christianity

How Bethel Church Continues to Hinder Black Salvation

How Bethel Church Continues to Hinder Black Salvation 1096 478 Corey Leak

*Editors note: After the publishing of this piece, it has come to light that the event in the youtube clip below was not at Bethel Church, but at a conference where Bill Johnson (Bethel’s lead pastor) was speaking.

Evangelicalism is the tip of white supremacy’s sword. It has other functions, such as proselytizing the world and telling the story of Jesus. However, its most profound impact in America has been thwarting Black people’s attempt to break free from racial tyranny.

In recent years no white evangelical church has been more problematic to Black people than Bethel Church, an Evangelical Mega-Church best known for their contemporary Christian music and unmitigated support for Donald Trump.

Bethel has been guilty of more than a few transgressions to the black community dating back to 2018 when Brian Johnson, one of their senior leaders, posted a noose in an Instagram post insinuating that planned parenthood was more dangerous to Black lives than the KKK.

After Brian received backlash for the post, Bill Johnson – the lead pastor of Bethel and Ben’s dad, doubled down by reposting the image and caption followed by claiming the post was ok because a black man created it. To be fair, Bethel did ultimately issue an apology for the post.

A Bethel worship leader, Sean Feucht led a band of white evangelical worship leaders to evangelize the mourners and demonstrators at a George Floyd rally in Minnesota shortly after Floyd’s lynching.

Sean followed that up by leading a mass gathering on the shores of Huntington Beach, where he professed that the event symbolized a resurgence of the “Jesus People Movement.”

And, a week ago, a black “prophetess,” on Bethel’s stage declared that God told her she could eradicate racism by enacting a ceremony borrowed from Gandalf the grey.

While posting images of nooses and referencing the KKK is obviously harmful to black people and shows at minimum a lack of cultural humility, the other incidents I mention may need a little unpacking for some.

Let’s begin with the white Saviour trip to the site of George Floyd’s lynching. In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal lynching, advocates for black lives took to the streets to cry out for justice. They were grieving. They were lamenting injustice.

At the height of their grieving and crying out, Sean showed up with his guitar and band of merry worshippers to evangelize the crowd with bright smiling faces and contemporary worship music.

Not only did Sean not join what was already happening in Minnesota, but he tried to interrupt black lament and grief. White Saviours don’t allow space for Black people and our allies to mourn injustice. There is always an attempt to refocus our attention on something else.

In showing up in Minnesota the way he did, Sean Fuecht showed his commitment to the white evangelical brand of squelching Black agency and Black resistance of racial injustice.

Now to Sean’s subtle erasure of Black history on the beautiful Huntington Beach shoreline. Sean references the “revival” he witnessed on the beach as a second coming of the Jesus People Movement of the 1960s.

Why wouldn’t a “revival” taking place in California be reminiscent of an older revival that took place 45 years earlier than the Jesus People? That revival was Azuza street, and it was lead by a black preacher by the name of William Seymour.

The “spirit-filled,” pentecostal way Bethel and other charismatic churches practice worship has its roots in the Azuza Street Revival movement. And while failing to mention Reverend Seymour may seem like an innocent omission, it’s consistent with Sean and Bethel’s disregard for Black culture.

Lastly, the Gandalf incident… (Below for anyone who hasn’t seen it)

In the past, I’ve written about how many white evangelical leaders rely on trite, symbolic gesturing as their only answer to racism. Unfortunately, Black people who have received the baptism into a faith tradition rooted in white supremacy participate in these shenanigans all too often.

Symbolic gestures hold substantive change to racial hierarchies at bay. They keep people of faith who long for a racist free society from asking their leaders the tough questions about power and agency.

By standing on stage and declaring that racism was over because they chanted Gandolf’s words from Lord of the Rings, Bethel once again proved what we should’ve already known. They are an evangelical three-ring circus incapable of helping society move toward salvation.

Bethel’s leaders seem to believe that we find salvation in irrational belief, cultish practices, and mystical rhetoric. None of those help to protect future black people from suffering violence at the hands of white supremacy. Any salvation that doesn’t defend Black futures is no salvation at all.

Bethel’s black prophetess believed she was doing the work of God, and Bethel was all too happy to have a black shield to hide behind again. This moment during a church service is not just cannon fodder for memes, gifs, and remix videos. The moment is also indicative of a culture that ignores, opposes, and trivializes Black America.

3 Things You Should Ask Your Church To Find Out How Committed They Are To Anti-Racism

3 Things You Should Ask Your Church To Find Out How Committed They Are To Anti-Racism 6000 4000 Corey Leak

Chances are your church is on week two or three of a brand new series on racism. Some of you have seen more black faces speaking at your church over the last few weeks than you’d seen in the previous three years. 

Perhaps you’re on this journey with your church with guarded optimism – hoping that you and your church will find yourselves on the right side of history.

Or maybe you’re expecting all this race talk in the church will be over soon, and you can get back to listening to expository sermons on the book of Acts. 

No matter what your disposition is on the stance your church has taken lately, there are three ways to know that your church plans on committing to anti-racism for the long haul. 

Ask someone in senior leadership about President Trump.

Churches and Christian leaders tend to take apolitical stances. It’s one of the reasons so many churches are only recently engaging in extensive content on the subject of race and racism. Race talk has a name – “identity politics.”

It may be challenging to get a direct answer from someone in senior leadership at your church about their personal feelings on the president. Try anyway.

Men and women of the cloth shouldn’t tell you who to vote for, but they should be able to articulate the moral ineptitude of the president with great clarity. 

A church committed to anti-racism will have leaders who can recognize the racist statements and policies this president has put forth over the last four years and the overt racism that plagued his business affairs from years before he became president. 

Certainly, no church committed to becoming anti-racist would ever endorse this president to their congregants. That should go without saying, but you never know. 

Ask about church oversight and leadership.

The pastoral staff and board leadership lead churches.  *Dr. James Cone said: “there is no justice without power, and there is no power with one, two, or three tokens.” Email your church and find out who makes decisions.

If your church is going to be about racial justice, then there should be black people and other non-white leaders at both the board and directional leadership tables. 

There can be no serious progress toward anti-racism if there is no such leadership in place and no clearly articulated plans to place voices of color in leadership roles.

Don’t settle for a picture or a list of names. If you’re committed to investing your time and resources into a church, find out what influence Black people an non-black people of color have at your church. 

Ask about the plan for creating an anti-racist culture beyond Sunday. 

The music, preaching, announcements, and kid’s programs are all part of the Sunday morning experience churches provide, but they are not the totality of what makes a church function. 

Every church has an organizational culture. They have values, language, and expectations for what behaviors will receive rewards and which behaviors cause them to part ways with employees. 

Ask your church what actions they are taking to address the climate of their work culture. Ask them if their staff is going through any implicit bias training or any other practices to ensure an anti-racist work environment. 

How your church responds to these three questions should give you a glimpse into how committed they are to anti-racism. 

The work is a marathon, but it’s reasonable to expect your church leadership has considered these questions before presenting racial justice talks if they are serious about long-term sustainable change. 

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

*The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone 

A Prayer for the Holidays

A Prayer for the Holidays 318 159 Corey Leak

The Christmas season can be a mixed bag of cheer, sadness, joy, and anxiety. Some of us love this season, and some of us find it a depressing and lonely time of year. Whatever your relationship to this time of year, I wrote a prayer that I believe can help you find peace and center your soul during this holiday season.

Below is a prayer you can pray daily or when you feel you need it during the Christmas season. I hope you find it helpful.

God, I pray that you would help me experience your peace during this season.
In the midst of all of the noise and bustle of this time of year, keep my soul and mind at rest.
Help me to recognize that your presence is within me and all around me.
In everyone and everything I see, there are gentle reminders of your goodness and your undeserved love and grace.
Help me learn to accept gifts from you – your love, grace, and mercy. Help me understand that I was created to give and receive love freely – without merit and without discrimination.
Remind me this season again and again that Jesus came to us as a gift freely given. There was nothing we human beings could’ve done to earn the gift you gave us in Jesus.
Grant me the strength to love those around me as you have loved humankind. Show me how to grieve with those who mourn and celebrate with those who are rejoicing.
When I am tempted to settle into anxiety, stress, or loneliness, prompt me to breathe deeply as a reminder that life is your gift. With each inhale I receive the gift and with each exhale, I give that gift back.
May your presence fill all in all this season and fill the whole earth with your grace. Amen

Why I Can’t Stop Talking About Race

Why I Can’t Stop Talking About Race 849 557 Corey Leak

No one in the history of humankind was born to be a person who speaks out about race. I’ve never heard a first grader say that they want to be an activist when they grow up. People admire revolutionaries like Dr. King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Malcolm X, but no one wants to BE them.

When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a doctor, and by the time I got to high school, I just wanted to grow up and be rich. As a junior in High School I knew that I was supposed to be a public servant of some sort. In my Christian tradition we would say I got the “call” to ministry. I knew I was destined to share good news with the world about the benevolent nature of Divinity, but I also didn’t want to be poor. Little did I know that some day clergy would be some of the richest people in the world. Go figure.

Even though I knew I was uniquely wired for being a religious leader, I would never have imagined that I would be in reality or perception – an activist.

I’m not sure there is a day that goes by that I don’t have at least one conversation about race or racism, and I wouldn’t say that’s an enjoyable place to be. Perhaps you’re thinking: “Why don’t you just stop talking about it?” That seems simple enough. I could choose to not bring up race at all in conversation, in my podcasts, or in my writings, and that would….

Wait… what would that do? Would it eliminate race from being a topic of discussion for me? Let’s see… If I stopped talking about race today…

I would still have people asking me about race and racism. I would still have friends, family, or otherwise cracking jokes about me being the “radical race guy.” I would still have black children who come home and share their exhaustion with being black in the suburbs. Lastly, I myself would still be a black man in America. The luxury of being insulated from race conversation is simply not afforded to me.

Talk to any activist, civil rights leader, or clergy person of color about why they are outspoken about race, and they will tell you that they have no other choice. The bell can’t be un-rung. What has been seen cannot be unseen. Racism/Injustice is a menace to society. We who recognize it as such know that it is not only an existential threat to us people of color, but it is a threat to all human beings – privileged or not.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. – Dr King

There are lots of reasons I started and continue to talk about race and racial injustice. Here are three of them.

  • We still live on unjust soil.

If I were to sneak into your house in the middle of the night, take the only pictures you have of your parents off your walls, eat all your food, and dump all the medicine in your medicine cabinets in the toilet – leaving you sick and one of your children dead, how often would you talk about that? How often would your surviving children? How would you feel when you saw me or my children healthy and thriving out and about?

America’s most vile racist acts of injustice are not in the ancient past. People who are alive today witnessed and experienced lynchings, segregation, and state-sanctioned assassinations of Black leaders. These actions happened here on American soil, on the streets we live on, in the hallways of the schools our children attend, and at the hands of people still alive today.

  • Society screams “White Power”

I’ve talked with several black people who work in corporate America. Every one of them has told me that they are the only black person in the room over 90 percent of the time that they are in high level leadership meetings. Each of them face micro-aggressions. Each of them have felt that they had to work twice as hard due to being black. Each has been passed over for promotions by less qualified white people with lesser performance ratings.

Think about the wealthiest, most influential, and powerful people in the world. Are most of the names you’re thinking: Bob, Bill, Mike, Chris, Steve, Rich, Don, Frank…? Why is that? Do you believe that is coincidence? Is it a benign happenstance of natural selection?

I would argue it’s the result of an intentional strategy that has been successfully doing its thing for generations. And, as long as we have the construct of white power, none of us will live in a just society.

  • The source material for my faith is justice themed.

Evangelical churches don’t talk about race that often. You might be hard pressed to find an evangelical church that talks about justice. I sat in, volunteered in and worked for many an evangelical church not realizing that justice was the central theme of the Bible. I thought that when the church talked about a social issue like race, even tho I am in fact black, the church was diverting from the Bible to talk about society.

It wasn’t until I went on about a 3-year journey into the context and history of Biblical texts and narratives that I began to realize how central justice is to the ideas, poetry, stories, and principles of Biblical literature.

After realizing that the Bible has a historical context and that that context has strong political, social, and ethnic implications, I began to feel like I had Divine backing to engage in social conversations. And not only did I have backing – I had a moral obligation to use my platforms to lift up the plight of the marginalized in society.

I guess you could say I’m fulfilling my “calling” after all. It is exhausting to talk about race and racism. It is not fun. It does not often feel very rewarding, but those of us who talk about it know that if we stop, future generations will suffer for it.

I wish we lived in a world where racism wasn’t a systemic issue that plagues the primary structures of our communities. I would love to live to see a time where no one talks about it because there is no need, and I’m doing my part to get us there – one conversation at a time.

My Tension With Kanye West’s Sunday Service

My Tension With Kanye West’s Sunday Service 1100 618 Corey Leak

“He’s fashionable, he’s reaching a lot of people who weren’t going to church and he sits with people who have diverse opinions.”

I’ve heard a wide range of thoughts about Kanye West’s latest artistic project – Sunday Service. Some people love it, and some people believe it’s heresy. I’ve been asked more than a few times over the last week about what I thought, so I decided to process those thoughts with you.

I’ve refrained from writing or talking publicly about the “revival” Kanye is leading because I have had conflicting ideas about the movement.

When I first heard about Kanye doing a Sunday morning service, my response was similar to my reaction when I heard that he said slavery was a choice.

I initially felt like this was a stunt “Yeezus” was using to center himself, and therefore I was extremely cynical. But, when I looked deeper within myself, I found that part of me was jealous that Kanye was creating the kind of faith communities I long to organize myself.

All that being said, here are my musings about Kanye West’s Sunday Service movement. They are in no particular order, and as I already said, some of them are probably contradictory. I feel tension within myself about it.

I don’t trust him.

I would personally never ask Kanye West for spiritual advice, and I imagine based on everything I’ve seen about what he’s up to these days, that he wouldn’t give it to me if I asked. He doesn’t seem to want the title or responsibilty of spiritual advisor.

My belief about spiritual leadership, which he is now positioned as whether he wanted it or not, is that the people we look to for spiritual leadership should be trustworthy in matters pertaining to Divinity. Which also carries with it the expectation of high moral character.

He’s by all accounts genuine.

I believe the countenance of those closest to us reveal our character. Kanye’s wife has been quoted as saying Kanye has had a genuine experience with God, and that is enough for me to at least look at what he is doing with less skeptisim.

People who have been in the space where Kanye has led Sunday services have said they believed the worship environment was authentically spiritual. I’m reluctant to dismiss the experiences of so many people who claim to have been touched by what they heard and saw.

I’m afraid.

If God uses Kanye West, who I have been angry with over claiming to be “Jesus” and cooning for Trump, then what does that mean for the faith I’ve grown up believing? My Christian roots, which I have am in almost daily conflict with, are unsettled by the idea that someone as weird as Kanye would be God’s agent of evangelism.

I am confronted with the idea that God can and does use people I don’t like or would not choose all the time. This movement Kanye has started has me looking at the man in the mirror, revealing that God does indeed use “undeserving people” every day.

Image result for michael jackson

His celebrity drives his influence.

It’s been over a decade now since he first time I was in a large audience listening to a prominent Christian speaker. I remember when she took the stage and a friend we attended the gathering with started crying. The speaker hadn’t said a word yet, but her mere presence moved my friend to tears.

I also remember that she opened her message by showing a video of a debt being canceled. The entire room exploded into cheering and clapping. I can’t remember anything about the content of what she shared about God or humanity, but I remember what if felt like to be in the room.

Her personality and fame gave her content more juice than it would have possessed had it been presented by someone with less cache.

Kanye is the natural progression of celebrity church culture.

Over the last 20 years or so with the emergence of Christian television and social media, we have seen a rise in pastors and preachers who are every bit as rich, powerful, and famous as any other celebrity. TMZ is as likely to stop them in the airport as they are Justin Bieber. (Often because they have been seen out with Bieber or another celebrity)

Image result for celebrity pastors

This is a pedestal we’ve created makes us believe that these men and women are more qualified to be God’s agents than the people who preach at and pastor small faith communities in urban and rural contexts all over the world.

The celebrity culture isn’t evil. It is a reality of the era we live in. The pastors featured by “Preachers N Sneakers” aren’t phonies or false prophets. They are the human bi-products of our desire for larger than life figures to point us toward God.

They say things in a way and with a style that moves us. We believe that swag invites “outsiders” to see what God and faith are all about, so we are happy to point our friends to the latest videos and tweets of famous preachers saying ordinary things in creative and flashy ways.

How is he different?

I bet you thought the first quote in this piece was about Kanye West. It wasn’t. It was how a friend of mine articulated why I should be careful in my criticism of what I perceived as a well known pastor’s lack of theological framework.

Those are my thoughts. Share yours in the comments here or on FB, Twitter or Instagram.

My Mental Health Journey

My Mental Health Journey 467 700 Corey Leak

A few years ago I was flying home from my dad’s funeral. It was a normal flight all things considered. I was obviously sad he was gone, and for the first time in my life I felt the existential reality of death. I felt like its imminence. I felt like I moved up one space in line for the trip every human being takes to the unknown. The place ancient people called Sheol.

After having a drink I fell asleep in the window seat next to my wife. I don’t often fall asleep on flights, but this time I fell into one of those really sweet sleeps that only alcohol or anesthesia can induce. I was at peace – until I wasn’t.

Suddenly I woke up out of my sleep having trouble breathing and feeling extremely disoriented. I don’t even remember how I got past my wife and the person in the aisle seat, but I rushed to the lavatory in the back of the plane, sat down, and splashed water on my face while saying “Jesus help me.”

I felt like I was dying. Since I grew up Pentecostal my instinct was to believe that I was being attacked by a demon – some kind of airplane devil or something.

What I didn’t know then that I know now is that I was experiencing a panic attack. I learned that because on the next flight I took the same thing happened.

After that the second incident, I googled my symptoms and read what panic attacks are and how to cope with them. That was the day I decided not to white knuckle this issue.

Side note, “white-knuckling” might be the only pejorative reference to something “white.”

I didn’t “feel” an overwhelming amount of grief over my dad dying, but I believed that the panic attacks were a signal that something was new in my emotional headspace. I wanted to find out what that was, so I sat down with a counselor and processed what I was feeling about death, life, religion, and my own mortality.

I also explained to the counselor that I had had panic attacks, and they introduced me to “mindfulness exercises.” I assumed that like any other time I was prescribed medicine from a doctor, that would cure me, and I’d like to say that was the end of the panic attacks – but it wasn’t.

I continued to see a therapist to discuss depression, anxiety, and more generally, how I felt about myself. However, every time I got on a plane, I would feel panic trying to come on. In fact, I still feel anxiety about flying – especially alone. I think I had one or two more episodes while flying before one session with a therapist changed everything for me.

There was nothing terribly profound about what the counselor said to me. I can’t remember the exact words, but I remember that they told I needed to accept the new reality of my mental state.

I suffer from anxiety, so when I get on a plane I expect to encounter my old friend panic, and while that’s not a practice that is designed to prevent panic attacks, I haven’t had any since my therapist introduced that idea to me.

Perhaps you’re reading this as a person who quietly suffers through anxiety alone because you believe that it’s something to be ashamed of. Maybe you’re someone whose religious experience precludes you from seeking professional help. To both of those inclinations I’d say REPENT.

I don’t mean repent in the tent preacher revivalist sort of way. I mean it in the old Jewish way of changing your thinking. Try to consider that there is no shame in carrying a disease that plagues millions of people around the world, and consider that science is teaching us things about the human brain that the Bible writers had yet to name or discover.

All that to say, if you’re struggling with or even casually encountering depression, anxiety, or panic, seek out professional help from a licensed mental health professional. There is nothing weak or sinful about asking for help.

Why People Are Abandoning Christianity But Not Jesus

Why People Are Abandoning Christianity But Not Jesus 1280 720 Corey Leak

Last month Josh Harris, author of the popular Christian book “I Kiss Dating Goodbye,” made it known to the world that he was “falling away” from his faith through an Instagram post. In the post, he wrote that he was no longer a Christian. He kissed the faith goodbye. I couldn’t help it. I’m sorry. I’m ashamed.

Yesterday I learned that Marty Sampson of Hillsong fame also declared to the world that he was no longer a Christian either. Here is what he said:

This is a soapbox moment so here I go . . . How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet — they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me.

The singer-songwriter who once sang “One way… Jesus… You’re the only one that I could live for…” has reached a place in his life where he can no longer reconcile the world he sees with the beliefs he’s held about the world through his Christian lens.

These two men were two of the most influential voices in modern evangelicalism, and within one month, they both publically declared that they could no longer stand under the umbrella of “Christian.” What led them to that conclusion? What happened that convinced them to abandon a faith that been the foundations for their lives and careers?

I hope you didn’t think I was going to answer that. I don’t know those dudes. If you were moving to the edge of your seat to read what the answer was – I’m sorry. I can’t speak specifically to why Marty and Josh turned in their badge and Bible, but I can tell you why I believe they and many others like them still believe in and even follow Jesus.

The Jesus we read about from the writers of his biography is one of drastic, culturally challenging acceptance. Jesus ate with, talked with, and put his hands on people who society deemed less than or unworthy of God. Much of that is lost in the Western view of faith and culture – as we tend to paint a picture of Jesus reaching out to people who “aren’t that bad.”

The reality is that Jesus accepted people that were outcasts and associated himself with marginalized people. The writers that told us of his life seem intent to prove that Jesus spent most of his time amongst people religious folks tended to avoid and label as outsiders.

Status quo and religious institutions tend to create a world of in and out, us and them, saved and unsaved. The in-crowd is always determined by how well a person fits within the confines of conventional thought and behavior.

Read the stories of Jesus for yourself and see if I’m lying to you about him treating people utterly opposite of that.

Jesus once spoke a parable about separating sheep and goats. It’s a famous story in Christian circles, but not one that emerges as what it means to align with Jesus for most Western Evangelicals.

We tend to be more concerned with right doctrine and personal piety. However, Jesus describes the people who were on his team by explaining how they acted towards people who were outsiders. He doesn’t even welcome them based on how they treated God!

In the parable, he says that how humans treat the hungry, imprisoned, sick, foreign, naked, and thirsty will determine who gets to sit with him and who has to “go somewhere.”

Jesus embraced those who cared for the outsiders and rejected those who didn’t. But both were surprised.

Neither the sheep or the goats knew they had rejected or accepted Jesus. They seem to have lived their lives treating other humans in ways that probably seemed natural to them.

They were both surprised that how they treated people on earth mattered that much to the Divine King.

That story is a microcosm of the radical acceptance and mystery that is following Jesus. That acceptance and mystery are often lost in Christian practice and teaching these days, but anyone who is following Jesus is heading into a world of great mystery and absurd love and grace towards people.

I don’t suspect that is what Josh, Marty, or the many others who have deconstructed their faith are abandoning.

 

For more thoughts about Christianity and things our faith could stand to be more honest about, check out: https://coreyevanleak.com/if-were-being-honest/

 

 

Enlighten ME

Enlighten ME 1140 500 Corey Leak

Let me tell you about an interaction I had last week.

On Memorial Day, I got up early to play basketball at the health club. I generally play with the same group of guys each week. They’ve been playing for years and I just started playing with them about a year and a half ago. Over the years, I’ve come to be “friends” with a couple of the guys on FB, and a while back I noticed that one of the guys I play with was on a FB video sharing about his faith. It was refreshing to see. It made me feel like I would finally have something in common with one of the guys I play with – outside of trying to relive our glory days as weekend basketball warriors.

Image result for pickup basketball

Last week during a break between pick up games, I went up to this guy and told him I saw the video of him sharing his faith. I asked what church he went to, and he told me he attended a local church in the area. I had heard of the church, and I told him some former colleagues of mine from a church I used to work for are now at his church. He asked me if I was still part of my old church. I said no, and told him about something I’m working on that I’ll be sharing with you all later. For now, I’ll say it rhymes with “granting mouse lurches.”

What he said next was the strangest response I’ve ever heard from anyone after sharing with them the type of work I do. He looked me square in my eyes and asked me, “what Bible do you read?”

I know Steph! Me too. (Let’s bring this banner back to the Bay BTW) We had already established commonality of faith in the conversation we were having. Nothing in our dialog suggested that I would read a different Bible from him, so because he’s a white man and I’m not, I was left feeling like there was something culturally dissonant going on.

I said: “ummm…. the same one as you… in English, the Christian Bible…”. Then he asked me with a slight interrogation in his voice “Old or New Testament?”. I told him I read both, and then he told me he reads the ASV (American Standard Version). I was like: “Cool, I read the CJB (Complete Jewish Bible).” Then he said: “Oh, so Old Testament then.” “No, Bro, old and new,” I said.

At this point, I was pretty uncomfortable with the dialog and a little disoriented. I felt like at any moment someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and reveal that I was on candid camera or something. I told the dude that the reason I liked the CJB was that Messianic Jews curated it and it brings to light the Jewish culture that helps me gain a deeper understanding of what the Jewish authors of scripture were trying to convey to their original audience.

I gave the following example. There is a portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he uses the phrase “Jesus is the propitiation for sin”. That’s an English translation of a Hebrew ritual called “Kapparah.” These two different translations of the original idea are close, but not identical. Propitiation is about appeasing an angry party. Kapparah is a ritual where a Jewish person would put a small animal like a chicken into an apparatus that they would bind to their heads and spin it around. The idea was that they were transferring their sin into the animal before killing it the next day.

After I shared that with my man at the gym he went on to tell me how “dangerous” that was because we are saved by grace alone and actions like that are forbidden in scripture which he would go on to tell me he read strictly with no interpretation.

That was the moment I knew the conversation had gone as far as it could.

This entire interaction had racial undertones. I walked away really bothered by it and disappointed all the more in an American Evangelicalism that was failing yet another white man. You could be asking yourself how this interaction has anything to do with race. Perhaps you think this guy would have probably said the same thing to anyone. “He’s just a fundamentalist who lives in his own world.”

It’s entirely possible that he would’ve said the same stuff to anyone, and he may be a fundamentalist Christian convinced of his superior wisdom. However, that doesn’t mean that the interaction doesn’t have racial undertones.

First of all, in case you’re unaware, the Christian religion has its roots in Jewish culture, custom, and language. The writers of the Bible are all Jewish. When an American is dismissive of a Jewish ritual in favor of their own American interpretation of what scripture says, they do so because they have bought into an unfortunate misconception that American ideology is supreme. Despite what my basketball partner or anyone else will tell you, NO ONE reads the Bible without interpreting what it says. Scientists have discovered that our eyes do more interpreting than seeing. We are always interpreting, especially when we encounter people we don’t know at all or aren’t familiar with.

I’ve said it before, and it’s no secret that the majority of the influence of American Evangelicalism comes from white men. That’s a fact that we all have to accept, but not one that we shouldn’t be actively seeking to change. It’s not helping us be more connected as a culture.

When Brock attends church with his family and hears his pastor Tom remind the audience that “we are the light of the world,” Brock will look around the room and see Emily, Connor, Chad, and Logan. What he sees is a “we” that defines who exactly is the light of the world. Naturally, when Brock comes to the gym and sees me, he will assume a posture of light to my darkness. He is already pre-conditioned to resist learning from me because he can’t imagine that I would have anything to share with him about his faith that’s of value. His natural interpretation of me would be as someone who is need of white salvation.

The critical issue here is that for any of us to get a full picture of God; we have to be willing to look deeply into the cultural experiences of those who have been or are currently oppressed or persecuted. Privilege has never been the carrier of God’s ideas and virtues. 

All of the Bible writers are trying to tell us that the least, the broken, the downtrodden and the oppressed are God’s chosen people. They are the ones who God wants to reveal themselves through.

To put it plainly, if you are a white person reading this in America, and you don’t have any people of color or women that you respect enough to teach you about God, I’m not sure the God you are following is the God of scripture. I’d encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity you are given to be enlightened by stories and experiences of people you don’t usually listen to.

 

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It’s Complicated (Abortion and Choice)

It’s Complicated (Abortion and Choice) 660 352 Corey Leak

We have a moral conundrum in front of us. I’m sure the title gives away that I’m writing about abortion, so some of you may take issue with me using the phrase “moral conundrum,” but that’s what we are wrestling with right now in America. The ethics of abortion are far more complicated than politicians, media, some people of faith, and internet memes would lead us to believe.

We aren’t the first society to grapple with unwanted pregnancies, women’s rights, and the question of when life begins. Does life begin at conception? Is that the moment a woman has a “person” in her womb? Many Christians use words written by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah to answer those questions:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

With that as the starting block for their belief about life, it’s easy for a Christian to start running with the idea that life beginning at conception is a no-brainer. According to the text from Jeremiah, an argument can be made that life begins before conception, so, for most Christians, it’s incomprehensible to imagine that a child isn’t a person at the moment of conception. The word before is relative. It has a broad reach that can lead us to any number of conclusions when reading that scripture.

What were you doing before reading this blog? Don’t think too hard about that. The answer is EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER DONE. Depending on how you interpret “before,” we could argue that every virile male carries lives around with them, and if that’s the case, should we consider the use of condoms abortion? What about male masturbation – is that terminating life? That’s part of the complication that comes from the how we read the words of Jeremiah, but there are more equally complex ideas we can find when we look deeper into the beliefs about life found in the Hebrew scriptures.

There is an ancient law given by Moses to the Jewish people after their liberation from Egyptian slavery. It’s found in Exodus, and Biblical interpreters struggled to understand what it means.

“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

The phrase “serious injury” is an attempt at translating a word from our earliest translations of Exodus. That word is “mishap,” and people were pretty stumped by what that word meant in the context of these verses. Ancient translators of these texts all had a slightly different take. Some interpreters believed that mishap had to do with what stage of pregnancy the woman was in, and others thought it was about whether harm comes to the woman. In the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, interpreters believed that mishap had to do with whether the baby was “fully formed.”

“If two mean are fighting, and a pregnant women is struck in her belly, and her child comes out not fully formed he shall pay a fine… But if it is fully formed  he shall give a soul for a soul…”

The people responsible for translating sacred text into other languages thought that there was a point in which a fetus was fully formed and therefore a living human being and a point where the fetus was not. For one scenario involving miscarriage, the penalty was a fine, but for the other, the sentence was death – a soul for a soul.  What were the criteria for “fully formed”? Your guess is as good as mine. The point is, even within the history of the Bible, there has been some complication around this issue, and not just in the Old Testament.

There are instructions given to women in the NT about being a wife to an “unbelieving husband.” The direction is to live with him righteously, and not to leave him. On the surface, of course, this verse has nothing to do with abortion, but if we examine the culture surrounding the instructions, we find that abortion would have indeed been a complex moral issue for women.

During the times the NT writers were writing women had almost no rights at all. In fact, throughout most of the world, women were slaves. Often masters would sleep with their female slaves, and if the slave girl got pregnant, he would command her to put the baby outside the city gates where the babies would die. She had no choice.  Men treated their wives in similar ways, and they too would have no say if the husband wanted to get rid of the baby.

Now imagine a pregnant woman who has come to faith in Jesus at Christian gathering going home to a pagan husband or master who has already decided he didn’t want the baby. She’d have to be feeling like God would want her to keep her baby, but the only legal way to do so would be to flee illegally. Maybe she’s considering leaving to save her baby, and then she reads (or hears read) a letter from Paul, the leader of the Christian faith at the time, telling her not to leave her husband. This woman has no choice. Regardless of her condition morally, mentally, or emotionally, she has to give up her baby. Even if she wants to choose life for her child, she can’t. Society had stripped her of her right to choose before the baby was ever conceived.

Pro-life people aren’t all close-minded, evil, oppressive patriarchs. They feel like their stance protects innocent lives, and we all have a moral obligation to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. We should preserve all life against violence and harm, and protect a woman’s right to choose. These two issues are not mutually exclusive.

We shouldn’t demonize the people who deem themselves speaking up for the voiceless babies in the womb for their moral passion. Likewise, women and men who are passionate about women maintaining agency over their bodies are not spawns of satan. We need to stop dishonoring people on the other side of our arguments using caricatures of their beliefs to make our points look better.

I’ll never forget hearing a woman I respect sincerely tell me that if she were ever raped, that she’d seriously consider abortion. Ever since then, I decided that my opinion on the matter is far less significant than the views of women who could have to choose between two awful realities. I have yet to hear, meet, or see on television, a pro-abortion woman. Sane people don’t celebrate the deaths of the innocent.

I know that the President has forever tainted the phrase, but in this case, it’s true. There are good people on both sides. It’s just complicated.

For anyone wondering, I’m a thousand percent in favor of women making moral choices about whether or not they want to give birth to a child. A woman, her doctor, and an involved, loving partner should inform the decision about what to do with a pregnancy. Society shouldn’t make that choice for her before she ever gets pregnant.

 

 

 

Still Hovering

Still Hovering 1500 900 Corey Leak

By now it’s no secret that I believe institutional racism is a thing. I’ve lost friends over my beliefs that whiteness is the root cause of that racism, and I’m honestly unbothered by the loss. All of the people I admire most throughout history lost friends, followers, and associates over their convictions. I will never have the impact of Jesus, Paul, or Dr. King, but I feel allied with them whenever another person decides that my beliefs about a racially just society are too far gone for them to continue to journey with me.

Like many of my friends who write, organize, create art, or speak out about racial equality and justice, I started out believing my voice was moderate. I never thought anything I was saying was radical or polarizing. Everyone I know using their influence to bring about change in the area of race is stating the truth about their own experiences and the facts about America’s history of racism. That’s why people’s reactions to the truth are often puzzling to me. Mostly I’m taken aback because very frequently the dissenters, detractors, and critics of racial justice work are Christians.

I’m not the only one disturbed by that. People have asked me on a few different occasions about how I can keep a faith associated with chaos like…

  • Slave owners removing pages from the Bible to ensure that their black slaves wouldn’t get any ideas about how God feels about liberation.
  • American Nationalism leading to phrases like

“I kneel for the cross, but I stand for the flag”   

  • White Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, Paula White, and Jon MacArthur making it demonstratively clear that racism is not an issue that Christians should concern themselves with. It’s a distraction from the real issues that Christians should be concerned about like abortion and human sexuality.

There is no sugar coating that the above list is ugly. There is also no denying that people believing themselves to be agents of God have been behind some of the most egregious human rights abuses throughout history. Evil has dressed up as good. Racism has hidden behind a cross draped in an American flag. Christianity has come dangerously close to being the religion of white men – white men who build their churches to pander to white women and leave a few pews open for POC so that no one can claim their churches aren’t diverse.

I still believe in the God of the Bible. In large part because of one of the opening lines of the most famous poem ever written.

After the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery, they would need to establish their own identity which in antiquity meant telling the story of how the world and man came to be. Ancient tribes told stories of how the world was made. They would share these stories around campfires and teach them to their children. Origin stories were popular. In some ways, it helped tribes define their identity and define the character of whatever god (s) they worshiped. The Hebrew creation story is not so much about the exact details of how God made the world, but about how ancient Hebrews viewed God and human beings relationship to that God.

Scholars believe that the authors of the book we call Genesis (aka B’resheet) wrote it after God rescued the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression. The poem explaining “the beginning” in Genesis 1 2, and 3 is primarily influenced by what they experienced during their liberation from slavery. It’s no wonder Genesis 2 describes a Divine Being hovering over a chaotic mess from the start of the story. The Hebrew people introduce their God alongside chaos, and that God is not chased off by it. The Hebrew Deity speaks into it.

Perhaps it’s that image of God that keeps me believing despite the messiness of the Christian faith over the years. A story inspired by 400 years of slavery gave us our first glimpse of God. Black people in America should all be able to shout a resounding amen to a story like that!

I believe God is always working, always speaking, and still hovering near chaos. I no longer expect that God eliminates all of life’s messiness. I think Divinity and chaos are found together throughout human history. That’s probably what the liberated, no longer enslaved, Hebrew people saw, understood, and experienced. Throughout their writings of history, poetry, and law they were in and out of exile – always facing turmoil and pain. Many times they blamed God in their books and many times they wrote that God blamed them, but through it all, they continued to believe in the God they saw present next to and inside all of the chaos. I choose to believe in the same God.

America is a strange place for black people. Often church can be even more bizarre. My faith doesn’t rest in America becoming more racially just. I do hope, pray, and work alongside many great activists and leaders for it to be. I don’t believe white evangelical pastors across America will all in unison turn from all forms of white supremacy and racism. I hope and pray that I’m wrong. Even if I’m not, I find myself able to smile at the beauty of a God hovering near the chaos getting ready to speak. Somehow that brings me great comfort and helps me look past the ugliness to trust God’s plan.