God and Social Justice: As We Mourn Another Shooting.

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This week has been emotionally charged with two African American lives lost at the hands of law enforcement and the retaliatory taking of five police lives by snipers and seven more wounded during a protest.  The nation is once again being polarized by race.  The actions of a few – on both sides of the battle – are causing the greater public to demand change, but all the while growing less and less hopeful of true change.  We are truly on the brink of an historical event whereby interracial relations will necessarily change.  As with any tension, it cannot remain in its current state.  We will either retreat into racist bigotry and continue to build walls and foster hatred towards one another or we will choose to accept, empower and respect our differences.

As Christians, we must remember that Jesus and His Gospel are the answer to this problem.  Our immediate response must be one of love and compassion – regardless of your ethnic background.  Black people and white people are mourning across our nation today.  Black people and white people are more suspicious of one another today.  Black people are feeling more targeted and discriminated today.  Police officers are feeling more hated and scrutinized by the general public, and also more anxious to go to work today.  Each additional negative interaction – each murder – is only building into the distrust and fear associated with these unavoidable encounters and creating suspicious, fearful, entitled individuals who carry weapons , and who react poorly when cornered:  black and white.  The problem is the same for both races.

How then should we respond?  What should we do?  We can all write blogs, we can all get on facebook and post videos, we can all voice our opinions, or we can get out there and actually start making a difference.  The simple fact is that interracial relations have been amplified the last few years and the conversation is on the table.  If you are uneducated on the problem, it is not for lack of information.  We must address the issue.  Thankfully, Scripture teaches us much on the topic.

Firstly, we must all turn to Jesus.  Jesus understands our sufferings.  Jesus was a Jew who was born during the captivity of the Jewish nation.  The Jews were hated as a race, and He Himself was murdered.  He personally suffered more than any of us ever have and ever will both physically and Spiritually (Heb 2.18, Heb 4.15, 1 Peter 3.18).   He is the “man of sorrows” – acquainted with the grief and weight of the sin of the world, and despised by the world:  both His own race and other races (Is 53.3).  Jesus exemplifies how we can endure suffering and persecution without sin:  by not retaliating, by enduring, and by being a faithful witness who always spoke truth.

Jesus was also compassionate to those whom the Jewish people discriminated and hated, namely the Samaritans.  We see His first interaction with a Samaritan woman who was of ill repute, even amongst her own people, because she had been married five times and was then living in adultery with another man.  He spoke to her – which was a cultural taboo because of her race, her gender, and her social status.  He reasoned with her – caring for her soul.  He pushed her to the point of action – demanding that she respond to Him as the Messiah.  He loved her as the Savior and utilized her and her witness to bring His testimony to her entire town (John 4).

How beautiful that we can see Jesus as part of the persecuted race and as part of the persecuting race.  He gives us the example by which which we should live when in both situations – and all of us will find ourselves in both situations throughout our lives:  hated and hater.

Secondly, we must mourn with those who mourn.  Different people and different cultural pockets will respond in a variety of ways to the events of this week.  Our natural response is to pick a side, get angry at the other side, and justify our personal bias.  The reality is simply that the African American community is mourning the loss, but also is rooted in generations of social injustice.  Police officers and Caucasian Americans are also mourning the loss, and allowing the Dallas retaliation to deepen their racism and distrust.  In the immediate aftermath of any tragedy we must take time to simply mourn with those who mourn.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

– Rom 12.15

The loss of any and all life is a sorrowful event and regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, people need to mourn.  Whether Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered in cold blood or whether the policemen had good reason to shoot is irrelevant on this point.  Whether the police officers shot in Dallas were bigoted racists or men fighting for social justice is also irrelevant on this point.  Their families, their communities and their ethnic races have lost loved ones and the pain and sorrow is very real.  Let us be broken over the loss of life and the tragedies that have occurred.  Let us lend a listening ear to our friends, family members, neighbors and fellow church members as they process the events and grieve.  It is good and right to grieve, and we as Christians must be empathetic, always pointing to the hope that we have in Jesus and an eternity where there will cease to be sorrow and grief.

Thirdly, we must remember that God is just.  God Himself wrote the moral law, His perfect Law, and will be the judge of all humanity at the end of time based on the deeds we committed in our flesh (Rom 14.12, 2 Cor 5.10).  And He is perfectly just.  He will never punish someone unjustly, and He will never overlook a sin (Prov 11.21, Ex 34.7).  He is also concerned about the oppressed and intentionally cares for the hated (Prov 14.31, Ps 9.7-10).  He is broken over our suffering and grieves with us, and He will judge all accordingly.

Because God is just, fourthly we must remember that retaliation is a sin – for both sides.

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.

– Rom 12.9

We are currently caught in a cycle of hatred and retaliation.  These cycles are normal, and much has been examined and written about them in the marriage relationship.  One spouse feels unloved, therefore he retaliates and disrespects the other spouse.  Then the other spouse feels disrespected so he withdraws and intentionally shows no love or care.  It is a vicious, downward spiral that can only be stopped one, or both parties intentionally choosing to love and care for the other spouse – even if the sentiment is not reciprocated.  Sometimes the cycle is set in motion by an intentional act of hatred and sometimes it is simply a miscommunication.  Either way, once we are in the cycle it becomes exceedingly difficult to end it.

We can be empowered, therefore, to end the cycle, turn the other cheek and begin the long road of healing and change by remembering that no sin and no injustice will go unpunished.  Paul does not teach us to simply not seek vengeance, He encourages us that God will do it for us!  God will judge everyone according to their works and He will punish every sin.  We must leave it in God’s hands, however, because God punishes some sin in the person of Jesus on the cross, and He punishes other sin on the guilty individual who does not repent in eternity.  You will be avenged.  And God will do it purely and rightly.  Thus we should never seek our own revenge but leave it to God.

Our current racial tensions are rooted in generations of hatred, misunderstanding, apathy and difficulty.  Slavery was a tragedy whereby thousands of people were kidnapped from their homes and forced into submission to others.  Thankfully, the practice was abolished in our nation in 1863 under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.  In the 150 years since, American laws and culture has changed and adapted dramatically, so much so that interracial marriage is fairly common, and we are seeing blending of cultures between African and Caucasian Americans.

Racism, however, is present in every culture and will take an act of God to fully be eradicated.  SouthEast Asian tribes who live only miles from each other in the same jungle often despise one another for no other reason than they are from a different tribe, even though it would take years of anthropological study to be able to distinguish them physically.  In those situations, the difference of language or a few cultural traditions is enough to permanently divide them.  In the middle east we daily hear of very close-cultured Arabs killing one another because of nothing more than a religious difference.  We even develop “friendly” rivalries between states, universities and sports teams because it is fundamentally human to have a cause and an enemy.  We must all intentionally submit ourselves to God and recognize the fact that He created all peoples and all cultures, and loves people from all cultures.

Thus, fifthly, we must know and understand that God is in the business of redeeming cultures.  God chose the Hebrew people to be His people from the time of Abraham until Jesus came to the Earth.  It was always His plan to draw people from all nations, and that is why He promised Abraham that through His lineage (namely, Jesus) He would bless the entire world:

“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

– Gen 22.18

After Jesus came to the world, paying the punishment for sin for all who would believe, the offer of salvation was blown wide open to every tribe, tongue and nation.  We see, in fact, that there will be people from every nation – every culture – represented in eternity:

“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’.”

– Rev 7.9-10

What is beautiful here is that all of the nations will not be molded into one people, but God draws us each from our unique backgrounds.  God speaks every language, He understands perfectly every culture, and He receives much glory by people praising and worshiping Him in their own unique ways.  Missionaries and missiologists have spent much time studying this fact and reality, and when they set out to the field it is their goal to introduce people to Jesus and allow Jesus to redeem their culture and plant indigenous churches.  This means, simply, that the sinful tendencies of the culture must be repented of and abandoned, but the beautiful and individual characteristics of their culture are to be utilized in worship and in praise of God.  We help new believers put verses to music with pentatonic or twelve tone scales, we help new believers incorporate dancing and community into a worship service, we set free the religiously devoted to hours and hours of prayer and mediation, we watch God redeem cultures.

What is interesting and quite difficult, however, is that while we understand this reality on the mission field, the American church is attempting to do the opposite – by in large.  Instead of empowering and encouraging people to worship God by the fullest outflowing of their heart, passion and culture, we are trying to force everyone into a mold and have a “multi-ethnic congregation”.  The United States is so vast and so diverse that there are micro cultures all around us, and it is good and healthy to allow these different worship styles to exist on their own.  A church is no more godly just because it has equal parts white, black, Hispanic and Asian peoples.  In fact, it often times squashes the unique cultural dispositions of each one, leaving very few worshiping God by the fullest expression of their joy in the way God has created them.  Yes, as a country we are a melting pot of cultures from around the world.  And brand new immigrants might culturally never adapt to American culture, but their children will have varying levels of both cultures in their hearts.  An African American whose heritage is a few hundred years in the United States and infinitely more in common with his white neighbor than Somalian refugees.  But he still might have a unique enough culture that he would choose to worship God with other African Americans instead of his white neighbor.  This is a beautiful exemplification of God being glorified by all peoples, and not a problem.

It becomes a problem when one church considers their worship better than another.  It becomes a problem when ethnocentricity creeps in.  It becomes a problem when the white church does not support, encourage and love the black church and vise versa.  It becomes a problem when we do not love.

The answer here is not forcing everyone to believe, act and be the same.  The answer here is loving and respecting one another in our differences and standing up for social justice.  Last month Brock Turner – a white swimmer from Stanford – was sentenced to six months in jail for raping an unconscious girl.  He was caught in the act.  Cory Batey – a black football player from Vanderbilt – was sentenced to fifteen years in jail for raping an unconscious girl.  He was also caught in the act.  This is wrong.  Yes, it is true that every situation is unique and there are no absolute comparisons, but statistically we do see that there are still levels of social injustice in varying degrees around the country, and we must fight against that.

We must all submit to authority (Eph 6.5, Col 3.22).  We must all respect the law (1 Peter 2.17, Rom 12.10).  We must all turn the other cheek when we are wrongfully accused or assaulted (Matt 5.39).  We must all follow Jesus’ example in suffering and in trials (Is 53.7).  And until one or both sides of the cycle choose to alter their actions and response, we will remain in the vicious cycle.  Therefore, let us intentionally mourn with those who are mourning this weekend.  Let us listen and love our neighbors.  Let us be purposeful to end the cycle of hatred and anger in our own circles and encourage those around us to do the same.  And let us fight for social justice on the larger scale, remembering that individual cultures and good, beautiful and redeemable by God. Let us not try to force everyone to look, act and smell the same, but set one another free to glorify God in the unique ways He has gifted and created us.

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Let us weep with those who weep.

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“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

– Rom 12.15

Yesterday we woke up to the news that Omar Mateen had murdered 49 people and injured 53 more at a popular LGBT club in Orlando, making this the most deadly attack on American soil since 9/11.  The people of the United States are in the process of grappling with the event and are experiencing varied emotional responses in the grieving and acceptance process.  Some people are scared.  Some are angry.  Some are numb.  Some are distancing themselves by reason of lack of association.  But we, as Christians, must carefully consider how to respond.

It is no secret that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin – just like lying, stealing, cheating, any fornication or sex outside of marriage and all of the other sins which are more easily recognizable by social norms and our current legal mandates.  It is also no secret that no one enjoys being told they are living a sinful lifestyle, and thus the LGBT community and Biblical teaching are at odds with one another – causing much tension and difficulty in decision making as a nation.  Understanding of discrimination and the freedom of religion/belief has been headline news for months, compounded by issues like the Target bathroom fiasco.

But here we are in a completely different scenario.  Over one hundred people have been injured or murdered, and many have entered into eternity by the hands of a man with hatred in his heart.  It is time for Christians to step up.

Sometimes our situations and problems are a direct consequence of our actions.  Sometimes our situations and problems are an indirect consequence of our actions, and sometimes things happen purely by being at the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time.  When a person is hurting or broken in the wake of a tragedy, regardless of how they got to that point, it is the God-given duty of Christians to respond in love.  It is always our responsibility to act and respond in love, but we have a very real opportunity to portray the love of Christ in the midst of suffering.

Paul gives us a very clear picture of how we should handle ourselves on a regular basis:

“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.  Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

– Rom 12.9-19

This is merely a portion of Paul’s instruction.  He speaks directly to how Christians should interact with one another, and also with the outside world; with friends and with enemies.  We, as Christians, are given the almost impossible task of blessing those who persecute us.  That means when we are shot during a church service or martyred for our faith, we should respond in love to our captors and murderers.  But we are also given the command to meet people in their circumstances – to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  When someone else is murdered or attacked for their lifestyle, we grieve with them.  We do not have to agree with someone’s philosophy or worldview to sympathize with his grief.  We do not have to condone someone’s lifestyle to be a friend or comfort.  Just as God comforts us in our sorrows, we should be ready and willing to comfort those around us who are suffering.  Even if their suffering is a result of their choices.

The events in Orlando are the result of one man’s choice, not the direct result of a homosexual lifestyle.  We can and must respond in love:  with sympathy and grief over the tragedy of lives lost – certainly some of which were lost without Christ.

This is indeed a chance to present the beautiful hope of Christ, by presenting the Gospel.  This is also a chance to present the beautiful love of Christ by being present, and silent if necessary.  Some people are looking for answers immediately, some people need time to process and grieve before looking for an answer or for hope.  This is when we weep with those who weep.  There is no science to sensitivity, only awareness and direction from the Holy Spirit.

God often uses tragedy to awake in us a contemplation about eternity and our mortality.  God also uses tragedy to help us keep in perspective those things that are of eternal importance.  We must love.  We must mourn.  We must be sensitive, all without compromising the truth.  We must be wise with our words, knowing when and how to speak truth.  We must be the voice of hope.

“Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders,making the most of the opportunity.  Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”

– Col 4.5-6

One thing all Christians should stop saying

 

I am guilty.  If you are a Christian, have spent any time in a church, or have even just had a friend go through a rough patch in life, you are probably guilty too.  It flows off the tongue so easily, but then taking action is so difficult.  When someone is in the midst of deep pain, we are looking for a way to comfort and console him.  We often feel awkward and without an answer to the problem of evil and suffering, so instead of simply listening and grieving with him, we throw out the empty phrase,

 

“I’ll be praying for you.”

 

We said it.  We sound spiritual, we feel as though we have offered a bit of comfort and have given ourselves a graceful exit from the conversation or situation.  We walk away, relieved to no longer be in the presence of the unanswerable and even though we feel badly for the person it slips out of our thoughts while we go on with our busy lives.

 

I was in college.  I had a friend who was going through a hard time, and I told her I would be praying for her.  I walked away and her heartache did not cross my mind again until I saw her a few days later.  When I saw her face I instantly remembered our conversation and I wanted so badly to ask her about any progress and to affirm that I had indeed been praying for her, but the reality was that she and her problem had not crossed my mind.  Even keeping a prayer journal with a list of “prayer requests” had not drawn me to prayer; none more deep than “God help so-and-so”.  I decided then and there that I no longer will make that empty promise.  Instead, when the pleasantry sought to roll off my tongue, I would snatch it up and say, “May I pray for you right now?”

 

Six years later I moved overseas.  I knew – academically – the importance of prayer, I had heard sermons, read testimonies and seen God radically changing and healing people, but prayer was not my default.  I spent a year in language school and I became friends with a couple who was about two months ahead of me in the program.  They are from England and they have a faith the likes of which I have rarely seen.  Finding solace in speaking English, we would get together fairly regularly just to be able to speak without having to utilize every mental faculty and enjoy the company of close-culture friends.  The first time they came to my house, we sat and talked, laughed and had a great evening reflecting on the things that we had been learning and experiencing.  Suddenly, in the middle of dinner, and in response to a small topic – one that was not a pressing need but just light conversation – they said, “Let’s pray”.

 

That felt weird.

 

Why?  Because prayer, to me, was when I woke up, before meals, during my quiet time, before bed, and at prayer meetings and church.  And, of course, on the occasion that I ran into someone who was going through a tough time and I had vowed to pray for them on the spot so as to not lie to them with the empty comfort that I would pray for them when in fact I would not.

 

But then we proceeded to have a lighthearted time of prayer where we laughed – mid prayer – and also lifted up these people amongst whom we lived and with whom we could not communicate.  It was inexplicably refreshing.

 

I was inspired.  I wanted to be like them.  Nearly every time we hung out that type of random, unplanned and encouraging prayer happened.  Never by my initiation, however.  They have a spirituality in which they turn to God – not just in their time of need and distress, but when they are happy, encouraged, thankful, hungry, tired, excited – anything!  They want to interact with God in all things.  And they know that God wants to interact with them in all things.  He is not just a cosmic problem solver.  He is a loving father.

 

“Pray without ceasing.”

 

 – 1 Thess 5.17

 

Praying without ceasing necessarily means you are not asking all of the time.  It is reflecting on and enjoying God for who He is.  It is thanking Him for His provisions, for His faithfulness, for salvation, etc.  It is confessing sin to Him.  It is remembering and interacting with Him as a real and vibrant being.  Children are dependent.  They need their parents to survive, and they ask (sometimes aggravatingly) for what they want and think that they need.  But they also play, cuddle, learn from and are disciplined by their parents.  Do you ever play with God?  Enjoy His company?

 

“…in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

 

– 1 Thess 5.18

 

God hears our prayers.  He loves us as His children.  So let us turn to Him.

 

I love the Lord, because He hears
My voice and my supplications.
Because He has inclined His ear to me,
Therefore I shall call upon Him as long as I live.

 

– Ps 116.1-2

 

And when we encounter a friend, a fellow Christian, a stranger who is in their time of need, let us remember that we are to:

 

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

 

– Rom 12.15

 

If someone is hurting, take a moment and pray right there.  Stop lying to people.  And if you truly do pray for someone when they are not around, send them an email or give them a call to check in on them and let them know that you are praying for them.  We feel isolated, alone and uncared for most when we are hurting.  Bringing someone before God is the ultimate blessing to bestow upon someone, and letting him know it has been done or doing it in his presence is dynamic and encouraging.  You do not have to have the reason or an answer to their suffering.  Most people are not looking for an answer.  Just do as God instructs us:  cry with those who cry.  Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Pray in all things.  Love and enjoy God, and help others to do the same.

 

Prayer

Prayer (Photo credit: Boofalo Blues)