As we head towards election day next week, my heart grieves over how the Church in the United States of America is enslaved by the ideology of the two major political parties. I know that in part of what I’m presenting will be generalizing, but this is merely to point to a real problem.
You can sort of divide the enslavement into two plantations. The conservative plantation and the progressive or liberal plantation. The evangelical and parts of the charismatic church seem to be on the conservative plantation and the mainline and parts of the charismatic church seem to be on the progressive or liberal plantation. The conservative plantation has some evangelicals announcing that we must vote next week on biblical values, but have reduced biblical values to marriage between a man and a woman and being pro-life specifically around the issue of abortion. The liberal plantation has lead to some mainliners participating in the Occupy Movement, fighting on behalf of the poor, and calling for immigration reform.
The point is, the bible presents a solid theological case for marriage being between one man and one woman (Genesis 1 and 2), God designing life before it is even formed in the womb (Jeremiah 1:4-5), and caring for the immigrant, the sick, the incarcerated, and the poor (Matthew 25). When God spoke through the Prophets in the Old Testament and Jesus spoke in the New Testament, they were not just speaking to priests. They were speaking to Kings and common citizens as well. Both the Church and the Government is held responsible.
I’m concerned that too many enslaved Christians will be going to the polls next week, with very limited biblical understanding and theology. The reason this will happen is because some pastors will tell their congregations to vote for President Barak Obama for re-election this Sunday and present a very limited theology from the political plantation to do it. Others, will tell their congregations to vote for Mitt Romney, but this will be the trick. Because Mitt Romney is a Mormon and evangelicals for years have said that this is a cult, they will tell their church members to vote on biblical values. Then they will limit those biblical values to marriage and abortion.
What should be said this Sunday by pastors are three things-
1.) Christians as citizens of the Kingdom of God first, and citizens of the United States of America second should exercise their right to vote. In my case as an African-American, there was much blood shed during the Civil Rights Movement so that I could have this opportunity.
2.) Exercising this right is very complex and not easy for the Christian. (Which is why pastors should spend time praying and not directing). All Christians should not be expected, nor will they all vote the same way. What should unify Christians is not who they vote for, but the God who leads them to the polling booth. We must go prayed up and asking the Holy Spirit to guide and direct. Bring a larger biblical narrative into the polling booth, so that you can go in as a free Christian and a free American. Pastors should not expect their members to vote the same way they will, so they should encourage on any level.
3.) Whoever ends up being the President of the United States for the next four years, know that God is still on the throne. The Kingdom of God will still stand and ultimately, the transformation of our nation and the world is about the church living into being liberated from all earthly governments, so that it can function as a holy nation and a royal priesthood.
There are parts of the bible that sound like the Republican party platform and parts the sound like the Democratic party platform. When you can move past being sold out on either platform and embrace a larger understanding of the Kingdom of God, the shackles will start to come off the church.
Last night I watched the major cable news channels’ coverage of the deal to address the budget crisis within the United States of America. The President and the Speaker of the House both announced that a deal had been struck to keep the government from defaulting. This deal for many critics is too little and too late in terms of action. There is still a long way to go in terms of a longterm solution. Add to this that the dysfunctional division and extreme ideological politics of the two major parties continue to be a problem. Right now the Tea Party and the Congressional Black Caucus are two groups that could throw a monkey wrench in the whole process of a real solution. To try avoiding major cuts in expenses in the budget and the raising of taxes on the most wealthy of Americans is hard to understand. An ugly situation is going to take ugly answers that include major compromises. Looking at all this political division and dysfunction led me to some thoughts about the church. My thoughts began with questions.
Is this the right time for the church to do what government can’t? Is there a need for a reconciling church like never before? Here are the thoughts at the core of these questions. One, there is a need for Christian evangelicals and mainliners to do what Democrats and Republicans can’t or won’t. Evangelical and mainliners need to come together and forge a national faith-based agenda for life and community transformation. This agenda must remind our country that first and foremost that church is about life transformation. It also must show a connection between life transformation and community development. The community development portion of the agenda must have measurable outcomes addressing issues that are concerns in Scripture such as the poor, the lost, the stranger, and the marginalized. The church could become a major Kingdom force in America like never before thru such a move. Second, the increase of multi-ethnic and missional churches must become a top priority of every major Christian denomination as well as evangelistic organizations. The political division in this country is connected to historic racial and class divisions. The church has no credibility if it continues to be the most segregated institution in the nation.
There is a great window of opportunity for the church as both the government and economic institutions live in crisis and dysfunction. This move would also be the solution to the crisis that the church of the United States of America is currently in.
As a Regional Superintendent in the Evangelical Covenant Church, last week I attended our Annual Meeting held in Estes Park, Colorado. During one of the business meetings, I was a bit surprised by one of the announcements made by our Executive Minister of Finance. Let me just quote the announcement made based on the following handout-
“Federal Tax Credit Available to Local Churches-
One of the early results of the March 2010 passage of the Health Reform Legislation (entitled Affordable Health Care Act) is the ability for small employers to receive tax credit for years 2010 through 2013, if they meet certain eligibility requirements…We encourage Covenant Annual Meeting attendees to call this issue to the attention of their local financial officers.”
He went on to report that our churches had already saved $500,000 and next year could save between 2 and 3 million dollars. It looks like so-called “Obama Care” is helping small business and in our case, Evangelical churches. This is not an endorsement of President Obama or the Health Care Plan. What it is, is a wake up call to not be duped or enslaved by political division and rhetoric. As evangelicals we must study for ourselves and be willing to support public policy based on truth and Scripture, not based on reports by CNN, Fox, or the self interests of the major political parties themselves. When we study the truth, it’s hard to be totally sold out to either of the major political parties. Sometimes a party will get it right and sometimes they will get it wrong. In this case the Health Care plan, which many evangelicals oppose, is actually helping pastors and local churches with the expenses of Health Care coverage. Some are trying to convince us that the plan is and will actually hurt small businesses and churches. Well, so far in the Evangelical Covenant Church, this is not the case.
Last week there was an important meeting held between US President Barak Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What the future holds for the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is unknown as well as what role the United States will play. Because of the prominence of Israel in the Scriptures, it makes sense for Christians to have much interest in this conflict as well as others in the Middle East. It is also important for our understanding to not be held captive and shaped simply by the political ideologies and divides of the United States. Many evangelicals are only able to see these issues thru the narrow lens of the political ideology of the Republican Party. I’m not suggesting at all that being held captive to the Democratic Party position would be any better.
If you want a different perspective on the Israeli and Palestinian conflict that will drive you to prayer and Scripture as well as provide some hope, I encourage you to see the documentary, Little Town of Bethlehem (WWW.LITTLETOWNOFBETHLEHEM.ORG). This film shows the powerful story of three men committed to non-violent strategies for solving this crisis which is impacting so many families. Speaking of families, that’s what makes this film so powerful to me. The story of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is told from the vantage point of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim families who desire to see a peaceful solution to the conflict. Too many evangelical leaders are providing heated, uncivil, and biblically misinterpreted rhetoric on this subject. Little Town of Bethlehem will provide a much needed alternative for wrestling thru a very complex issue.
The main characters are Yonatan Shapira (Israeli Jew), Sami Awad (Palestinian Christian), and Ahmad Al’Azzeh (Palestinian Muslim). Based on media and politically driven depictions of the conflict you wouldn’t think that these three individuals would form this needed alliance for peace and reconciliation. The film begins by introducing these three leaders with a hip hop soundtrack in the background. They are taking great risks just to provide a peaceful solution to the crisis of their day. Their solutions should be heard by both Prime Minister Netanyahu and and President Obama.
When I was in college, I was moved greatly by the documentary, Eyes on the Prize. This film series told the story of the Civil Rights Movement and watching it changed my life on many levels. It played a role in my calling to Christ-centered, reconciling, multi-ethnic, and Kingdom-minded ministry. Little Town of Bethlehem has gripped me in the same way Eyes on the Prize did years ago. This film really is a must see for Christian leaders. I even highly recommend this film for small group ministry within local churches as well as forums focused on reconciliation and a global understanding of racial righteousness.
(I will present here a writing that I developed for both an evangelical newspaper and journal I used to write for. I say, “used to” because both publications refused to publish, without major edits, what you are about to read. I ended up deciding to longer write for either publication. I admit that I now look back on that decision with some reservations. I really miss having an on-going column in a evangelical publication. At the same time, I don’t like being censored just because some extreme conservative evangelicals aren’t willing to deal with discomfort. Without absorbing and processing this discomfort, the ability to advance the Kingdom of God in an ever-increasing multi-ethnic, multicultural, and urban reality will be hindered. Well, here’s what I wrote back in 2008. It should be noted that I have expanded on the writing since that time.)
With the legitimate presidential candidacy of Barak Obama, we now see that the United States of America is potentially ready for what I call post-black leadership at the highest level. With the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Oprah Winfrey, we are already in the age of post-black leadership. Post-black leadership is the reality of both the dominant culture as well as a broader multi-ethnic culture embracing being led by African-American leaders. Barak Obama is not the first African-American to run for President of the United States. Shirley Chisholm, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Reverend Al Sharpton all ran before him. The difference is that they were seen as Black leaders, mainly representing Black people and Black issues. They all tried to present themselves as being able to lead the whole nation, but their resumes all screamed, Black leader!
European-Americans or Whites rather they realize it or not, have historically marginalized African-American leaders as Black leaders. In the 1950′s, 1960′s, and 1970′s within professional football as an example, there were major questions about whether an African-American could be a quarterback. For this to happen, it would have to be accepted that an African-American could lead the European-Americans on offense. Also, the quarterback was seen as the most intelligent position on the team. In politics, there was a time in this country when you would never think of an African-American being mayor, governor, or president. In the corporate sector, there was a time when you’d never think of an African-American being the CEO of a major company. African-Americans for many years were marginalized to being the pastor of a black church, CEO of a black business, principal of a black school, or president of a black college. What was being said by the dominant culture was that Blacks can only lead Blacks.
Well, praise God, a lot has changed. whether you agree with his political ideology or not we could see the nations’ first African-American president.
(remember this was written in the summer of 2008)
But, Barak Obama is not the first post-black leader. Oprah Winfrey has a large multicultural following. She truly is more than a black leader. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are truly post-black political leaders. African-Americans are now heads of major companies, large universities, and yes professional quarterbacks and head coaches in football. As excited as I am about this, when I think about the body of Christ, I begin to grieve. The church as an institution in the United States of America is way behind secular society when it comes to post-black leadership.
Within the Christian world, Whites lead predominately White denominations and Black lead predominately Black ones. I can’t think of one major evangelical university, Para-church organization, or denomination with a post-black leader at the head of it. In most Para-church organizations African-Americans are mainly in urban and multicultural ministry positions with very little if any influence to speak into the direction of the organization. It seems that the body of Christ is not as ready as secular society for post-black leadership. Shouldn’t the church be the leader of a leadership development strategy that looks like the Kingdom of God and is not enslaved to the race structure of black and white?
I don’t put all the blame for this on European-American evangelicals. There are many African-American pastors and ministry leaders that have no desire whatsoever to be a Kingdom-minded, post-black leader. I believe that there is a way to honor the heritage and current impact of the black church and also become Kingdom leaders. I believe that God has placed some things within African-American leaders that are meant to be a gift to all of the body of Christ.
(I need to note that since I originally wrote this, Barak Obama became President of the United States and I was elected as Superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church. This is the largest region within the denomination. Before my election, African-Americans Jerome Nelson and Robert Owens were elected respectively as Superintendents to the Central and Southeast Conferences of the same denomination. I can’t post this and not recognize progress that has been made. But within the larger evangelical movement, we still have a long way to go. I’m still not sure why I couldn’t get this writing published.)
The picture above is of one of my fraternity brothers (Kappa Alpha Psi) reading to a group of children at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Oakland, California. Our local chapter (Berkeley Alumni) volunteered for a health and literacy fair at the school. After the event, I reflected on these problems impacting urban public school education today-
MY TOP TEN PROBLEMS WITH URBAN PUBLIC SCHOOLS:
10.) The Lack of Greater Family Involvement
9.) That Both Political Parties Have Made Politics of Urban Education
8.) That Urban Children Get Caught In Between Unions and Activists
7.) The Some Teachers Bring Personal Agendas Into The Classroom That Have Little To Do With Education
6.) Unrealistic Expectations That Some People Have Of What A School Should Provide For Children
5.) Families With The Resources (Like Mine) Who Move To The Suburbs Or Choose Private Schools (Thought I Would Spread The Blame Around)
4.) Constant Turnover Of School Principles
3.) People With No Credentials Or Experience In Education Thinking They Can Educate Children Better Than The Urban Public Schools.
2.) Lack Of Sufficient Funding And Volunteer Support
1.) The Lack Of Innovative Collaboration With The Local Faith Community And Other Long-Standing Organizations.
In recent years I’ve heard some notable Christian leaders say things like this regarding the current political landscape in the United States-
“The conservatives have lost their hearts and the liberals have lost their minds.”
“One political side represents Socialism and the other, Empire.”
Regardless of if these quotes are true of the current political state in the U.S. of not, I have great concerns that political ideology has many Christians held captive. I’ve talked to Christians who religiously listen to political commentators who aren’t even Christians themselves. If someone critiques one of these commentators or disagrees with them, it’s as if they disagreed with Paul in the Scriptures or maybe even Jesus. I’m saddened by Christians that are set on fire by political shock jocks getting wealthy on the extreme edges of conservatism and liberalism. These same Christians don’t seem to be set on fire in the same manner by the Savior who proclaims that, “the Kingdom of God is now at hand.”
Now, I know that these Christians would passionately disagree with me, but that is because they see political conservatism and evangelical theological conservatism as the same thing. Others believe that biblical kingdom justice and political progressive ideology are the same thing.
We cannot allow fallen political ideologies and structures to limit the possibilities of true Kingdom advancement in the United States and beyond. The Kingdom of God as proclaimed in Scripture is supreme over and against any earthly government, including the one I like best. This means that though I believe democracy as worked out historically and currently in the United States is a better government model than others around the world, it doesn’t compare on any level to the truth, justice, compassion, transformation, reconciliation, and unity that comes forth from the Kingdom of God. And even though I believe what I do about democracy, I also believe that our government structure in the United States is currently broken, because every man-made structure in our world is fallen. Since all humans have fallen short, so are the ideologies and structures that we’ve created.
The Christian church is the vehicle which God has chosen to express the values, power, and outcomes of God’s Kingdom. The values of this Kingdom where communicated by our Savior Jesus Christ within Scripture. The church from this foundation ought to be presenting a Kingdom alternative and transforming solutions to the challenges we face today within the family, education, economics, community, health, and even tougher issues such as immigration.
But, because the church in many cases is being held hostage by extreme political ideologies from the edges, many outside the church don’t know the difference between God’s Kingdom and empire or God’s Kingdom and socialism. Now here is the challenging truth though; there are parts of the value system of God’s Kingdom that sound socialist on first listen and there are parts on first listen that sound like empire. But, when you look at all that is the Kingdom of God now and into eternity it is so much more than any earthly government could ever accomplish. Within the Kingdom of God value system there is the individual responsibility found within the necessity of new birth and the communal call to care for the poor. One must take ownership of their own spiritual development and be willing to share the first fruits of their resources to help the hurting thru the mission strategy of a local church.
No matter if you believe in big or small government, you can’t deny a big God who desires to love the lost, heal the broken, and bring justice to the oppressed thru the church.
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD’s commandments and His statues which I am commanding you today for your good?”
“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 10:12-13 and 18-19 (NASB)
These words written by Moses connect something very important for God’s chosen people. Throughout this book, God called the people to remember Him as their one and only God. This remembrance is rooted in the deliverance out of oppression and slavery in Egypt. From here, they are to know God, love God, and follow his commandments. One important element of these commandments is the execution of justice.
What God seems to be saying here thru Moses is, “I saw you when you were the marginalized and the oppressed. I delivered you out of this condition. Now out of remembrance, worship, and love, live for Me by caring for the marginalized and oppressed around you now. If you are not sure who those people are, let me be very clear; the orphan, the widow, and the alien.” In other places in Scripture the poor are also mentioned. In Matthew 25, Jesus extends this in a very clear way to the sick and incarcerated as well. This should lead us to understand the connection between Deliverance, Remembrance, and Justice. Let me take this a little further.
Jesus is our deliverance out of sin. We should not disconnect our understanding of this from the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Just as the people of Israel were called to remember this, we Christians are to participate in the Sacrament of Communion as a remembrance. The Old Testament remembrance ought inform the New Testament remembrance. The New Testament remembrance should not remove the Old Testament remembrance. It is the combination of the two that fueled the movement against slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the United States of America. These movements were another great awakening in our country, which provided a new lens of understanding Kingdom justice.
Today, the church should still be about the evangelistic work of deliverance, the communal act of remembrance, and the missional work of Kingdom justice. As a product of the African-American church, I’ve never understood the historic divide in the European-American church between evangelism and the social gospel. I realize that the term social justice has taken on a bad name in evangelicalism and in many ways I understand why. Justice has been kidnapped to a large degree by humanism. This was the undoing of the Civil Rights Movement in a lot of ways. It went from being a church-based movement, to a secularized and political one. But the church should never stop connecting Evangelism and Kingdom Justice. God is a God of love, deliverance, and justice. We should always remember that.
The recent news media reports concerning a well-known African-American Bishop outside of Atlanta brings me great sadness. My first reaction is to pray that the accusations aren’t true. My second reaction is to pray for those young men, who could be very damaged by a church in which they should find hope, love, and transformation. Beyond those two reactions, something that I’ve felt for a long time is still burning within me. A revisiting of a theology of the pastor is needed within the Black Church and beyond.
In my opinion too many mega-church African-American pastors are functioning within a theology of the pastor that seems to be more based on a Old Testament model of Kings, than patterned after the New Testament model of Jesus or Paul. Now please hear me, my reflections are based on my great love for the Black Church and African-American pastors. With this said, I believe the matrix of race and how it impacts the identity of the African-American male in society is driving the theology of the pastor in many Black Church circles rather than Scripture. Let’s take a brief historical look back.
The Black Church is a forced church in America, dating back to slavery. As we move up to Jim Crow segregation, the Negro or Colored pastor is the most powerful position of leadership within the community. Remember, the Negro or Colored man cannot be president of the United States or governor of a state at this time. The Black pastor for all leadership purposes in the black community is pastor and king. Think of this in terms of being taken from a land where your forefathers and mothers were kings and queens. Now let’s move to the Civil Rights Movement, where we see the Black pastor as political leader and social transformer. Let’s move to the 1980′s and see the Reverend Jesse Jackson running for president. Not much love and respect is given to Shirley Chisholm, who as a Black woman and non clergy person, ran for the office years before.
Now let’s look at the mega church Black pastors of today. Celebrity figures living in mansion (temples), driving expensive cars (chariots), and having armor bearers (assistants for a king). Where did Jesus live? What chariot did Jesus ride in? Were the disciples of Jesus merely glorified armor bearers? What about Paul? Did his life look like the pursuit of the American dream? Regardless of the situation outside of Atlanta, one thing is true, the larger a church gets in America the temptation to become a CEO or a King and less of a shepherd is there awaiting. This is true regardless of race.
I’m not here to judge, I have my own inner battles to face as a bishop, author, and national speaker. What I do know is that the integrity of all pastors must be pursued and accountability is a key element. I also believe that Satan would rather have pastors be first and foremost CEO’s and Kings, than humble shepherds. I also believe as well that it is possible to be a mega church pastor, international figure, and humble servant. Perhaps our model should be Jesus and not King David.
I watched the Glen Beck show on Fox News this afternoon. His topic was how churches that are using the term, “social justice” are misinterpreting Scripture in order to spread Marxism. Now I don’t want to say that in some cases this might not be true, but to provide a wide-spread brush stroke of all uses of the term social justice to be Marxist and in no way biblical is a major blow to true evangelical theology.
One of the hallmarks of evangelical theology is the authority and centrality of Scripture. The Scripture is full of Kingdom mandates from God that calls for a justice that goes beyond individualism. For those that don’t believe this is the case, they have to wrestle with the Exodus story as well as the book of Esther and the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, beginning with verse 31. This mission of God in the world includes salvation, which is individualistic in nature, but also includes what the corporate church should do concerning the widow, the poor, the orphan, the stranger, and the sick in society. The society makes up the social structures. This isn’t a political ideology, nor marxist philosophy, this is the Word of God.
Glen Beck’s show on social justice and the church included guests from Liberty University and Westminster Theological Seminary who stated that the gospel is individualistic in nature. The guest from Liberty University even said that the parable of the talents, (which just happens to come before a parable about feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and those in prison), is about free market enterprise. So the gospel of Jesus Christ according to the opinions of the guests are rooted in individualism and capitalism.It is about a person, as an individual, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and then investing their resources into the marketplace.
This is a very limited and unbiblical view of salvation. Salvation itself is communal because it includes the community of the Trinity and in many cases the community of the person that God used to bring the person to Christ. This is why the evangelical church has a strong history of global missions. If the gospel is rooted in individualism, we should shut down every department of world missions in every evangelical denomination. Read the Old Testament and the Gospel letters and it won’t take you long to realize that justice in society is a biblical theme presented as an act out of the overflow of an intimate relationship with God thru Jesus Christ, as well as a significant part of the mission of the church. The church is called by God, through Scripture to be about the whole mission of God, which includes evangelism, discipleship, mission, compassion, mercy, and justice. The church is called to make disciples and to do justice and love mercy.
Let the Word of God drive the evangelical church and its theology, not a political talk show host.