Category Archives: Justice and Mercy

Can We Listen to the Protest?

For the last couple of weeks we all have seen the news of football players refusing to stand during the playing of America’s National Anthem. Some people have applauded while many others have condemned. This has all taken place amid a larger conversation about race-relations in America as it has become painfully clear over the last several years that racism is still a problem challenging society. How we respond, especially those of us who are white like me, will either further the divide or open a door for reimagined future where racism begins to lose its grip on society.

I’ve never known what it’s like to suffer oppression but I have experienced suffering of another kind. I’m referring to the death of my son Kenny when he was just three days old. Sixteen months later, my younger brother John died unexpectedly too. I was only twenty-nine then and only seven years removed from when I sat beside my father as he laid in bed and took his last breath, succumbing to cancer. These deaths and the suffering they trigger has had a lasting impact on my personal narrative, the story of my life. Although I have learned to live with such grief and pain, it’s still suffering.

One of the realities of such suffering is dealing with those who think they know how I or someone else who has suffered should handle such tragedy when they have never endured such tragedy themselves. I’ve heard people say things like “just got to let it go and move on” when my life seemed to be emotionally paralyzed with grief and it seemed impossible and even undesirable to move on because the only thing I wanted to do is hold my son one more time. Others said  something like “Don’t think like that… God works in all things for the good of…” (cf. Rom 8:28) when I voiced my anger as I questioned why God did not save son.

Those who have endured great suffering whether it be a serious health crisis such as cancer, the death of someone like a child, divorce, etc… understand what I am talking about. For all the suffering endured there is also the frustration of having someone who has not walked in our shoes telling us how we should handle it. And frustrating it is! That’s also why even though I have never suffered social-political oppression, I believe I can speak up for the oppressed on at least one issue: The frustration of having those who have never been oppressed criticize them and school them in a better response.

…it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest.

Right now in America there are many minorities, and particularly Blacks, who feel as if they are being oppressed. Whether the reality matches their perception does not matter, though I will say that I believe there is always some truth to the perception and that seems true in this case as well. The rest of us are not in any position judge the oppressed, especially if we cannot even take the time to be present with them first in order to listen (= listen to understand) a little. But that’s not what happens these days. Instead the voice of protest is quickly dismissed and criticized by plenty of people. Thus, as certain football players have chosen not to stand for the playing of the National Anthem, choosing to kneel in order to raise a voice of protest over the oppression of blacks and other minorities they see taking place in America, others have been critical as reported here and as we have all seen in our social-media feeds. Of course, if we haven’t ever suffered oppression then we have the privilege of so easily dismissing and criticizing those who do protest since we’re not the one’s suffering, but I digress!

We may dislike the way some football players are choose to kneel during the National Anthem as they protest the oppression they see but we are not the ones to judge. In fact, it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest. The best thing we can do is listen as they voice their protest. Any failure to listen and so critically dismiss such protests is itself a form of oppression. God forgive us for such a sin!

So can we listen? Can we talk to someone who is a minority living “one the other side of the tracks” in town and ask them what struggles they have because they are black, because their first language is Spanish, because they come from somewhere in the Middle-East? If we’ll listen to such people, and hear the ways in which they still struggle because they are a minority and because of some of the injustices that still occur in America, we might just learn to have empathy for their suffering. When that happen we might just discover together ways of cultivating a more civil and just society for all people. And if we’re Christians doing this in the name of Jesus, as we should, we help extend the kingdom of heaven so that the will of God takes place here on earth as it does in heaven!

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

~ Micah 6:8

Overcoming Racism: The Pursuit of Reconciliation

Like most others, I am saddened by the violent loss of human life. Whether it is the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or the deaths of the five police officers, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa, there are now seven different families that are grieving the loss of someone they loved. As a follower of Jesus and a minister of the gospel, I am grieved because I don’t like seeing and hearing of others suffering. I am also  frustrated because I believe the church of Jesus Christ in America should be an example of reconciliation but isn’t. But as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, I believe we must!

On television and social-media, the vitriol and anger is so palpable that it can be cut with a knife. Some want to point fingers, but don’t! Blaming others for flaming the current racial divide only stokes the fire more. The truth is that racism and inequality has always been a problem in America but those who have suffered as a result of such hatred, particularly blacks, are tired and are crying out to those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. Some seem to think that violence will help but it won’t. It never has and never will. In fact, violence only begets violence which only begets more anger and hatred which only begets more violence which only… you get my point.

But there is an alternative to blaming others and killing one another, an alternative that seeks true peace and reconciliation. As a praxis, peace and reconciliation begin with a conversation that’s possible because Jesus has died on the cross, exposing the darkness and rendering it powerless (cf. Col 2:15). On the cross, Jesus extends true love and forgiveness. In turn, we are free to love each other with enough humility to hear the pain of the other, repent as necessary (whether it’s injustice or just indifference and apathy), forgive each other, learn to speak truthfully with each other and serve with each other for the sake of justice.

What we need is a conversation where we come around the table with enough humility to listen with empathy to others, especially to people of different skin colors. Overcoming racial and social differences requires that we engage others, listening with empathy for the struggles of the other. Love demands that we engage others, listening with empathy to their struggles of being hated and discriminated against. The pursuit of reconciliation demands that we are willing to repent where necessary, forgive one another, and stand with the oppressed in their desire for justice.

The place for such conversations should be our churches and that means becoming intentional about creating and cultivating space for such conversations. Our pursuit of reconciliation is the outworking of the gospel we profess and our currency that gives visible substance to our gospel, so that our proclamation of the gospel is a living tradition rather than dead traditionalism. But for far too long churches have been on the wrong side of the fence either because we were engaged in unjust practices of racism or because our we remained indifferent, pursuing other issues we deemed more important. This has to change! If we believe that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and not Democrat or Republican politics that offers true peace and reconciliation then it must change and that change must be us. So let’s open space for others of different color at the table, just as Jesus has done for us, that we may pursue reconciliation with them.

On Judgment: They’re People, Not Problems

So there’s this trending video of a woman walking through a Target store as she holds up her Bible and rants about the evil of the devil and Target over the retail chain’s new transgender restroom policy. I haven’t linked the video here or shared it on any social-media platform because I refuse to give publicity to such stunts. If you want to see the video, do a Google search you’ll also see how effective she was in winning the masses to her viewpoint. And yes, I’m being sarcastic.

Like the infamous protests of the Westboro Baptist Church, this woman has the right to freely express her opinions and I have the right to mine. So when I saw the video clip, my reaction was a big sigh. After all, regardless of our opinions about the restroom policies of Target, it seems pretty stupid for someone to go waving their Bible around a store as they rant and carry on (= judgment). Such tactics may have had their place in some other bygone cultural era but not now… not in the twenty-first century of a post-Christendom society like much of America has become. Of course, I doubt this woman thinks about that or thinks much of what Jesus had to say about judging of others.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 6:37, NIV)

But as I thought about it more, I realized that a lot of people are quick to judge others. Everywhere we turn, people are passing judgment on others.

Judging Others

As a side gig to earn some extra money, I’ve been driving for Uber and do so mostly in the city of Baltimore. Like most cities, Baltimore has its share of social challenges. One of those challenges is a seemingly growing number of homeless people, both men and women, who either sleep in tents underneath overpasses or move around from shelter to shelter. When they’re not sleeping, they are standing at an intersection panhandling for money… a dollar or two from every willing motorist who is willing to spare a little extra cash.

While driving for Uber, I have heard a few riders make some rather condescending remarks (= judgment) about the panhandlers. It’s frustrating to hear how people who just finished eating dinner at an upscale sushi bar or steakhouse can so easily and so callously talk about the homeless. In fact, what this often brings to mind is Herman Melville’s powerful one-line critique of the well-off who pass judgment on the poor.

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” – Herman Melville

However, the other night something scary happened. As I was making a turn, a man panhandling for money was struck by another motorist. The man was flipped over the hood of the car, landing on his head and shoulders. It was scary because what turned out to be a spilled soda looked life, from a slight distance, blood flowing on the ground. The last thing I or anyone else wants to see is someone else seriously hurt or killed. Fortunately, other than a few bumps and scratches, the man appeared to be ok. The driver stopped and was visibly upset, worried that she had seriously hurt someone. Myself and a couple of other motorists got out of our vehicles to help the man who had been hit while waiting for the police and EMS to arrive on scene.

That gave me a chance to talk with both the man who had been hit by the car as well as the driver who hit him. The man’s name was Dan and the driver’s name was Chelsie. It was good to learn both of there names because that meant I had to see them both as people. And they both are people! Though they both have two different lives, they are nonetheless people. That is also to remember that they both are someone’s child, perhaps someone’s brother and sister, someone’s old classmate. The people we meet every day are people just like you and I.

As I was driving home later, I realized that it’s easy to become desensitized to the city and all of it’s challenges. It’s easy to see a bunch of inconsiderate drivers and forget that they are people with real lives, perhaps even a life that is unraveling and full of pain. Of course, I’m never one of those inconsiderate drivers so… Oh wait! It’s also easy to see panhandlers on every street corner and presume to know why they’re begging for money (= judgment) and to see them not as people with real lives, with real problems and real stories, though tragic as they probably are, of which I have been spared (but for the grace of God, there go I!).

Becoming More Like Jesus

I don’t have the answer to all the social challenges face America, whether it’s homelessness, transgender rights, or else. What I do know is that we must resist judgment and condemnation, opting instead to engage people and get to know them by name. When we get to know someone by name, we see them as a person rather than a problem, and people are always people we must love rather than problems we must overcome. I am not saying that we can never have any convictions about what is right and wrong or by engaging people that our understanding of right and wrong must change. Sometimes our encounters with other people should and will move us to adjust our views and sometimes they won’t and shouldn’t but that is besides the point. What must change is us… you and I!

Rather than judging and condemning people we hardly know, if we even know them at all, we must become present with them and engage them so that we can get to know them a little more. That’s true for the transgender person standing in line at Starbucks with us, it’s true for the person panhandling for money at the intersection on our way home from work, and it’s true for our neighbor who doesn’t speak English too well, who has different political and religious beliefs than us, and it’s even true for the neighbor who’s favorite football team is the rival of our favorite football team. Though we cant strike up a conversation with everyone, it is to say that instead of passing judgment we should get to know the people we are quick to judge. When we do, what changes is us. We become more understanding, full of compassion, and eager to show mercy. And that means we become more like Jesus.

And if we still feel that someone or some organization has made a wrong decision, then I have a suggestion. Rather than going on a public rant I would like to suggest that we pray about it. That too seems more like Jesus!

The Good Muslim, Latino, and Black Man

Most Christians read the Bible. Still the best-selling book, according to the Guinness World Records, the Bible is available in numerous languages as well as more than enough English translations. For many Christians like myself and especially evangelicals, the Bible is regarded as the inspired word of God and therefore is regarded as authoritative in matters of faith. So it really goes without saying that reading the Bible is a good thing. But… as I have said before and will say again, how we read the Bible matters too!

In fact, how we read the Bible may matter more than whether or not we read the Bible. That’s because a bad reading of the Bible most surely leads to bad theological praxis, which means that a poor reading may be just as dreadful not reading the Bible at all.

The Interpretation of Loving Thy Neighbor

In the Gospel of Luke there is a story in chapter 10 about a lawyer, an expert in Jewish law, who approached Jesus with a question. The lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. So in v. 26 Jesus responded by pointing this lawyer back to what is written in the law. However, knowing that just reading the law does not necessarily mean that this lawyer will live out the intention of the law, Jesus also asked him about how he reads the law.

The question in v. 26 is pōs anaginōskeis and though some English translations differ, it is likely best rendered as “How do you read it? (NIV, ESV). The adverb pōs is a common interrogative asking “how” or “in what way.” The present tense verb anaginōskeis means “to read” and is referring to the law which Jesus has pointed the lawyer back towards in response to the question of inheriting eternal life. The question itself is about the lawyer’s “legal interpretation” of the law (cf. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 428). That matters because nobody just reads the law and does exactly what it says in literal fashion. Every reader is an interpreter and so how this lawyer or anyone else reads/interprets the law matters.

In the story, the lawyer goes on to correctly point out that the law is summed up with the two commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Jesus agrees. But when the Lawyer continues, asking Jesus who exactly is a neighbor, Jesus presses in with the utmost of challenges… Jesus goes on to tell a story about a neighbor and in that story the neighbor happens to be a Samaritan (you can read the story of “The Good Samaritan” here). This is critical because Jesus is identifying a Samaritan, people whom the Jews hated, as a neighbor and therefore someone who this Jewish lawyer must love as his neighbor. Further more, when Jesus finishes the story by telling this lawyer to do as the Samaritan did, who acted with “mercy” (v. 37), he is telling him to treat all people with compassion (cf. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 175).

And Our Neighbors Are…

Going back to the question Jesus asked of how that lawyer reads the law, Luke is reminding us that how we read the Bible matters. However, the discussion here isn’t about how we understand the doctrine of end times or the doctrine of atonement correctly, not that such doctrines are unimportant. The discussion is about how we love our neighbor and whether our reading of the Bible moves us to love our neighbors as ourselves by extending compassion to all people.

If we leave the discussion right there, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves doesn’t seem so difficult. However, when we remember that Jesus spoke of a Samaritan in order to define just how this Jewish lawyer’s neighbor was, we must own up to the fact that our neighbors include those whom we just may in fact dislike, fear, and even hate.

For a White Christians living in America, like myself, the story told in Luke 10 is a reminder that our neighbors include people who are Black, Latino, and Muslim. I mention these three groups of people because of the tensions that still exists between them and many White people, including White evangelical Christians. It also seems necessary as certain politicians and talking heads preach a message of  fear and animosity among White evangelical Christian voters, appearing as guardians of their livelihood at the expense of compassion for minorities.

A Final Word

The story that Luke tells involves a question about how one expert in the law reads or interprets the law. It also raises a question for us Christians as to how we read or interpret the Bible. For Jesus, any reading of the law that allowed a Jew to disregard a Samaritan as a neighbor was wrong. For Christians then, particularly those of us who are White evangelical Christians living in America, any reading of the Bible that allows us to disregard a minority person as our neighbor is wrong. In fact, any reading of the Bible that allows us to disregard anyone as our neighbor is wrong.

The story itself tells us how Jesus expects us to treat our neighbors… with mercy! We must treat all people with such compassionate acts that they will know us as merciful people. It doesn’t matter how well versed we are in the doctrines of Nicene Christianity, how quickly we can recite passages of scripture, or even if we read our Bibles, if in doing so we fail to show mercy to all people. Any lack of mercy is a sure indicator that we are not reading and interpreting the Bible rightly. Showing mercy is how we love our neighbor as ourselves and just as our neighbor is the good Samaritan, so also our neighbor is the good Muslim, Latino, and Black man!

Welcome The Refugees!

One of the justifications people make for war is the protection of innocent lives. That is, when a dictator engages in the systematic murder of innocents or an extremist group commits acts of terrorism that kills innocent people, many people believe that civilized nations should employ their military as a defensive counter measure, striking with deadly force in order to protect the lives of innocent people from further harm. Just war, in this sense, even if considered a necessary evil, is viewed as a humanitarian response.

Now let’s think about this concern for innocent lives in the matter of welcoming refugees from Syria. Today in America, many state Governors said that such refugees are not welcome in their states and according to my Facebook feed, many people support this stance. So let me just bluntly say: Refusing to welcome these refugees is a betrayal of any altruistic concern for innocent lives! Such inhospitality is incoherent with the claim we should be concerned for the protection of innocent lives when making a moral-justification for war. And for Christians, if we’re not careful, our reasoning can actually rationalize around following Jesus and his teaching. What a shame that would be!

If we are truly concerned for the innocent, then we cannot shut our doors on the refugees. So on that note, I want to share a letter written to the Governor of Virginia by my friend, classmate, (and more importantly) fellow follower of Jesus, Jeff Saferite, a pastor with the Hill City Church in Arlington, Virginia:

Governor,

I am praying for you today as the pressure mounts on how to respond to the attacks in Paris, the Daesh, and the Syrian refugees. It is my hope that you will open the doors of Virginia to those seeking refuge.

I remember the first time I walked through the Holocaust museum in DC. The story that stuck with me most is that of the SS St. Louis. I walked away from that experience asking how the good people of America could reject Jewish refugees in the face of Hitler. This question has resurfaced today.

Daesh survives and thrives off propaganda. The quickest way to defeat this great evil is to take the narrative away from them. Let’s show the world that Virginia, and America, is a place of love, freedom, and hospitality. I recognize there is danger in doing this but I believe there is greater danger in not doing so.

This is the path of Jesus, and the path that our congregation is on. The Christian congregation that I pastor is committed to joining in the efforts to serve, house, and feed the Syrian Refugees. We are deeply distressed that the violence of a few has caused a fear that threatens to overcome the compassion of many others toward the countless that needs our assistance

I pray that we rise above the attackers who see themselves as powerful when they prey on the powerless. Let’s show them the true power of a state that stands for love of another at any cost. Virginia is for lovers and sometimes love is a risk.

Lead us in making a statement by opening the doors of Virginia to Syrian Refugees!

Rev. Jeffrey T. Saferite, Jr.
Hill City Church
Arlington, VA

So can we welcome the refugees?

I was living in Memphis when the city, along with plenty of other cities, began receiving numerous refugees from the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. What I saw, experienced, and participated in was churches rising to the occasion by providing food, clothing, and shelter to the refugees. Many people from the community joined in to help provide basic humanitarian care for their fellow human-beings. Let’s welcome the refugees and rise to the occasion again.

As we consider the situation with Syrian refugees, Let me suggest reading the two following passages and spending some time meditating on these teachings of Jesus: 1) Matthew 25:31-46The Sheep and the Goats and 2) Luke 10:25-37The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Imago Dei: They Belong to God

As I continue talking with different churches about serving as a minister with them, I have started driving for Uber in the city of Baltimore. It’s a way to earn some needed income for my family but it’s also proving to be a great way of listening and learning as I taxi people from one destination to another. Last night as I was driving though the city and seeing the myriad of different people, I began reflecting on God, creation, and the image of God. So here are some of the thoughts that came to my mind.

One of the great sins throughout history has been the objectification of other people. By objectification, we see others only as an object or means of serving us. It’s a self-serving sickness that reduces others to the value of whatever they can do for us. And sometimes that’s pretty cheap… a one night stand, a quick high, and so on. Sometimes the objectification of others has resulted in some of the great injustices throughout history such as the importation of humans to work as slaves.

The Bible tells us that all people are made in the imago dei, image of God, bearing the likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1). Later on in life when asked about paying taxes to Ceasar, Jesus takes a coin that bears Caesars image and says to give it back to Caesar because it belongs to Caesar (Mk. 12:13-17). What Jesus is also saying, which is what we often miss, is that we dare not give ourselves to Caesar because we bear the image of God and therefore we are to worship/serve God. But here is a further point about people and the image of God.

Now let’s clarify a further point about the image of God and the others we encounter every day. The others, those we are so tempted to objectify for our own ends, bear the image of God and therefore they belong to God!

To recognize the image of God in other people and recognize that they belong to God means that they are not ours to do with as we please. They belong to God and we are to serve them as we would serve God. Whether it is our family, a person who has been visiting our church gatherings, the neighbor down the street and even the obnoxious neighbor down the street, the person panhandling money on the street corner, the person…

We cannot see people only as a means to an end, as a commodity to fulfill our needs. The world is a more enjoyable place when we instead regard others with the dignity of being a human-being, a person bearing the image of God. When we resist the easy temptation of objectifying others and instead serve them, we learn what it means to love God and love our neighbor as ourself.

People Matter… Including The Poor!

The Prophet Amos preached a message of judgment against Israel because, among other things, of their unjust treatment of the poor. In fact, when we read the prophets of the Old Testament it becomes clear that the poor matter to the Lord and that he expects people to act justly towards the poor, showing them mercy.

It’s also seems pretty clear in scripture that people are greater than the principles or policies we often organize and script our lives by. When laws and objectives are carried out at the expense of the people, there is injustice. When dogma and doctrine suppresses people, denying them mercy and justice, it is wrong.

I think this is why Jesus tells the Pharisees, “To and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice'” (Matt 9:13). The Pharisees have placed greater value on maintaining their tradition than extending grace to those they consider sinners but Jesus says they have it wrong. Offer mercy rather than sacrifice! In other words, people matter more than their traditions (and more than our principles, policies, laws, etc…) so they should be more concerned with doing right for the people.

Of course, when it comes to the poor, it is so easy to just trample upon them… either literally or metaphorically. That’s why the prophets speak so powerfully about justice for the poor.

And little has changed. We all know of numerous examples of how the poor are neglected and even afflicted by the lack of mercy and justice. So it is a great joy when hearing examples of service to the poor, especially when they show us that the poor matter more than revenue… or whatever other principle, law, or doctrine we are tempted to value over the poor.

Such an example comes from this story about a restaurant in Baltimore called Tabrizi’s, a Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern dinner place along Baltimore’s waterfront. Rather than taking in the big money to be made during Baltimore’s Restaurant Week, the owner of Tabrizi’s, Michael Tabrizi, is partnering with local homeless shelters to feed the homeless. According to the story, which you can read here, Tabrizi said, “It isn’t about revenue and money right now, we’ve done restaurant week before and we know the numbers, but right now it’s more important to promote the welfare of the city and its residents rather than to promote the business.”

That’s right. People, especially the poor, are more important than the business of making money, just as people are more important than a said principle, law, etc…

Tabrizi goes on to say about the homeless, according to the article, “These people don’t only suffer from hunger, but also from hopelessness, they feel that they don’t have any dignity anymore… We want them to come in and feel like they’re cared for.”

I don’t know what Michael Tabrizi’s religious convictions are but I know this sort of care for the poor reflects the image of God, our Creator. His example of using his business to serve the poor is an example for us all. May we take the opportunities were are given and the gifts we have received to care even for even the poor, blessing them as we have been blessed!

And one more thing… The next time I am down on the waterfront of Baltimore to dine out, I know which restaurant I’ll be trying.