Civil Righteousness

I want to make an introduction.

While “Black Lives Matter” was gaining national attention in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, another organization was being formed in Ferguson, MO.

It was a movement founded on prayer and fasting with a mission “to pursue racial reconciliation and restorative justice through spiritual, cultural, and economic renewal”. In the middle of a war zone, the seeds of future peace were sown.

Today, it is growing exponentially while giving voice to the millions of people who find themselves in “the messy middle”. Let me explain.

The Karate Kid was one of my top 5 movies of the 1980’s.

Wax on. Wax Off.

Sweep the Leg.

No Mercy.

The movie has its share of great one liners and in one memorable scene Mr. Miyagi says to his student Daniel, “Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later (making squish gesture) get squished, just like grape.”

The quote had something to do with his commitment level to karate but Mr. Miyagi’s words came to mind recently as I was considering our current cultural climate and the slugfest that is now social media. There is little room in the middle.

Various ideologies whether political, economic, or otherwise often demand complete loyalty and for those of us that would rather walk down the middle of the road, we have the very real risk of being “squished, just like grape”. The recent national conversation around racism, justice, Black Lives Matter, defunding the police, and white privilege is a case in point.

I’ve felt increasingly “squished” by forces on either side.

Maybe you have too.

I’ll start by giving a little context.

I’m white.

I’m straight.

I’m middle aged.

I’m male.

I’m a pastor.

I’m sorry if I just offended someone.

Seriously though, in spite of my vanilla background, I grew up running around with predominantly African-American friends as a kid. Most of my best friends were black and the rumor on the playground was that “I thought I was black”. I’m not sure what that meant other than I could do some serious damage on the basketball court and was a big fan of early 90’s rap music (the golden age of rap BTW). I was the rare white kid listening to Public Enemy and KRS-One when everyone else was quoting Fresh Prince and MC Hammer.

I digress.

Today, I can’t find a single person in my current sphere of influence that doesn’t agree with the statement black lives matter. Everyone is created in the image of God and yes, my black brothers and sisters matter! The fact is, racial reconciliation has been a passion of mine since I was a child.

I had the privilege of playing a part in crafting our denomination’s statement on racial reconciliation (you can read that here) and I couldn’t be prouder of my many friends and colleagues in that same movement that have taken significant steps to fight racism.

But I have a problem.

Deep in my soul is a desire to put an end to racism and to be an agent of reconciliation but the national conversation and pendulum continues to swing back and forth from one side of the road to the other. The fact that we live in a polarized society with a media that adds constant fuel to the fire makes it even tougher.

Like Miyagi said, “walk middle…sooner or later get squished like grape”.

Let me try to unpack what I think are two approaches.

The first approach seems to be the approach of conflict where change is seen through the lens of power and division. These voices and organizations try to recruit people to join them in a vicious battle between the oppressors and the oppressed, us versus them, pitting one against the other as if we could cleanly separate humanity into two broad categories.

It could be gay or straight.

It could be male or female.

It could be rich or poor.

In this case it’s black and white.

This approach fixates on our differences and often weaponizes them for leverage. It uses the endless supply of anger and frustration in our world today and often turns us against one another. The murder of George Floyd broke the floodwaters of emotion that had been building for decades, even centuries in this country. The deep emotions revealed over the past few weeks have left me sobered. Something must be done. Strategies rooted in conflict are not completely unfounded.

However, if there is not a biblical ethic underneath the conflict and agitation, things won’t end well. Already, we are seeing other splinter groups and domestic terrorists co-opting the pain of the black community to wreak havoc in certain communities.

Systemic racism is clearly a huge problem in this country, but new systems with unchanged hearts will only create new issues to address.

We need structural change AND heart change.

What concerns me about this first approach is the lack of verbiage around reconciliation or unity. Furthermore, I’m troubled that the leading organization in this fight isn’t rooted in a biblical ethic and is often antagonistic toward the church. Unfortunately, the larger Church has at times abdicated its leading role in the fight, but it’s a troubling reality nonetheless.

In many private conversations with African-American pastors, leaders, and friends, I’m realizing more and more that I’m not the only one that shares this discomfort with the constant narrative of conflict.

If the first approach is conflict, the second approach is compromise.

People that take this approach feel very uncomfortable with the protesting, marching, and chanting and think that if we just allow time to run its course, everything will be A-OK. By the way, it’s not just white people. I saw a video of Morgan Freeman that was circulating the internet where his solution to racism was “stop talking about it”.

This approach points to the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement and assumes the hard work has already been done. Truth be told, fifty years ago many that take the approach of compromise wouldn’t have been caught dead walking in a Civil Rights rally with MLK. To quote a friend of mine, “if you wonder what you would have done in the Civil Rights Movement, you are doing it now”. That may be overstating the point, but I think it contains an element of truth.

This approach bristles at any proposals for sweeping change. Disrupting the status quo and creating legislation to level the playing field all feels a bit heavy handed.

The compromise approach isn’t new.

It’s been around since the Founding Fathers (most egregiously in the three-fifths compromise) and has continued with almost every president until today. The compromise approach says racism will eventually just go away.

Only it doesn’t.

It metastasizes.

In fact, when it goes underground it can be even more dangerous.

The left side of the road wants revolution. The right side of the road just wants things to return to normal. But what about those that don’t want complete revolution OR a return to normal?

What about those fighting for genuine reconciliation and reformation?

Where is that vision found today?

The most oft-quoted verse during these times is Micah 6:8, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Where is the movement teaching us how to fight for justice, while at the same time loving mercy and walking with humility?

It is a movement that is desperately needed.

There is a continued debate between two flawed approaches to this ongoing national crisis called racism and many people of faith have felt deep in their spirit, there must be a better way.

The current polemic is creating greater polarization in our country and dividing us further and further apart. The final answer to systemic racism and personal sin is found in the narrative of the Gospel. We need a movement that engages not only civil rights but also civil righteousness, a movement that can help organize the church and community around these biblical principles of justice.

With that being said...

Allow me to continue with my introduction.

I want to introduce you to an organization called Civil Righteousness.

It is an organization that is growing exponentially and currently resourcing 150 field staff in large cities around the country.

Its founder and CEO is Jonathan Tremaine Thomas, an African-American pastor and leader with much in common with MLK’s rhetoric, strategy, and methods. I spoke with him this week and continue to be impressed with their vision and goals.

It is a movement reiterating the dream of Dr. King where…

“Little black boys and black girls are able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. Where every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

It is a vision to…

“transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day".

Civil Righteousness as a movement stands on four principles.

Engaging Injustice.

Building Bridges.

Mobilizing Allies.

Restoring Communities.

How can you partner and learn more?

Click here for a link and 6 ways you can get involved. Sign the statement, become a field director for your city, form a prayer wall in a place of pain, organize a hope rally, give, pray, and jump on board.

There is so much more that could be said, but for now I would strongly encourage you to visit their site, watch the videos, and discern how God might lead you to action.

Inequity requires a civil rights movement. Iniquity requires a civil righteousness movement.

We need both.

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