MLK Day Reflection with The Man In Black

What do a family bike ride to Folsom Prison, a scriptural meditation on Luke 4:14-21, and MLK Day have to do with one another? I’m glad you asked… 😉

I’m thankful that Amazon recognized MLK Day as an official company holiday for the first time. As a family we’ve always sought to make it more than just a holiday from work/school. It’s been a heavy year, and this time to reflect, be together, pray, and write, is restorative. Traditional events like marches to the downtown courthouse (or in Sacramento’s case, the state capitol) were canceled this year for multiple reasons (COVID, and potential unrest as we near the inauguration), so we had to get creative and do our own thing.

We decided to ride the American River bike trail to historic downtown Folsom and the adjoining Johnny Cash trail to Folsom Prison. This facility, while more famous than other prisons (thanks to Cash’s performance at the prison and his song “Folsom Prison Blues”), is just one of thousands of institutions housing over 2.3 million inmates in the U.S., the country with the dubious distinction of having the largest prison population, both by raw numbers and per capita, in the world.

While MLK fought for civil rights and achieved incremental gains toward racial justice and equality, we still have a long way to go. Mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and the so-called War on Drugs, are the new Jim Crow of our day, disproportionately impacting black and brown people and leaving a wake of destruction through our communities and families.

I realize these comments may offend the politics of some, but if you’ve stuck with me thus far, let’s find common ground in the agreement that, whatever the root cause, this represents brokenness played out in one way or another. Brokenness of lives, of families, of children missing a parent, of victims who have suffered. Brokenness of the societal contract by a system riddled with institutionalized injustice. Brokenness that led to a poor choice. Or to a lack of choices to begin with, due to brokenness in the promise of equal opportunity for all.

Once we rode our bikes to the closest spot you can get to the prison from the trail, within view of the walls and one of the many guard towers, we stopped and spent some time in reflection. We prayed for the inmates and their families. We read Luke 4:14-21 three times, Lectio Divina style. In this first public proclamation of his mission, Jesus astounds the people of his home town by proclaiming himself the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. Sight for the blind, good news to the poor, liberation for the oppressed, freedom for the prisoners. In short, to bring wholeness to that which is broken.

But now that’s our job, isn’t it? We are Jesus’ hands and feet to carry on this work. The Reverend Dr. King had a keen awareness of what has been oft-dubbed “liberation theology,” emphasizing this same mandate. As we looked over the walls of Folsom Prison today, we prayed that justice would roll down like a river; righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, echoing Dr. King’s most-quoted verse (Amos 5:24). He was big on justice. And lest we mistake that for the narrow western definition of getting due punishment for a wrongful act, as a Christian minister and scholar he understood the broader meaning of the word in Christendom and its root in the Hebrew, “mishpat,” which described fairness and equity far more holistically. Consider how God is described in Psalm 146: “He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. He sets prisoners free, he gives sight to the blind… watches over the immigrant and sustains the orphan and widow.”

Johnny Cash also had this more holistic understanding of justice and healing for that which is broken—if you’ve never taken the time to read the lyrics of “Man in Black,” one of the songs he authored himself, do yourself a favor and look it up.

You might not share the religious faith of Dr. King, Johnny Cash, and myself. You may be discouraged or turned off by the degree to which self-interested people and groups through the ages have claimed God for their “side”—it certainly discourages me. But one thing we can be sure of is that, to the extent God is on anyone’s “side,” it’s that of the broken and downtrodden. So if we want to be on God’s “side,” we must be, too.

Knowing a Tree by its Fruit

“Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.” So what exactly do they reflect? What do any of our words or actions reflect, if not who we are? My question is sincere, and though the latest Trump flap may be a catalyst for my putting pen to paper, it reflects observations far broader than this man or this political season, as I find the words of “apology” above to be an increasingly common phenomenon, the defense du jour being that it’s not what’s in the heart.

But where did this idea come from that outward manifestations of misogyny, or racism, or homophobia, or [fill in the blank], are somehow less grievous if they’re not really what’s “in your heart”?

A classic illustration of this idea played out in one of Paul Ryan’s numerous attempts to do the two-step in order to toe the party line despite his distaste for his party’s candidate. Ryan criticized Trump’s suggestion that a federal judge was not qualified to do his job because of his ethnicity, saying it was a “textbook” example of racism (which it is). But when pressed in an interview the next day, he walked back the comments and stopped short of calling Trump a “racist” on the grounds that “I don’t know what’s in his heart.”

And thus another unwarranted pass is issued to all manner of vile words and deeds because, after all, no one can really know what’s in a heart. If that’s who the person really is, deep down.

And I understand Ryan’s reluctance to call someone a “racist” in an age where that has become an individually directed epithet with serious gravity. But how, too, did that come to be in the first place? It’s only to our shame that we re-focus our attention on the heart of the offender at all, rather than solving for the negative outcomes afflicting their victims. If certain words, actions, or policies result in disparate negative outcomes for one group, whether it be women, minorities, or otherwise, the damage is done. How and why are the intentions, or the condition of the perpetrator’s heart, relevant?

I don’t believe it was always this way. Sticking with the dreaded R-word as the example for the moment, keep in mind that “racism” was once used in more systemic terms, and in the civil rights era highlighted outward manifestations of injustices for which we were corporately accountable. Although a highly charged word even then, it prompted conversation and debate as to changes we needed to make (and exposed resistance to those changes) at a societal level. One might have described certain rules, laws, societal norms, as “racist” based on the disparate outcomes they dealt to one race vs. another. Those who resisted changing those norms may or may not have been overt “racists,” but that was secondary (as exhibit A, take MLK’s comments on the white moderate).

But now that the term “racist” conveys a more personal character attack, it serves only to shut down conversation, prompting the predictable recoil: “I am not a racist; how dare you presume to know what’s in my heart!” This change in meaning toward a more individual condemnation (even if warranted) is a disappointment, and ultimately does a disservice to usage of a term that should otherwise prompt reflection on how we ought to correct the injustices that produce disparate outcomes.

There seems to be a correlation to this with trends in Western Christianity that have over-emphasized individual salvation, personal relationship with God, and the importance of having Jesus “in your heart,” at the expense of the more corporate work of the church to seek justice and do the things that actually build the kingdom of heaven Jesus described, things the church has done in centuries prior. There is more to unpack there theologically than I have the space to devote in this post, but I bring it up because this concept of a hall pass based on good intentions, or what’s in the heart, is not biblical. When two sons were asked by their father to work in the vineyard, good intentions didn’t win the day, but rather the action to do the father’s will (Mat. 21:28-31). The condition of the heart matters, but we are told we will know a tree by its fruit (Luke 6:43-45).

I could go on, but for my less religiously inclined friends, let me appeal to a pop-culture reference from Batman. When Bruce Wayne’s playboy antics are raising eyebrows, he says to his friend Rachel, “All this… it’s not me. It’s not who I really am.” And her reply, “Bruce… it’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”

Let’s start a new trend. Instead of defending our own honor by portraying our outward failings as the exception to the rule of an otherwise hidden and virtuous inner life, let’s hold ourselves to a higher bar and ask what we can actually do to love our neighbor practically. I think we’ll find ourselves freed from the self-absorbed obsession of thought, and burden of explanation, over “who we really are.”

On the World Vision Flip-Flop

It’s been a tumultuous week for an organization my wife and I have loved and supported for a long time. To recap, World Vision (and we should note this is in reference to World Vision US, not the international chapters of the global umbrella organization that operate with a large degree of autonomy) stated last Monday that they were not weighing in on the gay marriage debate, a non-position whose natural byproduct would include the allowance of legally married gay couples in their employment practices. 48 hours later, in response to backlash and threats of pulled funding from Evangelical sectors around the country, World Vision flip-flopped on their decision Wednesday and asked for forgiveness for their “mistake.”

There are enough fails to this whole situation that I think it officially qualifies as a fiasco.

1: World Vision makes an announcement about… wait for it… the issue they are NOT taking a position on

Grade: mild fail

World Vision’s proclamation that they were not taking a stance on the gay marriage debate was awkward to begin with. If that’s the case, why say anything at all? I don’t make it a habit of attending fancy banquets and banging my fork on my Champaign glass until I have everyone’s attention, only to make an “announcement” that I will not be giving a toast on this occasion.

Some of the comments by World Vision President, Richard Stearns, from the interview with Christianity Today:

“It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. … We have decided we are not going to get into [the gay marriage] debate. This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church. … Our practice has always been to defer to the authority and autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles’ Creed and our statement of faith.”

This is a mature and perfectly fair statement for a para-church organization concerned with global poverty to make. And I wish I could reverse time to before they had a chance to make it, slap them upside the head, and tell them to quietly continue about their kingdom business and let this one be. Because, fair as their position of neutrality may be, they are naïve to think that the most influential Christian relief and development organization, speaking about the matter on record with the largest Christian journalistic organization, achieves anything resembling neutrality by any stretch of the imagination.

2: Evangelicals boycott and call for pulled financial support from World Vision’s relief programs as punishment for their non-hard line stance against gay marriage

Grade: EPIC FAIL

Who exactly is being punished here? Oh, that’s right… we’re going to withdraw care from children in developing countries around the world receiving much needed food, education, and disaster relief because Jesus told us the gay marriage debate in America was of greater importance.

I feel so much anger, hurt, shame, and offense toward the institutional church over this one I don’t know where to begin. Fortunately, this great blog post from Rachel Held Evans said it well enough that I can bite my tongue. Without her (gentler) words to speak for me on this one, my own post would be much longer. (And therefore, it is also accurate to say that my post is incomplete without those same words, so if you want my full thoughts on this, I suggest pausing to go read at least the first half of her post and then coming back here.)

3. Progressive groups boycott and call for pulled financial support from World Vision’s relief programs as punishment for the abrupt reversal on their original “position”

Grade: EPIC FAIL

No, I didn’t accidentally type the same heading for two sections in a row, although copy & paste did save me a lot of time due to the irony of many progressive groups committing the same fallacious error they were just implicating the Evangelicals for. Double standards are a bitch, aren’t they?

4. World Vision’s reversal 48 hours later further muddles the issue, and demonstrates a lack of faith besides

Grade: Medium Fail

An objective argument cannot be made that World Vision approached or handled this situation any way other than poorly. There are two possibilities of how World Vision’s original statement last week came about: (1) They failed to prayerfully consider and discern this decision and its implications before communicating Monday’s original position, or (2) they did prayerfully consider and discern God’s will beforehand, making their sudden reversal on Wednesday fly in the face of the Spirit’s leading on the matter.

The first possibility constitutes a mistake—they dropped the ball and will suffer the inevitable consequences. If the second possibility is the case, perhaps that absolves them from my section 1 criticism, but it’s even worse. Once again I think they are underestimating the influence they have and example they set: their reversal is deeply disappointing not just for those who disagree from the standpoint of LGBT rights, but because it demonstrates a remarkable lack of faith. If Monday’s statement was the conviction to which God had led them, then how could they change course so readily in the face of something as worldly as the pressure of lost funding from the Evangelical base? Because they didn’t want to risk the hurt that loss of funding would wreak upon those they serve, people will say, but this exhibits a disbelief in the promise of God and the economics of his kingdom, especially if he had led them to Monday’s conviction in the first place.

5. Homosexuality once again takes center stage for the church

Grade: Still Failing

To quote Ms. Evans again, “[This] puts into stark, unsettling relief just how out-of-control the evangelical obsession with homosexuality has become.”

If there’s one thing I can guarantee the devil delights in, it’s that the church has become known by what we’re against, rather than what we’re for, and that we’re chalk full of single-issue voters (or single-issue kingdom ambassadors, as the case may be). We have to get opposition to gay marriage out of the limelight and focus on the core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The fiasco with World Vision over the last week has not helped this cause. Nonetheless, I will remain a faithful supporter of their ministry, disagreements over side issues to the gospel’s core message notwithstanding. And make no mistake, in spite of the inordinate amount of attention from the church over the matter, this is a side issue—of over 31,000 verses in the Bible, there are about 9 that deal with homosexuality, and roughly 0 of those 9 that paint a portrait of what we understand as a committed, monogamous homosexual relationship today.

I will continue to support World Vision and try not to cast stones (even while expressing my disagreement), and I hope you will too, because no matter your opinion of their politics, this one glaring fact remains: They are on the front lines of God’s kingdom work with the poor and downtrodden, bringing hope and new life to “the least of these,” and getting their hands dirty in ways that most of us are not.

(Related post: State-Sanctioned Marriage for All… Or for None?)