Manhattan Storage used to have a large billboard above the New Jersey-bound Holland Tunnel entrance that read something like this “If you store your belongings in New Jersey they will come back Republican.” Those guys at Manhattan Storage make funny billboards.
Well I don’t know about the political whims of storage items, but I do know that environment plays a role in shaping one’s perspective on faith, community, politics, economics, and family. My experience in rural Ohio for the first twenty years of my life helped to shape who I am today through my interactions with family, church, school, and work. Most of my work interactions were linked to family and church, and most of my school interactions were linked to church. So my circle of relational connections from 1975-1995 was probably smaller than the normal middle America young person. On September 5, 2020, it will be 25 years since I have lived in New York City. 5 years in Queens, 18 years in Brooklyn, and the last nearly two years in The Bronx. Nearly 3 years as a single, and now over 22 years as a married man. Living in New York City, actively participating with Urban International Outreach for five years, later with Followers of Jesus School for six years, an active participant for nearly 23 years with Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church in Brooklyn, and now these nearly two years with Believers in Jesus Church here in the Bronx has shaped my relationship with church, my heart, my relations, my view of politics, my view of economics, and my view of family. Let me clarify. The heart is what needs to be changed, and that change happens through Christ’s work and through the Spirit of God. But environment does influence who a person becomes.
Wow. If I’m going to go deep and wide here, this could turn into a book. So I think I’ll just go deep and narrow, if possible. Consider today the importance of the Word of God, that two-edged sword that opens our eyes to what is needed wherever we live. “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12.
Now more than ever, a two-edged sword is needed to pierce through the polarization and extremes of nearly every current issue. From March until August, Covid-19 has taken such an emotional, economic, and physical toll upon the world that we may never actually be the same world again after this passes. Will it pass? My context is the USA, although I do like to follow world news, and here in the USA I have noticed that whatever worldview position one may have had prior to March of 2020, heels dig in and the position gets fortified with all sorts of information and misinformation. We really do need a two-edged sword. What I have seen and experience pre-Covid has made me inwardly groan and sometimes shake my head at the reactions and comments from others who have not experienced or witnessed what I have. So when I say “We” need a double-edged sword, I think “I” need it as much as “we.”
Just take the ongoing brouhaha about masks. Listen, if you want to say “Masks are the new swastika,” and categorically refuse to recognize any potential benefit for wearing masks AND you will not wear them because you are exercising your first amendment rights, you probably need a two-edged sword to break down this position. Just ponder “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” and let the sword do its work. Put the mask on in deference to your neighbor, or in deference to the regulations. I’m sure if I was having open-heart surgery I’d be happy to find out that the surgical team was wearing masks. Yes, there is SOME benefit somewhere, I’m sure. The mask issue is not a violation of your rights or freedoms, and it is not a hill to shed blood on, of that I’m reasonably certain.
But on the other extreme of the mask discussion are the mask shamers who shame people who don’t wear masks and who say that if you don’t wear a mask you may (or will) be responsible for the death of your elderly Grandma or your neighbor’s sick, diabetic son. My neighbor, in his 40’s, was wearing a mask for most of the time I would see him over the last few months. He had a physical a while back and the doctor looked at him with some concern and told him his oxygen level is dangerously low. The doctor told him to stop wearing a mask. This guy is in his 40’s. Listen, if you want to wear a mask, go for it. I’m with you on this one. But for the sake of neighborliness please extend some grace to the ones who don’t want to wear a mask, or cannot wear a mask for health reasons. We really do need a two-edged sword to cut through this. Philippians 2 is a good sharp place to start. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:4-5
Or how about the racial tensions that have boiled up again across the USA since the death of George Floyd. Listen, if you want to believe and state that there is no such thing as white privilege, and “slavery has been over since the Civil War so we need to stop talking about race,” or “racism does not exist in the USA” you need a two-edged sword. Yes, Acts 17 does say “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.” The “from one blood” message has been preached often, and it is true. We are all of one blood. But it is not okay to gloss over the fact that this nation for hundreds of years did not recognize the full humanity of the African slaves, and even after the Civil War an additional one hundred years of Jim Crow went by before civil rights were given to many people of color. So while it sounds nice to say “From one blood he created all men” and use that to try to silence any discussion about race, Christians cannot afford to ignore that the issues still face us in 2020. These issues are more complicated, and more real, than you may think. At least in part, some of the problems facing the black community and other POC in the USA can be traced back to poor government policy, poor choices in policing, and systems of racist ideology and practice that have unfairly treated POC for years. When a secular nation-state allows 250 years of race-profiled slavery, followed by nearly 100 years of reconstruction with racist policies and programs, it is not reasonable to expect a Civil Rights Act to just make it all disappear. Corporate responsibility is at least part of the picture; for the church, corporate prayer, corporate lament, and corporate action are part of the solution. A two-edged sword is needed.
But on the other extreme, if you think that ALL problems facing the black community and other POC are only the result of systemic racism and corporate bloc sin, and are all the direct result of white people’s sins, and there is no need for personal accountability, you need the two-edged sword as well. Burning down buildings and destroying property and beating up police officers will not do anything to heal the nation or resolve the tensions, and it will not transform your heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9” The heart of each person needs to be submitted to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and through the forgiveness and cleansing brought from Christ, the submitted heart is transformed into a changed life. Sin, both my sin and the sins of others against me, is the root problem here. While you cannot change how others think or what they do, you will be judged by your responses. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. So there is a personal responsibility that needs to be assumed by individuals in this discussion. A two-edged sword is needed. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:9”
What I find probably the most troubling in the above two issues—the mask issue and the race relations issue—is that personal rights so often end up being more important than corporate responsibility. Has anyone else noted that almost everywhere reporting is done on the USA’s handling of the Covid-19 mandates, any time a governor is mentioned and that governor’s response, what follows is “a Democrat” or “a Republican,” and then the article continues. For example, the governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said….” Or the governor of Texas, a Republican, announced…” Even in policy decisions as important as how to respond to Covid-19, much of the responses and reporting have become political in nature. People respond often out of their personal political leanings, and it doesn’t always seem to line up with any sense of corporate responsibility. Quick note here. I am unimpressed with this whole NY mandate “If you come from these 35 states you need to quarantine for 14 days.” There has definitely been over-reach and politically charged decisions made in this pandemic. Even so, Romans 13 does apply in 2020, however difficult it may seem to live it out. I mean, it says they are God’s ministers to punish those who do wrong, so we should obey them. I’m not sure how that looks when local policy does not permit punishment, but Romans 13 is still real for us today. Here in NY, it seems the local DA is not charging wrong-doers. In July, it took the Feds to arrest and detain members of the Elite Assassin Millas in Brooklyn, a sect of the Bloods who had been openly killing people but not getting charged in NYC. We do need the Word of God, more than ever.
Yes, I am more on the side of wearing masks when asked than I am on the side of the “It’s my choice and I’m not going to do it” crowd. And yes, I believe that black lives matter. I am concerned about the BLM organization and what those founders stand for (for example, the mission statement of the BLM organization is critical of the “western” notion of the nuclear family); however, I believe this is an important moment for the church to seize the opportunity to move towards people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and different skin color in an effort to build unity. Yes, black lives matter, too. In my opinion, it is not helpful or honest to deny that significant problems still exist in America that can be directly linked to racist policies and systems that were created to push down people of color.
Just because I say black lives matter does not mean I endorse violence or burning cities or vandalism. I belong to a denomination and an alliance of 60 plus churches. Let’s just say that we are not very diverse in our ethnic makeup across our 60+ churches—I don’t have our demographics for sure, but trust me, we are not very diverse. Listen, I know that for the believer in Jesus multiculturalism is not the First Thing. The First Thing is sitting at the feet of Jesus Christ and becoming like him as we surrender to His Lordship and His teachings, walking in the Spirit. But consider this, friends. If our prayer to the Father is, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” do we really mean that? If Revelation 7:9 gives us a picture of heaven, could we pray that this picture of heaven could be lived out more here on earth? Can we at least begin to pray this way? Lord, make me an instrument of your Hand of mercy to bring people of all nations, tribes, people, and languages before your throne here on earth as it is in heaven. Does the most segregated hour in the USA still need to be the Sunday morning service held across this nation?
What shall we do then? For one thing, our conversations about Covid-19 can aim towards productive, positive themes. As much as that sounds impossible, give it a try. You will be amazed. It may even make you laugh! If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men.
As for the race relations issue? Oh, I better insert something here. Some of my friends say the protests are not about race but are more about anarchy and Marxism and imposing socialist/communist policies on US citizens. We participated in a church-sponsored protest that I really was glad to be a part of, so I believe many of the protests and marches are not oriented towards violence. Yes, there is a real element of anarchy and Marxism in some of the protests, especially the violent ones. I saw the video released by the Chicago police department on July 20, 2020. That was a terrible thing for the “peaceful” protesters to provide cover for violent protesters who intentionally injured 49 police officers, 18 of whom had to go to the hospital. I wish Miracle Boyd hadn’t had her teeth knocked out, but she was a part of organizing that protest, and I hope she didn’t know about the plans of the violent protesters to infiltrate the “peaceful” march there by the Columbus statue. Anyway, back to the race relations issue. So even if some of the riots are more about anarchy and Marxism than about race, cultural humility goes a long way here. If you are a part of the dominant culture in the USA, AND if you believe that the USA is God’s answer for the world, try taking a step back to survey the historical landscape of broken promises and dehumanizing policies the USA implemented over hundreds of years. Remember, we DO NOT HAVE TO BE TRAPPED IN THE PAST, but this country is INFLUENCED BY OUR PAST. The USA has this slogan “Remember the Alamo” in its history, but so many people say “Slavery is over” or “We elected a black president” or “The Civil Rights Bill equalized everything” and they react to any discussion about the negative factors of this nation’s history. In my opinion, it is not race-baiting to take a long look at the history of racism in America and prayerfully ask God to show you and me what we can do to lovingly engage people whose skin color differs from us in meaningful, God-honoring relationship. And if there are recognized injustices, let us not love in word or in tongue, but with actions and in truth! (I John 1:3). The church can and should be the place where true, lasting change happens, and where meaningful, deep relationships develop between people of all ethnic backgrounds.