The Loving Militancy of Church Clarity: 5 Ways its just like the Nashville Statement

I choose messy relationships over Church Clarity.

And I choose messy relationships over the Nashville Statement (as I’ve said here and here, and David Fitch and I discussed on our podcast).

In fact, as I process the launch of Church Clarity I see 5 ways that Church Clarity is just the inversion of the Nashville Statement, albeit as a loving militancy.

What is Church Clarity?

You can read a supportive or critical summaries.  But roughly, Church Clarity believes (from their site)

“that churches have a responsibility to be clear about their policies on their primary websites [about being affirming or not of LGBTQ]. Following a simple, yet consistent method, our crowdsourcers submit churches to be scored on how clearly their website communicates their actively enforced policies. Once the information is verified by Church Clarity, it is published to our database. We believe that ambiguity is harmful and clarity is reasonable.” (emphasis added)

Their desire is to minimize confusion by maximizing clarity.  All of which—on the one hand—seems reasonable enought.

But let us think about the implication of a website like Church Clarity evaluating websites of local churches and posting the results. All of this is so abstract and disconnected—so far from the lived realities of local church life.

For this reason, beyond all their differences, Church Clarity is just like the Nashville Statement—but in an inverted way.

5 Ways Church Clarity is Just like the Nashville Statement

1) Truth and Love Dichotomy

On the one hand, the Nashville Statement pushed the agenda of truth without much regard for love or mercy.  This was the complaint for many people I know.

Church Clarity, however, is pushing hard for love without regard for truth—except expressing the “truth” of being either affirming or non-affirming.

Church Clarity explicitly says it doesn’t care about matters of doctrine, only of policy.  This is a typical progressive-liberal bifurcation of how love and truth need to work together.

Those of us upset with the “need to stand for the truth” posture coming from the Nashville State are likewise uncomfortable with the militancy—yes, militancy—of the Church Clarity site.  Church Clarity positions itself on the side of love, but a love reduced to one issue, an issue reduced to whether or not it is posted clearly on the church website.

2) Push Toward Statements—Away From Relationships.

Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity lead us away from relationships. They prefer to substitute relationships for statements.  The Nashville Statement says this explicitly, that we should separate from church that don’t sign.  But Church Clarity also says this implicitly.

Church Clarity suggests that churches are merely a different form of consumerism and that churches who are not clear on the LGBTQ stance are engaging in false advertising (See their FAQs, first section).  “Customers” could join a churches—engage in real relationships— and then find out the product was not what they thought.

This is a disastrous reduction—not just of the Church, but of all human ways of relating—the to principle of consumer choice. The application of this kind of clarity amid consumerism will just continue the deep antagonisms of our contemporary culture.

My questions is, Did Jesus function this way? Did he provide such clarity on his identity, the means of salvation, and every other question he was asked? No, he didn’t.

3) Tendency To Instrumentalize Humans and Institutions.

Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity drive toward reductionism and instrumentalization.

On the one hand, the Nashville Statement does this by instrumentalizing human beings for “God’s Glory.”  Humans are just a tool by which God accomplishes certain goals, principally the exaltation of God’s own glory.

But Church Clarity goes the opposite direction. It instrumentalizes the church according to the goals of the state.  As they say, churches

“are recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt religious organizations. In exchange for these subsidies, churches are expected to play a vital role of serving their communities. But there is very little accountability to demonstrate that they are earning that subsidy.” (emphasis added)

This continues the reductive, capitalistic view of human institutions—see the words “exchange” and “earning”.

But it adds the twist that the church is ultimately a tool of the government.

This is a curious inversion of the goal of the First Amendment where church and state would be separated—i.e. tax-exempt (esp. see this on tax-exemption)—so that government wouldn’t interfere with the Church.

But now, for Church Clarity, the government is expecting a return on investment from the church, with accountability pending if there is not (this is partly why I said this is more militant than the Nashville Statement.  It is not for nothing that people fear this database is just a precursor to litigation).

The signers of the Nashville State undoubtedly seek to use the government in service of the church.

Church clarity inverts this and seeks to use the church as a tool of the government.

4) Engaging in Culture Wars

It is interesting that Jonathan Merritt quotes conservative Al Moler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on the importance of gaining clarity.

As Merritt states, “If one can set aside [Church Clarity]’s leadership team for a moment, it’s obvious that the organization shares a common goal with conservative Christians like Mohler: to pressure pastors and churches with unclear positions on homosexuality to unambiguously state their views.”

Yes, it is obvious that conservatives and progressives agree.  Which means they agree that they are playing the culture war game, but from different sides. The church, however, should not engage in this war any longer (see the previous three reasons for why).

5) Ideological in Nature

I suppose this is a restatement of #2 and #4, but I just want to say it again.

Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity, in the name of helping and serving people, reduce the entire complexity of human relationships and interactions to a narrow grid of ideas and affirmations.

This approach sucks the humanity right out of the situation, all in the name of clarity.

How Peace is Achieved

I spent 11 days in Israel this summer learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the different ways they are seeking peace there.

The ONLY ONES working are the ones worked out on the ground in actual relationships.  I heard of a water ministry helping to secure drinking water for everyone living off the Jordan River. I heard of school programs that brought Israeli and Palestinian children together. I heard of farming co-opts bring Palestinian and Israeli neighbors together.

On the ground relationships are the only way toward peace, mutuality, and reconciliation.  Everything else is lost in abstraction and will only reproduce the entrenched tendencies present between people.

The Clarity of Jesus

To both the signers of the Nashville Statement and the directors of Church Clarity, I ask this: If clarity is so important, why did Jesus offer so little of it?

Why did he answer questions with more questions? Why did he speak in parables? And why do we have FOUR different Gospels instead of one?

It is because the clarity we often seek is not the kind of clarity God is drawing us into. God is drawing us further and further into the messiness of relationship, and further and further away from ideological encounters.

And it is time for people on all sides of the ideological—cultural war—spectrum to get used to it.  Relationships are messy.  Let’s get to work.

 If this post is helpful or thought provoking, please share it. And please subscribe and receive a free gift. Thanks.

Are Evangelicals White? A Brief History

CEOs withdraw from Trump’s advisory councils because of the Presidents bankrupt statements about Charlottesville—maybe because of their moral backbone, but probably because of the financial bottomline. But so far no evangelical advisors have stepped down.

It makes people ask, “Are evangelicals really are just White?”
For some this is self-evident. Others vigorously deny it.

And statements like this by Jerry Falwell Jr. don’t help the cause of those trying to deny it.

So, are evangelicals white?

1976, the Year of the Evangelical

In 1976, pronounced the “Year of the Evangelicals” by Newsweek, Democrat Jimmy Carter won the presidency over Republican Gerald Ford. With each of them confessing to be “born again” Christians, Carter won with almost half of evangelical voters supporting him.

Only four years later evangelicals abandoned Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan. Opening his presidential campaign in the heart of Mississippi, Reagan presented himself as the “law and order” candidate advocating states’ rights, continuing the Republican “Southern Strategy” by obliquely cultivating racial fears while simultaneously courting evangelical voters. As Randall Balmer notes, throughout the campaign, Reagan operatives adeptly used “evangelical code language just as they had employed racially coded language in Mississippi.”

On the one hand, this quick reversal from Carter to Reagan confirmed the fears of black Christians who see evangelicals as merely a synonym for white, conservative Republicans. According to Anthony Bradley, associate professor of theology and ethics at The King’s College, evangelical leaders “sold out the mission of the church to win a ‘culture war.’”

Is this the Year of the Evangelical?

Thirty years later, 2016 could also be called the year of the Evangelicals. But this designation would be less congratulatory as white evangelical leaders fight with each other about supporting Trump. In the end, 4 out of 5 white evangelicals voted for Trump, prompting many to abandon the label altogether.

But on the other hand, evangelicals like Ed Stetzer contests collapsing the term to only meaning white conservatives. Formerly a Southern Baptist researcher and now the current Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, Stetzer complains that “it’s not politics that unite all Evangelicals; it’s the gospel.” According to this broader, belief-based definition, many African American, Asian, and Latino Christians should be considered evangelicals.

And as alarming as it might be to some, recent surveys suggest the “evangelicalization” of American Christianity. As “self-identified Christians shrink and evangelicals have remained relatively steady,” says Stetzer, “American Christianity looks more evangelical year after year.”

But this kind of expansive definition seems rather self-serving as white evangelicals seek to distance themselves from the reality that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump.

A focus on religious beliefs, rather than self-identification, effectively pushes out the far right white segment of the definition—by excluding those who identify as “born-again” but don’t regularly attend church—while also pulling in African American, Asian, and Latino populations who hold evangelical beliefs but don’t primarily identify as evangelical. A focus on beliefs conveniently diversifies evangelicalism but runs roughshod on how people identify themselves.

Pollsters looking at the same data see either a predominantly white religious segment with conservative political views, or they see a multicultural and politically diverse cross section of Christian America. “If we use a big-tent measure of evangelicals,” says Ryan Burge, instructor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, “we don’t find evangelicals to be different from other Americans. But if we use a measure based on what church people attend, then we find that there is an evangelical voter who is more likely to be politically conservative.”

So which definition is best when looking at evangelicals?

See also “Is Trump the End of Evangelicalism?”


Classical Evangelicalism

Examining the history of evangelicalism in America—rather than focusing on ideas or beliefs—is the best way to determine whether evangelicals should be considered primarily a conservative white expression of American Christianity.

Evangelicalism in America begins with the spiritual Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. This classic period of evangelicalism—preceding the rise of fundamentalism by two hundred years—is best described as conservative Protestantism with a “revivalist twist.”

But this hope for spiritual revival also inspired a desire for social reform.

Celebrated revivalist Charles Finney and Jonathan Blanchard—the founding president of Wheaton College, a flagship evangelical institution—were both staunch abolitionists. And an evangelical feminism also flourished in the 19th century as women like Phoebe Palmer and Hannah Whitall Smith led revivals in America and Britain—a development continuing into the early 20th century with the rise of Pentecostalism.

Eminent historian of evangelicalism and professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, George Marsden observes that “in an era when social reform was not popular” it was evangelicals who modeled an impressive record of social service.

Evangelicals, before rise of fundamentalism in the 1920s, seamlessly united spiritual revival and social reform as a centrist movement balancing conservative theology and compassionate politics.

But the rise of fundamentalism within the US pushed evangelicals toward spiritual and social individualism. And the threat of Soviet Union outside the US pressed evangelicals toward a “Christian” nationalism. With the ascension of Soviet Communism and its militant atheism, evangelical-fundamentalists countered by championing a distinctively Christian American Capitalism. The political trinity of Christianity, American nationalism, and free-market Capitalism prompted evangelicals to abandon the work of social reform, leaving such service to the mainline Protestant churches.

This bifurcation of classic evangelicalism led, on the one hand, to evangelical-fundamentalists pursuing the spiritual revival of individuals while mainline Protestants, on the other, sought the political reform of society. As David Moberg notes, to this day each side “accuses the other of being untrue to the essential nature of Christianity.”

Evangelical Great Reversal

This rupture resulted in the “great reversal” of evangelicalism. Historian Donald Dayton notes how the previous champions of abolition came to resist the Civil Rights Movement, how an earlier evangelical empowerment of women came to oppose 1960s feminism, and how an original egalitarianism impulse succumbed to celebrity elitism. Dayton laments that since the 1920s a “great heritage of Evangelical social witness was buried and largely forgotten,” while its spiritual descendants reject as unbiblical activities clearly aligned with the early spirit of evangelicalism.

The abandonment of the Civil Rights Movement by self-described (white) evangelicals triggered the abandonment of black churches identifying as evangelical, creating the general impression that evangelicals are predominantly white conservatives.

But the spirit of classical evangelicalism—uniting spiritual revival and social reform—has not failed to haunt its children. There has always been a “moral minority” within post-fundamentalist evangelicalism promoting such integration. And even if they avoid the label, a growing number of mainline Protestants—and even Catholics—use evangelical terms to explain their faith.

This spirit of classical evangelicalism has always hovered between the extremes of conservative and liberal Christianity. Amid the chaotic waters of our bifurcated society, will this radical center emerge again?

The Spirit of Evangelicalism

Will this spirit breath life back into a three centuries old movement of multicultural and trans-denominational revival and reform? Or will it exhaust itself as the civil religion of white conservative Americans?

Are evangelicals white? It depends on which version prevails within the American religious landscape.

How to Connect with Congress regarding Refugees


Confused with Congress?

President Trump is not confused about his view of refugees. But much of congress IS confused whether they support Trump, especially Republicans.  The CHURCH, however, is not confused about refugees (see here, here, or here). As pilgrims passing through—looking forward to a better country (Heb. 11:13-16) and a City with gates the will never be closed (Rev. 21:25)—Christians should always opt for openness to refugees and immigrants. 

If you don’t know how or what to say, this is my letter and phone call to my Representative and Senators. Adopt and use them as you see fit. And please remember, the person you talk to or write should be treated with civility and respect.

This post is about 1) why and how to connect with your member of Congress AND 2) the letter and phone call I plan to make to Peter Roskam, my congressional representative (who happens to be a Republican). If you just want an idea of my letter and you already know how to connect with your Congress members, then skip to the “MY LETTER/CALL TO ROSKAM” section.


5 thing to know when connecting with Congress

  1. Why would you consider calling your congress member about the ban on refugees?
    • Participating in a democracy does not end with voting people into office, but entails continually informing your members about your views in regard to their actions and opinions.
    • Most House Republicans have not voiced an opinion on Trump’s executive order yet. We should help shape that opinion.
    • Evangelicals participating in a democracy, especially in having been a huge forces in electing members to Congress and the current President, should continue to exercise their influence in affirming or protesting the actions or inaction of congress members in relation to issues facing America.
    • We contact our congress members, not because we place our hope or faith in officials, but as of rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s within the political process in which we live (Matt. 22:21).
  2. Find your members of Congress (1 Representative by District; 2 Senators by State): Go here.
  3. Identify yourself (this is important especially for communicating with Republicans): If you are a Christian, then state that at the beginning of the call/letter. If you could generally be called an evangelical (even if you don’t use that term very often to describe yourself), then you should say, “I’m an evangelical Christian…”.  If you are a pastor or leader of a non-profit then mention that at the beginning because leaders of groups carry more weight than individuals.  For example, I will identify myself as “A pastor of an evangelical church in your congressional district…” (which doesn’t mean that I’m speaking for my church in an official way, but just that this is the vocation and title that I have).
  4. How to communicate: A 1-2 minute phone is the best way to make your concern known to members of Congress. Mail and email follow that. Social media is basically a waste of time.
  5. How many issues per call/letter? It is best to only cover one issue for each piece of communication. If you have 5 issues you want to bring up to your members of Congress, then write 5 letters or make 5 calls.


3 Reasons for Caring about Refugees

A fuller account is of courses needed, but here is a 3-part outline: love of God and love of neighbor, love of foreigners, love of Christ.

  1. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest command he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27), quoting from Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18. Jesus then gives the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (which could be updated as the Good Syrian Refugee) to explain who a neighbor is, commanding us to “do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
  2. It is interesting that later in the chapter of Leviticus that Jesus quoted from that we hear these words, not about our neighbors but about foreigners. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 NIV, see also Ex. 22:21; 23:9).  Just as in v. 10 we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves, now in v. 34 we are called to love the foreigner as ourselves. All of this is based in the identity that the Israelites themselves were once foreigners without a land and God came to rescue them from bondage and provide them with a home.
  3. Last is the famous parable of the sheep and the goats when God separates the righteous on account of how they treated Jesus as he came to them disguised as a stranger/foreigner/criminal: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35).

My Letter to Representative Roskam

Representative Peter Roskam,

My name is Geoff Holsclaw. I am an evangelical pastor in your district (Illinois District 6).

I am deeply concerned that you have yet to state your opinion about or opposition to President Trump’s executive order creating a temporary ban on and extreme vetting of refugees.

Are you—and all Republicans—a prisoner of the president, unable to think or act beyond his prerogative? I hope not! You are certainly beholden to your own conscience and to the concerns of your constituency.

Last year my evangelical church began sponsoring a refugee family from Syria. We support this family because, as Christians, we believe in welcoming all people. And we support this family because, as Americans, we are all descendants of immigrants on see the continuing legacy of this land of opportunity.

As an American, I am deeply troubled that a country founded by immigrants and refugees would give into the baser instinct of fear and self-preservation. Our land of opportunity must continually look forward in hope, hope for ourselves and hope for others.

As a Christian, I am deeply disappointed that a fellow evangelical like yourself would shy away from “acting justly and loving mercy” in regard to “the least of these” who live without a home to return to.

I hope you will be a leader that will direct our country toward building a bigger table open to all rather than capitulating to one who is closing doors and abandoning ourselves to desolating solitude.

I eagerly await your view on this matter.

Sample Call

(Remember that a good intentioned staffer will answer who deserves our respect and courtesy)

Geoff: Hi. I’m a constituent of Congressman Peter Roskam. Can I please talk with a staffer who handles refugee and immigration issues.

(Staffer will probably check my address).

Geoff: I would like to know the Congressman’s view of refugees in American, and specifically his view on President Trump’s newest executive order to temporarily ban incoming refugees.

(Staffer may or may not know this view, if there is one)

Geoff: I would like Congressman Roskam to know that as an evangelical pastor (or evangelical Christian)…(insert points from the letter).

Geoff: I am very concerned about our President’s view of refugees and look forward to hearing how the Congressman will support a different approach.  Thank you for your time.

Subordination and #AltonSterling

I was about halfway through another post talking about theology and the Trinity and why claims for the “eternal subordination of Son” makes for bad theology.

And then I saw the new about #AltonSterling, another black man shot by white police.

And so I wrote this instead, because I couldn’t finish the other post…(it is 1am, Wednesday morning)


I’m mad. I’m really mad. I tried to go to bed but I just couldn’t.

I’m mad at my people, the evangelicals. I’m mad at conservative evangelicals who think they are just talking about a doctrine of God when they speak of the Son submitting to the Father. They think they are just (just?) talking about gender differences between women and men and why women should submit to men.

But conservative evangelicals, YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT POWER!

Every time you talk of authority and submission you are talking about power, and you therefore are not just talking about gender but also race, race relationships and racism. When you talk about power in any way you must understand that you are talking within a culture of white power, white privilege, even white supremacy.

I read a Bible where authority is always giving itself away. God hands over creation to his image bearers, giving them authority in all things. And when we screwed it up God does not demand obedience again, but entered as a SLAVE (Phil. 2:7) and became obedience himself (he who was Master would rather become a Slave than forcefully assert his rights as Master, so that all could be free and become children of God). That is the story I read.

From the conservative while male theologians (who I believe are not outright racists) to the pastors conferences they plan, to the pastors they teach, and then to the people (who often are racists) these ideas of authority and submission take shape and create a culture, a culture of expected deference to authority by “equal” people who are nonetheless expected to be “submissive”. And this expectation of submission to authority then blames the victims like #AltonSterling when something happens by the authorities, by the police.

I am angry about all this.

I am angry that white conservative theologians are so numb, ignorant, or blind to the fact that these ideas of “authority/submission” are continually used to denigrate women and minorities as they hide behind walls of abstraction and Biblicism (and I’m all for the Bible, but I see a very different story than they do). It is not enough to say “We are trying to be biblical” when those made in God’s image are being shot those in “authority”, especially when He who is the Image of God would rather himself die so that all might live.

Like it or not, these doctrines ARE causing incredible amounts of social apathy among white conservative evangelicals who are tempted to say “Well, if you just submit to authority then you won’t get shot.” Are we supposed to think that just like the Son submitted to the Father so too every black man should submit white police officers, or more likely, white police officers feeling like a black man should submit to them in every way, in excess of the law and trampling their rights?

“We are trying to be biblical by affirming authority and submission in the Trinity.” That is convenient that you are placing yourself as the authority of Scripture and not submitting to 2000 years that are in direct contradiction of your position. Why not submit to the church? And even those white conservative evangelicals who do not support this position of the Trinity, you still have fallen under the spell of submitting to authorities and turned a blind eye to our fellow black brothers and sisters. We (evangelicals) are all complicit! (Please see Divided by Faith and Disunity in Christ)

And so I am sorry.

I am sorry that I haven’t been more angry and more outspoken.

I am sorry to my Black friends, colleagues, and students that I haven’t been more urgent in exposing the dangerous theology and practice of the white evangelical community. That I haven’t been more bold in naming what is so obvious.

As one who claims an evangelical heritage, I often attempt to call evangelicals back to their better selves, their true traditions of spiritual conversion linked with social transformation. I am sorry that I have been too timid with the faults of persistent racism and white privilege.

I am sorry. Please forgive me.

Let our orthodoxy be known through our orthopraxis, otherwise we are noisy gongs and clanging symbols.


God’s love is coming; and so is his justice.

Lord, have mercy on us

Christ, have mercy.



Deeper Than We Thought (2): The Colorblind Racism


Those brought forcibly to America for slavery are now forcibly carried away through imprisonment.

Cimagesolorblind Racism

Two weeks ago I talked about how in my journey of sanctification I seem to be really working only on two or so deeply ingrained sins that seem to keep popping up in different ways. Just when I think I have gotten over it I find it sprouting up again: instead of the fruit of the Spirit, these are the weeds of the flesh, and they are hard to pull out.

Similarly is our societal problem of racism: just when we free those imported here from Africa from slavery then up comes Jim Crow laws; and just when that oppressive system is struck down through the Civil Rights Movement comes a new form of “colorblind” racism.

Just what this “colorblind” racism is and how it has come about is the subject of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Her conviction is that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (2).

Today I’m going to look at her compelling narrative (chapter 1) about the three stages or systems of racism in the US: Slavery, Jim Crow, and Mass Incarceration.

The reality that demands explanation by citizen of the US is “the stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history” (8).

My brief summary here does not do justice to Alexander’s detailed and persuasive argument (I would let you know if I’m not persuaded).


In colonial America, laborers were needed to farm the land, and while we often think of the idyllic farmer and his wife tending their own plot on the frontier, most often it was indentured servants who worked for wealth landowners, especially in the southern colonies. These landed elite needed cheap labor to make their “New World” venture profitable back home.

The economic need of the elite eventually settled on the solution of slavery of Africans (because Native Americans were too wild (they tried) and the idea of enslaving fellow Europeans was not entertained). Racism (the pseudo-scientific and social belief that Africans were inferior humans) was utilized to justify slavery in light of what seemed to be a contradiction of the American claim of the freedom and equality for all (i.e. freedom and equality did not conflict with slavery because these enslaved people were not really equal and could not actually handle freedom). The social and psychological benefits of racism split the poor white workers from the enslaved black workers, ensuring that both groups would never unite and rebel against the economic elites. Racist ideology therefore did double duty in justifying the institution of slavery and in creating distance between poor white works and enslaved black workers who material lives were almost indistinguishable (classic move to divide and conquer the working class by the economic elites…something that is happening to this day, as we will see).

The economic needs of slavery created the psychological and social reality of “racism”. But the twist of history is that the “fiction” of racism as proved more durable than the “reality” of slavery, which did eventually come to an end in the US.

Jim Crow

After the Civil War Reconstruction came the KKK Redemption campaign (historical term for reclaiming the South for whites) that effectively instituted post-slavery racial inferiority for African Americans. Vagrancy laws forced recently freed slaves to work their masters again (basically it was a crime not to have a job every day), and petty crime such as “mischief” and “insulting gestures” were harshly enforced against African Americans.

During this time, political conservatives, liberals, and radical populists sought out poor white swing votes by pandering to racist fears (again effectively splitting the poor working class so as to keep poor whites and blacks in their place, but now convincing the poor white class to do the dirty work of race policing). As William Julius Wilson notes, “As long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them” (34) Again, those who would most benefit their own economic destinies by working together (poor whites/blacks) are split by racism, a perception of racial inferiority created to explain and sustain the economics of slavery.

And so Alexander says, “History seemed to repeat itself. Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion [a multi-racial rebellion against the plantation elites in 1675] by creating the institution of black slavery, another racial caste system was emerging nearly two centuries later, in part due to the efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people” (34).

Mass Incarceration

After the Civil Rights Movement, overtly racist ideology could not be utilized within economic and political discourses to motivate policy. But this does not mean the sentiments disappeared from individuals nor that politicians stopped playing off racist fears for swing votes. Rather, through a linguistic mutation centering around the themes of law and order a new racist discourse developed: this was the “colorblind” emphasis on “crime” and “criminals”.

During the Civil Rights Movement political activists were cast as common criminals violating proper law and order. Segregation was cast as reasonable for sustaining law and order, a system now thrown into chaos.. Those opposed to the Civil Rights Movement attempted to criminalize those advocating for equal rights and equal access.

While the attempt to criminalize Civil Rights activists as a way of saving Jim Crow segregation ultimately failed, the focus only “law and order” by getting “tough on crime” became the blueprint for the next iteration of racial oppression.

In Congress and on the street, those who had previously cast a ballot for segregation (of housing, education, employment) would uniformly vote for strict crime policies that implicitly targeted black and brown populations.

Indeed, as has happened before, the poor white voter was split from the poor black voter under the guise of “getting tough on crime.” While conservative politicians are traditionally aligned with corporate interests and business elites, these conservative politicians could grab poor white votes by playing up racial violence and the need for getting tough on crime. A “colorblind” rhetoric aimed against crime (and those on welfare) was clearly understood to be directed at garnering white votes but impossible to prove as overly racist.

This “getting tough on crime” instituted through the “War on Drugs” (begun in the ‘80’s) is the reason the US incarcerates the highest percentage (by far) of its population of all countries, and why in the last 30 years our prison system has grown by 350%.

Once in place, “The system functioned relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black and Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neural terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born” (58).

The actual mechanics of such a system of mass incarceration will be the themes of the next couple of chapters looking at the process of being arrested, the judicial process, and life after release.  These will be the themes of later posts.

ATV-prison-massWhat do you think?

In my last post I asked these questions:

  • Or, why does America have the largest incarceration rate of the “free world?
  • Why is that when people of all racial backgrounds use and sell illegals drugs at a similar rate, that people of color are disproportionately imprisoned for drug crimes?
  • Why does America imprison a larger percentage of its black population the South Africa did at the height of apartheid?

Do you have other answers than the one that Alexander is aiming at?

“We Have Theology, the Rest of You are Just Visiting…”

I think that much of theology works with the assumptions expressed by Matt Damon’s character in “The Good Shepherd” (about the CIA).  When asked about what “you people have?” he answers, “We have America. The rest of you are just visiting.” (FYI, racial slurs in the dialogue) (My thoughts below).

I think many pop theologians (especially Evangelicals) have the general assumption that it is well and nice that Latin America theology brings liberation, and Black theology brings justice, and Feminist theology brings gender, and African Theology brings the ancestors, and Pentecostal theology brings the Spirit, etc.  But real theology (i.e. white, upper-class) is just theology itself (without an adjective), and the rest of you are just visiting.

Sadly, I worry this represents the state of much of  what goes around as ‘missional’ theology.

Pentecost: Babel Overcome ≠ Babel Reversed

The cover of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.I often hear that in Pentecost the curse of Babel is reversed. But this is not true. Babel is overcome, but not reversed.

The idea that Babel is reversed goes something like this. Because humanity, in its pride, sought to raise themselves to God’s level, God confused them with multiple languages and they were scattered.  But in Pentecost, everyone hears the Gospel and therefore the curse of Babel is reversed.

From Forced Unity to Dividing Diversity

But truth is much deeper than this.  Babel, and the tower it attempted to build, was a forced unity that led an oppressive domination.  People don’t usually build towers like that back in the day: they are forced to build it. And what is a principle way of dominating oppressed people? Destroy their native language. The politics of Babel is in direct opposition to God’s bless that humanity should multiply and fill the earth (multiply in culture; not just in number).

What often is understood as the curse of Babel is also a blessing in the God is returning diversity to the world.  But in our fallen state this diversity leads to divisions, and racism, genocide, and enslavement have been the norm ever since.

True Diversity

Pentecost overcomes the forced unity of Babel, but also overcomes the dividing diversity after Bable.  In Pentecost each “hears in their own language”, not some universal language.  Diversity is not reversed, only the divisions caused by our fallen fear and panicked prejudice.

Pentecost overcomes Babel, by doing more than reversing it.

(While most would use some depiction of the Tower of Babel for this post, I instead used the cover from Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan”.  Think about it…it leads to my next post).

Also, these thoughts are related to the “Prodigal Diversity” signpost in Prodigal Christianity.

The Church in its Profoundest Expression…

“The church in its profoundest expression is the gathering of a people who are able to sustain one another through the inevitable tragedies of our lives.  They are able to do so beause they have been formed by a narrative, constantly reenacted through the sharing of a meal, that claims nothing less than that God has taken the tragic character of our existence into his very life.” (Hauerwas, Community of Character, 108)

Discerning the Gospel: Before Acts 15 & Beyond

It seems there was a bit of confusion and concern about proposing communal discernment.  And that’s OK, it is a difficult thing to understand and from what I can tell it is even less often practiced.  On top of all of this are the countless instances of spiritual abuse, if not outright physical and sexual abuse, committed by churches that destroyes the trust and faith necessary for such discernments.

But without being idealistic, unrealistic, harsh or ignorant of those who have suffered such abuse, I think communal discernments within the church is what Jesus and the scriptures model.
Below is an exerpt from Prodigal Christianity outlining this process with reference to the Jerusalem council (it comes from the signpost concerning witness). Below that is a comment that I posted on Homebrewed Christianity (“Jesus was a Cowboy without a Community”), responding to Jesus’ supposed opposition to such discernments.

Discerning the Kingdom: The Last Piece


Living as witnesses assumes that God is already at work and that what we need to do is discern this work by entering into each situation together, inviting one another into the presence of Christ. Signposts 2 (Missio Dei) and 3 (Incarnation) make possible our following signpost 4 (Witness) into post-Christendom (signpost 1).  Because we assume God is at work, we can wait patiently, listen, pray, inhabit Scripture, and discern the Spirit in each situation. But we will not know what to say or do prior to discerning what God is doing. Only through discernment can we participate in God’s kingdom work, thereby becoming the vehicle for the divine in-breaking Christ to do his work in and among us. This is the prodigal nature of all witness.


Acts 10–15 give us an example of this type of kingdom discernment. In Acts 10, Cornelius receives an angelic vision telling him to send for Peter. The next day, Peter receives a vision of his own that enables him to receive the Gentile visitors. But Peter does not immediately understand the meaning of his vision and is still pondering it when the men from Cornelius arrive (v. 17). The Spirit tells him to go down and meet the men and go with them (v. 19). Cornelius and Peter are both tending to the Spirit and discerning it, and because of this, the Spirit begins to take them on a journey that will change the entire church. At Cornelius’s house, the first words out of Peter’s mouth confirm that he feels out of his element but is nonetheless committed to discerning God’s work there (v. 28). Peter then begins a “presentation” of the gospel (although not as we usually think of it; this is the subject of signpost 6), and while he is still speaking, the Spirit comes onto all who are listening. They immediately begin to speak in tongues, astonishing all who are present (vv. 44–46).


This passage seems to back up the idea that all we need to do is present the gospel, that is, tell the story of Jesus so that lives will be changed. But this is not the end of the story. A bit later, after the Gentiles had been part of the church for a while, some began to teach that although it was good and fine that God welcomed the Gentiles, all male Gentiles still needed to be circumcised (i.e., they still needed to follow the Jewish laws). In Acts 15, in what is often called the Jerusalem Council, the church gathered to discern together God’s work among the Gentiles. They eventually discerned that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, a new understanding that developed over time and in community. It came to them through prayer, listening to each other, and totally submitting to the Spirit’s work among them.


After much discussion, Peter rose and began witnessing to the group about what happened to Cornelius, reminding everyone that “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us” (15:8 ESV; emphasis added). After this, James turned to the witness of the scriptures about how God would allow the Gentiles to call God by God’s own name (15:15), concluding that it was as Gentiles, not as Jewish converts, that God was welcoming them. In light of these witnesses (the witness of Peter, the Holy Spirit, and scripture) the council writes a letter to the whole church and announces its communal discernment with the words: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28 ESV). The unity of Gentiles and Jews, the great work of God unifying all people in Christ, was being displayed before everyone. This was witness at its finest.


Like those days with Peter and Cornelius, witness today entails regularly discerning the kingdom among us and what God is saying and has said in Scripture. It will entail a community of people where God is working. This is the prodigal journey we must travel.

This is just a rough sketch thrown up as a response to “Jesus was a Cowboy without a Community”:

… Jesus was not some maverick cowboy, lone-ranger that we can’t imitate in the communities we live in.  Rather Jesus was, is, and will be in community, and not just in the Trinity. Certainly in his earthly ministry he never did anything outside the will of the Father empowered by the Spirit, something that we are also called to do (“thy will be done, on earth…”).  Also, I think that Jesus did substantially stand with the traditions of Israel, and drew liberally not only from the prophetic traditions, but also the priestly and kingly tradition.  Certainly the continuity of tradition he was offering was not well received by counter-traditions, but that does not mean we throw out tradition or community.

That Jesus was committed to communal discernment, especially with those that would disagree with him, is that he in no way forced or coerced the truth of his discernment (i.e. his interpretation of the Kingdom of God), but submitted even unto death at the hands of those who disagreed. This is the ultimate commitment to non-violent discernment (he did not use force to proved his point, nor did merely abandon those that disagreed/opposed him).

Not only this, but rather than a post-resurrection so of force (an no, not even Revelation counts as a show of force, but that is a different conversation), Jesus entrusted the truth of the Kingdom within a community of disciples.

In all these way I think we should be like Jesus, and show live like Jesus. I don’t think we should drive a wedge between what we can/should do and what Jesus did.

Political Philosophy/Theology: According to Mark Lilla


(So I just cut this section from the intro to my dissertation so I thought I would post it here.)

Political Theology and Political Philosophy

Mark Lilla makes a rough distinction between political philosophy and political theology that will set the stage for our consideration of political theology.[1] For Lilla, all political theology depends upon a picture of reality relating God, humanity, and the world, a form or habit of thought perennially possible.  Political theology depends on reference to divine authority or cosmological speculation.  But modern political philosophy, set in motion by Hobbes, separates the religious from the political and attempts to speak of politics purely in human terms.[2]  This he calls the Great Separation, first articulated by Hobbes and then elaborated by Locke and Hume.  Hobbes “was the first thinker to suggest that religious conflict and political conflict are essentially the same conflict,”[3] and that religion had to go within the sphere of politics.  Lilla is quick to show that strict atheism need not follow, just that political philosophy must move ahead independently.

But rather than building on its successes, Lilla traces a narrative of decline concerning the Great Separation, showing how Enlightenment philosophers eroded the wall Hobbes had erected.  Lilla reads Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel as inadvertently transforming modern political philosophy back into a political theology, opening the door for a messianic backlash in the early twentieth century when liberal theology began to crumble.  Against Hobbes, Rousseau introduces the goodness of the natural sentiment of religion if uncorrupted by dogmatic speculations revolving around revelation, and thought that the suppression of religion made humanity less human.  Kant followed after, and while respecting the separation of reason from revelation, nevertheless reintroduced God through the backdoor of morality.  For Lilla, Kant confused the issue of political philosophy versus political theology because while revelation does not inform the dictates of reason or politics for Kant, morality required in faith in God.  Rather than modern Epicureans like Hobbes and their theological rivals trading on clear contrasts between revelation and reason, church and state, tradition and innovation, Kant developed a “novel kind of theological-political fantasy” where the priest and prince can lie down in peace.[4]  With Hegel, the final move is made toward a thoroughly modern political theology when he claims the priest and the prince, and the philosopher, have always been talking about the same things in different ways, with religion now acknowledge as a principle conduit of truth and knowledge rather than producing fear and ignorance.  Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel inaugurate a new trajectory in modern thought such that “political theology could be derived from human experience alone,” opening again the door to another world, even if Kant and Hegel disagree on the nature of the relationship of the other world to this world. Either way, for Lilla, this possibility is the fall from modern political philosophy and its Great Separation.

While one might disagree with his characterization of the rise and fall of political philosophy, surely Lilla is correct in his assessment of this new political theology.  When a huge anthology like De Vries and Sullivan’s Political Theologies, containing selections from philosophers, political scientists, historians, and sociologist, offers only one essay by a theologian,[5] Pope Benedict at that, and another volume with “political theology” in the subtitle says next to nothing about God, theology, or any actual existing religion, using instead Lacanian theory as a cipher for the divine,[6] it is easy to confirm Lilla’s suggestion regarding the emergence of a thoroughly modern, might I add, humanistic (or anti-humanistic) political theology.  One need only consider the work of Slavoj Žižek, who could be properly called an atheist political theologian.  Whether this is the fall of politics by theological corruption, or the cooptation of theology for politics, or something else altogether, is in the eye of the beholder and in need of farther refinement.

[1] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God (Vintage Books: New York, 2008).

[2] Ibid., 4-5.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 162.

[5] Hent De Vries, Lawrence E. Sullivan, eds, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

[6] Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santer, and Kenneth Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005).