Jacob Hall Dies

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Like many have been, I've been praying together with my daughter every night for little Jacob Hall, since I heard the six-year-old boy had been shot in the leg by a teenager on a shooting spree, and was reported to be in critical condition in the hospital. 

Jacob died today, surrounded by his family at Greenville Health System Children’s Hospital. The following is a statement issued by his parents, Renae and Rodger Hall,
“Jacob came into our lives six years and four months ago and changed it completely. He showed us how to love, laugh and smile even on days we did not want to. God gave him to us and he was taken away from us by a senseless act.

We know that Jacob has already forgiven this child for what he did to him and his family because that's the kind of child he was. Jacob was sent to this earth for this short a period of time to show us that there is such a thing as pure love. Jacob is in heaven with God now and everyone who loves him. Words cannot express how much we will miss him.” 

I want to follow the example of Jacob and his parents, and hold on to pure love and forgiveness in the middle of a world that is filled with hurt and injustice. But right now I'm just feeling really sad. Goodbye Jacob.



Losing My Faith... In The Police

Saturday, September 24, 2016

I used to be a big fan of the police. I grew up watching Adam-12 on TV and had that image of the police instilled in my head. I saw cops as the heroes, the good guys, those who were there to "serve and protect."

I used to think that if there was a problem you could call 911 for help. But now I have to first ask myself beforehand "Will this make things worse if I call? Will it escalate the situation and cause harm, even possibly resulting in killing?" For example, if I see a homeless guy acting erratic -- so that I am concerned that he may be a danger to himself or others -- I would want to be able to call the police, believing that they would send someone who is trained in how to help him and keep him safe. Instead I need to consider the possibility that the police may come and kill him on the street. That is not hypothetical. It has become almost a common occurrence that the mentally ill are killed by police, rather than helped. 

So while I began with a positive "Adam-12 view" of the police as a kid, and carried that view into adulthood, that view has changed. The reason it has changed is primarily because the prevalence of cel phone cameras and social media has allowed me, as a middle class white guy, to see and understand the experiences of people of color and the very different way they experience the police. So while one can indeed trace a trend of the police becoming increasingly militaristic, a big part is also simply me being able to see the reality those less privileged than I have experienced for a long time. So Adam-12 is not something that belongs to the past, but is more a picture of what the police ought to be like.

Police ought to be there to make things better, safer, and just. However, rather than using techniques to deescalate a situation, police commonly escalate situations, making things unsafe and often deadly. They make things worse, and because of that, I hesitate to call. I used to think that the police were there to help. Now I think of them as dangerous, unsafe, and incompetent. Incompetent when it comes to knowing how to deescalate a dangerous situation. Instead they escalate. 

Now let me stress that I am not a pacifist. If I felt that I was in danger, say if there was someone trying to break into my home, I would definitely call the police, and would be glad that they had guns with them. That is the extreme situation. But there are lots of other situations where that military approach is completely unnecessary and wrong. For example with killing mentally ill people, rather than helping them. 

So while I used to trust the police, I find that all the stories of them killing the mentally ill, and killing people of color -- and doing so with complete impunity -- has eroded that trust. In its place is mistrust. I have come to see the police like I would see an occupying military force. I experience them as a danger. I fear them. In an emergency I would still call 911, but I always have to ask myself if doing so would make things worse, and often don't call because of this. 

When I think about how resistant police unions have been to reform in these areas -- including resisting training proposed by the DOJ to teach police how to deal with implicit bias, provide tools for deescalation that keep both officers and citizens safer, and focus on "community policing," rather than seeing citizens antagonistically as "bad guys" and threats -- it becomes abundantly clear that this is not simply a matter of a few bad apples, but is a systemic problem with deep roots in the culture of the police force. That police culture, rather than learning from these insights, has become increasingly militaristic, antagonistic, and dangerous, resisting any kind of reform or education. If you speak out for reform, whether from within the police or from without, you will be labeled as anti-blue.

In many ways this loss of trust in the police parallels people's experience of losing their faith. Just as the Catholic church acted as an institution to cover-up scandal and wrongdoing in the church, the police unions also seek to block reform. Just as abuse from a priest erodes our trust in religion, the deadly and inhumane actions of the police erodes our trust in the law and in our legal system. Finally, just as I am sure there are plenty of good and loving people sitting in the pews and behind the pulpits of churches, I am also sure that there are plenty of good cops out there, too. That being the case however does not help the very real systemic problem that perpetuates a culture of militaristic violence in the police force and resists any kind of meaningful reform.

So I find myself in the same place with the police as I do with my faith. I still consider myself a Christian and believe in the way of Jesus, but I need to constantly stress that I do not support -- and in fact am profoundly morally opposed to -- what conservative evangelicals support. Similarly, I still believe in the police of Adam-12; I believe that they could be good. I hope we can get to that. Not in a naive-childish way (the show was admittedly pretty naive), but in a deep, realistic and grown-up way. However that means repentance, and not just the repentance as individuals (which while important, can function as a scapegoat for the system), but also the repentance and reform of the system, too. That is the only way to get to real justice.

We are a long way from that. At best we are, I am, at a place of seeing the sin of the system. Just as I have come to see the sin of my faith, I also have come to see the sin of my country's criminal justice system. That is hard to face, but it's important to face, and I am grateful to Black Lives Matter and others for shining a light on this. It would be easy to disassociate myself from both my faith and the police, to see myself as good and "them" as bad. But I want to try to own it. This is my faith, my country, and it is profoundly broken and in need of reform.

P.S. If you would like some ideas of what that reform could look like, here is a good place to start.

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You Found Me, Just a Little Late

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Lost and insecure, 
You found me, You found me.
Lying on the floor, 
Surrounded, surrounded.
Why'd you have to wait?
Where were you? Where were you?
Just a little late,
You found me, you found me.
-The Fray

That song captures the complex mix of closeness and nearness, of intimacy and pain, that we all know from our experience of God in this world. We hear the same kind of thing in the Psalms, oscillating from passionate cries of abandonment, "Why have you forsaken me?" "How long Lord?" to expressions of tenderness "Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely." Music, including the Psalms, and including this song by the Fray is often able to capture these kinds of contradictions of life that we all know and live with much better than our theologies or philosophies can.

In part, this is due to the motivation behind what we write. Often when I write theology I am trying to say something helpful, trying to build trust, encourage growth, and so on. That's a good place to come from, I'm trying to help and to do good. But I will never forget the time that a person said to me, "When you speak of a relationship with with God, it sounds so close and intimate. It sounds so simple and easy. But in my experience there is a lot of struggle and doubt. I often feel that God is far away." Now, that was actually my experience too. Sometimes I felt God's nearness, and it felt like home. Those experiences have forever changed me. But I also know the experience of utter darkness, feeling that I am alone in the universe, feeling that the whole thing is just wishful thinking. Yet I had apparently given the false impression that I don't.

An artist writes from a different place. Art is at its best when it does not try to have a message (even a noble and good message), but simply speaks vulnerably and honestly. When it does this, it touches something in us that recognizes the same experiences and feelings, touching and moving us. That's why it so important that we let art and music and story impact our theology. Because when we do that we are letting our theology connect with the reality of our experience.

It takes a lot of courage to sing/pray "You found me... just a little late." It's an expression of grateful devotion coupled with an accusation born from pain. It would be a lot easier to just express one or the other, either tenderness or complaint. To express both at the same time leaves us wide open and vulnerable.

Jesus described God as a loving father. If we ask for good things, our good heavenly Father will surely give them to us. "Knock and the door will be opened" Jesus tells us (Lk 11:9). But the story Jesus tells us right before that verse is of a person in need, banging on a locked door in the middle of the night (Lk 11:5-8). Jesus tells a similar story of how prayer is like knocking on the door of a unjust judge who doesn't care (Lk 18:108). Sometimes prayer feels like falling into the arms of our daddy, and other times it feels more like we're pounding our fist on a locked door of a judge who doesn't care.

In the end I think we find the answer to the question of theodicy -- the question of how God can be love when there is so much pain and wrong in the world -- not in finding an explanation, but in learning to walk in the tension of our experience of good and bad, intimacy and abandonment, love and darkness. I don't even want to say that this vacillating experience is how it needs to be, that is healthy and good, but simply that it is how we experience life and God. It's not just you. If we have the courage to be honest, we find that it's what we all experience.

Most of the time I feel like an atheist, and then there are the days when I'm born again, like the heavens have opened up. I long for those days. My heart is wide open to you, Jesus. Lying on the floor, surrounded, you found me.

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Learning to Listen: On Prejudice, Blind-spots, Humility and Repentance

Friday, August 12, 2016

This past week the conservative evangelical website The Gospel Coalition (TGC) published an article entitled "When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband" which resulted in a virtual firestorm of responses, both in comments on TGC and on Twitter from people saying that they found the article deeply hurtful and offensive.

At the request of the author the article has been taken down from the TGC website and replaced by a discussion of the article in which three African American leaders—including one TGC editor—reflect on the article, the ensuing backlash, and lessons to be learned. Definitely worth a listen (the link is above).

What I wanted to draw attention to is the response of the author of the article, Gaye Clark. Gaye had written the article with the intent of celebrating God’s work in her and her family’s life surrounding issues of race and prejudice. She had shown the article to her daughter and son-in-law prior to its publication and they had told her they thought it was beautiful. She was consequently surprised and heartbroken over the negative response and indeed the hurt that it caused,
When asked what she was planning to do now, how she would show fruits of repentance, she responded,

Listening. That is so important. The internet has taught us all how to comment, often anonymously, but learning to listen is much more rare, and deeply needed. It is also rare to see someone respond publicly with humility, openness, and sincere repentance like Gaye has. It's so easy, when we feel attacked, to respond defensively. It takes maturity and empathy to be able to see past that, and instead respond with care for the hurt we have caused. 

To me this is not about pointing a finger at this author or even at The Gospel Coalition. I actually think they are both handling this admirably. What I hope to do instead is use the example of this woman's response as an opportunity to look into my own heart. I hope I can show that kind of maturity and empathy. I hope I can be self-reflected enough to see where I may have hidden prejudices in my heart. I hope I can listen to those of other races, genders, orientations, faiths, etc. -- in short those with different perspective and experiences than my own -- to hear and learn how they see things, to understand their struggles.

Doing that takes conversation and honesty. I feel bad that Gaye has had to have that happen for her in such a public way. She is not a hero or a villain, she is just a regular human like you and me. So what I hope this story can help us to do is look to ourselves and our own hearts. I hope we can take it as a positive example of how we can learn to listen with empathy and humility.

The reason I have moved from being a conservative to a progressive evangelical is not because I have been hurt by the conservative evangelical church. As a straight white male, I fit in pretty well. The shift came for me as a began to listen to others who were being hurt, and realized that the theology I had been advocating for and seeing as "normal" was in part responsible for the structures and belief system that was hurting them. This led me to see how much the theology I had inherited was influenced by those white male blinders. My bookshelves contained reams of books by white male theologians with very few written by women or people of color.

Seminary helped me with this. My professors encouraged us to read those with different perspectives than our own. We read feminist, liberationist, and black theology. I also learned a lot from Sojourners and their focus on issues of social justice and human rights. The white male theology I had inherited from conservative evangelicalism had been primarily focused on personal conversion, as social justice issues are not really front and center concern for a suburban white church member. So the "seeker sensitive" sermons never touched on those issues. 

To see them I had to look beyond my horizon to see the struggles of others from different communities and different perspectives. For example, I had always had a positive view of the police, seeing them as someone who I could call on for protection and help. I was shocked to learn that for many people of color, dads and moms need to fear for the safety of their children, and that they may be killed by the police. As a dad I find that devastating. I read a story this week of how police and security officers assigned to public schools are tasering (mostly black) students, and I am shocked and grieved at how quickly we resort to violence as our first and only response we know, and how our children are suffering as a result. This is not something I had ever heard of happening to my white kids. If it did, I would pull them out of that school in a heartbeat, but that only underscores my point of having privilege (having a car and a flexible work schedule for instance so I would be able to deal with that process). My point here is that we don't have "justice for all," and that is not just an abstract concept, but affecting the safety and lives of people's kids. And that matters to me. Black lives matter, gay lives matter, just as much as my life matters.

I want to care about how people of color experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I want to care about how gays experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I want to care about how Muslims experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I believe Jesus and the gospel calls me to do this. That begins by accepting God's love in my heart, but then that love must grow to expressing itself in showing that same love to others. The character of that love is most revealed in how I treat those I regard as "least" and "enemy." I am my brother's (and sister's) keeper. I pray that I can learn to listen.

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