Why Should People of Faith Care About Mass Incarceration?

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I just completed an essay for FaithLink on Mass Incarceration. I did a huge survey of recent research, news articles, and opinion pieces. Some of the best are below.

Why should people of faith care about mass incarceration? It is a quiet genocide. Justice demands a response. Scripture also demands a response, and is skeptical about claims of invincible ignorance:

Proverbs 24:10-12
If you show yourself weak on a day of distress, your strength is too small. Rescue those being taken off to death; and from those staggering to the slaughter, don’t hold back.

If you say, “Look, we didn’t know about it,” the one who weighs hearts—doesn’t he understand? The one who protects your life—he knows. He makes people pay for their actions.

Stats on Mass Incarceration:

Stats on Homicide Rates by Country:

Conservative Support for Prison Reform:

Causes of Mass Incarceration:

Film Documentaries & Videos About Mass Incarceration and Slavery:

Primary Sources:

United Methodist Sources:

Different/Opposing Views:

Organizations Working to End Mass Incarceration

For Further Reading:

 

God Cares About Your Happiness

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Deutsches schwarzköpfiges Fleischschaf” by 4028mdk09Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

God is concerned about the material conditions for human flourishing. 

“Material conditions” means the stuff out of which life is made. That means tangible stuff: money, bodies (health), food, water, and physical touch. This is why so much of the Bible is about poverty and economic inequality, why there’s manna in the wilderness, why Jesus heals peoples’ bodies, and why incarnational theology is so important.

It’s also why Ezekiel’s God is so angry with the way the rich despoil the planet and ruin it for the poor.

God is also concerned with the social conditions for human flourishing.

“Social conditions” means the stuff out of which our life together is made. Relationships, politics, power, justice, and communication. This is why so much of the Bible deals with jealousy, anger, and forgiveness; with shared, decentralized leadership; with moral double-standards and hypocrisy.

I think it’s important to state these things, because there is a toxic Christian meme that regularly makes the rounds that asserts that God cares more about your holiness than your happiness.

I understand what people are trying to say when they assert these things: that our culture is self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But the Bible never contrasts holiness with happiness. True happiness, biblical authors assert, comes from meditating on and understanding Torah—not just the literal words of it, but the deeper truths to which they point. The Hebrew Torah was like the Greek Logos. It was Wisdom, the principles by which God created the world, and when human beings sought them out, they would find “true happiness.”

In this, the biblical authors agreed with Greek philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Aristotle. Happiness is more than pleasure-seeking: it is found in virtue and understanding. You can’t buy it, and excess wealth is dangerous—but it’s hard to be happy in poverty.

Jesus echoes his Jewish tradition and comments on Greek philosophy as well when he says this stuff:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5:3-11, CEB)

You would think that these assertions would be uncontroversial: God cares about the material and social conditions for human flourishing. God is concerned with human happiness. But there is a political aspect to these statements as well.

God is not concerned about the poor because God wants them to be holy; God wants them to be happy—which has political implications. God wants oppressed and marginalized people—the “thin sheep” in Ezekiel’s story—to be happy, to have fresh water and good pasture, not dirty water and ruined pasture.

A God who cares about human happiness is a dangerous God. God is dangerous to those who relativize the happiness of other human beings.

This God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who cares about human happiness and not merely holiness, IS controversial. Holiness is the means, not the end. We do not pursue happiness in order to be holy, but holiness in order to be happy. Holiness which does not lead to greater human flourishing is not holy. It is infernal.

Three Axioms and an Apology

1. All theology is political.

2. Theology which claims it is not political is both political and dishonest.

3. Theological language which attempts to transcend politics, casts aspersions on “both sides” of an issue, or is deployed to make its users feel better about their privilege is political, dishonest, and condescending.

4. I’ve definitely been guilty of #3.

Why It Would Be Really, Really, Really Stupid to Eliminate Charitable Deductions for Churches

I’ve seen and heard quite a few comments from folks recently about the possibility of eliminating the charitable tax deduction as a way of balancing the federal budget. My secular friends of both conservative and liberal persuasions, and a few of my liberal religious friends often complain that a lot of church energy is spent not on helping the poor, but on providing country-club services for their members. They point to celebrity preachers who have made “ministry” into a big business.

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There are two main reasons, from an economic perspective, why eliminating the tax deduction for charitable contributions to religious organizations would be a bad idea.

First, churches have an enormous positive economic impact on their communities. It has been referred to as the “halo effect.” The researchers in the linked article gauge the average net economic contribution of churches to their local communities at anywhere from two to six times their annual budgets. In other words, every dollar you give to a church is creating more than a dollar of value. This is due in part to the way that churches multiply their ministry by the volunteer power of their constituents.

There are few other organizations that can compare to this kind of value multiplication. Cities who grant tax breaks for a new Wal-Mart often find that the economic effect is negative. Local churches (and, I would guess, other religious organizations) are a much better investment. (I think it’s debatable whether or not this kind of deduction should count as a subsidy, but that’s another topic).

Second, the people affected most by this deduction would be the poor—not only because it would hurt ministry to them, but because the poor are more generous. People at the lowest end of the income scale give an average of 4% of their income to ministries that directly benefit their communities. Upper-middle-class and rich folks give only around 3%. (There are both psychological and social reasons for the stinginess of the wealthy). I recognize that most of the poor and middle-class are already receiving the maximum tax deduction allowed, but these giving patterns in poorer communities reflect the kind of civic engagement and social responsibility that people like Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich (none of whom tithed last year, while insisting that churches, not government, should take care of the poor) talk about all the time. Why would we signal that we no longer wanted to encourage this kind of engagement?

Every fundraising expert I know talks about the importance of motivating a community to give—not just individuals. When a community takes on a big task (a building, a mission trip, an event sponsorship), the first big gift sets the tone and pace for the entire giving effort. It takes a lot of $50 gifts to match the first $5000 gift. We’re not just talking about the giving of individuals. We’re influencing the giving patterns of communities.

From a political perspective, there are two reasons I find all of this rather irksome. The first is that this is yet another way that people are proposing we avoid taxing the wealthiest people in the country at rates equivalent to the rest of us. The second is that this rhetoric is a favorite argument by people who disagree with the way churches “meddle” in politics. People have made these same anti-church arguments when the church got involved in civil rights, child labor legislation, women’s suffrage, and so on. They do not make the same arguments for other organizations: the humane society, environmental clubs, public health charities, higher education, and arts charities can lobby for legislation for animal rights, environmental protection, and public funding for education and the arts with minimal public outcry. It is fine for them to spend money on “evangelizing” and recruiting more members.

From a historical and theological perspective, I know some of my religious colleagues find this kind of reasoning about the economic value of churches rather crass. They like thinking of the church as the “Body of Christ” but not in terms of corporations (from corpus, “body”). The church had no 501(c)3 status in the Roman Empire, where it spread like wildfire, just as it has no privileged status in modern China, where it has thrived underground. That’s fine. I will concede the point that my giving should not be tied to some kind of tax benefit, that tithing should be a way of life for anyone, religious or not, who wants to be part of something larger than themselves.

But if we’re going to talk about budgets and priorities, then let’s actually think about the kind of place we want to live instead of just grasping at every possible source of revenue. When households face a financial crisis, short-sighted people first eliminate their charitable giving and later think about things like their cable bill. Those who understand that budgets are about priorities and character make sure that giving, saving, and spending are all part of their plan. Prioritizing giving helps us recognize how much we already have.

The Red, “Red,” Red State of Alabama

Everybody knows that Alabama is a red state, but back in the first half of the 1900’s it was red for a different reason: communism.

Birmingham was a steel town in an agricultural state. The mix of rural poverty and urban labor provided the perfect soil in which communism could grow. According to Diane McWhorter’s book about the civil rights struggle, Carry Me Home, in 1934 the Birmingham Communist Party claimed 1000 members. Birmingham was called “the reddest city in the country.”

The Good Ol’ Boy network of rich industrialists knew that the communists wanted to ally poor whites with poor blacks against the steel industry. (“Black faces and red necks” had two meanings: both miners and farmers, and blacks and whites.) The labor unions and New Deal supporters represented a threat to the industrialists’ privileged way of life. The industrialists hit upon a divide-and-conquer strategy and focused on two wedge issues: segregation and red-baiting. They allied themselves with the Ku Klux Klan and used domestic terrorism (like bombing) to intimidate labor organizers.

It didn’t help, of course, that some of the red-baiting was true. Many early civil rights advocates were on the far, far, left: Paul Robeson, Hosea Hudson, Helen Keller…

Yes, that Helen Keller.

Although I sat through what seemed like months and months of Alabama History in elementary school, and I distinctly remember watching “The Miracle Worker,” it seemed that Ms Keller simply disappeared after she learned to talk. I think I vaguely remember our textbook saying that she went on to be an advocate for people with disabilities, but there was never, of course, any mention of her being a socialist. It wasn’t until I read Lies My Teacher Told Me that I understood why her history had been sanitized: our famous Alabamian had gone on to become a founding member of the ACLU and an advocate of women’s reproductive freedom.

I visited Tuscumbia a few weeks ago for a wedding, and went into the town’s excellent independent bookstore. I picked up a book by Helen Keller (titled My Religion), and had an awkward conversation with the cashier.

Her: That looks like an interesting book. I’ve been meaning to read that one.
Me: Yeah, she was a fascinating woman. Did you know that she was a socialist?
(Conversation at the coffee tables behind me stops)
Her: …Huh. I never heard that before.
Me: Yeah. She even wrote poems in praise of the Boshevik revolution. But they don’t teach that in school.
Her: …Huh.

I’d embarrassed her, without even thinking about it. I insulted a hometown hero. I’m such a doofus.

Anyway, it’s fascinating to think of how much history we attempt to expunge from our memories to fit whatever is currently socially acceptable. If we teach children that Helen Keller was a socialist, they might ask “why?” Then we’d have to talk about the fact that lots of workers were rendered deaf and blind in industrial accidents, and it was only because brave activists risked life and limb that today, workers have to be paid in real money instead of scrip, get time off, and are compensated if they get hurt. These activists were bombed, lynched, and shot because they demanded to be treated like human beings. They paved the way for the civil rights struggle that would happen decades later. (Say what you like about OSHA and various industry regulations: you wouldn’t want to work in a factory or mine of 100 years ago.)

We might also have to talk with children about the concept of “class,” and have conversations with them around questions like, “Are we really a classless society?” We might have to talk about why poor people in Alabama subsidize low property taxes for the wealthy by paying such high sales taxes, even on things like groceries. One of my pastor friends asked a state legislator if he thought it was unfair that Alabama has such a regressive tax system which proportionally takes more money from the poor than from the wealthy. The politician was incredulous. “How else are you going to get money out of the poor?” he replied.

How far we’ve come since Alabama was called “the most liberal state in the south!”

Of course, these days, even talking about such things can get you labeled a socialist, regardless of what your economic and political views actually are. Our history has much to teach us that we are reluctant to learn. Privileged folk in Alabama of the last fifty years have worked very hard to forget as much as possible, hoping that we can “move on” from our past. But as dramatic as our history is, the further you dig, the more drama—and relevance—you uncover. Red-baiting and race-baiting still go on today, of course, although their practitioners resist similar rhetoric connecting them to the Klan, or Nazis, or to the feudal landlords of the south. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll see that there’s more than one reason this state’s politics are as red as its soil.

In my next post, I’ll talk about what this has to do with the church.

My Monday Morning

I spent most of yesterday morning with a formerly homeless man. He’s now in an apartment without a refrigerator or stove, or electricity or running water, but he has a roof over his head and a door that keeps his few possessions (relatively) safe.

We sat for a good hour in the Cooper Green pharmacy, waiting on his prescription to be filled. It was surprisingly crowded for a Monday morning. The pharmacy is a windowless room, about twenty feet square, with bad lighting, a blaring television, and four service lines. About twenty-five people sat on chairs or stood in the flickering fluorescence waiting for their number to be called. This is one of the places people who can’t afford much health care go to get their meds.

My friend was waiting on his insulin. He works at a car wash, but since it was raining he wasn’t working that day. He said that when it turns cold, the younger guys will stop showing up. He can endure the cold, he said, and he knew he would be working more come October and November.

As I looked around, I tried to guess the history of the other folks in the room. There were more than a few who were well-educated – I could tell from their dialect and their vocabulary. Most were clearly living in poverty. Everyone wore expressions that suggested they would rather be somewhere else.

I could tell that a few of them were in there because of bad lifestyle choices. They smelled of cigarette smoke and talked too loudly. I could see the signs of years of addiction on their weathered faces. But most were just tired.

After our pharmacy visit, I took my friend to a big box department store to get some work boots. Someone had offered him some weekend work clearing a fallen tree, but he had to provide his own steel-toed boots. Forty bucks. We also picked up some Ensure, because he said that he often had a hard time getting breakfast (having no refrigeration, in this day and age, is a problem if you want ready access to healthy food).

I took him to Jim & Nick’s for a diabetic-friendly lunch. Then we went to Family Dollar, because he needed some personal hygiene items. He bought a duffle bag to cary his supplies to and from the showers at the Salvation Army, just a few blocks from his apartment.

We spent most of the morning running errands, and we spent about $120 during our four hours together. And it occurred to me again, as it has so often in the past that it is expensive to be poor. The most valuable thing I provided for this gentleman besides the money was transportation in my car. If he had instead taken the bus, what took us a morning would have taken him days. That’s time that he would not spend looking for a better job, or educating himself, or reading and just enjoying life.

I thought about all the people in the waiting room, almost all of whom are there because they cannot call in a prescription to CVS and drive down and pick it up. I thought about the tremendous wasted economic and personal value that their time represents. Decent public transportation would help all of them, and everyone else in Birmingham as a result. Affordable preventive health care would help not only them, but my insurance premiums, because I wouldn’t be paying for as many of their emergency room visits.

I was also impressed, as I have been in the past, with this gentleman’s financial savvy. I tried to give him space to make his choices about the products he was going to buy, and I tried not to stand hovering over his shoulder so he could have some dignity and privacy. But I couldn’t help notice the way he was doing comparison shopping, squeezing every bit of value out of the budget we had agreed on in the past.

When we meet, I usually ask this man, “What would be the most helpful thing we could do right now for your goals?” And we talk for a bit about what he wants to do, and what would help him do it. Sometimes I’ll make suggestions or ask questions, but I generally figure he knows best. I did ask him awhile back if he had a savings account, and he informed me with some pride yesterday that he has one now, and he intends on socking away $25 each time he gets paid. He’s on a waiting list for some subsidized housing that includes utilities and comes with a fridge and stove – items which will make it less expensive for him to conduct the daily business of living and working.

Each time I willingly step into a relationship with someone who is poorer than I am, I have my world view shifted a bit. I already know it’s expensive to be poor, but when I think about what this guy goes through to get his insulin so he can go to work, and how he’s working his butt off to claw his way out of poverty, I admire him. He admits he’s made some bad choices, but now he’s making good ones.

As I drove home reflecting on my experiences, I turned on the radio. Some talk show guest was referring to my president as “the Food Stamp President.”

I turned the damned thing off. The man just has no idea.

Ending Poverty

I’ve been engaged in a Facebook discussion tangent recently about the old debate over whether “government” (meaning us, collectively) or “the church” should bear more responsibility for taking care of “the poor” (meaning people with low incomes). I put all those things in scare quotes because it is not always clear what we are talking about when using those words. Here is an edited version of how I responded:

I’d recommend Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers for anyone interested in poverty and development issues. Myers is former VP of WorldVision, and brings a great synthesis of theology and policy analysis into his study of poverty and what he calls “Transformational development.”

The taxes versus charity argument about whether “government” or “the church” should help the poor is not compelling to me. Churches do some kinds of aid very well. We typically return an economic benefit to our local community that is many, many times our budget. We multiply dollars with volunteer hours and give a spiritual boost to the neighborhoods where we locate. It’s called “the halo effect” and you can read more about it here. Some Europeans from countries with state-sponsored churches who visit the States are astonished that we do all that we do without government aid, relying solely on donations.

But many kinds of church aid are not as efficient as government aid. When we do a can drive, for example, we are burning gasoline to go to the store to buy food that has been stocked on shelves (at significant labor costs) and warehoused for retail. Our distribution networks make us feel good, but they are not efficient. What the church excels at is person-to-person relationship building. The kind of development that needs to happen to reduce poverty happens best when churches are intentional about connecting people across economic and racial lines, which they cannot do as long as they are segregated by neighborhoods, class, and race. This is less about money that we give away than face time that we spend in coming along side those who are struggling, simply learning to be with each other and loving each other. When you consider the huge amount of wasted potential and human capital that poor people spend on being poor—difficulty transporting themselves, missing work because they are sick, or getting caught in the cycle of predatory lending—it boggles the mind why we consider it *not* in our best interest to help them through government assistance. The amount of GDP wasted by poor people on what could go to benefit society is staggeringly high. Why is building roads for car owners and shipping goods in our collective best interest, but providing public transportation and public education is not? Should TVA’s development of power in the rural Southeast U.S. have been left up to the churches? Should churches provide fire and police protection as well?

While I take seriously our imperative to do all the good we can to all the people we can in all the ways we can, the church is called to represent the Kingdom of God. I can’t help but wonder if the devil’s strategy is to keep us Christians perpetually busy with cleaning up his messes and dealing with his casualties so that we don’t have time to confront his wickedness head-on. You may have heard the saying “Charity is pulling people out of a river; justice is stopping others from throwing them in.” But there’s also a large number of idle bystanders who will criticize any attempt to do either as meddling or being political. And the people doing the shoving will naturally tell us to mind our business.

Churches can do some things to help the poor, but we cannot build parks, provide public transportation, health care, and education to everyone. It is true that we have done a marvelous job building hospitals and founding colleges and working at peace-making across the globe. But many of those hospitals and universities are now sucking the life out of poor people because they are caught in the same sinful self-destructive systems as our banking and insurance institutions.

The people who are loudest about shifting the responsibility for the poor from government to the churches are people like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, neither of whom tithe, according to their tax records, but only give the American average: 2%. This kind of hypocrisy makes me livid. Folks who think churches can curtail poverty or do community development by providing soup kitchens and clothes closets are the people who have no understanding of poverty because they do not live with it. Nearly anyone who works with Christian nonprofit ministry among the poor will tell you that government—the financial and social priorities we set through our own political action—has to have a role in reducing poverty. Shifting the costs of poverty onto the backs of the financially poor only makes it more inefficient and expensive for everyone. When people use the ER for their primary care, when they miss work because of illness or transportation issues, when they lack time to parent their own kids, we all lose. Costs go up for all of us. At least, costs go up for 99% of us. Those at the top live in their own world.

The fact is, most people DO have intrinsic motivation to work and better their lives. Dependency and energy conservation (i.e. “laziness”) usually happens when people are repeatedly knocked on their duff, which is what Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” It’s amazing how much harder people work when they have savings, food and health security, and hope for the future.

I’ve been qualifying my use of the phrase “the poor,” because it only describes one sort of financial poverty. Myers points out that there is also social poverty, political poverty, health poverty, and spiritual poverty. We are a nation that has become contemptuous of the financially poor because we ourselves are spiritually poor. We are alienated from each other and from the God who calls us to a different kind of life:

For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. (Revelation 3:17-19)

I’m the Problem

Conservative churches grow. Liberal churches fail. That’s been conventional wisdom for thirty years. In the 1980’s, as the religious right was beginning to flex its political muscle, people said this kind of thing all the time. This is why the mainline Protestant churches were declining, and Southern Baptist churches and “nondenominational” churches were growing.

Only it turns out that neither their theology nor their politics had much to do with it. According to exhaustive research by Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist, it was mostly due to marriage and birth rates. The best predictor of whether someone is in church or not is if they are married and have kids, and the engine of church institutional life for the last century has been married families. As much as churches of all varieties liked to think that they were bringing the lost to Christ, the fact is that most of their numbers came from simply breeding new Christians. The mainline Protestants, who tended to be slightly higher on the economic ladder, expected their kids to go to college and delay marriage until they had a sufficiently high-paying middle-class job. Their pastors, likewise, were supposed to be well-educated (and thus slightly older) than their “evangelical” counterparts. This meant fewer generations in a given church, and therefore fewer people. Of course, once the non-denominational evangelical churches eventually caught up with the economic prosperity of the mainliners in the 1990’s, they started seeing the same downward trend. (In the second decade of the 2000’s, there’s another disturbing trend: marriage is increasingly the privilege of a shrinking middle class. A majority of households below median income are now unmarried. What will that mean for the church of the future?)

I do wish it were otherwise. I wish that most of our growth was from changed lives, new believers, people who were committing their lives to following Jesus. That’s what “evangelism” originally meant, before the related word “Evangelical” took on such conservative political connotations. I consider myself evangelical: I believe all people—sinners, saints, and skeptics—need Jesus. They do not need a doctrine about Jesus. They do not need a particular prayer or a set of words. They need the person, Jesus, even if they aren’t to the point of “accepting” him. As a fellow church-planter says, the gospel isn’t about us accepting Jesus into our hearts anyway. It’s about Jesus accepting us.

Unfortunately, the discredited idea that conservative churches grow and liberal churches decline has not yet died. It was trotted out again by Bishop Lawrence, an Episcopalian who is distressed about that denomination’s decision to bless same-sex unions and ordain transgender people. “Sexual and gender anarchy,” he claims, will lead the denomination into decline.

There are two things (besides the prejudice) that bother me about this kind of argument.

The first is that there is little evidence that the political or theological alignment of a denomination actually affects church participation. On the other hand, there is plenty of data that point to socioeconomic factors (class, marriage, kids) influencing church involvement

Church people are notoriously bad about making fact-free assertions. Lawrence claims it’s their liberal ideas that hurt mainline churches, but I could use his same set of facts to claim that it’s the weather: Churches in the Southeast are doing better than churches in other parts of the United States. Clearly, it’s hot, humid weather that makes people more religious! So all we need to do is get more people to move to the Southeast! Or make the entire planet hotter!

At our General Conference back in April, one delegate had the audacity to stand and proclaim the same conventional wisdom as Bishop Lawrence. He said that we Methodists needed to learn from successful churches like WillowCreek, megachurches that were more conservative. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 10,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, sat maybe two tables away. I wish I could have heard his thoughts at that moment.

Clearly, churches across the theo-political spectrum are able to do well. Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco is radically inclusive and very liberal, yet people line up around the block to get in. At the same time, there are plenty of dying conservative churches all over the country. Quality ministry does not depend on the orientation of one’s theology or politics. People who use the tired rhetoric that liberal churches are dying while conservative ones are thriving are simply spouting their own prejudices wrapped up in religious language.

The second thing that bothers me about Lawrence’s argument is this: I believe that if more churches gave a rip about about marriage and childbirth patterns, about the disappearance of the middle class, about the economic factors that make people poor and why that makes marriage less likely for them, they might do better ministry AND address a demographic problem of decline. But my saying that probably makes me a liberal. So according to Lawrence, I’m the problem.

You know what? I’m fine with that. I’m fine with being a problem. I dearly hope that we manage to grow a big Birmingham church of a gazillion people who are also problems, who also believe that God shows no partiality. I believe we problem people need Jesus, too, and I hope that we finally bury once and for all the idea that God only works with people who don’t cause such problems.

The Church Birmingham Needs

I’m going to try to be as honest as I possibly can about my hopes and dreams for this new church, which means saying some things that may make people uncomfortable, and taking a risk on saying something that may be wrong. That’s okay. I’ve been wrong before.

One of my deepest longings for this new church is that we will have a diverse congregation: black, white, Latino, and “other” (a category I always find amusing on demographic questionnaires, considering what “other” means in theology and sociology), straight, gay, lesbian (and “other”), old, young, (and “other”), rich, poor (and “other”), hard-core believers, agnostics (and “other”). Given Birmingham’s history and the continued political and social dysfunction we experience in our city as a result of that history, I believe we need churches that are as diverse as the Kingdom of God, who represent a community that truly believes “that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Galatians 2:6).

It is difficult to express this vision to others. I often get the response that “we can’t just have diversity for diversity’s sake.” I agree. We need diversity because it expresses the action of God in Jesus Christ who deliberately preached and acted on reconciliation and justice in his whole ministry. We need diversity because it strengthens our community. I am happy that most churches are at a point where they realize if their leaders are all old, white men that something is wrong. I am glad to have served churches that, as they are choosing leaders, will say, “we need a young person on this committee” or “we need some female representation on this team.” The leadership of these churches have gotten over the idea that this is “diversity for diversity’s sake.” This is about leadership and the mission of the church, about reaching new people for Christ and the realization that our own vision is limited. We need a diverse community to lead well.

Since moving and beginning the process of church planting full-time, I’ve been trying to meet as many people as I can. Yesterday was the first time we encountered old-school Birmingham racism. A man struck up a conversation with us, and we started talking about area schools. (We homeschool because traditional school didn’t work well for our son, but people attribute to us all sorts of reasons for our doing so. It’s interesting what our decision to homeschool reveals about other people’s attitudes.) He approved of our decision to homeschool, because he didn’t approve of the way public schools “indoctrinated” kids about civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wow.

The conversation made me aware of how much I’ve gotten used to being around people like me (white, middle-class, generally open-minded), and how easy it has become for me to be unaware of racism in my own context. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been used to moving in a social environment where the “soft” racism of privilege is still acceptable. People talk about crime or neighborhoods instead of race or class. It’s just that I hadn’t bumped up against privilege’s overt cousin in several years.

I can tell when I start talking about this stuff that people squirm a bit, and I have to be honest that I feel the sting of my own words. I’m living in Crestwood, a neighborhood that is “gentrifying,” that is on the right side of the tracks (literally) for urban renewal. I’ve had people tell me that churches that manage to be diverse don’t talk about such things. They just focus on Jesus, or just focus on relationships. While I believe in the importance of Jesus and developing interpersonal relationships with my whole heart, how can I not speak the truth?

I recognize that the challenge will be not coming off as paternalistic. Nobody wants to be part of a church where they are valued only as token members of a demographic. But I also recognize that churches do spend a huge amount of time figuring out how to attract people between the ages of 18 and 35, and they have done marketing and theological acrobatics to reach the “Nones.” They have celebrated preachers with hipster glasses and tattoos who have the same tired evangelical theology of their great-grandparents but who repackage it as “edgy.”

I am not interested in being edgy. I want to be truthful. I think that’s the church that Birmingham needs. Perhaps it is naive of me, but I do believe that all people need to hear and experience that kind of community.