I am a white woman in the United States who has spent the last few years becoming painfully aware of my own racism. I wish I could go back and apologize for all the idiotic things I have said and done that centered whiteness and white culture. I am trying to do better. I am still stumbling.
But I know that it is on me to teach my children to see the world differently. And so yesterday, on Martin Luther King Jr. day, we sat down as a family to watch a few educational videos about Jim Crow laws and the Reverend himself.
And I asked the girls a simple question: “What lie did the white people believe about black people?”
My youngest spoke up: “That they were bad!”
“Yes, that they were bad. But a lie even bigger than that. A lie that went back to slave times. These slaveholders had to tell a lie to make slavery OK in their hearts, when their hearts probably told them it wasn’t. So they told a lie that black people were lesser people. In fact, when the government needed to count how many people lived in an area, a black man was considered 3/5ths of a white man.”
I watched my girls’ eyes get big. They couldn’t imagine one human being counted as 3/5ths of another.
“And that lie told the slave owners that black people who were less than they were, were also less smart, less worthy, less dignified…less everything.
“They told that lie to themselves until they believed it. And they told that lie to their children and their children believed it. And they told that lie to their children and their children and laws and systems and governments were built on that lie. It is a lie called racism. The lie of racism simply says one race of people is less than another – one race of people is better than another. It is a lie that has such far reaching consequences, we are still dealing with it today – many people still believe this lie.” (Darin joined in here to talk about the Charlottesville protests. But there are many examples you could offer.)
And I needed to be even more honest, “See, here’s the thing: even though your mom and dad know it is a lie that black people are less, sometimes even we fall for it. We have to work hard to unlearn this lie because it is hiding in so many places we don’t know about, or can’t see. And we have to unlearn it by teaching you that it is a lie. And it is a lie – because we know the truth. All people are equal.”
We had lots more conversations about lots more topics during our learning time together yesterday, but this is the conversation we need to keep having over and over. We need to teach our children to teach their children to teach their children the TRUTH. This is the only way to take away the power of the lie.
It’s a good phrase. It’s an important phrase. It’s something we teach our children to say when they need to acknowledge wrongdoing and work to restore a relationship. It’s something many adults need to get better at saying (and meaning) without qualifying with a “but” or an “if.” And that definitely includes me because I’m not very good at admitting when I’m wrong.
But I’m awfully good at saying I’m sorry.
I’m sorry I didn’t know that.
I’m sorry to bother you, but can I ask you a question?
I’m sorry, was that in your way?
And I’ve got a couple of amazing coworkers who are also really good at this kind of apologizing.
I’m sorry I forgot what I was saying.
I’m sorry, that story was really rambling.
Sorry, were you sitting here?
The experts tell us that while we may be innocently attempting to keep peace and avoid conflict, this kind of apologizing can not only damage our careers, but also our self-image. We do not need to apologize for a lack of knowledge, for taking up space, for opening our mouths. We do not need to apologize for existing! We do not need to use apologies as conversation “smoothers,” to cushion whatever blows might befall those around us. We do not need to apologize when a simple “thank you” or “excuse me” will due. We do not need to apologize when what we really need to do is stand firm in our convictions.
So I’ve been joking with my coworkers that I’m going to institute an “apology” jar around the office. Sort of like a swear jar, we’ll each have to put $1 in when we’re caught in an apology.
Or when, like happened a few weeks ago, our boss even asks for an unwarranted apology. My boss (who also happens to be my sweet husband, so that’s an interesting dynamic) was suggesting some phrasing for an email I was sending to his boss, and his wording included an apology. I did not feel the apology was warranted, so instead of saying “I’m sorry that I didn’t know X” I wrote, “I just learned X” and continued with the email. It wasn’t hard to turn that phrase and I was still polite and respectful in my email, without diminishing myself in the process.
And even if I can’t make the general public give me $1 for an unwarranted apology, I’m not going to accept them so easily anymore either. At the Evolving Faith conference I turned around to tell a new friend how much I enjoyed listening to her gorgeous voice sing harmonies in my ear that afternoon. Her response to my gratitude and compliment?! “I’m sorry,” along with a sheepish lowering of her head.
“Nope.” I laughed. “That’s not how this works. That is the wrong answer when someone gives you a compliment. The right answer is: thank you. Let’s try this again.”
And we did.
And this time she smiled, and said, “thank you” instead.
How about you? Are you an over-apologizer? Do you have tips or tricks for those of us trying to break this habit?
Maybe we need to hear more about sin than forgiveness. And maybe we need to hear this from women.
One of the biggest news headlines this week is the sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor. If you may not have heard, Rosemarie Aquilina, the judge who presided over the case had some strong words for Nassar as she handed down his sentence. Aquilina appeared as a victim’s advocate all week as she responded with words of comfort and courage to each survivor who appeared in her court with an impact statement. “She called them “sister survivors.” She told them to push away nightmares. She thanked them and said their voices were heard. That they were not alone” (source). And as the proceedings wrapped up, Judge Aquilina told the media she would not be doing any interviews, “It’s just not my story” (source).
While Aquilina has garnered much praise for her approach to this case, she is not without criticism. Many say her words to Nassar at sentencing were too harsh, crossed a line, and showed favoritism. In this #metoo reckoning our country is undergoing, I can’t help but wonder at what would have happened in that courtroom had another judge presided. I have read countless testimonies (this is a good primer) on victim-blaming that occurs at all levels of our justice system and is a primary reason why many victims do not come forward in the first place. The courage the gymnasts presented, and the support they received from the bench, will likely prove another wave in this turning tide.
One of the early tweets I read as Aquilina’s comments were being made public stuck out to me saying, “We need more women in positions of power. Everywhere.” Of course the first few responses were reminding the tweeter that several people complicit in Nassar’s abuse were women, but the heart of the comment still stood. Representation matters.
I am still learning the nuance of the conversation around #metoo, and I am putting my foot in my mouth time and time again as I learn. Trust me, it hasn’t been pretty. But in my humble opinion, women who have the back of other women are to be championed. And I want to be a champion.
The other big news headline catching my eye this week was the continuing evangelical support for President Trump, despite new allegations of an affair with Stormy Daniels. In particular, in an interview with CNN, Jerry Falwell Jr. proclaims the faith of evangelicals is based on the idea of forgiveness and “that is why evangelicals are so quick to forgive when he asks for forgiveness for things that happened 10-15 years ago.” First off, I’m not convinced Mr. Trump asked for forgiveness, but secondly, I think our obsession with forgiveness may just be the reason we prop up abusive leaders and dismiss the pain and trauma of victims.
Can you imagine if Aquilina had looked at every survivor and reminded them that Nassar had apologized and their job now was to forgive? That the only way for them to move forward was to forgive? Yet this is what pastor after pastor has done to women who sit in their offices exposing the truth and asking for help.
It usually goes something like this, “Well, the Bible says that we are all sinners and that while we were in our sin Christ died for us. Christ died to forgive all of us. Out of your gratitude for Christ’s forgiveness of your own sin, now you are asked to forgive others. We pray it in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And then the victim and abuser are brought together for a time of reconciliation. And we hear the stories and decide to stay silent.
The damaging thing here is, as Rachel Held Evans notes, there is a grain of truth to this theology. “Central to the Christian message of salvation is the scandalous good news that Jesus Christ sets both the oppressed and their oppressors free, that there is grace enough for both of them. Christians are indeed called to forgive, even when it is costly and undeserved, and Christians are indeed called to work toward healing and reconciliation even when its hard.” But there is an equal truth to be addressed: sin is a destructive and pernicious force that only grows stronger when swept under the rug. We need to boldly speak the language of sin, or the power of grace means nothing.
So I ask again, what would it look like if we had more women in positions of power?
And what would it look like if our preachers spent more time on sin and repentance than on forgiveness? What if we learned the old art of penance? As Barbara Brown Taylor notes, we dispelled of the notion of penance in the reformation because it had become a box to check and it smacked of works righteousness. But, “penance was not punishment. Penance was repair. Penance was a way back into relationship” (source). When we sin there are consequences that are far reaching. And we must acknowledge and work to repair those harms as acts of true repentance. Again, Brown says, “repentance is not complete until confession and pardon lead to penance that allows community to be restored.”
We teach our children that an apology isn’t enough to restore the relationship. They must show that they are repentant. They must work extra hard to act in a kind or generous or loving way to make up for the hurt their sin caused. They have to do their sister’s chores for a week to make up for the sinful way they responded when they were angry.
Why do we not ask the same of adults? Why is it that an admission of guilt and an apology is enough? It isn’t. It shouldn’t be.
So yes, we need more women leading our churches and preaching to our communities. Calling us to account and pushing us towards the hard and painful work of self-awareness. Prophesying what we do not want to hear: sin runs deep here and it must be named and atoned for. And we need to hear again and again and again, in the powerful words of John the Baptist: “REPENT, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”
Amen. May your kingdom come near.
The Pharisees, Jesus, and Drawing Lines in the Sand
Growing up in the church it was always pretty clear to me who the bad guys of Scripture were. I knew that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not down with Jesus and tried repeatedly to fool and shame him. But Jesus was too smart for them, instead skillfully and compassionately evading their traps: refusing to condemn a woman they wanted to stone, challenging them to study what is meant by God’s declaration “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and using a story of a beaten and bloody man cared for by the lowest of low to teach what is meant by love your neighbor. Jesus’ harshest words were always for these “whitewashed tombs” who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4) My childhood world was pretty black and white, divided into good guys and bad guys, and when it came to Jesus and his enemies, all was crystal clear.
But it turns out the world isn’t so black and white, and neither is Scripture. The more I learn and lean in, the more I see nuance, both/and, now/not yet and I am not as eager to fit things into neat dichotomous categories. A few years ago when I studied the book of Matthew in Bible Study Fellowship I found myself strangely empathetic to the Pharisees. As I began to put myself in their shoes I started to see how threatening the teaching of Jesus were to their understanding of God, of their holy book Torah, of righteousness, of their fundamental understanding of who they were as God’s chosen people. Jesus was upending everything they thought they understood. Now you can argue that Jesus was simply returning to the original intention, revealing to them who God had always been, showing them how they had missed the mark over the years. But change is hard, especially when the change is predicated on the fact that you were wrong. So often when confronted with our failures and offered a right perspective, instead of accepting new information we double-down, hold tighter and dig in our heels. I am speaking from years of personal experience here; humility is not my strength.
I started to get where the Pharisees were coming from. For Jews of the first-century, their framework for self-understanding was found in Torah, in the sacred writings of Israel. Torah gave Jews an identity as God’s chosen people and the responsibilities that came with this election. Jews viewed Torah as the eternal word of God, unchanging and normative in all times and contexts. But since life is ever changing, Pharisaic tradition was created to help Jews “continue to live in the present world but seek to discover in Torah itself the principles that would allow them to maintain its integrity as an absolute norm, yet relate it to the real circumstances of their lives.” The invention of this interpretive practice called midrash kept Torah alive, present, and authoritative.
Christians have continued such a practice with our sacred texts found in The Holy Bible (which includes the Jewish texts). We may not call it midrash, but the work of theologians and pastors to interpret these ancient texts in light of our lives and contexts certainly feels like this practice. For example, obviously Scripture doesn’t speak directly to my use/abuse of technology, but I can find principles for caring for others, the wise use of my time, honoring resources, etc. that help me develop a healthy ethic around this modern invention. I have noticed a trend of Evangelicals to happily camp out in the Epistles because these letters of Paul, James, and others tend to spell things out more clearly than a story from the Old Testament or life of Jesus might. And yet we still must wrestle. Was Paul’s admonition against women preaching towards a specific context, or for all time and place? Did Jesus really mean we should turn the other cheek if abused? Like the Jews with Torah, Christians believe our holy text is alive and relevant and has as much to say to us modern people as it did to early believers.
You may already assume where I’m headed with these thoughts, but here is where I spell them out for you. A few weeks ago a group of Evangelical leaders, with (what I’m asking God to help me see) the best of intentions, wrote out a sort of midrash on sexuality they called the Nashville Statement. This, they declared, is the proper way to view human sexuality from a scriptural viewpoint, and this, they were clear to note, is the only way for followers of Jesus to do so. A line in the sand was drawn. Insiders and outsiders were declared.
As I read and wept in anger and grief, not only at the tone-deaf timing of the statement, but also to the damage it would inevitably cause in the lives of sincere Christ-following LGBTQ people and their friends, family members, and allies, I couldn’t help think of Matthew 23 and the weeping Jesus did over the Pharisees. “Woe to you,” he cried again and again. “You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy.” “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” “You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of fish.” Jesus’ harshest words were always for these religious leaders and it is no wonder why my childhood-self vilified them too.
When Jesus walked the earth he declared that he had come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He told us that he was the embodiment of the law, the personification of it. If we wanted to know what God was up to, sure we could look to Scripture, but we should first and foremost look to Jesus. Scripture is an important, living gift. But it is not central, not a fourth member of the Trinity. To understand any of our holy texts, old and new testament alike, they must be filtered through the lens of Jesus. Scripture is not Jesus.
And neither is the Nashville Statement.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 50.
I loved this liturgy of prayers from church on Sunday and wanted to share them with you, in case you are like me and are finding it difficult to know how to pray for our country these days.
We pray for liberty for each human being, that no one is oppressed or exploited. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for democracy, that each voice is heard, and no one is silenced. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for peace, that there be harmony, in which each person’s gift may flourish. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for justice, that there be a just and equal sharing of power. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for a spirit of patriotism, that we be faithful to one another as a whole. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
We thank you for our freedom, and those who protect it: teachers who teach to question, neighbors who act in covenant with one another, those who speak out against injustice. We give thanks.
We thank you for the gift of our diversity, honoring each person and celebrating differences. We give thanks.
We thank you for this land. Remind us to revere creation. We give thanks.
Temper might with humility, and power with compassion. Mend divisions, heal fear, and restore love of one another. Bless this nation and every nation the same, for we are all sisters and brothers.
Bless us, and make us a nation of justice and peace, a nation of benevolence and generosity, a nation of mutual sharing and cooperation, a nation devoted to healing. Bless this nation, that we be people of mercy.
Have you heard about the women leading the resistance movement these past few months?
The women who organized the largest protest march in history?
The woman who refused to argue Trump’s travel ban in court and was fired for it? Or the woman who issued the stay from the bench?
The woman who persisted when she was told to stop speaking?
The women who broke from their party for the sake of our nation’s children?
Or the women sitting on airport floors trying to help those who were detained. Some say the gender disparity there was likely 70% female.
A quick google search will yield woman, after woman, after woman, leading and loving peacefully and powerfully. They are getting stuff done. They are speaking truth to power. They are working their tails off. They are healers and prophets, judges and lawyers, mothers and activists, artists, scholars, preachers, teachers. They are inspiring.
CHURCH, WAKE UP!
Can you imagine what could happen to our gospel witness if we unleashed the women in our churches? Can you imagine how many would find the hope and healing of Christ if we valued feminine leadership styles? Can you imagine the transformation in our communities if we supported the creativity and innovation of the women in our congregations?
Trust me, Church, women would lead the revolution and the revival you all are hoping and praying for. Throw open the doors, unbind the chains, and let us get to work.