Neck-Deep in Privilege

Let’s get into it.

The events in Charlottesville deserve the special attention and sense of immediacy they’ve provoked over the past week or two. Why? Because the issue of racism in America is persistent and destructive, of course, but also because so many of us have the option of turning our face away when it doesn’t directly affect us. Maybe that’s the most important new lesson I’ve learned in this—I may bristle at the jargon that litters the rhetoric of social activism, but I have no doubt about this one fact:

My life is an example of what it means to be a privileged white American.

I’m a 54-year-old white guy from a nice suburb. In the dictionary under “privileged”, there could be a picture of me with my family. A few months ago I was pulled over for speeding while driving with my teenaged son. As the officer came toward the car I showed my son what he should do if this ever happened to him—I put my hands on the wheel and I narrated everything I did before I moved a muscle. When the officer went back to his cruiser I told my son that black dads had to have a very different conversation with their sons—that a simple ticket for speeding could lead to some pretty awful outcomes. I tried to communicate how unfair that was, which doesn’t always ring true when you’re on the lucky side of unfair. But it’s more than that.

The simple fact that I can turn my focus to something else if I choose is what the concept of privilege is all about. As a seminary president and pastor of a church, if I chose tomorrow to launch a series of talks or articles on what it means to be a Christian, without reference to the call to take up the cause of the marginalized and oppressed, the overwhelming majority of the people I serve would be just fine with that.

The essential privilege of being a white American is the freedom to choose what outrages me, and to look away from the rest.

It’s not enough for me to say that my privilege is accidental. Of course that’s partly true, just as it’s true for those who are born tall or smart or pretty or strong. But my accidental privilege has its roots in something intentional and evil. We still need to be reminded that the African-American experience in this country is different from other immigrant narratives. My grandparents came to America from Italy to build a better life and to escape from the Second World War. Most blacks in this country are the descendants of men and women who were kidnapped, sold (and re-sold), and bred for lives of brutal slavery. It’s for that reason alone (though there are others), the only proper Christian response to being unfairly privileged is to recognize it and wherever possible, surrender it. At the very least I believe the call on me is to exploit my privilege to benefit someone else.

All of this is rooted in the Christian faith. We believe as Christians that the person we know as Jesus existed eternally with the Father and the Spirit as an expression of God. The choice to become human—the Incarnation—was also the choice to give up the benefits of being God; in Jesus, God “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, and through that sacrifice showed what God was really like—who God really is. (See Philippians 2:1-11)

It is the Christian’s task and calling to show the world what God is like. We share the words he spoke and we try to live by the ethics he taught, but we can’t in the process forget the example he set. Christ emptied himself in order to love fully and to restore completely. Our calling is the same.

Faithful Christians have been trying to address these issues for years. Back in 1973 a group of evangelicals reaffirmed the Christian responsibility for creating a more just and loving America. At the heart of the statement is this critical line:

“We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism, and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the Body of Christ along color lines.”

I know that it’s hard to reconcile the evangelicals who wrote that sentence with the odious vandals who desecrate the faith in our own cultural moment. But they were real and that confession is every bit as true today as it was 44 years ago. Where the church of Jesus Christ—you know, the one who gave up being God for us—when the Church of Jesus is responsible for dividing the faithful by color, it’s tempting to want to tear the whole thing down and start over. But that would be missing out on what the transforming power of the gospel can do in our churches and in our lives.

It’s not enough to deplore our sinful history. We’re called to repent that sin and allow God to show us a better way. That begins with learning to see the world through another person’s eyes. It’s about asking questions—it’s about reading people you might not normally read. It’s about letting your guard down long enough to hear someone else’s story. It’s about surrendering the choice to turn your attention—and your heart—away.

It is astounding to me that there are still white supremacists in this country, and that their history is tolerated as casually as it is. The thing is, it’s been easy to ignore them because, well, they weren’t coming after me. But maybe they are. Maybe when a Confederate flag waving hatemonger attacks my black neighbor, my Jewish neighbor, or my Muslim neighbor, that violence is being done to all of us.

Until I learn to see it that way, I will be living neck-deep in my swamp of privilege.

Remembering V-E Day

Today (May 8th) is the 72nd anniversary of V-E Day, commemorating the end of World War II in Europe. The war in the Pacific would drag on for another four costly months, but on this date in 1945, citizens and leaders of the Allied nations celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Part of me wants to write something about this, but it occurs to me that anything I might say will be from an enormous distance of time and experience. I never had to join the military. I never had to put my life on hold or give it up completely, in violent conflict.

But I benefited in some ways from those who did, and so I can’t let this day go by.

So I’d like to give the stage to two of the leaders who faced their enemies and made decisions that I can neither fathom nor judge. On May 8th 1945, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman addressed their nations and the listening world to announce the end of the war in Europe. I haven’t edited these speeches…they deserve to be heard in their own time and form. Thousands of people…both military and civilian…from America, Britain and Japan…would die after this celebration ended, and both leaders speak with an eye toward the task still at hand.

And yet each is beautiful…and appropriately terrible…in its own way. I invite you to give them a read, and also to heed President Truman’s call to prayer. Today is a day for sober reflection and moderate celebration.

Blessings to you this V-E Day.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill
May 8, 1945 London

My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny. After a while we were left all alone against the most tremendous military power that has been seen. We were all alone for a whole year.

There we stood, alone. Did anyone want to give in? [The crowd shouted “No.”] Were we down-hearted? [“No!”] The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle. London can take it. So we came back after long months from the jaws of death, out of the mouth of hell, while all the world wondered. When shall the reputation and faith of this generation of English men and women fail? I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle-a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.

But there is another foe who occupies large portions of the British Empire, a foe stained with cruelty and greed-the Japanese. I rejoice we can all take a night off today and another day tomorrow. Tomorrow our great Russian allies will also be celebrating victory and after that we must begin the task of rebuilding our hearth and homes, doing our utmost to make this country a land in which all have a chance, in which all have a duty, and we must turn ourselves to fulfill our duty to our own countrymen, and to our gallant allies of the United States who were so foully and treacherously attacked by Japan. We will go hand and hand with them. Even if it is a hard struggle we will not be the ones who will fail.

President Harry S. Truman
May 8, 1945 Washington DC

THIS IS a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.

For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band. Let us not forget, my fellow Americans, the sorrow and the heartache which today abide in the homes of so many of our neighbors-neighbors whose most priceless possession has been rendered as a sacrifice to redeem our liberty.

We can repay the debt which we owe to our God, to our dead and to our children only by work–by ceaseless devotion to the responsibilities which lie ahead of us. If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is–work, work, and more work.

We must work to finish the war. Our victory is but half-won. The West is free, but the East is still in bondage to the treacherous tyranny of the Japanese. When the last Japanese division has surrendered unconditionally, then only will our fighting job be done.

We must work to bind up the wounds of a suffering world–to build an abiding peace, a peace rooted in justice and in law. We can build such a peace only by hard, toilsome, painstaking work–by understanding and working with our allies in peace as we have in war.

The job ahead is no less important, no less urgent, no less difficult than the task which now happily is done.

I call upon every American to stick to his post until the last battle is won. Until that day, let no man abandon his post or slacken his efforts. And now, I want to read to you my formal proclamation of this occasion:

A Proclamation–The Allied armies, through sacrifice and devotion and with God’s help, have wrung from Germany a final and unconditional surrender. The western world has been freed of the evil forces which for five years and longer have imprisoned the bodies and broken the lives of millions upon millions of free-born men. They have violated their churches, destroyed their homes, corrupted their children, and murdered their loved ones. Our Armies of Liberation have restored freedom to these suffering peoples, whose spirit and will the oppressors could never enslave.

Much remains to be done. The victory won in the West must now be won in the East. The whole world must be cleansed of the evil from which half the world has been freed. United, the peace-loving nations have demonstrated in the West that their arms are stronger by far than the might of the dictators or the tyranny of military cliques that once called us soft and weak. The power of our peoples to defend themselves against all enemies will be proved in the Pacific war as it has been proved in Europe.

For the triumph of spirit and of arms which we have won, and for its promise to the peoples everywhere who join us in the love of freedom, it is fitting that we, as a nation, give thanks to Almighty God, who has strengthened us and given us the victory.

Now, therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby appoint Sunday, May 13, 1945, to be a day of prayer.

I call upon the people of the United States, whatever their faith, to unite in offering joyful thanks to God for the victory we have won, and to pray that He will support us to the end of our present struggle and guide us into the ways of peace.

I also call upon my countrymen to dedicate this day of prayer to the memory of those who have given their lives to make possible our victory.

A Rant for Today

In the discussion over so-called “religious liberty”, the point has been made that I should be more tolerant of the views of Christians who are more socially (though arguably NOT biblically) conservative than I.

I’ve been wrestling with that because the argument is compelling, at least on the surface. But let’s consider the story below, excerpted from the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“When Bob Huskey’s health began to deteriorate, his husband, Jack Zawadaski, knew time was short. Jack made plans with the funeral home to transport and cremate Bob’s body. He prepared himself for the inevitable. He signed the paperwork. He said goodbye. But the day Bob died, the funeral home refused to transport his body. It told Jack it doesn’t ‘deal with their kind’.”

Now I’m being asked to be tolerant of the actions of the funeral home because they claim that their behavior is rooted in their Christian faith. We’re going to examine that assertion in a moment, but for now I’m wondering if that logic would hold for other variants of belief, Christian and not. Would I feel the same instinctive revulsion under other circumstances? For example:

If an atheist funeral director denied a Christian the same services that were denied to the gay couple in the story?

If a racist Christian denied service to a black customer, presumably of any faith?

If a Democrat told a grieving Republican that she was not welcome in his business?

Part of me wants to say that the market should be allowed to correct this over time. People who behave like this are asses who lack the compassion we expect as a part of the social contract. But macro-answers aren’t adequate for the individual wounds this practice would cause in the meantime. The more basic question at hand is this:

Does being tolerant include being tolerant of these cruel kinds of acts?

I don’t think it does, at least not from my understanding of Christian faith. From a Christian point of view there is no valid expression of our faith that calls for incivility toward those we perceive as faithless or (more on point) enemies.

Much has been made of the bakery that denied service to a gay couple. In practical terms, there is nothing about denying someone a cake with a rainbow on it that rises to the level of “freedom of religion”. Worse, you can bet those bakers aren’t denying too many pastries to customers who are gluttons, something with a lot more biblical proscription behind it.

No matter what one believes about homosexuality, there is nothing even tangentially Christian about being a jackass to gay people. In fact, there is an overwhelming biblical witness that argues precisely the opposite, including words from the savior of the universe himself. I have to say that the real intolerance on this issue is using the gospel of Jesus Christ to defend one’s refusal to bake a cake with a rainbow on it.

And that’s the root of the problem for me. I can understand committed Christians who struggle with homosexuality on biblical terms, but those same biblical texts are absolutely crystal clear on how people of Christian faith are meant to interact with others—the Bible calls them “neighbors”—who hold different or even opposite views. Let’s look at what the Bible actually says, not about any individual sin, but about how we’re meant to treat each other.

Matthew 5:43-48 seems pretty on-point, with Jesus saying the loving one’s enemies is a God-like behavior he’d like us to have.

In Luke 10:25-37 Jesus turns our ethical models upside-down when he uses a culturally unacceptable person (a Samaritan) as the hero in a story about understanding who our neighbors really are.

In John 4:4-14 Jesus meets another Samaritan, this time a woman (another cultural no-no) and shares a drink of water with her.

These are not miraculous stories of Jesus, rather they are prescriptive texts for Christian behavior. Each of them (and others) demonstrates that faith in Christ calls us to tolerance for the other—and frankly, it doesn’t sanction shrill calls for tolerance of us when we fail in our Christian ethics.

That’s important, because what we have now is a group of Christians who are failing in these most basic Christian behaviors, and asking the secular government to protect them in the name of “religious liberty”.

Now I would never say such a thing, but I can imagine Jesus asking just who in the hell they think they are.

For now, though, we’re left with this accelerated erosion of Christian witness in the public square. Don’t get me wrong—it happens plenty on the left, and the point of this whole blog is to call out both when needed. But today and under the current Administration, it is the Christian right wing that is embarrassing the faith. It is the conservative wing of the church that overwhelmingly supported a cruel and thoughtless man for president, and is using him to further non-Christian objectives in the name of Jesus himself.

I take it back. Who the hell do they think they are?

Welcome to Lent

Below is my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show Me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking 40 days or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’ The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

Isn’t that beautiful and haunting and challenging all at the same time? I tend to think so much of my own failures that I forget that my sin is not the point. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus Christ, is the true point of my life’s story, and yours…and yours…and yours.

We live out that struggle between the seasons on a daily basis, between the cold and death of winter and the restored and rediscovered life of spring. Between the awareness of just how far we stray from God, and the shock at what he has accomplished in order to draw us near. Lent is our time to pause and take notice of what is happening around us and in us. It’s not just for self-reflection, though that’s a key part of it. Lent is a time to sharpen our focus on Christ and his world, on the needs of people around us, on the gifts we’ve been given to meet those needs, and to discover all over again the hope that we have because of the Easter miracle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Easter will come, but for now we try to re-create the sense of conviction that being in God’s presence prompts in each one of us. To repent and ask for forgiveness. And to anticipate that day when life wins the battle once and for all. Welcome to Lent.

In the Scottish Book of Common Order there is a prayer designated for today, for the beginning of the Lenten season. Make it yours as you begin this sober journey that leads to the Cross, to the empty tomb and beyond.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect forgiveness and peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

On Refugees, Transgender Kids, and Lost Sheep

Today I’m thinking about the Parable of the Lost Sheep.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:10-14)

Jesus is revealing something about his character here, and I think it bears on some of the things we’re hearing in the news. What Jesus describes here is pretty counter-intuitive, right? A shepherd, essentially a small business owner, leaves 99 (potentially, literally, the lion’s share) of his sheep behind to go and chase the one who left. Not only that, but he does it joyfully and lovingly and in full awareness of the risks involved.

Now this being a parable and all, we’re supposed to look for the inner meaning—the reality behind the story that tells us something about how we’re meant to live. Sheep, when they’re gathered in a large flock and protected by a shepherd, are as safe as they can be. But a lone sheep wandering off the margins is weak and in danger of being devoured, and so it becomes a symbol for anyone who is beyond the relative safety of community. We’re meant to notice how the shepherd responds to that lone, lost sheep.

I say all that because our Christian faith is often guided by small and manageable logical statements—think the “if/then” equations we used to do in school. Here’s a common one for Christians: “If we’re supposed to be imitators of Christ, and Christ does something, then we’re meant to do that thing, too.”

Here’s why I bring this up. Refugees and recent immigrants and transgender kids make up, oddly, about 1% of the American population, leaving the other 99% percent of us to make a decision about how we treat them. It is an undeniable truth that each of those three groups face marginalization and dangers simply because of who they are; they live under the constant threat of being devoured, physically and socially. In the Parable of the Good Shepherd, the character that represents Jesus the Messiah risks everything to bring that lost sheep back to safety—he revels in the joy of leaving his safe place behind and making sure that 1% of his sheep are protected.

You can see where I’m headed with this.

This is less about partisan politics than it is about speaking Christian gospel to power. Jesus risked everything to make sure the 1% weren’t marginalized, and gave everything to redeem us all. We represent not only the 99% of this story, but also the Good Shepherd. If we’re supposed to be imitators of Christ, then we’re supposed to be imitators of Christ. Not everything is that simple, but this one is.

Christians can vote whichever way they choose, but once that vote is cast, the unmistakable call on each of our lives is to call and hold our elected leaders to principles that reflect the one we call Savior. We do that even when (maybe especially when) those gospel values run contrary to those of our government or culture. Anything less is the worst kind of compromise. Anything less makes us the unseen danger of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, instead of the faithful disciples of the shepherd.

So yeah, I’ve been haunted by the Parable of the Lost Sheep today. How about you?

Today We Have a Headcount

(I’m giving myself room for one angry lament today.)

Today we have a headcount.

As many of us—most of us, in fact—have been shocked over the last 18 months at the petulant incivility of Donald Trump, the hardest part has been trying to understand why someone would support a man like him.

Now at least we have a sense of the scope of the problem.

I knew that my country had a race problem.

I knew that women in this country had a legitimate complaint about the way they were treated.

I knew there was a simmering level of hatred toward those who were perceived to be threats to our society: gays, Muslims, people who wanted access to health care.

I knew that too many had disconnected the nostalgia for our immigrant parents and grandparents from the immigrant who lives next door.

I knew that too many of my fellow Americans were bitter, fearful, angry people.

I just never knew how many, until now. It looks like the final count will settle at right about 60 million. I hope I never lose the feeling of being stunned by that number.

There are, as I see it, three main categories of Americans who voted for Donald Trump.

The first group truly believes in his rhetoric and vision for America. They are afraid and angry. They rail at a system they don’t understand, but from which they have benefitted immensely. They don’t like anyone who isn’t like them. They match their hatred of Islam only with their ignorance of its principles. The men among them think they are entitled to grab the genitalia of women with impunity.

As strange as it is to say, I can live with knowing that this group exists. I always figured that they were out there, and I didn’t care as long as they weren’t in the majority. It’s not the Trump True Believers I loathe right now—that’s reserved to the other two groups.

Because the decisive balance of Trump’s support came from Americans who either slavishly voted their party line over their conscience, or who hated Hillary Clinton so much that even Donald Trump seemed acceptable.

This was never a contest over policy, it was a referendum on decency, and 60 million of you failed.

If you have daughters, may you face them with embarrassment and regret, as you have now given men in this country—or at least the President—permission to greet them in the most appalling ways.

If you’re raising sons, I’m curious to know just what exactly you will teach them about what it means to be a man.

If you have gay friends or neighbors, may you fumble for words to explain your choice, and not break eye contact until you have absorbed their pain and suspicion of you.

If you’re lucky enough to have a Muslim friend, may you have the courage to ask any number of questions you should have asked before you cast your vote.

Still, as a historian, I have hope.

This country survived the Civil War and Reconstruction. It came through the Depression and the Second World War and fought its way through the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. When our democracy seemed fragile, as during the Vietnam War and the Richard Nixon and even the Bill Clinton scandals, we pulled together and found new ways to live as Americans.

All of that seems like a quaint and distant memory today, though I still believe we can do better.

There’s a lot that is broken about our country—racism, sexism, homophobia, and the abandonment of our own working class come to mind. But we’ve had bigger problems than those, and we’ve had bigger problems than Donald Trump and his 60 millions. Now is the time to lick wounds, love our neighbors, regroup, and peacefully claim back the country we thought we had.

At least we know the scope of the task before us.

Today we have a headcount.

An Inaugural Address

(This address was given on Nov. 5th, 2016 by The Rev. Dr. John A. D’Elia on the occasion of his installation as the first President of the New Theological Seminary of the West.)

Family and friends, members of our board of trustees; students, faculty and honored guests, thank you so much for being here today. Your presence is a gift not only for me, but also for the New Theological Seminary of the West. As we establish ourselves in this region—as we work to provide practical ministry training that is rooted in deep theological reflection—your presence here affirms our goals and demonstrates your support. On behalf of our seminary, I want to say a very heartfelt thank you.

It is a long-standing tradition at events such as this one to pose a question of some great significance, and then spend 30 minutes or so coming up with some lofty-sounding answers.

The problem is that after a year and a half of this particular election season—of the accusations, recriminations, denunciations and repudiations, here’s the big question that I came up with: After the 18 months we’ve just endured, who would want to be president of anything right now?

Well, I suppose the obvious answer, since I’m standing here we’re all together today, is that I would. In a few minutes a group of men and women made up of people who know more than I do—who believe more deeply than I can muster sometimes—and who have accomplished more in their lives and ministries than I could ever hope for—in a few minutes those good people are going to place their hands on me, and pray for me, and make me the president of their seminary—of our seminary. I am truly honored to be chosen for this role.

Because I still believe in the church of Jesus Christ. As a church historian who specializes in the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, I’ll admit that it’s not always easy. Our shared Christian history is one of conflict and division and separation. But as a follower of Jesus and a minister of the gospel, my passion is for the unity and mission of the local church—of these gathered clusters of broken women and men who come together to grow in their faith, and love their communities, and reach out to other people with the gospel. I will say it freely and proudly: I love the church, even when it disappoints.

I learned that love right here at the First Presbyterian Church of Burbank. I was baptized here. I was welcomed into membership here when I was 14 years old. I was ordained as an elder and a few years later was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament—all of those important events happened within about 15 feet from where I’m standing right now.

I even preached my first sermon here. The text we read today (Luke 5:27-32) was the same passage I used here on Youth Sunday in 1979—the sermon was titled: “Is This a Hospital or a Health Club?” I learned in this place that Jesus didn’t come to hang out with the perfect people; that he came to be with folks who were sick and broken and hurting.

I accepted Christ as my savior here. I was given opportunities to test my gifts for ministry here. When those early attempts were successful my church family celebrated. When they fell flat or failed miserably, the people of this church gave me a hug and another chance. It was here that I learned what a church can be—the impact that a church can have on the lives of the people who come and participate.

I also learned that the church could be a model of unity. Don’t laugh. We remember the conflicts more clearly, but one of my enduring memories of growing up here was our own Pastor Bill Craig weeping with joy in this pulpit when the northern and southern Presbyterian churches reunited in 1983, after separating over the Civil War in 1861. Whatever else is broken about the church from time to time, occasionally we get it right and show the world that we mean what we say, and that we really do follow a Prince of Peace.

I started in my new role in May of this year, and the next month I went to the biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools—that’s the ATS for the cool kids out there. I flew to St Louis and checked into my hotel—I walked down to the registration table and got in line. The man in front of me turned around and we introduced ourselves. No joke—after learning my name, the first question out of his mouth was, “So where are you on the theological spectrum?”

Seriously. This guy had known me for all of about a minute and he was already trying to figure out which theological box he could stuff me into. I knew what he was after. There are a handful of positions—some theological and some more social or behavioral—there are a handful of positions that divide Christians and churches and seminaries from each other. I evaded the question and talked about my own faith for a few seconds. He turned around to look at his phone and those were the last words we shared.

I’m going to answer that question today, about where I fall on the theological spectrum, but not quite yet. I have some other things I want to say first.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then certainly we’ve learned that election seasons can give birth to opportunities to renew the Christian call to civility and unity. We’ve been reminded of why the prophetic witness of the church is so essential. Whatever our partisan leanings, this last year proved that the Christian call to love our neighbors, even when we see them as our enemies—loving our neighbors isn’t an outdated teaching of a bygone day. It’s a roadmap for living as disciples of Jesus in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society.

I’m reminded of an old episode of “The West Wing”, when one of the characters, Josh Lyman, went on a rant about the contempt both political parties showed for the other. This was before the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before Barack Obama. Before the left and the right said so many hateful things about the other side that they stopped realizing that the things they were saying were hateful. We can whine all we want about the current election season. The truth is, we have just endured exactly the presidential campaign we deserve.

Certainly we can do better than this. Certainly we as Christian people can offer something better. The New Theological Seminary of the West is committed to training leaders who love Jesus, who have the tools to wrestle with the hard questions of Bible and culture, and who place a high value on civility and graciousness as they live and share the message of the gospel.

We’re not the first to try to do this, of course. In May of 1955 Edward John Carnell was installed as the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a veteran of the fundamentalist controversies that led to splits and conflicts that were tearing the church apart. He thought that one solution could be found in the way church leaders were trained. In his own installation address, called “The Glory of a Theological Seminary”, he made the case for teaching students to be tolerant and gracious toward people who didn’t believe the same things. He said:

“[A seminary [should teach] its students an attitude of tolerance and forgiveness toward individuals whose doctrinal convictions are at variance with those [of] the institution itself. Seminarians are seldom introduced to the presuppositions that undergird a Christian philosophy of tolerance. And yet indifference to this phase of Christian thought may well mirror a truncated grasp of Christianity itself.”

Let me translate what Prof. Carnell was saying:

We should teach our students to play nice with others.

We should teach them that the Bible says that’s how they should act.

If we don’t do that, it may be that we never understood the Christian faith very well in the first place.

The response to these words was not very positive at all. One student came up to Carnell after his address and said right to his face that all this talk about Christian love and tolerance nauseated him. Another student quit the seminary that day. The faculty was deeply divided over this call to civility and forgiveness, and after the service the only copy of the address was hidden in the seminary safe until most of the participants were dead. It was finally published in 1987.

In my own doctoral research I focused on the life and work of George Eldon Ladd, a Bible scholar from the 1950s and 60s. Ladd grew up in the fundamentalist tradition, but as a young man decided that being separate from the culture made it impossible to share any Christian influence on the culture. He went to Harvard and got a Ph.D. in New Testament, and became a seminary professor. In 1959 he went to a Baptist seminary in North Dakota and gave a speech to honor the opening of their new library. This school would have proudly identified itself as a fundamentalist institution, which makes what Ladd said either courageous or crazy. You can decide. He said:

“The fundamentalist movement has spawned and promoted the separatist movement. We see a great movement in America of…separatist churches within and without our denominations. The separatist movement is, I think, founded on a basic fallacy. It is founded on the [idea] that a church is apostate when it harbors liberalism, and upon the second fallacy that by separating you can create a pure Church.”

What Ladd was saying was that it was a mistake to believe that churches couldn’t survive if their members didn’t agree on everything. He added that it was foolish to believe that by leaving with the people who agreed with you, that you could somehow have a perfect church. The foolishness in that idea is that it forgets that in the end, there would still be people in the church. As long as people are involved in churches, churches are not likely ever to be perfect.

Why bring up two forgotten speeches by old white guys in the 50s? Besides the fact that my own academic work is focused on that era, the real reason is this: I take very seriously the warnings that Edward Carnell and George Ladd gave to the church back in the 1950s. We’re not getting anywhere arguing and dividing over issues that aren’t central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only will we never achieve the perfect church, where everyone believes the same things the same way, but worse, when we try to do that we look like people who don’t even know our own savior.

When Jesus decided to describe for his followers the true mark of what it means to be a Christian, he said: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Not if you all agree. Not if your doctrinal positions are all neat and tidy.

“If you love one another.”

So back to my own theological position.

Daniel Kirk is a new testament scholar in the Bay Area. Earlier this year he wrote an article describing his own place in the theological spectrum, and it resonated with me.

He said: “I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative…word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken.”

I don’t know if I can say it better than that, but I can say it more personally.

I remain an evangelical because I believe that one essential marker of the church is our willingness to wrestle with the Bible we’ve actually been given, in all its frustrating messiness and offense to our modern minds. Because it is in the words of that Bible that we find the joy-filled message that in Jesus Christ God is working to redeem and reconcile and restore all people and all places to himself. I still call myself an evangelical because I believe we’re all called to share that message of reconciliation and restoration with anyone who will listen.

But I am called to be progressive because as I struggle to understand the Bible in the light of the church’s history, I am confronted with the mind-boggling truth that God is not finished with us yet.

Why do I believe that?

Because when the Bible was used to defend slavery, faithful Christians embraced the whole witness of Scripture and started the abolition movement.

Because when the Bible was used to defend a second-class status for women or people of color, faithful Christians immersed themselves in the pages of Scripture to say no, a two-tiered social structure is not what God had in mind when the Scriptures say: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female.”

Time after time, Christian people have challenged the status quo to uncover a new layer of God’s redemptive work in the world. And in each of those instances, they were branded liberals and radicals and faithless people.

But too often the self-appointed thought-police of the church turned out to be wrong. Not always, but too often. Sometimes the boundaries are stretched so far that the gospel loses its meaning, but that doesn’t happen nearly as often as we think.

It is our holy task to look back on our history and learn from it so that we can temper our reactions to those brave women and men who are seeking to stretch the boundaries of our understanding of God’s redeeming work today—not to go beyond the limits of the Bible, but rather to catch up with its radical generosity.

I embrace the category of progressive-evangelical not because I believe less than the Bible promises, but because I believe that we haven’t yet come close to the edges of what God’s word is offering to us.

Just to close. If there is a commandment in the Bible that can get us through the aftermath of this election season, that can guide us through the conflicts we experience in our churches—if there is a single commandment that can help our seminary raise up and prepare a new generation of Christian leaders, it’s this: Love God, and love your neighbor.

That’s what I learned growing up in this church. That’s what has stayed with me through seminary and ministry and doctoral study. That’s what I want to nurture and grow at the New Theological Seminary of the West.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the answer I should have given to that guy at the ATS conference. It’s the way I want to live my own life of discipleship. It’s the faith I want for my son and for my family. And those are the boundaries within which we’ll teach and train at the New Theological Seminary of the West.

When we’re finally done arguing and dividing and checking each other’s theological credentials, then we can get on with the business of being the people of Jesus in the Kingdom of God—of loving our neighbors and spreading the light of the gospel.

May we share that love, and shine that light, in this seminary, in our churches, and in our broken world. Amen.

9/11 “Everyone Has a Story”

(This sermon was given in a service of commemoration at the American International Church in London in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.)

Acts 1:1-11

Everyone has a story.

When I was growing up my parents used to talk about where they were when John F. Kennedy was killed. I remember where I was when the Challenger space shuttle exploded and crashed. It was the way my grandparents remembered Pearl Harbor or VE-Day. All of those tragic, historic moments become markers that stay with us—they become a part of the way we see the world around us. They shape how we think about everything that happens after that moment.

Everyone has a story.

This past week, as we’ve come up to the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, people have been sharing their stories of where they were and what they were doing—of people they knew who had been lost or who had suffered losses.

One of my closest friends from childhood is a flight attendant for American Airlines. She has a terrifying story to tell.

Some of my colleagues who are pastors in New York or New Jersey or Connecticut remember the tragic funerals that filled their calendars and broke the hearts of their congregations.

For months after the attacks, The New York Times ran a series of biographical sketches called “Portraits of Grief,” telling a little of the stories of almost 2000 of the victims who died that day—from bankers to busboys, from soldiers to security guards, from police officers to transit workers to those 343 firefighters who ran into the Towers and never came back. The stories gave faces and names to the numbers we heard on the news. It was essential reading.

Over the past few weeks the Los Angeles Times has been collecting short articles that highlight the impact of that day on people’s memories now.

I was working for Fuller Seminary in California at the time of the attacks, had been in New York on a fund raising trip about a week and a half before. Most of us on the west coast were sleeping when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center—it was 545am in California. Many of us who woke up to the news at 6 saw the second plane crash a few minutes later. My son was not quite a year and a half old that day. I wondered what kind of world he was going to grow up in.

Everyone has a story.

Acts 1:1-8

1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Our text from the first chapter of Acts is a story that comes right at the end of Jesus’ ministry and before the birth of the church—for those of you who follow these things, this passage falls just before the Ascension and Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit. The disciples are in the presence of the risen Christ, still trying to figure out what exactly happened over the last month or so. Everything was going so well, then it all went catastrophically wrong, and then Jesus emerged from the tomb and you get the feeling that the disciples were just trying to keep up.

Jesus is preparing them for what was coming next, but the disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about. Did you catch that question they asked while Jesus was telling them what to expect? Jesus has lived with them and taught them and demonstrated his love by serving people and healing diseases and casting out demons and dying on the cross—he did all of that to show that the values of his Kingdom are different from those of the world. And after all that they ask him: “So are you going to restore Israel to power now already?”

You have to think that Jesus groans here, wishing they could understand what he was telling them, but he presses on and says: “Once the Holy Spirit comes to empower you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and all over the world.”

In so many words Jesus told them: You have a new story to tell, and I want you to tell it everywhere.

What was the story?

The first part of that story is that God came in the first place, that he took on human form. At Christmas when we sing about “Emmanuel,” we’re celebrating the mystery of “God with us,” of God coming to reconcile us to himself.

The second part of our story is the message that Jesus came to share. More than anything else he talked about the Kingdom of God. In his sermons and parables and his confrontations with religious and political power, Jesus described a world with values that went against the grain—of generosity and forgiveness, of grace and love for enemies.

But most importantly our story tells of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross—of his taking on our sin and punishment so that we could come freely into the presence of God.

When Jesus told his disciples to “be my witnesses,” this is the story he wanted them to tell.

Being a witness in Jewish tradition was a very important thing. Only with two witnesses could a case be presented in court. Being an honest witness was so important that it becomes one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against anyone.”

To be a witness was to testify, along with others, to the love and grace and sacrifice and redemption available through Jesus Christ.

The essence of the gospel is this: Through the life and ministry of Jesus we have seen what the world can look like when it operates according to the values of the Kingdom of God. Through the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah we receive the good news that all people in all places can be reconciled to God.

So God’s already done the heavy-lifting. God has already done the work. The call on each one of our lives needs to be crystal clear: It isn’t to save the world. It’s to tell the story of the one who already has.

If that’s the story we’re meant to tell, then what does that mean for us today, as we gather to remember a horrible day and the impact it’s had on our lives?

First, it means that our lives aren’t trapped or limited by our memories of what happened 10 years ago. The gospel story is there to keep our fear and our anger in check—we have to keep from lashing out in revenge against people Christ came to redeem and to reconcile to himself.

Second, that new story means this: In the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God, our story of the September 11th attacks can become a catalyst for more forgiveness, not less. More work in the area of peacemaking, not less. More acts of gospel-sharing grace that tell the story of Jesus Christ in a meaningful, life-changing way.

But most importantly, to be a witness to the story of Jesus Christ is a daring, world-changing act of hope in a world that doesn’t have much of it right now. It’s an act of hope wrapped in the faith that announces to the world that Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ is coming again to make all things new.

How does all of that happen? That’s what we’re meant to discover together as the family of God, the Body of Christ, this local church. That’s why we’re going to spend the next few months here talking about what it means to love our neighbors, even if our neighbors are our enemies. That’s an act of hope.

We tend to think of hope as something elusive—something we can’t really find on our own. Sometimes we think of hope as something that happens to us beyond our control.

But Christian hope is active—it’s rooted in God’s faithfulness to his promises in the past. Christian hope is a discipline—we practice it daily so that we can get better at it—so that it can be more than simply hoping for a good parking place, or hoping you get into the right school.

One great theologian wrote that Christian “Faith hopes in order to know what it believes.”

To be Christ’s witnesses in this world is to be people of hope, people who hope so that we can know God’s story is true. And so we can go out and be his witnesses with that new story here in London, all around this country, and to the ends of the earth.