Browsing articles in "theology"

#BlackLivesMatter and Evangelicalism

Jan 13, 2016   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, politics, race, the church, theology  //  No Comments

Since Michelle Higgins’s stirring and uncomfortable message delivered at Urbana15, questions have been raised and statements are being made about whether or not evangelicals should support the Black Lives Matter Movement. I, for one, am glad that Michelle Higgins preached in the fashion that she did. There are moments when evangelicals need to be pushed to a place of discomfort and even disagreement in order to forge a more biblically authentic ministry model for advancing the Kingdom of God. Evangelicalism has struggled to consistently present a biblical and holistic Gospel that brings together truth, transformation, salvation, liberation, compassion, reconciliation, and justice. To be a follower of Christ is to follow Him into all the elements of His declaration and demonstration of the Kingdom of God. We must have a more authentic understanding and practice a more credible extension of Scripture texts such as Exodus 3, Micah 6:8, Deuteronomy 24: 14-22, Matthew 9 and 10, Matthew 25, John 4, Luke 4, Acts 2, and Revelation 7:9-15.

 

The Black Lives Matter Movement should be viewed in a similar fashion to the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was much larger and more complex than just the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, there was King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but there was also the NAACP, the Urban League, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panthers, as well as leaders such as Fannie Lou Hammer and Malcolm X. These groups and leaders didn’t always agree, and it wouldn’t be fair to take one group or person’s view and make it the position of the whole movement. The broad and complex Black Lives Matter Movement is bigger than one person or even one website bearing the now famous hashtag. The question that the Civil Rights Movement raised and the Black Lives Matter Movement raises is, “Will the United States of America recognize and protect the full humanity of Black People regardless of their position, circumstance, or possible troubled background?” A question for evangelicalism is, “Will we love, empower, and grieve with Black People to the glory of God and the advancement of God’s Kingdom?”

 

Is there room in our theological framework and missional strategies for the acknowledgement of the recognition, protection, and empowerment of Black Lives? Ultimately, this is what evangelical leaders and organizations must wrestle with. As Michelle Higgins brought up at Urbana15, the reason this is a major issue is because evangelicals in this nation have a history of denying and marginalizing the full humanity of Black People. Yes, we have come a long way, but not far enough. All Lives Matter to God, but that’s not the issue. The issue is we live in a sinful and broken world where all lives don’t matter equally. Christ walked the earth in a similar reality, which is why there were times when he demonstrated that certain lives mattered. John 4 could be titled, #SamaritanLivesMatter. Let’s follow Christ into the Kingdom-advancing work of recognizing the need to value the full humanity of Black People in the womb, on the street, in the village, in extreme poverty, and even those behind bars.

 

Finally, I want to say to the financial and prayer supporters of World Impact, the Christian Missions organization I lead: I know some of you may be struggling to understand all these complex issues around race. Or, you may have disagreement with the ways in which some evangelical ministries are trying to get their heads and hearts around this issue. You may be wondering why I write and speak about these issues so much instead of just evangelizing and discipling the unreached urban poor. I would ask that you would prayerfully consider allowing myself or another World Impact staff member the opportunity to speak at your church, small group, or with you one-on-one. I know trying to connect with thousands of supporters like you in this fashion won’t be easy, but I desire the opportunity to make a sound biblical case for why the issue I’m dealing with here is a Gospel issue and in turn a missional issue. Blessings and may God lead us.

And The Word Became Marginalized

Nov 30, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, reconciliation, theology  //  No Comments

In a world of terrorism, racial tensions, immigration debates, the need for criminal justice reform, and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, the authentic Christ of the Bible is needed like never before. When Christ came into the world in human form, He came as a marginalized, oppressed immigrant, as well as the object of ethnic profiling (we would call this racial profiling today). He was born in an under-resourced and violent setting. According to His genealogy found in Matthew 1, He was born Jewish, Hebrew, African, Asiatic – a multi-ethnic human being. He was part of a people group living under the power structure of the Roman Empire.

When Christ was born, every male baby that looked like Him was murdered under the instruction of the governing authority. Terrorism was not a foreign concept for the earthly family of our Lord and Savior. The earthly family of Christ fled to Egypt in order to escape terrorism – making them undocumented refugees. Christ came in the human package of the vulnerable and despised so that He would have a deep and intimate credibility with the most marginalized and oppressed around him. Yes, He came that salvation might be a gift for all willing to repent, but the human shell He came in allowed Him to have a powerful connection with the diseased, outcast, left for dead, demonized, and poverty-stricken. What a scandalous way for God to enter our world. I believe God sent the Son into the world in this way on purpose. But we cannot truly understand the Kingdom-advancing ramifications of how Christ came into the world if we deny its importance.

The heavenly heritage of Christ in John 1 establishes Him as the Son of God, and Matthew 1 establishes Christ as the Son of Man. This take on Christology is important, because it takes Christ out of the racialized matrix that the dominant church in the United States has put Him in. We continue for the most part to portray Christ as White and European from birth to death on the cross to resurrection. This version of Christ is not only unbiblical, but also limits our evangelism, discipleship, and Kingdom advancement. The divinity and the multicultural human package of Christ matters and is deeply connected to the Spirit He sends, the Church He starts, and the Kingdom He establishes. When the Church grabs onto the true and revolutionary act of the incarnation, there’s a greater opportunity for reconciliation and transformation.

Starting Racially Reconciling Conversations

May 26, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, race, reconciliation, the church, theology  //  3 Comments

I just finished serving as the moderator for Exponentials’ webinar on Race and Justice, which originally took place at the national conference in Tampa last month. As I listened to the panel of ministry leaders discussing the recent murders of unarmed African-Americans by police and in some cases riots that followed, it reminded me how important it is for the Church to lead regular conversations on race and reconciliation. For this to happen two things must be addressed.

One, we must create opportunities for Post-Black and Post-White spaces of conversation. The White Church must get beyond its avoidance or apathy of having conversations about race. I am so hopeful by the number of one on one conversations I’ve been having with White pastors and lay leaders who want their congregations to figure out how to put on forums to begin racially reconciling discussions. The Church can’t play a role in advancing the Kingdom of God in a divided land if it won’t have on-going and prayerful conversations about the divides. Churches that are predominately Black, Asian, and Hispanic must be willing to serve as teachers, mentors, and bridge builders when it comes to these types of conversations.

As a product of the Black Church I know that race conversations have been going on for a long time internally and in many cases reconciling conversations have been taking place externally. Over time this can cause some to grow weary and lose patience on the road towards reconciliation and righteousness. No matter how long the journey we must not give up until we reach the destination, even if that destination isn’t reached in our lifetime. I am where I am today because of those who came and fought lovingly for change before me. In this spirit, I must fight nonviolently and lovingly for those who will come after me.

The second thing that must be addressed in order for racially reconciling conversations to take place is recognizing that biblically reconciliation and justice go hand and hand. I have learned this theologically from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., J. Deotis Roberts, John Perkins, Debbie Blue, Brenda Salter-McNeil, and Tom Skinner. Christ is the ultimate reconciler because He deals with individual and systemic sins thru his death and resurrection. National and individual sin separates humanity from God. Another way to state this is that sins within souls and systems of humanity created a gap that could only be closed thru a Supernatural Savior and Liberator. Christ brings about true reconciliation and justice and when He returns all of creation will reflect this reality. The Church cannot truly be a reconciling church without also being a church of Kingdom compassion, mercy, and justice.

Though not easy, we must jump into racially reconciling conversations. The Church must lead the way. Allow God to direct and empower you to serve as the solution to the divided and broken world around you.

 

The Road Forward Is A Bridge

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

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.

 

 

 

 

Empowerment Theology

Oct 13, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   race, reconciliation, spiritual growth, the church, theology  //  1 Comment

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  //  1 Comment

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.

The Problem with City Transformation and Church Planting Movements

Aug 5, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   reconciliation, the church, theology  //  5 Comments

There are some city transformation and urban church planting models that in the end will actually be more problematic than transformative and missional in cities across the United States. These expressions of church planting seem to put at the forefront those that are coming into the city thru an urban redevelopment model known as gentrification. The poor, the immigrant, and the longstanding residents of urban communities become secondary objects of outrreach. This approach seems very different from the missional work of Jesus, which begins with the paralyzed, the Samaritan woman, the tax collector, fishermen, and those marginalized and oppressed by the Roman Empire and the religious leaders of the Temple.

Another problem is that too many city transformation and urban church planting movements come into the city ignoring existing churches and other urban ministries that have been around for years. There is a privileged and colonizing spirit of “bringing Jesus to the city” instead of recognizing that Jesus is already there. As one who was born and raised in the city, served as an urban youth pastor, and planted an urban church in the city where I was raised, I am amazed at the arrogance of some who come into the city from the outside with their models, principles, and values that they feel,”led by God” to bring into and place upon the city. I have had many suburbanites try to school me on urban ministry, transformation, and church planting verses learning from me and hundreds to thousands of others who have a track record of fruitful urban ministry.

Urban ministry at its best has always been about the empowerment and liberation of the suffering. Urban ministry at its best is about facilitating a movement where the oppressed become the chosen indigenous leaders of God within their own communities. City transformation and urban church planting movements could learn a lot from the urban Black church  as well as African-American theologians and practitioners for starters. To learn from those such as Dr. Cheryl Sanders and Dr. J. Deotis Roberts. I would also point people to the late Tom Skinner and to the living Queen of Reconciliation, Brenda Salter McNeil.

In Order To Abolish Abortion

Mar 24, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, politics, reconciliation, theology  //  7 Comments

A few months ago I was taken to task by a few folks for not being more proactive in using my influence in raising the deep tragedies around the issue of abortion. Some of these dear folks, who I have deep respect for, would take me to task right now for using the word abortion instead of stating it as, the senseless murder of thousands of innocent children daily within the womb. Some even believe that to label yourself as “Pro-life” is too soft and that “abolitionist” is a better term to use. This is actually connected to my being taken to task for talking about working to reduce abortion in the US instead of working to abolish abortion all together. Well, because of all this, I decided to share some reflections which give clarity to my position on this very divisive, yet important issue. I don’t expect readers to agree with me and I might be taken to task yet again for even sharing these reflections.

I will begin by stating that I would still consider myself pro-life for theological and ideological reasons. Let me begin with theology. Jeremiah 1 and the Ten Commandments as laid out in Exodus are part of my biblical foundation for being pro-life. I believe that life doesn’t begin when humans conceive it, but when God begins the designing process, which is beyond simply the works of human beings. Many people would like to stay within a framework of life and death ultimately being in our hands. Freewill gives some influence over life and death for humans, but ultimately life, death, and eternal life are all in the almighty Hands of God. Some pro-life Christians use as their biblical foundation, Scriptures focused on pagan cultures sacrificing children to a false god in the Old Testament. By doing this they are connecting murder and idolatry as the foundation for abortion. I stay away from this because we are dealing with what happens with children in the womb, not outside of it.

Because I see abortion as murder, I see it as oppressive and sinful. This belief is why I don’t choose to lift up abortion as a stand alone issue. If we want to reduce or abolish abortion, I believe we must connect it to other acts of oppression. Some have told me they want to abolish abortion the same way we abolished slavery. Well, they don’t realize that slavery has not been totally abolished on this planet, which proves raising single issues is a strategy that is very limited in dealing with sin and injustice. There are slave systems which are still not abolished in this sinful world. And, if we want to abolish sinful and oppressive acts, why just limit it to abortion? Why not abolish oppressive government systems, murder, poverty, and human trafficking as well? I would agree that we should work towards that end.

What makes the issue of abortion complex is that it intersects the oppression of children in the womb and that of women. In some cases it brings in racial oppression and the oppression of the poor as well. If we want to reduce or abolish abortion, I believe we must connect it to the oppression of women, the poor, and people of color. It is problematic to cry out for innocent children in the womb, but not cry out against domestic abuse, date rape, human trafficking, and other forms of the oppression of women. There is also a connection between abortion and the urban poor. There is a connection between abortion and race. It has been stated on many occasions that the founder of Planned Parenthood had a racist agenda in wanting to use abortion as a way to control the number of Black babies born or to be more true to the agenda, not born. The one who desires to reduce or abolish abortion must have a more holistic agenda of Kingdom compassion, mercy, and justice.

I am very passionate about babies in the womb of mothers who ought to have a chance at living out God’s destiny for their lives. I’m also passionate about the empowerment of the poor, the empowerment of women, racial reconciliation, and the rescuing of children out of sex slavery. It would be fair to take me to task for not being dominated by one singular issue.

 

Why The Color of Jesus and Noah Matters

Mar 4, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   post-black thought, race, reconciliation, spiritual growth, theology  //  1 Comment

With the films Son of God and Noah coming to theaters, I will once again share my thoughts while also grieving over the continued portrayal of Jesus the Christ as European. The Noah movie, featuring Russell Crow as Noah, has me extending my thoughts to the broad portrayal of biblical characters as White. Some have responded to some of my Facebook posts as if this is strictly a Hollywood problem. American Christianity as dominated by the Anglo Evangelical and Mainline Church has participated in a significant way in lifting up the White Jesus. Others argue that the recent Jesus is Latin. That may be progress to some, but still is far from the Christ of Scripture.

Though there is a part of me that hopes these two films will point people ultimately to the authentic Christ of the Scriptures, I still grieve that we as Christians are okay with a false Jesus used as the on-ramp hopefully to the real One. Isn’t this really saying that we okay with a lie being the road to truth? You would think my fellow Evangelical Brothers and Sisters would have a real problem with that one. Some believe that at the end of the day the color of Jesus doesn’t matter; it only matters that He is the Son of God. Okay, let’s sit with that one for a moment. This creates a problem when living within a theology of knowing Jesus the Christ as both the Son of God and Son of Man. I deal with this issue on a deeper level in my books, Jump: Into a Life of Further and Higher and The Post-Black and Post-White Church. In short, Matthew 1 and John 1 provide us the biblical foundation for understanding Christ as both human and divine. The way in which Jesus comes to earth socially, ethnically, and politically all play a role in understanding who He is as the Lamb that was slain. Understanding His Jewish and multi-ethnic identity and what that meant to both the political and religious power structures has major meaning in the biblical narrative and how He gets to the cross. It also sets up the reconciliation and multicultural Christ-centered movements we see in the Book of Acts and the writings of Paul. The Great Commission is not just stated by Jesus, it’s embodied by the multi-ethnic Christ. This is all powerful stuff. The White Jesus represents something else all together.

The White Jesus unfortunately points us to colonization, American slavery, and a privileged religion that wrestles with how to missionally relate to people groups the Jewish and multi-ethnic Jesus gravitated to naturally (John 4). The White Jesus keeps the Christian Church captive to the social matrix of race. When people say, it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was, my reply is, “then why does the Bible take the time to tells us in detail his multi-ethnic family line in Matthew 1?” I also say, those who made Christ White in the first place seemed to really care what color He was or really cared about what color He needed to become. Watch the movie 12 Years a Slave and then meditate on the significance of a European Jesus verses the Jesus of Scripture.

With a White Christ comes a whole army of White biblical characters from Adam and Eve, to Noah, to David, to Esther, and Paul. The authentic ethnic and multicultural presentation of biblical characters gives the church greater missional credibility to reach an increasing multi-ethnic and multicultural reality.

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