Saturday, February 3, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Three)

Is racial injustice really a problem today? Or has the problem been exaggerated?

In my first two posts, I introduced the series and told of my chance meeting with John M. Perkins. A few examples from his book, Let Justice Roll Down, might help to set the stage for understanding racial tensions today.

Mississippi Department of Education
Statistics from the year preceding
Brown vs. Board of Education
-Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down, 86 
In my parents' lifetime, the "separate but equal" school system in Mississippi just prior to the famous Brown vs. Board of Education distributed funds in a way predicated on racial discrimination. Someone somewhere determined that black students "required" less money to educate, so black schools were allocated less than white schools in the same district. Although roughly half of the students in Mississippi were black, only a fifth of the transportation money was spent on getting them to school. Their teachers' salaries were only about 75% of what white teachers made. And almost three times more money was spent on instruction in white schools. (Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down, 86-87).

This is not our distant past. These statistics mean that a black man my Dad's age grew up using inferior textbooks, learning from teachers who were not fairly compensated, and likely walking long distances to school. He grew up hearing the strong message that he was not as valuable, not worth the investment, that he need not have any aspirations beyond manual labor. As a nation we failed these boys and girls and their parents, teachers, and communities. The men and women alive today who were educated in the 50s are still living with the repercussions of their most formative years. They have not forgotten. But have we?

John Perkins himself was unjustly imprisoned in 1969 for trying to help diffuse a tense public situation and again in 1970 for peacefully demonstrating in Mendenhall, Mississippi. He and his friends were beaten bloody and tortured by drunk police officers before being released, though they had done nothing wrong. He explains,
"After I was beaten by white policemen, I began to see things a little more clearly. I was able to see the needs of white people and what racism was doing to them. You see, I had gotten set to the fact that the sickness of racism had affected the black community in a way that kept them from functioning as a healthy community. A lot of our people were sick -- affected by generations of slavery, oppression and exploitation -- psychologically destroyed. But I had never thought much before about how all that had affected whites -- how they had been affected by racism, by attitudes of racial superiority, by unjust lifestyles and behavior." (166)
Most troubling of all was the effect racism had on white churches. Visiting a white church as a black man could get you thrown out by the police. Perkins laments:
"The most systematic haters are ministers and Sunday school teachers. In fact, most of the outstanding killings and murderings of blacks in the South have had white ministers involved in them. This was true even of the killing and secret burying of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964." (164) 
Not all white ministers were racists. Indeed, those who spoke out against racial injustice were themselves mistreated. Rev. James Spencer, a white Presbyterian minister, helped with initial efforts to start Bible classes in Perkins' community, but quit under pressure from the Ku Klux Klan (93-94).

Another white pastor, Dr. Odenwald, slowly started preaching about God's love for everyone, gently questioning whether the attitudes of the white community toward blacks was consistent with biblical teaching. His messages met with great resistance from his congregation. Under the strain, Dr. Odenwald ended his own life (96-97).

Such a legacy of injustice does not evaporate overnight. If we want to understand the tensions in our world today, it helps to know the history.

My aim in this series is modest. I'm writing to people like myself who have grown up in mostly white neighborhoods and who can't readily produce first-hand examples of racial injustice. Reading a few books and citing a few examples will not solve the world's problems. But it will help us to take a longer view on race relations, to become more aware of how the same community can be experienced in such vastly disparate ways. I hope we'll get a sense of what it's like living in someone else's skin. I hope we'll be bothered by these stories, and more aware of ways that "the system" benefits us at the expense of others. Most of all, I hope that blog posts like this one will foster our Christian commitment to living out the gospel in practical ways.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

What John Piper Said . . .

. . . has sent shockwaves through the blogosphere, the twittersphere, and every other sphere. My Facebook feed has been punctuated by alarm, by groaning, by reasoned responses, and by all-out debate. Did you miss it? You can listen here.

But I am not surprised.

John Piper has been saying it long and loud in a myriad of ways. In his universe, where Christianity is essentially masculine and God has appointed only men to leadership both inside and outside the church, and has appointed women to the joyful task of following, it is only logical that women should not be seminary professors. He clarifies,
"Just to be clear, the issue is not whether women should attend seminary in one of its programs and get the best biblical grounding possible. The issue is whether women should be models, mentors, and teachers for those preparing for a role that is biblically designed for spiritual men." 
In other words, women can attend seminary, but since seminaries are designed for training men for pastoral ministry, all the professors should be men. He goes on to say,
"If it is unbiblical to have women as pastors, how can it be biblical to have women who function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded? I don’t think that works."
I appreciate Piper's logical consistency. But is he right? All three of his premises deserve comment.

1. Is Christianity Essentially Masculine?

I can't get away from passages that compare Yahweh to a nursing mother (Isa 45:19) or say that God has given birth (Deut 32:18). Notice how fluidly the prophet moves between masculine and feminine imagery for God in Isaiah 42:13-14. Even Jesus compares himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks (Matt 23:27). These are metaphors, of course, so they don't make God female any more than speaking of him using masculine pronouns makes him male. But even Paul is not above using feminine metaphors for his own ministry! See 1 Thess 2:7. Why, then, must Piper privilege masculine modes of talking about the spiritual life? Are the passages that use feminine imagery for the life of faith somehow less accurate? I think not.

2. Is It Unbiblical to Have Women Pastors?

I used to think so. Thanks to male college and seminary professors who patiently showed me the biblical and theological case for women in pastoral ministry, I changed my mind. I feel no need to reproduce here the excellent arguments for why women can teach and preach in the church and can exercise their pastoral and leadership gifts. A good starting place is Alice Mathews' new book, Gender Roles and the People of God. She deals with all the key passages well. You might also appreciate the autobiographical approach of How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership. For those of you who are getting nervous, consider this: To conclude that women can teach and preach does not necessitate the abandonment of conservative exegesis. I teach at a 95-year-old Canadian institution that has been unabashedly conservative since it's founding, but which has also had women teaching Bible to men since 1923.

3. Should Women Be Seminary Professors?

This question follows closely on the heels of the previous one. If women may serve in church leadership, or at least as teachers, then my answer is yes. Michael Bird has made a good case for why women in seminary need women professors, as role models, as advocates, as encouragers. He has listened well to the women in his circles, and I am grateful. But he left something crucial unsaid:

Men need women as seminary professors, too.

Women are not the only students who benefit from having female professors (in seminary or at any level). Male students benefit. Male colleagues benefit. I believe it is critically important for men to hear a women's perspective in the classroom. Having an intelligent woman at the podium calls into question the ill-formed assumptions of students -- both male and female -- who might have thought that anything and everything worth knowing about comes from men. Young male pastors who meet brilliant and articulate women in seminary will be far less likely to overlook them in their churches. They will be far more likely to encourage young women to cultivate their gifts of leadership and invest in education.

Several years ago I watched a powerful documentary that argued this thesis: if we want to break the cycle of poverty, the key is to educate women. In developing nations all over the world, the education of women is a game changer. Educated women make sure their own children -- both sons and daughters -- know how to read. Sons of educated mothers don't fall prey to the lie that women are only useful in the kitchen or in the bedroom. The same is true in seminary.

It seems to me that having female professors goes a long way toward breaking a cycle of gender disparity in church leadership. Not only does it model for female students that female leadership is possible (which in itself is critically important), but it models this for men as well.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Two)

The year was 2008. I was in New Orleans for my first academic conference, the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It was a giddy experience to walk the halls with those who had taught me so much through their writings. A living bibliography surrounded me. One thing that struck me was how white this conference was. As a woman, I represented less than 10% of those attending. But when I looked around, I was hard pressed to find anyone of color.

Perhaps that’s why he made such an impression on me. A friend and I were riding the elevator up to the ballroom level for a plenary session. Mid-way there, the elevator stopped and the door opened. Three men entered the elevator. I remember nothing about the other two men, except that they were taller but more deferential. Leading the way was a short, black man with a storied face. His eyes sparkled. He was the kind of man whose whole body exuded so much energy that he couldn’t stand still. Most people look down when they get on an elevator, avoiding eye contact. Not him. He surprised us by looking us straight in the eye, eager for conversation. I’ll never forget his southern drawl, “Now, are you ladies here for the theology-thang? Or for the nursing-thang?”

I’m sure we both smiled, almost giggled, at his energy. “We’re here for the theology thing.”

I wish you could have seen his face light up. “Oh! That’s wonderful!” Then, as if admitting a secret, he leaned in and added, “There aren’t near enough women here, are there?”

At that point the elevator arrived at our floor and we exited. I don’t remember how we responded, but we had the sense that we had met a real character.

Imagine our surprise in the next plenary session when our elevator friend took the stage. It was the venerable John Perkins! I had heard his name before, but didn’t know him well enough to recognize him. Perkins had been imprisoned and beaten unjustly, and had labored long and hard for civil rights in some of the most segregated corners of our nation.

Our encounter was arresting. Here was a man who’d been invited to address thousands of (mostly white) participants. He was neither cocky nor self-centered. He had no chip on his shoulder. In our brief conversation he celebrated our presence at a conference that was planned, led, and addressed by only men. He saw us.




Ever since, I have wanted to read about his work. Last summer seemed the perfect time. Let Justice Roll Down is the amazing, heart-breaking, inspiring story of his struggle for justice in the South. It is neither textbook nor how-to manual. It is simply his story. But he opened my eyes to the ugly realities of racial inequality in our nation. It’s easy to imagine that because slavery ended in the 1800s and African Americans have gained the right to vote, that the struggle for civil rights is long over. But here is a man who has lived the struggle and still lives today. I can no longer imagine that the suffering of blacks in our nation is a thing of the distant past. This man – friend of Martin Luther King Jr. – steps into the elevator and looks me in the eye. His verve confronts my complacency. I can no longer say “That was so long ago.” This is now.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Professor's Prayer

Have I mentioned that I have the #bestjobintheworld?

Last week the campus lay dormant, mounds of snow lining empty sidewalks. Quiet buildings stood ready, expectant. So did my heart. This week all is abuzz as students return from break and embrace in happy reunions. Classes begin with characteristic rigor. Last semester I was new here and my head swirled with names and syllabi and schedules and handbooks. This semester I welcome familiar faces with a settled heart. The inner calm permits more deliberate reflection on my role as professor and my investment in this community. Perhaps my prayer for this new term may become your prayer as well.

You can read my prayer over at InterVarsity's Blog, The Well.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? A Series in Honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today it’s his actual birthday, the man who refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. The man who spoke and kept on speaking until white America was listening, too. The man who would not be content until there was truly “liberty and justice for all” within our borders.
And he achieved it, didn’t he?
They got what they wanted, didn’t they?
Today there may be Americans who wonder about the value of yearly reliving our storied and painful past, about the emotions that it stirs.
Slavery was over a long time ago.
People should just get over it and move on.
If African Americans want to make something of themselves, then they should just work hard, the way we did.
Nobody has handed me anything free. I’ve had to work for everything I’ve got.
Inequality? What inequality? Everyone in America has the same opportunities.
I wish someone could give an example of prejudice today. How exactly are Blacks being mistreated?
I’ve heard these words often enough from the mouths of people who look like me that I went looking for answers. The claim from the African American community that injustice lives on sounds strange to fair-skinned Americans whose personal experience offers no pertinent examples. Sure, life’s not fair. We all get a raw deal sometimes. No need to get so bent out of shape over it. Of course black lives matter. All lives do. 

America is still so segregated that it’s possible to live one’s whole life without a friend of another color. As a result, we can be puzzled by public protests or cries for justice.

I wanted to understand. I wanted to see the world through the eyes of someone who grew up wearing different skin. In my quest for answers over the past year or two, I've done some reading:
Ta-Nahesi Coates, Between the World and Me 
John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down 
Sharon Draper, Stella by Starlight
Mildred D. Taylor, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
Daniel Hill, White Awake
These books gave me answers – loud and clear – a whole legacy of injustice that is far from over, a monstrosity that has been codified in law (in some cases) and petrified in our systems of criminal “justice.”  Racial inequality is not a thing of the past. It is heart-sickeningly present today. In the coming weeks, I’d like to share what I learned. If you’re looking for examples, you are invited to start right here.

It’s not enough to celebrate what was accomplished in the 1960’s. Let’s take a hard look at 2018 and see what remains to be done.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Navigating the Valley of Disappointment

May 11, 2017

When I arrived on campus two days ago, the door to the faculty lounge was closed. On it a sign was posted, "Interview in progress. Do not disturb." 

A punch to the gut.

I retreated to my shared office and closed the door. Most days I am gregarious, eager to connect with colleagues. But not today. Not the day of closed doors. I had planned to join others for lunch, but instead I sit alone at my desk. I am not safe today. I cannot predict what I might say. I cannot produce a genuine smile. My love for these colleagues is no less than before. I am not angry. I am bereft.

I should be on the other side of that closed door being interviewed, but instead I am here, burying this dream in the valley of disappointment.

Sorrow is a strange companion.

Just last week, when I learned the news that silenced hope, a great heaviness fell over me that I could not shake for a whole day and then some.

But then, just as suddenly, the heaviness flew away and I was flooded with a joy I could not explain. I remembered then that sorrow and joy are not opposites. They walk hand in hand. Grief opens up the deepest parts of us, but the raw ache that takes our breath away also expands our capacity for joy.

Disappointment strips us, laying bare our vulnerable selves. As the chimera of what might have been fades, the solid reality of what is comes into view.

I am loved.
God is working out all things for good.
The door my Lord opens, no one can shut.
Jesus has good works planned for me to do.
I am called and equipped.
I am not alone.

Why do I tell you this? Why hang my innermost thoughts in plain view for all to see and read and know? Because you, too, have walked the valley of disappointment, and you will walk it again. This way we can walk it together.

Ruth Haley Barton says "what is most personal is, indeed, most universal" (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, 223). The more honestly I share my own journey, the more we both stand to gain. 

I shared my disappointment with my students last week. They grieved with me. And one wrote me the next morning, thanking me for my words. He, too, is in the valley of disappointment, but my story gave him the strength to carry on.

We do not grieve as those who have no hope.
But we do grieve, friends.
We do grieve.

Just yesterday I read these words, penned by Paul Pastor, but spoken as God's word to every one of us: "Give me your heart today, and again tomorrow—your whole heart, beating and full" (The Listening Day, 10).

Whether my heart is aching with hurt or swelling with hope, I am invited—you are invited—to offer it up in prayer. And here I offer it to you, too.

-------------------

January 14, 2018: Today I discovered this unpublished draft in my blog archives. I wrote it 8 months ago, but apparently thought better of posting it right away (or was I going to take a picture first of the sign on the door?). It still brings tears to my eyes to re-live this major disappointment, but that sorrow lives alongside the deep joy I have found in the door that God opened for me just weeks after that disappointment. Our heavenly Father does not promise that all our dreams will come true, but he promises to be with us all the way. What more could we possibly need?

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Best Blog Posts of 2017

I was startled to discover that I only wrote 13 posts over the past year. However, thanks to friends who read and share what I write, this was far and away the best year yet in terms of reaching a wider audience. (Sharing older posts on Facebook also helped). My blog has now had over 100,000 views. Here's what made a splash in 2017:

On Cell Phone Addiction:
Confronting Modern Day Slavery: It's Closer Than You Think (974 views)
"How did we get here? How did this tiny computer manage to become the only thing that matters? The only thing alluring enough to capture our attention? Why have we let it fragment our focus into smaller and smaller pieces until we can no longer remember what it means to sit in silence and listen? When is the last time we have sat across from someone and looked into their eyes?"
On Our Surprising Move to Canada:  
Trust Without Borders (284 views)
"At the tail end of May, when hope in Oregon had dried up and we were buckling in for the long roller-coaster ahead, a job was posted at Prairie College in Three Hills, Alberta. Their need was urgent. They wanted to have an Old Testament professor in place by July 1st. Gulp."
Blueberries and Trust (256 views)
"The same God who provided blueberries arranged for my Canadian citizenship 40 years before anyone knew I would need it. That's impressive. The LORD promises neither a rose garden nor a blueberry bush, but he does promise to be with us always. Ultimately, that's all we need."
On Dying Well:
Christmas in October (4393 views!!!)
"It's mid October, but in a certain corner of Bend, Oregon, it's already Christmas. The whole neighborhood has put up Christmas lights. You may see carolers drop by. The mail carrier has delivered handfuls of Christmas cards. God is totally on board. He even sent snow this weekend."
On My New Book:
Practicing Biblical Hebrew the Fun Way (956 views)
"Each volume includes the unabridged Hebrew or Greek text of Scripture embedded in lively illustrations by Keith Neely. At the bottom of each page is a fresh English translation that follows the word order of the original text as closely as possible so that readers can easily locate a gloss for unfamiliar words."
On Church Attendance:
Church -- Why Bother? (783 views)
"When I invest weekly in corporate worship with a relatively healthy community, I join with others in declaring where ultimate truth and value lie. Each week my heart is re-calibrated in tiny ways that keep me facing Jesus rather than drifting in another direction."