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Beyond Commentary to Commitment

Dec 15, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   Uncategorized  //  No Comments

 

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40, ESV)

In recent weeks in light of the protests reacting to the Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson and New York in relation to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there has been a lot of political commentary. There has also been a lot of social media and blog commentary. There has been theological or Christian-based commentary as well. It’s interesting that what has been passed off as Christian commentary at times has seemed more like extreme political commentary, more influenced by the ideologies of the Right and the Left than the Bible. We have also seen Christian commentary held captive by Christendom, or more specifically a Eurocentric theology.

Be careful of the commentary that you allow to shape your views about the Poor, the Marginalized, the Outcast, and the Other. I have decided to buy into the commentary that Christ gave about the Poor, the Marginalized, and the Outcast. More than just talk about them, Christ showed a commitment to them. Christ built relationships and offered transformation to the Paralyzed, the Samaritan, the Adulterer, the Diseased, the Poor, and the Thief. I will come back to this, but let me make another point about commentary first.

One of the political commentaries I’ve heard over and over again and has been directed to me recently is this- “Why aren’t African-Americans as concerned about abortion or Black-on-Black crime as they are about some Police Officers racially profiling and killing African-Americans? Well, this statement alone shows a lack of understanding of the multiple ways in which African-Americans and others have been and are presently addressing those issues and more. If you’ve heard of Mad Dads, Hospitality House Youth Directions, the Youth Intervention Network, World Impact, Homeboy Industries, the African-American Church, Soul Café, City Team, The Stair Step Initiative, Young Life, The Urban Youth Workers Institute,  The National Black Evangelical Association, The Spencer Perkins Center, The National Center for Fathering, CCDA, and the Union Gospel Mission to name a few; you’d know that there are many Christian-based organizations who have been in predominately African-American and under-resourced communities for years addressing family stability, leadership development, community development, the tragedy of abortion, and youth gang violence. There are two reasons why there are major challenges in these communities even with all of this effort. One, we need more collaborative efforts between these organizations and others. Two, these organizations need more financial and volunteer support. I could also add the spiritual warfare reality that we are fighting not against flesh and blood ultimately, but against invisible and wicked forces (Ephesians 6). The problem with that statement though is that too many in the Body of Christ seem not to want to deal with a lot of talk about the connections between invisible forces of wickedness and visible systems of oppression. I have marched on multiple occasions with African-American and multi-ethnic Christian groups into gang infested territories. I been a part of rallies where gang members have accepted Christ. The problem is, cable news stations won’t cover that. At least not the way they are covering protests right now. I’ve been a part of urban congregations that have worked to provide alternatives to abortion for young girls. I know of African-American and urban ministries that are rescuing girls out of sex trafficking. I know of ministries that are working with young men to equip them to be strong husbands and fathers. Those giving commentary otherwise are either not aware of this commitment, not making the commitment themselves, or both.

This is not so much a rebuke to the commentators out there, but a reality check. There are a lot of ministries that are committed to reducing abortion, black-on-black crime, and racial profiling. Find them and support them. There are ministries committed to rescuing children out of sex trafficking, stabilizing the family, and addressing domestic poverty. Find them and support them. I realize that there are leaders and even some ministries that are in under-resourced communities and not doing much in the area of community engagement and development. Well, find the ones that are making a difference and support them. But don’t just support them with your financial commitment alone.  Support also with a commitment of service on some level. Extreme political commentary is not going to address both individual and systemic sin. Extreme theological commentaries held captive by Christendom are not going to address the need for Kingdom compassion, mercy, justice, and transformation. Now I can return to my major point-

The commentary of Christ came out of His commitment. Christ could give commentary on Sinners because of his commitment to them. Christ could provide commentary on the Poor, the Marginalized, the Outcast, the Incarcerated, and the Stranger because He was committed to them. He was committed to the point of His death on a Cross. Christians must ask themselves, “Is my commitment to those different than me greater than my commentary about them?” My commitment to the under-resourced, the Poor, and the Other must be much larger than my commentary. As this is the case more and more, I grow in my intimacy with Christ.

“What More Can We Do About It?” A Guest Blog By Romney Ruder, COO, World Impact

Dec 11, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, reconciliation, spiritual growth, the church  //  No Comments

INTRO TO THIS GUEST BLOG-

I have never had a guest blog post on my page, but when I read Romney Ruder’s blog post (www.worldimpact.org) on the recent Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York related to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I really wanted those that follow my post to read this as well. Romney Ruder is COO and Senior Vice President of World Impact, so I have the opportunity to serve with him in ministry on a regular basis. Also, because he is a White Male, I thought it was good to present his thoughts as well. For many years now, I have sensed a deep call to racial reconciliation and righteousness as well as to compassion, mercy, and justice. At World Impact we as a staff have the blessed opportunity to live into this as a ministry family daily. Please pray and reflect upon Romney’s brief, yet very important words.

“What More Can We Do About It?”

By Romney Ruder

I have been surprised at how many people have asked me about my positions regarding what has transpired recently in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York. Maybe it is because of the amount of time that I have worked in the inner city of America, or it could be because of my role as a leader in the church. But with so many experts (politicians, athletes, media stars, and the like), garnering their opinion on the topic, I have wondered what good one more voice would add to the situation? Recently however, I was asked the question by someone who hesitated to get involved feeling there was nothing more he could do? He was just one voice among millions that could not solve anything. It was this question, “What more can we do about it?” that prompted me to write this piece.

Mind you, I am not going to give my opinion on either case or seek to side with one or more voices. In both situations, like so many similar issues that take place regularly in our neighborhoods, it has been tragic. Although I appreciate the perspectives of different individuals who want to argue about where the problems lie, or who is at fault, what I am not hearing is productive dialogue regarding changes that need to be made; especially from the church.

Our ministry was founded in the rubble of the Watts riots in the 1960’s. Twenty-five plus years later, we as a country witnessed similar violence erupt in Los Angeles. Now almost the same amount of time has passed where we see similar happenings. Yet the media reports that this comes as a surprise to many in our society. I am shocked that this type of unrest should surprise anybody. Unfortunately, our country responded to Los Angeles the same way it responded to Watts. We waited until the media frenzy and violence died down and we forgot about it. I pray that we do not make the same mistake in this instance.

Certainly this is a stain on a country that calls itself the land of the free, but is an even deeper blemish on a nation that touts itself as over 50% Christian. The Church (by using the capital C I mean the entire body of Christ) needs to take a more active role to help ensure these situations do not continue to happen!

Now I do not want to pretend that I have the answer that will solve anything. I recognize that I am a middle-class, educated, white male and that my lens might not be able to see clearly the actions that should be taken. However, I am intelligent enough to see that our responses in the past have not worked. For some reason, the old saying “stupidity is doing the same thing every day but expecting a different result” does not apply to the handling of societal complexities. There is no doubt about it that race is at the root of the problem. Leaders, on both sides though need to recognize that systemic injustice and poverty are also at the heart of it.

Too often, we as Christians have sat back and waited for a government response to these issues. Don’t get me wrong; I do not want to discount the thousands of great ministries that are invested in assisting the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Yet these tend to be local and regional approaches. Isn’t it time that the “big C” Church get together collectively to work at ways of eradicating these problems? Even more so, why do we as the Bride of Christ sit back and expect the government to handle?

What I desire to see is Church leaders meeting to strategize about specific strategies to combat the differences in our Christian community. I am calling for roundtable discussions with Pastors from all Christian denominations, from all races, in every economic sector of society to come together with the purpose of developing a response to racial reconciliation; to determine what actions will be taken to lift our brothers and sisters in Christ out of poverty, and to answer the question of how we stamp out injustice for everyone. Again, I do not have the solution. But I know what doesn’t work. I also know that the responsibility for what is happening and what has happened falls to us as the Church.

What can one voice do? We can collectively call for the same response from the Church that I am suggesting. We can encourage our ministry leaders to take a more active role in being the Church in their own backyard. We can open dialogue cross-culturally to ensure all voices are being heard. We can admit that we do not have all of the answers but insist that we are committed to working toward reconciliation and solutions. As Christians, we all have a voice in this. As Christian leaders, the responsibility falls to us.

The Road Forward Is A Bridge

Dec 7, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   race, reconciliation, the church, theology  //  1 Comment

The Road Forward Is a Bridge

By Efrem Smith

12/7/14

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

When Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all of humanity, He built a bridge of sorts. He built a bridge between Sinners and God. He built a bridge between a broken world and the Kingdom of God. To this degree, Christ is a “bridge over troubled waters.” Christ is a bridge over the troubled waters of sinful humanity and the sinful systems we create and sustain in this upside down world. Christ didn’t come into the world ethnically as a privileged and powerful member of the Roman culture and empire. He came as one oppressed under the Roman Empire as a Jew. But, based on the genealogy of Matthew 1, we can also come to the conclusion that Christ walked the earth as a Jewish, African, Asiatic Hebrew. God in human form was an oppressed, ethnic minority. When he was born, an unjust system of power murdered all the baby boys who looked like him. God decided to send His only begotten Son in this way, on divine purpose. God in human form comes in the package of one ethnically profiled from birth. This is the one who dies on the cross and is raised from the tomb so that we might have access to eternal life and to claim victory over sin, death, and the devil. All Christians must re-imagine the Savior from this authentically biblical perspective as a starting point as we seek solutions, reconciliation, justice, and healing in our nation during one of the tensest racial moments since the Civil Rights Movement.

Just as Christ was a bridge between sinful humanity and God, the Church must be a bridge of reconciliation in this divided United States of America. The Church also has the challenge of building internal bridges. Race and class are not just dividing lines in the United States of America, but also within the Body of Christ. As I have lifted up issues of race, class, privilege, and sin, I have at times been accused of labeling people and dividing the body of Christ. I simply provide theological commentary on what has been true from a long time. The racial divisions and congregational segregation that impacts the body of Christ in the United States precedes my birth year of 1969 by centuries.  In the midst of deep division over the trial verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin and the grand jury decisions not to indict in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by police officers, we need spiritual and social bridges of reconciliation. Reconciliation though is not about denial, defensiveness, and distractions from real individual behavioral and systemic truths.  Reconciliation acknowledges both individual and systemic sin. We see this in John 4 when Christ goes to Samaria and sits at the well with a woman. The sins of the Samaritan woman were revealed during her conversation with Christ, but so was the religious and divisive system that existed impacting the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. This system would have included ways in which Samaritans would have been both marginalized and profiled by Jews. It is not a far reach to make some comparisons between this social dynamic from Scripture and the racial history between Blacks and Whites in the United States of America. Those evangelicals who raise issues of race, class, justice, privilege, and social disparities should not be accused of dividing, labeling, or of being neo-Marxists. They should be acknowledged for the Christian reconcilers, social prophets, and bridge builders that they are.

Reconciliation assumes repentance. Denial and defensiveness blocks both individual and corporate repentance. Both individual and corporate (or national) repentance is biblical. There are times when an individual must repent of their own sins that they have committed. There are also times when we repent on behalf of our family, ethnic people group, or cultural community for a corporate sin or sins committed over time. The individual does not have had to commit the sin themselves in order to be the voice of corporate repentance. Maybe they simply benefitted in some way from the systems that the corporate sins produced. To only repent of sins you committed yourself is a Western and deeply individualistic view of repentance that limits biblical repentance.  For the Church to be a bridge as we move forward seeking reconciliation, justice, healing, and a greater realization of the Kingdom of God we must have a deeper understanding of biblical repentance.

Reconciliation also assumes an incarnational approach to relationships. I must be willing to enter into the world or life of those who are ethnically, culturally, economically, and racially different than me. And those different than me must be willing to enter into my world. Now there is something that we must be mindful of if we desire to live into reconciliation the way Christ did. Christ as God, as the one higher, more powerful, and all righteous, enters into the world of the sinner, the lower, and the broken. You could say the One more privileged ought to lead the incarnational and reconciling approach to relationship building. From this biblical perspective is why I call those of privilege to be willing to enter into the world of this less privileged so that biblical reconciliation can take place. The rich must enter into the world of the poor to listen, learn, and reconcile. Men must enter into the world of women to do the same. This also includes Whites entering into the world of people of color the same way. One might ask, “Well, shouldn’t people of color enter into the world of Whites?” My answer is that we have no choice but to do this. People of color have to enter into the world of Whites in the United States of America. You can’t navigate the broader and dominant culture of the United States of America without doing this. But we take this incarnational approach to relationships and bridge building because it’s what Christ modeled and called us as His followers to do. Christ went to Samaria and entered the world of a Samaritan woman. Christ entered the world of the poor, the paralyzed, and the marginalized. Too many privileged people are carrying views and making commentary on people groups that they have great social distance from. People would rather judge than enter the worlds of people that differ from them politically, racially, and economically. For the Christian, entering the world of the other doesn’t mean you leave Christianity. Entering the world of the other may lead you to find out that the Christianity you own and defend isn’t biblically authentic.

So have do we move forward in the midst of racial and class divisions in our nation? How do we find racial reconciliation and righteousness? How do we bring the Kingdom of God to bear on an upside-down, sin-filled, and broken world? The road forward is a bridge. We cannot deny the reality of race and privilege. We cannot use colorblindness and silence to solve deeply rooted racial issues that have plagued our reality for centuries. We must commit to prayerful discussions, bible studies, worship experiences, and solution-development cross culturally and cross racially. We can’t just look for people who look different than us but believe exactly what we do theologically and politically. That’s cheap reconciliation.

We must acknowledge both sinful humanity and the broken systems built by sinful humanity within their tribes, clans, nations, gender, and racial groups. We must also allow entering into the world of others to break the myths that we carry. It concerns me deeply that there is a belief among some that African Americans who are concerned with racial profiling and a broken criminal justice system give no major attention to the crisis of the family in the African American community or Black on Black crime. If you spend time in these communities you will find many churches, Para churches, and other community organizations working on these very issues and making a major difference. There are African American fraternities, sororities, and other historic organizations volunteering time away from their own families to address these issues within their communities.

Have you ever considered how the Church could also be responsible for decaying predominately African American and under-resourced communities? And notice that I didn’t say White Church exclusively. It is true that many White Churches that began in the urban community left as African American families moved into Northern cities in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It’s also true that many Churches of various ethnic and racial make ups left urban communities as their memberships grew. How did this church flight impact urban communities? A lot of the church planting of the 1990’s and early 2000’s that included significant seed funding took place in the suburbs, not in the communities that needed these churches the most. Now that gentrification is coming to many under-resourced urban communities, many evangelical associations desire to plant churches in urban communities, but for whom? Bridge builders must lovingly and courageously be willing to enter into these types of discussions in order to find Kingdom advancing solutions within a divided reality.

This is an opportune moment for the Church. At a time once again, of riots, racial division, and political dysfunction we need the Church to be a force of Kingdom compassion, justice, and reconciliation. There is a road forward and Christ has already paved it. He paved it when He came to earth. He paved it when he declared and demonstrated the Kingdom of God, mainly among the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the marginalized. He paved it when He hung on the cross and formed a bridge over the troubled waters of sinful humanity and broken systems. Until Christ returns, the Church must be this bridge.

Black-on-Black Violence: Pastor Voddie Bauchman’s Assault on Black People

Dec 1, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, race, reconciliation, spiritual growth, theology, Uncategorized  //  3 Comments

Black-on-Black Violence: Pastor Voddie Baucham’s Assault on Black People

By Austin Channing Brown, Christena Cleveland, Drew Hart and Efrem Smith

 

So God created human beings in his own image. Genesis 1:27

 

As black evangelical leaders, we believe it is important to respond to The Gospel Coalition’s publishing of Pastor Voddie Baucham’s Thoughts on Ferguson, a perspective we deem to be extremely anti-black. First, we condemn The Gospel Coalition’s editorial leadership for its moral and pastoral failure in publishing such an anti-black viewpoint. No Christian organization should ever participate in dishonoring the image of God in black people, especially at a time when so many black Americans are in pain. Second, we lament the internalized anti-black racism that Pastor Voddie conveyed in his article and the fact that it has been used to further support White-on-Black violence among Christians. Here, we offer a different perspective, one that we believe honors the image of God in black people.

 

A Brief of History of White-on-Black Violence

 

Racism is White-on-Black violence.

 

In 1619, the first twenty Africans were brought over as labor for the new colonies. Within one generation the white majority had defined black people as permanent slaves and non-human property. This created a social order in which black people were only valuable for their ability to support a white dominated society that was economically prospering off of the stolen land of Native Americans and the stolen labor of African Americans. Consequently, a system of White-on-Black violence was born.

 

This system of White-on-Black violence has defined the last 400 years of American history. For example:

  • Millions of Africans died      during the middle passage journey from Africa to the so-called ‘new land’,      even before ever stepping foot in America.
  • Slavery lasted for 246 years,      beginning in 1619 and ending in 1865.
  • From 1865 until 1945, well over      one hundred thousand black people were re-enslaved through the      convict-leasing system, in which whites arrested blacks for minor crimes      such as changing employers without permission, vagrancy, engaging in      sexual activity or loud talk with white women.
  • Simultaneously, white (mostly      Christian) Americans sought to retain white control through racial      terrorism. About 5,000 African American men, women, and children were      lynched by white mobs.
  • Jesus, who was both the Son of      God and a poor Galilean Jew living in solidarity withthose under Roman      occupation and those vulnerable to crucifixion, has been transformed into      a powerful white man. This image is a form of idolatrous systemic white      violence against black people and all people of color.[i]

 

Despite such White-on-Black violence and much more, black people have always resisted. For example, dissident voices like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass rejected ‘the Christianity of this land’ in its complicit endorsement of white domination over black bodies, proclaiming that it had nothing to do with the true peaceable Christ. Protests like these continued until the 1970s, always triggering systemic white backlash.

 

In the 1960s black consciousness arrived in mainstream public discourse, affirming the value of black people in the face of historical and ongoing White-on-Black violence.  Not surprisingly, the system in which Whites were always on top, responded. Taking a cue from the convict-leasing system, White law enforcement began arresting black men en masse for nonviolent drug crimes. Since the 1970s, the prison population has boomed from about 300,000 inmates to beyond 2 million people caged like animals, a disportionately large number of them black men. Black bodies continue to be controlled by this system of White-on-Black violence.[ii]

 

Now in the present, black people in Ferguson and around the country are fed up. We are fed up that 1 out of 3 African American males will be arrested and go through the American injustice system at some point in their lives[iii], primarily for nonviolent drug charges, despite studies revealing that black youth and white youth use drugs at comparable rates. Research also tells us that black males are 21 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with the police than their white counterparts.[iv] Just as critical, schools are being defunded all around the country in many black neighborhoods while prisons are being expanded — another example of systemic White-on-Black violence.

 

Black-on-Black Violence is an Extension of White-on-Black Violence

 

The historical and current system of White-on-Black violence sends messages that are so powerful that many black people succumb to them, ultimately becoming defined by them.  Internalized racism, a term first coined by black scholar W.E.B. DuBois in 1903,[v] involves accepting a white supremacist social world that places black people at the bottom, and adopting society’s negative stereotypes about African Americans concerning their abilities and intrinsic worth.[vi]

 

An example of internalized racism: as a result of growing up in an anti-black society in which violence inflicted on African Americans has been historically judged less harshly than violence against Whites, regardless of the perpetrator – black people begin to believe that their own life and the lives of other black people are worth very little. Due to internalized racism, they become more willing to engage in violence against other black men, women, and children – so-called “Black-on-Black violence.”

 

Indeed, a research study conducted in 2011 found that internalized racism significantly predicted black male teenagers’ propensity for violence. In other words, the more internalized racism a black male teen possessed, the greater his aggressive behavior, the more positive his attitudes toward guns and violence, and the more at-risk he was for engaging in violent behavior.[vii] Based on these findings, the researcher concluded that a lack of self-respect and/or negative views toward their own race (e.g., internalized racism) result in black male teens’ greater propensity to engage in violence. In essence, “Black-on-Black violence” is simply an extension of systemic White-on-Black violence.

 

Pastor Voddie’s Internalized Racism is Black-on-Black Violence

 

Black-on-Black violence takes many forms. Propped up by the mighty platform of The Gospel Coalition and the many white people who frequent the organization’s online space, Pastor Voddie was quick to point out the physical Black-on-Black violence that exists in America. However, despite the fact that he is black, Pastor Voddie failed to see the ways in which he engaged in a form of verbal Black-on-Black violence that mirrors White-on-Black violence. By conveniently omitting any discussion of the ways in which the long-standing system of white domination contributes to fatherlessness in the black community, police brutality of black people, negative societal perceptions of black people, the systemic disempowerment of black people, the internalized racism of black people and even Black-on-Black violence, he assaulted the character and worth of black people, suggesting that black people like Michael Brown deserve to be killed. In doing so, he made a statement in support of White-on-Black violence, an argument that many whites have used throughout history.

 

Just as we are presenting a historic look at the system of White-on-Black violence, the Bible also shows us — from Exodus to the Gospels to the 1st Century Church — the forms of systemic violence perpetrated upon the people of God by those in power. In this light, all Christians today should grieve with a people group that has been and continues to be victimized by such systemic violence. Blaming one Black young man for the sowing of such sin is a great disservice to the very people to oppressed people of the world, to whom Jesus consistently showed mercy.

 

We encourage you to read Dr. Alan Noble’s point-by-point response to Pastor Voddie’s article. Given the long history of anti-black violence in this country, all followers of Jesus must be committed to engaging in the transformative and liberative work of Jesus, which means affirming the image of God in black people and resisting all White-on-Black violence in word or deed.

 

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you:

to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

 

 

 

Austin Channing Brown, M.A. is a Resident Director and Intercultural Liason at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

Christena Cleveland, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

Drew Hart, M.Div. is a pastor at Montco Bible Fellowship, an Adjunct Professor of Theology at Biblical Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

Efrem Smith, M.A.. is President/CEO of World Impact, Inc. and the author of The Post-Black and Post-White Church.




[i] Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[ii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, N.Y.; Jackson, Tenn.: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2012).

[iii] Ibid., 9.

[iv] Ryan Gabrielson et al., “Deadly Force, in Black and White,” ProPublica, accessed November 30, 2014, http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white.

[v] Du Bois, W.E. B. 1989 [1903]. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin

[vi] Jones, C. P. (2000). Levels of racism: A theoretical framework and a gardener’s tale.

American Journal of Public Health, 90(8), 1212-1215.

[vii] Bryant, W.W.. (2011). Internalized racism’s association with African American male youth’s propensity for

violence. Journal of Black Studies, 42, pp.690-707.

 

 

 

 

Ferguson and A Way Forward

I write this post right after the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri. The Grand Jury has made the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson when it comes to the shooting death of Michael Brown. There is television evidence showing that already violence has erupted in Ferguson. We need a way forward in the United States of America that brings about healing, justice, peace, reconciliation, and transformation. My faith still leads me to believe that the best way to realize all of this is thru the non-violent advancement of the Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ is the most excellent example of the declaration and demonstration of the Kingdom of God. The Church is the front line vehicle for this to be realized today. I also believe that people of good will also have an opportunity to seize a reconciling moment if they so choose.

Though this is a tense, divided, and violent moment in our nation, there is a way forward that people of all races, classes, and political ideologies can grab a hold of. But we must look deep into our hearts and ask ourselves how we desire to move forward. Do we want to continue to participate in a deeply divided nation by race, politics, and class? Or is there something on the inside of us that not only desires something better, but provides a push in our soul to participate in this something better? This something better is the Kingdom of God or what Martin Luther King Jr. called, The Beloved Community.

One of the ways we move forward regardless of your personal opinion on this situation is to grieve with the family of Michael Brown. This is biblical. We are reminded of this in the Gospel of Matthew; to grieve with those who are grieving. We are also called biblically to love, forgive, and extend grace. Too many Christians are using this moment to extend political ideology and not the traits of the Kingdom that we are to represent.

Another way forward is for the privileged to listen to and learn from those who are different from them and have a different opinion than them. This is not the time to judge, argue, and patronize if you are privileged. This is a time to listen, pray, learn, and show an amazing humility. This is a genuine way for the Kingdom of God to be expressed. As an African American male, my heart is heavy. This is all very difficult to take in and yes, I wonder if the African American life carries value in this nation. I need my Brothers and Sisters who are not African American to walk with me, pray with me, listen to me, and grieve with me. This kind of reconciling approach is a way forward.

Yet, another way forward is for the Church to not ignore this issue. The Church must be a force of racial reconciliation and righteousness. The Church must acknowledge that we live in a broken world. This not only includes broken people, but broken systems as well. We must bring to bear the love, grace, transformative power, reconciliation, and justice of God upon this reality. The Church must be a bridge over social troubled waters of brokenness and division. Pastors who ignore these realities in their preaching and shepherding ignore the mission field outside their church walls. The Church must build a bridge between the police and under-resourced communities. The Church must build bridges between the haves and the have not’s. The Church must see, care for, and empower the Poor, the marginalized, and the undervalued. This is our biblical responsibility. The Church should not wait for unfortunate circumstances, but should be a constant force of transformation. We must prayerfully grab hold of this moment and find our way forward.

 

Dealing with the Crisis of Mass Incarceration

Nov 20, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, politics, the church, youth ministry  //  No Comments

Our nation has a serious crisis when it comes to mass incarceration and we are in need of major reforms within the broader criminal justice system. The deep divide and demonization surrounding Michael Brown, Officer Darren Wilson, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri show us the need for reforms in the criminal justice system and the need for a deeper commitment to racial righteousness and reconciliation.

In terms of gaining a deeper understanding of the crisis within mass incarceration in our nation, I would highly recommend that you read the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Instead of painting the picture of the crisis of mass incarceration and dealing with the problems within the criminal justice system more broadly, I will focus on solutions. At World Impact, we are working to implement a comprehensive and holistic initiative we call “Incarceration to Incorporation” (I2I). This is one of our initiatives within our Focus Area of Demonstrating Compassion and Justice. At the same time this initiative brings together the other Focus Areas of World Impact; Planting Healthy Urban Churches, Developing Missional Partnerships, and Resourcing Urban Leaders.

The Purpose of I2I is, “to equip local church and parachurch ministries to empower ex-inmates to become faithful servants in the local church as well as prevent urban young people from becoming inmates in the first place.” I2I takes both an approach of prevention and intervention. More than that it takes an approach of empowerment, restoration, and transformation of the poor, marginalized, and incarcerated.

Let me start with the prevention side of this initiative. World Impact began over 43 years ago as an urban missions organization focused on evangelism and discipleship among unreached urban poor children and youth. Initiatives back then included bible clubs, discipleship homes, and other outreach activities. I have heard many experts in the area of mass incarceration say that there exists an invisible pipeline from the cradles of poor urban children and  juvenile detention centers and prisons. One of the ways that this pipeline can be dismantled is by making sure that urban children are at grade level in math and reading by the 3rd and 5th grades. We address this at World Impact thru two Christian Schools, one in Los Angeles and the other in Newark. The dismantling of the pipeline goes beyond just reading and math skills though. It’s instilling in urban under-resourced children that they can be leaders and change agents within their own communities. Strong education mixed with evangelism and discipleship deals in a preventative way with the crisis of mass incarceration. We want to assist in building the capacity of the urban church to adopt public elementary schools and start tutoring programs. We partner with ministries such as the Urban Youth Workers Institute (UYWI) to equip children and youth ministry leaders in order to leverage our history using an incarnational approach to urban ministry that raises up young heroes for God.

But dealing with the crisis of mass incarceration is also about intervention. It’s about believing that when men and women are incarcerated this is not the end of their story. Jesus stood in between a woman who had broken the law of adultery and capital punishment by way of stoning (John 8). We also see here that the mixture of a religious and criminal justice system was broken even way back then. This is not to condone adultery in any way, but to look at brokenness even in systems that are supposed to be just. Where was the man that broke the law of adultery with the woman? Jesus stepped into this broken criminal justice system and kept the woman from being stoned to death. He didn’t believe her crime was the end of her story. This is why we have partnered with Prison Fellowship, Awana, and other ministries to develop The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) as satellites of theological education and leadership development in prisons and county jails. We have close to 60 TUMI satellites in prisons and county jails, serving 1,113 students. We believe that the incarcerated can become disciples who make disciples while in prison. We also believe there are leadership, ministry, and job skills that can be developed.

The next part of I2I focuses on what happens when men and women come out of prison, jail, or a halfway house program. This is really where the incorporation side of the initiative comes into play. Our SIAFU Chapters and Homes are a way to work with the local church so that those who have been incarcerated can be fully incorporated back into a community and they can make a transformative difference. SIAFU is an African word describing a red ant. This insect by itself is blind and living a life of chaos, but within a network of ants becomes a  strong community. SIAFU Chapters are discipleship groups connected to a local urban church or ministry that provides an opportunity for mentoring, continued leadership development, and a bridge into the broader life of the church and surrounding community. The mentoring, coaching, and empowerment can also come thru a missional partnership between both the urban and suburban church. SIAFU Homes provide a residential approach where World Impact staff and/or local urban church members have a closer, incarnational relationship with the formerly incarcerated. We have run a pilot of a SIAFU Leadership Home in San Francisco and are set to launch another one in Oakland next year.

I have shared what World Impact is attempting to do in dealing with the crisis of mass incarceration. I encourage you if not already, to join in as well in some meaningful way. We are called by Christ to see about the incarcerated (Matthew 25:31-40). Let us live into this biblical mandate.

“Poor-a-phobia”

Nov 4, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, reconciliation, the church  //  No Comments

Yes, I know that “Poor-a-phobia” is not a word, but I believe it is a sickness that exists within our society today, so I will name it and define it. “Poor-a-phobia” is the internalized fear of Poor People further fueled by limited facts mixed with myths and stereotypes. “Poor-a-phobia” can be increased within Privileged People who are not in significant relationship with Poor People. Now some Privileged People may respond to this definition by saying, “Some of my best friends are Poor.” They may also say, “When I look at people, I don’t see Poor, I just see their heart or character.” These statements are no escape or solution to the sickness of “Poor-a-phobia.” Mainly this is the case because these statements are hard to backup when it seems that the more privileged you become the distance from the Poor seems to enlarge. This can actually increase the sickness.

Speaking of sickness, an interesting thing occurred when I boarded a plane earlier today. A young Black woman with a natural hairstyle and wearing a hoodie cleared her throat. The older White woman next to her asked if she was sick. When the young Black woman replied, “no” (without a West African accent by the way), the older White woman asked if she was sure. She wanted to know for sure so that she would know whether she needed to switch seats. The interesting thing was that the young Black woman showed such grace and patience with the older White woman. Why was the older White woman so concerned? Because now there is a growing fear of people we assume are from a Poor and African part of the world carrying sickness. “Poor-a-phobia” causes people to wonder why Black people who they perceived to be Poor and from Africa are coughing.  They show no fear when Privileged People cough or leave a public restroom in the airport without washing their hands. We also now have a fear of White Missionaries who hang out with Poor Africans as well. I am not stating that we shouldn’t take the Ebola crisis seriously. But why not use this time to rise up like never before to tackle the deep connections systemically between poverty and disease-based epidemics instead of using the fear of sickness as leverage during an election cycle.

“Poor-a-phobia” can also show up when we lock our car doors only when we enter into an under-resourced urban neighborhood. It’s not that locking our car doors is a bad idea. I just wonder why we don’t lock them as soon as we’re pulling out of the driveway no matter the location of our destination. As I’ve already defined though, “Poor-a-phobia” is not just the fear of Poor People, it’s also about myths and stereotypes we carry about the Poor, especially those in the United States of America, including the Undocumented. We hear sound bites such as how the Poor want the government to take care of them, the Undocumented are just coming into the US to take advantage of the welfare system, that Poor men just make babies they don’t want to raise, and so on. I know Poor and Undocumented People who are married, raising children, working multiple jobs, going to school, and serving as leaders in their churches. If we are going to tell the story of Poverty, let us tell the whole story based on actual relationships so that we might cure the sickness of “Poor-a-phobia.”

Ultimately, we cure the sickness of “Poor-a-phobia” by loving and believing in the great potential of the Poor. We must see the Poor the way Jesus Christ sees the Poor. We must interact with the Poor, the Marginalized, and the Outcast the same way Christ did. Christ had compassion for the Poor. Christ empowered the Poor. Christ lived as one of the Poor. So Christians must decide if we love the Poor. Either you love them or you don’t. Either you’ll empowerment them or you won’t. I desire to love the Poor more and
more each day. The truth is I’m a product of the love, toil, mistakes, faith, endurance, suffering, and faith of Poor People. How could I ever fear that?

The Privileged and The Poor

Oct 21, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, politics, race, reconciliation, spiritual growth, the church  //  6 Comments

Last week while attending my first board meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, I was able to sit in on a discussion on Evangelicals and Poverty. This forum featured a mild debate of sorts between Arthur Brooks (American Enterprise Institute) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners). Arthur Brooks said something that I found very interesting in his closing comments-

“The real way the rich are stealing from the poor is by not sharing their secrets of success.”

At first I just heard this statement as a politically conservative one that carried more intellectual pontificating than faith-based conviction to actually tackle the multiple issues surrounding poverty in the U.S. As a political moderate I tend to have enough reflective criticism for both the right and the left. But, after further reflection, I believe that Mr. Brooks statement is a window into a biblical principle for the empowerment of the Poor.

A major issue when it comes to poverty and race is the relational divides that exists. The Privileged can’t share secrets with a group of people that they don’t even know by name. I don’t make this point to take away from dealing with the systemic and institutional sides of poverty, but they won’t be dealt with as long as the relational gaps that exist widen. If the Poor are merely homeless people you see holding up signs at intersections, children you interact with on a short term missions trip, or faces you see in the media, are you truly in a position to speak on the issue of poverty? Too many Privileged People are giving commentary on people they aren’t in relationship with.

 You could apply this same relational problem to the issue of race. I don’t believe that most White people are racist, but I have heard too many White people make comments about people groups that they are not in relationship with. Just to be fair, people of other ethnicities do this to, but I bring up Whites because they remain the most privileged people group in the U.S. at this moment in time. When you give commentary on other people groups that you aren’t in deep relationship with, it could open the door to people perceiving you as being racist or prejudice.

When I was the pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis, I was fortunate to have a number of conversations about poverty with fellow staff members. One staff member that I had very deep and sometimes mildly heated conversations on the subject was Mr. Neeraj Mehta. He would say often that poverty is about the lack of relationships. At first I thought this wasn’t a very strong beginning point for tackling the issue of poverty. As I’ve thought about it about it more and more though, my Brother Neeraj is absolutely right. We must close the relational gaps between the Privileged and the Poor. When the Privileged and the Poor are reconciled, we will see poverty as we know it in the U.S. dismantled. I’m not sure if we will ever totally eradicate poverty in the U.S., (though I passionately hope so) but I do believe through relationships, we can put a major dent in it.

To dismantle poverty in this way, we not only need multi-ethnic congregations, we need multi-class congregations. Poor people ought to have a voice in the Church. They ought to have the opportunity to serve as elders, deacons, preachers, and board members alongside the Privileged. Putting all Privileged People in power and places of influence may be the American way, but it’s not the Kingdom of God way. How can Privileged People suffer with those who suffer when they are not in friendship or community with those who suffer? Jesus Christ modeled a ministry life of being up close with the oppressed, suffering, outcast, and marginalized. American Christians seem to be held captive by the matrix of economic and racial compartmentalization. Because of this too many Privileged Christians have compassion for the suffering, but they aren’t in intimate relationships with them. People don’t tend to share secrets with people they don’t love, respect, value, and trust.

Could it be to this degree that all Christians are biblically called to be incarnational? I’m not saying all Privileged People need to sell their houses in nice neighborhoods and move to under-resourced ones. What I’m saying is that for the Privileged Christian, we ought to live in the blessed gift of having a diverse community of friends across racial, ethnic, and class lines. To accept this gift is to live more deeply as a Kingdom citizen. Christ was in the business of closing social and relational gaps. This is why He was up close with Samaritans, the diseased, the paralyzed, the left for dead, and the Privileged. What if as Privileged Christians we spent more time talking about people we were in relationship with than giving commentary on people we don’t?

Empowerment Theology

Oct 13, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   race, reconciliation, spiritual growth, the church, theology  //  No Comments

Many times when Christ was declaring or demonstrating that the Kingdom of God was near, He did so thru interactions with the marginalized, the oppressed, and the physically challenged. He also gave His followers the authority and responsibility to do the same. The paralyzed, the blind, the outcast woman, one facing the death penalty, and the stigmatized minority encountered Christ and left a different person.

In many cases the Gospels show us that when the marginalized and broken encountered Christ, they left empowered. Those religiously unlearned followers willing to leave their working-class occupations, found themselves empowered to preach, speak to evil spirits, and heal the sick. The good news that Christ spoke of and performed led to the oppressed becoming the empowered. This version of empowerment is quite different from how empowerment is defined in our upside down world today.

Empowerment in our world is based on title, educational level, economic class, and celebrity. Because of the race matrix that we are still held captive by, skin color can be a major factor when it comes to empowerment. Because women lag behind men in many social and religious areas such as work pay, executive positions, and pastoral leadership, gender can also be a major factor when it comes to empowerment.

But what does empowerment look like in the body of Christ? What does empowerment look like in the Church? How does one become a pastor? How does one become an elder or board member in the Church? How does one become a Para Church President? How does one become President of a Christian University or College? How does one become leader of a denomination? How does one discover an amazing Kingdom advancing call regardless of their occupation?

Now, I want to recognize that the face of empowerment is becoming more and more diverse but that really isn’t the point I’m trying to make. The real question I’m getting at is, what would the Church and what would our world look like if we followed the empowerment strategies and theology of Christ? I believe if we did, the Poor would be empowered to lead Churches. We’d see even more ethnic and gender diversity when it came to leadership. We’d see more indigenous leadership. The broken, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the Poor would become apostles, prophets, church planters, missionaries, and executives; advancing the kingdom of God like we’ve never seen. We’d see an incredible revival and transformation in under-resourced communities.

Empowerment is a way of understanding the declaration of Christ, stating that He came to give sight to the blind and set the captives free (Luke 4). Empowerment is a way of understanding the many interactions of Christ with women. Empowerment is a way of understanding the miracles of Christ. Empowerment is a way of understanding discipleship and mission. As Christians we must wrestle with how we are stewarding and extending empowerment.

Believing in the Urban Poor

Oct 1, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, reconciliation, spiritual growth, the church, theology  //  No Comments

Last week I was watching a story about terrorist groups on cable news. The largest target group for recruitment in many cases are unemployed young men from under-resourced communities. There seems to be a number of young men from the United States that fit this description being lured into these terrorist cell armies. What does this tell us? Is it just that terrorist groups are so desperate that they will take anyone, including the Poor? Or does it tell us that they see something in the Poor that we don’t see?

I actually began wrestling with this years ago, when I was an urban youth pastor and later church planter. It seemed to me that gang leaders, pimps, and drug dealers saw more potential in the urban poor youth than the church did. I even had to confess that as one who had to raise financial support as an urban youth worker and initially as a church planter, I had developed a heart for the Poor, but I was more focused and dependent than I wanted to admit on the Privileged. I had high hopes for the Privileged. I needed them to believe in me, fund me, and continue to fund my ministry. Some of the Privileged had strings with their money. They also wanted to speak into the strategies and theology of the urban ministry I was involved in even if they had no urban background, urban ministry experience, and lacked cross-cultural competencies. But even with all that, I was dependent on believing in the Privileged for my survival. I won’t take the time now to add that one of the reasons I was so dependent on the Suburban Privileged is because many Urban Churches either didn’t have the resources to or didn’t believe in hiring full time Youth Pastors. So that raises the question of if the urban church in some cases even believes in college educated young adults who come from urban environments with a call on their lives for ministry. But again, I won’t go into that now.

All this energy on the Suburban Privileged can take energy away from believing in the Poor. Believing in the Poor is much more than having compassion for the Poor. Within Evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism there is much compassion and advocacy for the Poor in the US, but what I question is, are we fully committed to the empowerment of the Poor? Empowerment of the Poor means you believe in their potential to lead, develop, create, innovate, and become a part of your succession plan if you are an older leader. This is what’s missing in far too many of our models of evangelism, discipleship, and witness within the body of Christ in the US.

Why must we radically believe in the Urban Poor? Because this was the ministry of Christ. Not only was it His ministry, it was the human package in which Christ lived as He walked the earth. Christ did not come to earth as a Privileged Suburbanite. He came as a Jewish, ethnic minority, oppressed, and marginalized human being. The Poor, marginalized, outcast, and diseased were at the center of His declarations and demonstrations of the Kingdom of God. He showed us Who He was thru His interactions with women, children, the blind, the paralyzed, and those facing the death sentence. He then empowered them to go out as evangelists and missionaries, advancing the Kingdom of God themselves.

The first churches as we know them in the New Testament, in many cases, were led by the persecuted, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the non-Privileged. God has high standards and great expectations of the Poor. The question is not what God thinks about the Poor, but what does the Privileged Church of the US think about the Poor. We must believe in the Poor, especially the Urban Poor in our nation. We must see their potential. If you can’t see the potential of a Poor Person becoming a leader and/or Pastor in your church then you are not seeing the Poor thru the eyes of Christ. If you can’t see the Poor planting churches and shepherding their own people in their own communities then you aren’t seeing them thru the eyes of Christ.

We must move beyond simply compassion for the Poor to the empowerment of the Poor.

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