A Spiritual Disease

Thursday morning I saw Shane Claiborne tweet a response to the racist “send her back” chant from Wednesday’s Trump campaign rally in North Carolina.

“Racism is evil. And it spreads like a disease.”

I don’t disagree with the statment that racism is evil, but “like a disease” just didn’t seem like a strong enough description. I don’t think that racism is like a disease. Rather, I think it’s an actual disease of the heart and spirit, – one which has a terrible infection rate.

But what kind of disease is it? Is there an analogy from the realm of medicine for what racism does to a person’s spirit? I think there may be.

When racism infects someone 1, it changes their personality. Someone can be a great friend, honest worker, or caring parent – exemplifying what God really intends for people to be one to another. But when racism takes over a person’s spirit, usually in the presence of those of other ethnicities or when they come up in conversation, those noble traits become subverted. Friendships become based not on mutual care but mutual hate. Dishonesty about, and toward, “the other” is considered a virtue. And parenting shifts from instilling ennobling lessons in children to instilling lessons of hate and mistrust. People, unaware of what’s happening to them, become twisted masks of themselves. They transform into ugly parodies, filled with and agression and hatred which becomes confused with loyalty and love. This twisting of personhood has an analogy in the world of medical science. It’s called rabies, and those caught up in the throws of racism are infected with a spiritual variant of the disease.

There is a notable difference between the viral and spiritual versions of this illness. When rabies symptoms present themselves in mammals there is no known cure. At that that point the disease is always fatal. We know, however, that people infected with the spiritual version of this illness are redeemable. People can come back from hatred and re-learn how to love. I hold on to this hope for redemption with bleeding fingers, and will not let go.

There is a path forward for our culture, as long as we refuse to let it become overgrown. I have to believe that, even when I see a mirror of 1930’s fascism parading proud as a peacock at a Trump rally.

  1. For this post I’m making a distinction between latent racism, which is passed on to us through culture and institutions, and active racism in which people are moved toward personal acts of aggression and violence against people of other ethnic backgrounds. 

Why There Is Kneeling

With the arrival of the NFL season once again, Nike basing their new “Just Do It” ad on Colin Kaepernick 1, and yet another tweet designed to anger President Trump’s base, I’ve been seeing people post statements to the effect of, “I just don’t understand why they kneel and disrespect the anthem, the flag, and the troops like that.”

For the moment I’ll set aside the truth that the troops, flag, and anthem are not what’s being protested 2. I’ll also put off dealing with the rhetorical question these posts often ask, “Don’t these things give us our freedom 3?” But I came across a quote today while reading Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust which I think does a good job highlighting why we see prominent African-Americans kneeling, or making some other demonstrative gesture, during the anthem.

The quote from the president of the National Baptist Convention, L.K. Williams, in 1940. Its focus was on why National Baptists should identify with persecuted Jews in Europe during the Nazi era, and join the struggle against tyranny, but it might as well be written today.

We have felt and known the pangs of a suppressed, chained, personality, and would willingly make any sacrifices for the chance of enjoying the heritages of a free democracy and for their preservation 4.

That’s it in a nutshell. The act of kneeling during the anthem highlights that not only have African-Americans suffered in this culture as a “suppressed, chained, personality” in the past, but continue to suffer this systemic and dehumanizing reality in the present. It’s a reminder that America has made a grand promise, to which we’re still struggling to live up. That this reminder offends people causes me great concern for the future of the country.

  1. I am conflicted by this. It’s a nice message, but Nike is a sweatshop beast and transforming a hopeful demonstration into a campaign to sell sneaker makes me ill. The folks who a running out to buy or burn Nike products based on the ad give me a headache. 
  2. It never has been. Nor has it been about individual police officers, most of whom are really trying to do right by folks. It’s about systemic racism and raising awareness of implicit bias. 
  3. The short answer is, “Hell no.” But that’s another post. 
  4. Minutes of the 1940 Annual Session of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., President’s Address, 69. 

The Call to Love

In these days when hatreds are being cultivated and racial and class strives are rampant how important is it that the Christian Church magnify the spirit of the Master. Surely it is for us to love our enemies and many of the people with whom we deal and perhaps treat unkindly are not our enemies at all but only have a skin of a different color or have been reared in different circumstances.

I came across the above quote in recent days and it strikes my conscience as one of the great obligations for Jesus’ disciples in this world. At the same time, the quote does not remove those who are Jesus’ disciples as part of the problem 1. Rather it admits that “we” treat may treat others unkindly because “they” are of a different background or skin color, and should not be treated as enemies in the first place. In fact, even if such people were our enemies the call issued in this quote is clear — those who would magnify the “spirit of the Master” must love even their enemies.

In this day and age where the divisions of politics, race, class, and creed have been raise to a deafening screech this is a quote which tells Chrisitians, “We are part of the problem, we need to be participants in the solution.” When confronted with blanket condemnations of the poor, immigrants, conservatives, liberals, white, black, Asian, Native American, heterosexual, homosexual, or any other human division how do we respond? Do we remember that these people, some of whom we would be inclined to treat “unkindly” or with whom we may disagree, are not automatic enemies? Do we remember “they” are also created in the image of God, but approach life from a different angle than “us” based on experience and circumstances? Do we remember that, even if some of “them” are our enemies, the call of Christ is the love? And do we remember this command was given to an oppressed people, living under the weight of an imperial power?

Or, as we look at the differences which surround us, do we enrobe ourselves with power and become like those who wish people well elsewhere, but don’t want “them” here because they’ll threaten what little power “we” think we have?

In a day when animosity is on the rise, this critique from 1943 still rings true,

CHRISTIAN American or AMERICAN Christian—which are YOU? Are you like the big-hearted woman who, with her own hoy on the ocean headed for an unknown destination, could still find time and inclination to assemble and mail a bundle of toys to make a merry Christmas tor little Japanese—Americans in relocation camps? Or are YOU the one who was so annoyed by shortages she said, “Christmas presents! Nonsense! Children or not, they’re Japs, and you can’t trust Japs!” Or are you like the dear little lady who said, “It’s just terrible what Hitler is doing to the Jews,” and then added as an afterthought, “but we’ll really have to do something about them in America, before they just push us out! 2

Baptists, Jews, and the HolocaustSo which are we, who claim to be Jesus’ disciples? Which identity is first in our hearts 3?

What I find striking in the first quote above is how contemporary it sounds, and how sobering it is to read something so contemporary and realize it was spoken to the United Baptist Convention in Maine by its executive secretary, John S. Pendleton. The year was 1942, and the issue at hand was the refugee crisis sparked by Nazi atrocities 4. Both these quotes appear in Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust: The Hand of Sincere Friendship. Written by my friend, Lee B. Spitzer.

  1. Though perhaps it softens it a bit, “unkindly” instead of “sinfully.” 
  2. Mary Gage, Christian Friendliness Worker. 1943. 
  3. I would say “which allegiance,” but if we’ve split our allegiance between Christ and another master it doesn’t matter which we think is “first,” we’ve already compromised ourselves. 
  4. United Baptist Convention of Maine — Year Book 1942, Report of the Convention Board, 12–13. 


The last few days have been difficult, which is my greatest understatement of 2017. I have a few statements to make on the events of the weekend.

Fascists, White-Nationalists, other hate groups are among the most repugnant and vile forms of human expression ever to be devised by human-kind. The photos of the tiki-torch bearing racists on Friday night were a portrait of what it looks like when the image of God has become so twisted it becomes almost unrecognizable. I call those on the fringes of these groups, who have not yet had their conscience seared from their souls, to repent these miserable ideologies and work instead for a better world.

President Trump is a disgrace to the office he holds. His statement on Saturday was more about not taking responsibility for the events in Charlottesville than condemning both the incitement of violence and hateful ideologies. His statement two days later was closer to what he should have said on Saturday, but it was too late. And on Tuesday he backtracked on that statement. Given his bombastic and unreflectve nature Donald Trump never had much moral authority in my eyes, and now he has none. He has made the bully pulpit of the Presidency irrelevant, and the other two branches of government must treat his message accordingly. Less than eight months in to his term, Donald Trump has become a lame duck president. His influence must be limited by all possible legal means at the disposal of our government institutions. Current polls show just over one third of the Country approves of President Trump’s job and supports his agenda, I call upon those who continue to support this man to refelect upon his words and understand, this is who Donald Trump is.

I am ashamed of religious leaders who have become more interested in the power this world offers than in being humble servants of Christ. Franklin Graham’s descent into this darkness brings particular pain because our church participates in Operation Christmas Child and one of our members pours her heart and soul into this work. Knowing the love which drives her forward into this mission I would never be so hurtful as to demand she stop. But it is becoming more and more difficult to support a ministry whose public face is someone who has courted the power of Empire, and in so doing  has both rejected the call of the Kingdom and harmed his father’s legacy. I call upon Christian leaders to repent of their association with this morally bankrupt administration, so as to not do further damage to the work of Christ’s Kingdom.

I will not define myself with “anti” language. Racism, both systemic and personal, is evil. White supremacists are pawns of satanic influence. Fascists are right up there with the likes of ISIS for the dubious award of “worst human beings alive today.” But I’m not “anti-racist,” or “anti-white supremacy”, or “anti-fascist.” I make this distinction because I refuse to be defined by those I would call my enemies. What I find, both now and throughout history, is that such impulses often lead to the formation of mirror images — and the excuse of atrocities across the spectrum in the name of being correct. Fascists and White Supremacists have built their entire movements based on who they are against, and who it is acceptable to consider sub-human. The responsibility for the violence in Charlottesville falls upon the hate groups who were deliberate in inciting it, and a member of these groups showed these groups’ true colors when he resorted to an act of terrorism later in the day.

I am also concerned with how many progressives gloss over similar impulses on the fringes of their own movement. The numbers of people would induce violence among progressives are small, because the progressive movement was built from the start on the notion of humanizing all people, but they are growing.  We must not forget the United States’ most recent attempt at political assassination, launched against the Republican congressional baseball team, was carried out by an angry Progressive man. It is the violence with which we might be tempted to empathize which is the most dangerous to our own humanity.

I will define myself by what I am striving toward, and the characteristics which empower that pursuit. I am a Christian, bound to the teaching of Jesus Christ and called to bear his image in this world. I will humbly repent of both my deliberate and inadvertent participation in evil’s workings in this world. I will view other human beings as the image of God — a person lost in sin may treat me with contempt, but by the Spirit’s power I will respond with grace. I will not strike out in violence, but will do my best to put myself between those who would use violence and the victims who suffer it — as Christ did on the Cross, I must be willing to accept blows meant for others. I will both hope and take joy in beauty — cynicism is enticing, but in the end corrodes my soul. I will use the few gifts I have to speak out to the world, and call it to Christ’s shalom.

May wisdom, kindness, and charity always prevail over the rush to hatred and violence.

We Will Not Forget


The post below was written for the Central Baptist Church website. I am reposting it here because my voice is actually a little louder on Painfully Hopeful.

The Message

On Sunday, February 12, residents in a neighborhood not too far from Central Baptist woke to find hate literature in their driveways. The cards, disguised as valentines, encouraged people to join the KKK and to stop “homosexuality and race mixing.”

It also invoked a reference to “God’s Laws,” encouraging people to not forget.

On behalf of The Central Baptist Church of Riverton-Palmyra, and with the blessing of our Church Council, I will say we will not forget.

We will not forget the call to hospitality and ministry of reconciliation given to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ. We will continue to welcome all and work for justice in this world.

We will not forget the great power of sin to feed off people’s longing and fear, and we will continue to strive to live out a witness to the call of shalom.

We will not forget the spiritual, mental, and physical destruction hatred causes. Not only to those targeted, but also to those who spread it.

We will not forget the life, death, and resurrection has already conquered the powers of sin and death. And will stand with those targeted by people who still wish to wield their sing.

We will not forget we are part of the story of a New Creation, and with joy we will invite others to join in this journey.

We will never forget,

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:5, NRSV

Just, tears

I’ve been away for a couple of days, so I programmed some posts to run while I was enjoying some vacation time. If anyone has been wondering why I’ve been oddly silent on the recent police homicides of black men 1, that would be why.

And then I woke up Friday morning to read about an all-out planned attack on police in Dallas.

I am broken by this news. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I’m not.

Last Fall I attended a community gathering hosted by the Palmyra Police Department and the Burlington County NAACP. It was a remarkable experience. In my reflections I remarked how, for many African Americans, the expectation is any encounter with Police means to suffer abuse. Some of these expectations are cultural, stories of indignities are passed between communities and generations. Many more of these expectations come from personal experience. Our African-American neighbors are not making this stuff up, and recent events further reveal this to be the case 2. Philando Castile even volunteered the presence of a legally licensed weapon to the officer who pulled him over for a tail like infraction – all that got him was the horror of being killed in front of his daughter and the mother of his child.

I’ve been worried for a while the cork was finally going to pop – that the injustices suffered by our African-American neighbors would lead some people to conclude the only legitimate response to a perceived illegitimate power was violence. It seems to have finally happened. At least one heavily armed person, confirmed to have been carrying a great deal of ammunition and a weapon one eye witness described as an AR-15 “plain as day,” decided to extract his own vengeance. In his anger he decided to kill police officers and white people, particularly white police officers. He is being reported as an US Army Veteran, having served in Afghanistan.

What boggles my mind is how people are taking the reported words of the suspect and are punting when asked about his motives. Take this quote from a CNN Article on the attack.

We can’t get into the head of a person that would do something like this. We negotiated with this person that seemed lucid during the negotiation. He wanted to kill officers, and he expressed killing white people, he expressed killing white officers, he expressed anger for Black Lives Matter. None of that makes sense,” Brown said. “None of that is a reason, a legitimate reason, to do harm to anyone. So the rest of it would just be speculating on what his motivations were. We just know what he said.

Now, in one respect I understand why the person quoted spoke as he did. It springs from the assumption there must have been something else which triggered such violent behavior. It would be easier if this person’s actions could be chalked up to a personality disorder, or PTSD, or some other explainable cause for abnormal behavior. It’s a response built on denial, an unwillingness to face the reality of a truly broken system. After all, if there isn’t some other underlying cause, it becomes a much more terrifying possibility. If a person who served this country looked at the news and finally became so furious with the injustice he witnessed he felt his anger had to be unleashed, then we have entered into a new loop in the cycle of violence which our African-American neighbors have been experiencing for most of this country’s history.

I weep. I weep for the African-American population of this country, which feels they are right to live in fear of the police 3. I weep for the officers gunned down while protecting the rights of citizens to protest even against their own profession. And I weep for this country, addicted to a form paranoia which feasts both on the fear of the other and reciprocal acts of violence. The only path forward is to step back and repent for our contribution this is utter mess to which we have all contributed, and live for a future where everyone really can be free.

Lord have mercy. No one else seems to have the will to extend it.

  1. Any taking of human life is “homicide.” If police are involved it shouldn’t be excused from this designation. 
  2. Again
  3. And the correctness of this position is only confirmed over and over and over.