to do justice blog

Why the Supreme Court’s Decision to Respect “Sincere Religious Beliefs” is Wrong

 

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Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado baker’s decision to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. It was an oddly narrow decision that reaffirmed protections for gay rights while simultaneously allowing the baker to violate them.

The case was argued on two grounds – free speech and free exercise of religion. Regarding free speech, the argument that baking a cake is a speech act did not seem to hold much traction. Neither did the majority opinion hold that a businessperson has a right to discriminate based on their religious beliefs.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

Surprisingly, perhaps, the decision was ultimately decided on very narrow grounds. The majority ruled in favor of the baker based on the judgment that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission demonstrated “hostility” to religion. The Civil Rights Commission had made the original ruling against the baker.

What Justice Kennedy is referring to here are remarks that were made by one member of the Commission who said:

Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be – I mean, we – we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination.

So far, what this Commissioner said is simply fact. Religion has been used in exactly this way throughout history. Furthermore, religious people continue to claim “freedom of religion” to justify misogyny, violence, homophobia, and other egregious and uncivil behaviors.

Here’s where it gets tricky

However, the Commissioner went on to say:

And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.

This is what really seemed to set Justice Kennedy off. He argued in response:

To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical – something insubstantial and even insincere.

Based on this statement of one Commissioner, Kennedy held that the whole Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to uphold their responsibility of “fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law – a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”

The opinion equivocated on a number of points and fairly invited further cases by stating:

The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.

Just what is “undue disrespect”?

It is the phrase “without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs” that gives me pause.

How are we to determine what constitutes “undue disrespect”? Is that another way of saying we need to respect these “sincere religious beliefs”? Who decides what is “undue”?

After all, we live in a country where Christians hold some horribly disrespectful beliefs.

Some of these beliefs are against the law. As in, some Christians sincerely believe that they have the right to beat their wives and some of their wives have been taught to believe they deserve it.

Some of these beliefs are used to harm women. As in, some Christians who sincerely believe that fertilized eggs are human beings are interfering with women’s access to birth control and abortion.

Some of these beliefs are simply morally abhorrent. As in, some Christians sincerely believe that the white race is morally, physically, and intellectually superior to all other races.

Freedom of speech means that we must allow people to express their beliefs, however abhorrent. It doesn’t mean we must respect those beliefs.

The same must be said for freedom of religion. While people have a right to believe whatever they wish, they do not have a right to act on those beliefs when they harm other people.

My faith calls me to challenge hatred

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Why Falling U.S. Birthrates are a Good Thing

1666768 - close-up image of a one-day old baby boyDid you hear that birth rates are falling in the U.S.?

A report out from the CDC last week showed that the birth rate fell 2% in 2017. That means that the general fertility rate in the country has fallen by 3%.

In a world of 7.4 billion people, with a growing climate crisis, rampant and severe poverty, and increased militarism and violence related both of these problems – this would seem to be good news.

And yet, all the mainstream reporting I saw focused exclusively on the potentially negative economic consequences of falling birthrates. This concern is rooted in a widely accepted paradigm that economies need “replacement” level birthrates in order to “replace” retiring workers and keep the economy stable.

“Replacement level” birthrates are problematic

However, there are serious flaws in this “accepted wisdom.” Flaws that I rarely hear discussed in conjunction with the hand-wringing about falling birthrates. To name just a few:

  • healthier, longer lives mean people are retiring later and later
  • millenials are having a hard time finding jobs
  • technology is eliminating jobs
  • many available jobs don’t pay a living wage

The job market and our economy have radically changed in the last fifty years. While we do need to figure out how to maintain a stable economy, the emphasis on “replacement population” is an outdated and dangerous way to think about fertility rates.

After all, there is general agreement that the earth’s carrying capacity (the number of people the earth can sustain) is not unlimited. That said, there is some disagreement about what we should do in response. There are three major strategies to address the problem.

  • technology will fix it.
  • we must live more simply.
  • we need to reduce our numbers.

These correspond to three primary approaches: technology (meaning largely business and industry), changing cultural habits and expectations, and global population control.

Technology approach

The technology approach argues that human ingenuity is so vast that humans can innovate our way out of anything. Scientists will eventually figure out how to genetically modify crops so that will feed the growing human population. We will devise ways new approaches to renewable energy sources that will power all of our devices forever and at very little cost. We will create new and unforeseen solutions to our garbage and waste disposal problems. Including nuclear and environmental waste. We will figure out how to colonize other planets and relocate there. This approach allows us to live our lives unchanged and unburdened by guilt or concern for our environmental footprint.

Culture change approach

The culture change approach begins from the fact that many people across the globe are consuming more resources than the earth has to offer. Most of us know that U.S. Americans consume more than our fair share. One popular way of illustrating this is to point out that we would need at least four or five planets to sustain the world’s population living at our level of consumption. From our reliance on our cars and fossil fuels to our love of air conditioning and fast food – we live lives that take a heavy toll on the earth’s resources. The “simple living” movement seeks to help individuals reduce our individual “ecological footprint” by eating less meat, using public transportation and walking more, and recycling. This approach holds that if people live more responsibly we can solve the problem.

Global population control approach

The global population control approach maintains that there are simply too many people on the planet. With 83 million people added to the world’s population every year, we are projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050. And at current fertility rates we are expected to surpass 11.2 billion by 2100. Given that fertility rates are below replacement levels in many of the wealthier countries and stand at around 4.3 births per woman in the 47 least developed countries – it is usually poor women who are blamed for the problem of overpopulation. The emphasis of this approach is to focus on lowering the fertility rates of the poorest of the poor in our world.

Intersectional approach

There are clearly strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches. Yet, the reality of our climate crisis is so profound that we must recognize no one approach is going to save us. It will require embracing technological innovation, living more simply, and reducing the size of our global population. And not just the growing population of the world’s poorest people. After all, the people in those 47 countries have far smaller ecological footprints than children born in the U.S.

A recent environmental report looked at the top four lifestyle changes that people could make to reduce their environmental impact. Out of living car free, avoiding airplane travel, eating a plant-based diet, and having one fewer child – the choice of having one less child had far and away the largest impact. This is not surprising given that the ecological footprint of a child born in the U.S. is 8.4 hectares (we rank sixth highest) compared to the .8 hectare impact of a child born in Afghanistan (they rank sixth lowest).

Getting ourselves out of the mess that we made will require the human community to 1666768 - close-up image of a one-day old baby boydevelop new and imaginative ways of thinking about work, labor, wealth, productivity, and the common good. It will also require us to work together in heretofore unseen and unimagined ways.

One more reason to welcome immigrants

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How Two Minutes Can Help Feed 2 Million People

 

child hunger

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SNAP benefits, which help to feed the hungry, are on the chopping block. Today is a national call-in day to urge our Representatives to vote “no” on the House Farm Bill due to the immoral cuts to SNAP. SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the federal program that helps feed people across the country.

The threat of moral failure

42 million people in the US don’t have consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. We used to simply call this hunger.

One in eight Americans, including 13 million children in our country don’t have enough food to eat.

In the richest country in the world.

For Christians, this fact represents our complete moral failure to address the most basic requirement of our faith: to feed the hungry.

The Christian imperative to feed the hungry

When the crowds in Luke asked John the Baptist how they were to live, he told them:

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. (Luke 3:11)

And in describing the judgment of nations, Jesus again makes it clear how we are to live:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food,I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt 25:34)

Why SNAP matters

Many people don’t know that the SNAP program, which used to be known as “food stamps,” is part of the US Farm bill.

The US House of Representatives is on the verge of passing a new Farm bill that will cut SNAP benefits for about two million Americans, many of them children. If you want more details about the bill, you can find them here.

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All I Want for Mother’s Day is . . . An End to Poverty

poor people's campaign

We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way. . . and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.

Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1968, three-thousand people set up a protest camp on the Washington Mall to demand economic justice. Those protestors were part of the Poor People’s Campaign, an initiative spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr and his colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to raise awareness about poverty and economic justice in the country.

King and his colleagues had turned their focus to economic justice after recognizing that the approach of demanding civil rights was not adequately addressing the reality of poverty that faced so many African Americans in the late sixties. What they knew was that poverty in this country is not due to laziness or generational neglect or any of the other dozens of clichés that dominate public perceptions of the poor.

Structural Nature of Poverty

The leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign rightly recognized that there were structures in our society that worked to keep people poor. Some of the ways that we have shaped an unjust society include these structures:

  • Wage structures that do not pay people a living wage.
  • Poverty thresholds that do not adequately measure poverty.
  • Biased requirements for business loans, home ownership loans, car loans.
  • A lack of affordable housing units or rent or purchase.

The point of highlighting the structural nature of poverty is to help people see that individual poor people can’t do anything about low wages, or poverty thresholds, their inability to get a loan, or their inability to find housing they can afford. No matter how hard they work. While we may never be able to overcome poverty, societies can structure our economies in ways that are more just.

Issues of economic justice had long been key to King’s vision of a just world.  In his 1964 Nobel Prize speech he noted, “Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed–not only its symptoms but its basic causes.”

The Biblical Call to Overthrow Poverty

Recognizing that poverty is a result of injustice is as old as the Hebrew bible. In Isaiah 58, as the prophet lays out God’s vision of justice, we hear these words:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  (Is. 58:6-7)

The vision of justice in the Bible is a vision of a world where those who have share with others and where we work together as a society to break the bonds that hold people in poverty – the bonds of injustice.

In 1968, 12.8% of the population lived in poverty. The protestors who showed up for The Poor People’s Campaign camped out on the Washington Mall for six weeks to raise awareness about the plight of poverty in the U.S.

King was in the midst of organizing the Campaign when he responded to the call of the sanitation workers in Memphis to help out with their campaign. Indeed, he spoke about the sanitation strike as a major part of the Campaign. The sanitation workers strike highlighted both the unjust economic conditions of some of the hardest working laborers in our country as well as the unsafe working conditions threatened the health and safety of poor, working-class people.

A New Poor People’s Campaign

Remarkably, the poverty rate today is virtually the same as it was in 1968. In 2016 (the most recent year data available) stood at 12.7%. Though the incidence of poverty is arguably higher today than it was fifty years ago as economists widely agree that the poverty thresholds, which were established in 1963, should actually be doubled to capture the lived reality of poverty in the U.S.

 

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Reflecting on Theological Giants

cone
James H. Cone. Photo credit: Union Theological Seminary, NYC

On Saturday, like many people across the country, I heard the news that James Cone had passed. Serving on the Union Theological Seminary faculty for almost fifty years means that Dr. Cone literally taught generations of seminarians, and I was fortunate to be one of those folks.

I still remember the first day of his systematic theology class, in the first semester of my first year of seminary. Sitting in that lecture hall in 1992, with nearly 100 students and watching him take the podium and explain to us that he was a the-o-lo-gian (in his classic, high-pitched, Southern drawl), and what that meant for him as a scholar and a black man from Arkansas, was highlight of my seminary career.

He taught the contemporary “half” of the systematic theology course which focused largely on the twentieth century, but he came alive when lecturing about liberation theology! As the father of black liberation theology and one of the leading liberation theologians since the publication of his 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power, Cone had a front-row seat for the development of liberation theologies across the globe from the 1960s through the 1990s when I had him as a professor.

He could be an electric lecturer, and more than once, his weekly lectures ended in standing ovations. It was inspirational to learn about the liberation theology from a man who knew personally most of the people whose work he taught. He told personal stories about their lives and their work and made the social contexts out of which their positions developed come alive.

Cone’s own development of black theology was a response to the notion that Christianity was “the white man’s religion.” He responded with an adamant, “No! The Christian gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free.”

This message, which is at the heart of all liberation theologies—that Christianity is a religion of liberation—is what drew me to Union Theological Seminary to study with the giants of the field at the time, including Beverly Wildung Harrison, James Cones, Delores Williams, and Larry Rasmussen.

While giants in the field, they were also folks, and folks are flawed—all of us. Cone was criticized throughout his career for his failure to adequately address his own sexism (though he had been persuaded to use inclusive language by the time I had him in class). Likewise, my mentor, Beverly Harrison, struggled with her own internalized racism throughout her career as well. I learned from these theological giants both the importance and necessity of liberation theologies that transform our faith, our life, and our world as well as the reality that we all fall short in this lifetime. In watching these mentors, I learned the necessity of always being on the lookout for my own demons and shortcomings.

The liberation insights I learned from Cone and others are foundational to my own feminist liberation ethics and particularly informed the argument in my new book, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. Like Cone, I refuse to cede Christianity to those who seek to own and define it in ways that reject liberation and freedom. In my case, I refuse to cede Christianity to the pro-life voices who insist that Christianity is against abortion.

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The Danger of Evangelicals – It’s Not About Hillary Anymore

69852494 - donald trump colored artistic
leirbagarc / 123RF Stock Photo

We Didn’t Have a “Choice”

In the aftermath of the 2016 election many evangelicals claimed that with Hillary on the ballot, they had no choice but to vote for Trump. One prominent evangelical went so far as to systematize and categorize the many reasonsthat evangelicals dislike Clinton.

Apparently, there are six such categories ending with the simple “we just don’t like her.” It has become a well-worn fact that eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. A statistic that absolutely floored me and many other non-Evangelical Christians after the election.

Trump is the “Dream” President – Really?

However, the fact is Hillary has virtually disappeared from the national political stage and Evangelicals continue to support Trump in record numbers undermines any credibility that white evangelicals are “values voters.”  At least with regards to any values that I have ever known to be associated with Christianity.

Jerry Falwell Jr. even dubbed Trump evangelicals’ “dream President.” This is baffling to anyone familiar with the traditionalist politics and rhetoric of the Moral Majority. The Moral Majority, which was spearheaded by Jr.’s father, was notorious for its moralizing against gays and lesbians, feminists, abortion, and other issues deemed “sinful” by Falwell’s conservative, traditionalist brand of evangelical Christianity.

But, it appears that philandering, participating in prostitution, sexual assault and generally boorish behavior are ok with Falwell and his crowd of evangelicals.

This new generation of evangelicals – the Trump-evangelicals – don’t seem to care about personal character at all. Their primary interest in promoting an ideological agenda of capitalist individualism has eclipsed any capacity to recognize the common-sense values of decency, kindness, and radical love of the stranger that marked the ministry of Jesus.  The man these men claim to follow.

Ideology Trumps Christianity

While I have no love lost for their fathers (Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell), the fact that the sons – Franklin and Jerry, Jr. actually supported the campaign of Roy Moore in Alabama, who was largely regarded as a sexual predator, raises serious questions about the morality of this generations evangelical leaders.

The fact that evangelical support of Trump is at an all-time high now, 18 months out from the 2016 election speaks to a deeply dangerous fact about evangelicalism in America today. Ideological commitment to capitalism and individualism has “trumped” the majority of evangelicals ability to recognize the radical call of the gospel and the prophets to love of neighbor and shaping our society in ways that care for the least of these.

Christian Values I was Taught

I think about the words of the benediction that my father spoke at the end of every service while I was growing up:

Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is a simple but profound message of what I learned is the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

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Paul Ryan Surprised to Find Christianity is Political

 

House_Chaplain_Patrick_J._Conroy

Two weeks ago, Paul Ryan fired Father Patrick J. Conroy, the first Jesuit chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives. Father Ryan is also the first House chaplain ever to have been fired.

Conroy was nominated for the position in 2011 by Speaker of the House John Boehner in consultation with Nancy Pelosi and has been reelected every two years at the beginning of each new session of the House.

While Conroy was not given a reason for being asked to resign, he did note that a prayer he offered in November as Congress was debating the new tax bill caused a surprising response from the Speaker’s office.

His prayer included the following:

May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. . . May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

The following week someone from the speaker’s office chastised Father Conroy saying, “We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political.” Not too long after that reprimand, Ryan told Father Conroy directly, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

Conroy countered, “That is what I have tried to do for seven years. It doesn’t sound political to me.” And yet, this prayer was the first time anyone from the speaker’s office had ever accused him of being “too political.”

What’s going on?

At its core, what this controversy highlights is an ongoing divide in this country over what it means to be Christian. This is not a struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism (Ryan and Conroy are both Catholics) but a struggle between an understanding of faith as a private affair focused on individual piety and salvation and faith as a community endeavor focused on promoting the common good.

As a lifelong Presbyterian, I look for candidates for public office who are also concerned about addressing poverty, racism, social exclusion, violence against women and minorities (including sexual minorities) and other social problems that ravage our communities.

As a Christian ethicist, I believe that all people of faith bring our faith commitments and beliefs to the public square when we debate public policy and legislation and that we should. The faith commitments that we hold naturally shape how we think about economic and social policy.

My faith as a progressive Christian is rooted in the social gospel tradition of Jesus’ championing of the poor and marginalized and the Hebrew prophets insistence that the community care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger – those who are most marginal in our society.

Jesus and the Poor

Jesus didn’t say to the lame, “Rise up and go get a job!” or to the poor, “If you only worked harder you could care for your family!”

No. Jesus recognized that the structures of his society were unjust. He also recognized the vagaries of life and that circumstances of ill health, untimely death, a lost job, or other tragedy are part of life. When he said “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8), it was not an invitation to accept the reality of poverty as an inevitable fact of life. Rather, it was an assessment of the injustice inherent in human societies and a challenge to us to do better. A challenge to us to do what Deuteronomy 15 calls us to do:

“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. . . . Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”

Poverty in the U.S.

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What is Progressive Christianity?

 

to do justice cover

The term “progressive” has long been used to represent an understanding of Christianity marked by an awareness of social sin; a consciousness of institutional and human potential and shortcomings; and, an emphasis on the church’s mission to engage the world.  The root of the term is “progress” and denotes the ways that humans over the centuries have become more conscious of our common nature and our common needs and acted out of compassion and our concern for justice to address those needs. Rather than focusing on charity alone, progressive Christians seek to transform the social systems and economic structures of society that marginalize people and the natural world. The term “progress” does not imply a single, uniform social goal.  Progressive Christians draw upon a variety of rich resources (Christian teachings and tradition, science, experience, social sciences, philosophy, etc.) to gain a greater understanding of the problems that we are facing and to work in collaboration with others to help our society, our world, and the church to make progress towards God’s vision of a new earth.

Progressive Christianity and scripture

Progressive Christians find firm footing for their social justice pursuits in scripture. At the heart of the biblical witness are the concepts of justice, covenant, and hospitality.  Prophetic books have provided us with some of the most memorable verses referring to justice in scripture.   The prophet Micah gives one of the clearest and most memorable references to God’s concern for justice.  In the sixth chapter of Micah, God challenges the Hebrew people to remember how God acted to liberate them from the oppression of the Egyptians in the Exodus.  God called people like Moses to lead them from bondage toward a more promising future. Micah challenges the Hebrew people to remember God’s justice as the foundation of human action.  What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God? (Micah 6:8) Jesus is remembered in the gospels as standing within a larger Jewish prophetic tradition. Through his teachings and actions Jesus resisted the unjust laws of his time that served to marginalize and oppress. He reminded others of their larger commitment to God’s covenant relationship; a covenant implying the responsibility to seek justice for the most vulnerable.

Our common narrative as a faith community in rooted in the covenant relationship that God established with creation.  This covenant tradition begins with Noah, is renewed with the descendants of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and again by Moses on behalf of the Israelites. The covenant tradition implies, not only a relationship between God and the people of God, but it implies that the people of God are a community bound together by bonds of kinship, faith, and responsibility. Through God’s covenant the whole creation experiences God’s blessing.  The term “blessing” is often misused in contemporary conversations to refer to individual economic and material well-being. Biblical notions of covenant and hospitality fly in the face of the dominant social attitudes of power, responsibility, and individual freedom.  The New Testament describes the actions of Jesus in the world as renewing the covenant between God and God’s people to enjoy God’s blessing, one in which the believing community is not only accountable to their kin and to God, but they are charged with offering hospitality to their neighbor. As Jesus interprets the Great Commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself” in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Jesus challenges his listeners to remember their hospitality codes and obligations to include strangers, enemies, and those who are in peril. Jesus did not say, “Help those who are deserving.” Rather, quite the opposite. In Matthew 25:34-40 he instructs his followers to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit with prisoners. The call of Christ to offer hospitality in the world is rooted in the common humanity that we all share as children of God.

Progressive Christianity’s Impact on Society 

Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/todojustice/2018/04/07/what-is-progressive-christianity/#WhW3HUI2b3KVGguy.99

Will You Go to Church on Easter?

aisle-bench-cathedral-161060Will I go to church on Easter?

I guess it’s only fair to answer that question honestly myself before asking readers their take on the question.

The best answer I can give today is probably? (And yes, there is a question mark in my voice when I answer).

Like many progressive Christians, I often struggle to go to church.

Why go to church?

It’s not really the getting up on Sunday mornings instead of sleeping in or relaxing or reading a book or talking a walk. I like to do all of those things and I find all of them restorative and sometimes sacred acts. After all, I’ve getting up and going to church on most Sundays for fifty years now.

I know its popular to say things like, “I feel as close to God in nature as I ever could in church” or some such variation. And I know that to be true too. There are many places where I feel the presence of the sacred and where I feel it is possible to celebrate and praise that which I experience as holy and numinous in the world.

But there is more to going to church than praising God. I know, right? Given the dominance of “praise music” it’s sometimes hard to remember that these days. Maybe that’s one of the reasons “praise music” annoys me so much (well, that, and the insipid, patriarchial, Jesus-centric lyrics).

So, of course, one aspect of church is praising God or the divine or the sacred or whatever you choose to call that which you believe/revere. But it is so much more than that. To think that the divine needs or desires our praise is so anthropocentric. The holy does not have an ego that needs to be stoked, folks – that’s us – humankind.

I believe that going to church is largely about two things – being community to one another and opening ourselves to hear the divine word from others. Neither of which we can really do by ourselves, in the woods or wherever else we might choose to spend our Sunday mornings (or whenever your worship time might be) by ourselves or with our intimate others.

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Does it matter if my ancestors owned slaves?

This week marks the 124th anniversary of the slave uprising in Haiti, which played an important role in the abolition of chattel slavery. Sunday, August 23rdis the UNESCO International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition. It is a day where the world is asked to pause and consider the legacy of slavery and the power of social movements like abolitionism.

Growing up in the US American South as a white child, I learned about slavery in particular ways. Living in the midst of battlefields, patriotic statues of Civil War generals, and family stories of burying silver as Sherman’s troops approached, shaped me in unknown ways. The cotton fields of my childhood were a visual reminder of the back-breaking labor that had fueled the economy, not just of the southern states but the whole country in its early years. Slavery was an embarrassing history lesson in which my ancestors had fought on the losing side of the American Civil War.

As I got older, I read slave narratives and histories of slavery, watched documentaries and movies and visited museums where I saw the instruments used to torture people on a regular basis. As I learned more about the brutal reality of slavery, I realized that my understanding of it had been deeply shaped by my experience of being white.

As a white woman, I wondered how my ancestors answered the questions of racial justice in their time and in what ways my life has been affected and even enriched by the hardships and injustice that were suffered by enslaved Africans. I wondered if anyone in my family had owned slaves.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter if my ancestors owned slaves. After all, my privilege as a white woman in the U.S. in the 21st century is real, whether my ancestors owned slaves or not. The horror of slavery transcends race and nationality in much the same way that genocide anywhere is a stain on the human community.

I vividly remember the palpable feeling of the moral evil that emanates through the slave castle of Elmina in Ghana and the slave chambers near the Zanzibar slave market. As I walked through the “Door of No Return” that leads down to the tiny holding room in Elmina where hundreds of people were forced to wait for the boats that took them to the Caribbean and North America; I became a living witness to the horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

Looking around that damp, dark, and death-filled space where unspeakable evil occurred for over 300 years, I thought about the fact that it was white Christians who built castles like Elmina and who perpetrated and profited from the slave trade for centuries. White Christians, who were quite possibly my ancestors, sold and traded their brothers and sisters while worshiping together in churches that often sanctioned and blessed the trafficking in human flesh. Their wealth and prosperity and the wealth of their countries was built up through the sin of human exploitation and oppression.

Acknowledging the moral depravity that was complicit in the existence and promotion of slavery as well as the Christian justification for slavery is an essential foundation for thinking about the contemporary problems of racial injustice that shape life in many countries around the world. Whether or not my ancestors owned slaves, I am accountable for my complicity in the racial injustice in the world today. Knowing and teaching about the slave trade is important in a world that is still rife with racial disparity. The crippling poverty of contemporary Haiti can only be understood in the context of the political history of the Haitian people. Likewise, the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States must be read against the historical backdrop of slavery and its legacy in which black lives have not mattered nearly enough.

When my father died fifteen years ago, I came across a faded newspaper clipping that mentioned that a distant ancestor of mine had owned a slave. While this fact was only a passing reference in the article, it’s the only thing I remember.

I do not know the ways in which slave-owning benefited my ancestors or what ways it may have contributed to my own class privilege. Certainly, the fact that one of my distant ancestors owned a slave does not make me culpable for his actions. What does matter is that, as a white woman, I develop a racial consciousness that recognizes the relationship between historical oppression and contemporary injustice; a racial consciousness that can identify the ways in which my Christian faith has been used to oppress black people and to justify slavery; a racial consciousness that propels me to fight against the contemporary racial injustices in our world.

Remembering the slave trade and the abolitionist movement is particularly important for historically white churches in countries that were part of the slave trade during the WCC Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace. We must remember and lament our complicity in the slave trade because our memory and our grief honor the countless victims who suffered and lost their lives. This lamentation is particularly important in contexts, like the Southern United States, where a glorification of the “Old South” seeks to gloss over the atrocities of our history under the guise of “celebrating our heritage.” The horrific murders at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC this summer can only be understood in the context of racial hatred that simmers beneath support for the Confederate flag.

Remembering the abolition movement is equally important because it offers us hope and a model for widespread social transformation even where that social change will disrupt the entire economic order. If ever we needed hope that that sort of social transformation is possible, it would be now – in the midst of a neoliberal economy that is causing widespread immiseration around the world.

During this week of remembrance, we would do well to ask ourselves why it is important to remember the slave trade and the abolition movement in our own contexts.

This was first posted on the WCC Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace website.

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