materialism and individualism. Yet, we will lose both the foundational motivation to justice and the means of being sustained in the insanity of the battle if we lose Christ, his gospel and his church along the way.

This year I'll be preaching around this theme from Gen 1-3; Jeremiah 29; Micah 6; Matt 18 and other passages. Pray that we can continue the encouragement for the millennial generation to act on the need to pursue justice but to recognize that the church and the gospel are the bedrock needed to sustain the call.

(As I write this I received a call that one of my daughters was robbed outside my front gate. What will sustain us?)

Friday, April 9, 2010

A missing girl and resurrection.

The call came to me about 9:00 Tuesday night, still in the wake of celebrating Easter.

"Joel, it's Sarah. . . Sheneka is missing! . . . "

Sarah explained that 6 yr old Sheneka was last seen on her front porch, that her older sister had been watching her and that she was just gone. Sheneka is in our building pretty much every day, too young for our programs, but she sits at Sarah's desk doing her homework.

I asked a few questions. . . asked what we could do. . . we didn't know. I told her we'd pray and hung up the phone.

Paula and I along with 4 older kids gathered to pray. During the prayer we all had the same gut instinct: we had to go look. So, we found flashlights, jackets and car keys and headed out. This began a roughly 24 hour period of intense turmoil, agony, faith, teamwork and learning.

We quickly learned that the Chicago Police are not set up to coordinate this kind of search effort. They can work with each other. . . sort of. . . but not with a team of volunteers who show up to help. The response we got from local cops made me so angry I almost said something to get myself arrested! To be kind, the initial response on the part of CPD was uncoordinated, unprofessional (at least in interaction with me), and uncaring.

Area 2 detectives showed up by 12:30 and while they were also not prepared to involve volunteers, they were professional and demonstrated concern not seen previously from local cops. I commend Det. Pallapully in particular who not only worked carefully on the case, gave me his contact info and encouraged me to keep in touch, but called me after she was found to see if I had questions.

We worked until about 2am, searching the local park and lagoon, and attempting to get the police to coordinate with us (which never happened). After sitting in the Third District Office for an hour with no one willing to speak with us about our search efforts, I called the 800 # for the national hotline for missing and exploited children. I immediately (about midnight I think) reached a woman there who was helpful, responsive and ultimately called the police. . . triggering a response from the sergeant in charge who would not speak to me.

The next morning we set up a search HQ of sorts at Sunshine. we cleared out a room, began copying detailed block by block maps of the community, got coffee, water and printing "missing" flyers with Shaneka's photo on it. We set up teams to re-search the park, go door to door, down alleys looking in dumpsters (yikes!) and unsecure empty buildings (we have hundreds here) and working busy corners talking to people. all the while thinking. . . is this what we are supposed to do?

We prayed, contacted the press, put up notices on facebook, called our local political officials, and prayed some more.

The press showed up and got the story out. . . for which I am very grateful. But, they also showed their ugly side in that they had "zero" patience for the mother who after giving them some initial information, was not interested in responding to the paprazzi style hoard of clamoring reporters knocking on her door after she (in a state of clear emotional angst) had told them that she had answered their questions. "How are you FEELING???!!!!" the shouted at her.

By 3pm Sheneka was found, alive. Resurrection Wednesday!

She was apparently well, found in a nearby apartment. We have lots of questions about what actually happened, but to respect the process and family I am going to leave out some details here. Suffice to say that (a) the news reports are still showing some clear errors and (b) she is healthy, safe and at home.

The interaction I had with the reporters showed me that this is an ugly business, perhaps just like the role of the late night beat cops. The press had no concern for Shaneka, only for the story. On the part of the press, there was a palpable sense of disappointment in her being found unharmed. Perhaps that says as much about the reading/listening/watching public as it does the reporters, but they were clearly unable to maintain a real concern for real people in the midst of trying to get the scoop.

So what lessons are learned here? Part of this is yet another role in urban ministry that I was unprepared for. I will be meeting with other local leaders to try to capture the process we discovered and have it as an emergency plan for future experiences like this. We have kids go missing around here every year. We have a lot of sex offenders around. We have a memorial near our building where a 16 yr old girl was found in a barrel a few years ago.

But what of the church? I was so blessed by the response we got. the church did show up. we had dozens of people from Christ Bible Church, Chicago Embassy and GRIP outreach come right away. We had others from the community and even the suburbs mobilizing to bring food, to pray and to come and search. Together we celebrate an act of resurrection on the part of God.

For the church to show up in this context, we must not only pray and comfort, but mobilize, organize and work hard together to intervene. Another aspect, however, is that we (the church), at least part of us, must already be there when death stalks the door. Those who were closest to the situation could not have responded without those further away. Yet those around the country and Chicagoland area would have had less resurrection to celebrate being a part of without the close up intimate location and role of the church who live and breath in proximity to suffering.

I know full well this is not just about us, or about Sunshine. This is about the insanity of a missing little girl, the role of the body of Christ in all of its parts, and how together we can celebrate the kingdom work of the cross and the 1000's of acts of resurrection every day. Our call jointly is to enter the suffering of others in the name of Christ.

One other thing for now: the brokenness of the police and of the press and of the entire situation stirred up in me my own anger, insecurity, and weakness. Yet another call occurs in the midst and aftermath of the day: cling to the cross, from where my help comes from!

I think it will take a few more days for the sense of panic to leave my muscles and for me to process this whole thing. Please pray for Sheneka and for her loved ones who are still sorting this whole thing out. Pray that God would be glorified in her safe return. Pray that everyone involved would learn from this in such a way that the lessons would be valuable going forward.