Hope from the Inside

Dear Joel,

When I told our children we were moving from Kansas—literally, the Free State—to Arkansas, a state that spitefully celebrated Martin Luther King Day and Robert E. Lee Day on the same day for years and years, my oldest asked the question I’d already been thinking: Why would we move to a former Confederate State?

As a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I’d grown up reliving the Civil War as much as the students I would come to teach in Arkansas had. For me, though, the stories were of radical bravery in the fight to root out the gravest of sins: the Christiana riots, which predated the Civil War; the white Quakers who moved people escaping slavery north to Canada; the Republicanism of Thaddeus Stevens. And always, the importance of the Mason-Dixon line, which continued to separate the good people of the North from those who inhumanely enslaved others. Of course, I knew that the stories were more complicated, that racism and hate exist in the North (including my beloved rural Lancaster County) just as cruelly as it does in the South (and more, in some cases) and true in the Free State. It is the home of both John Brown the liberator and John Brown the mass murderer, the site of the Exoduster town Nicodemus and a place that treated Langston Hughes terribly, a place where Brown v. the Board was won because, after all, segregation was legal there.

Above left, a historical plaque marking the battle of Jonesboro, an 1862 skirmish that left killed 8 Union soldiers and one fool willing to die to defend slavery. Above right, a historical marker honoring the Christiana Resistance. Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch traveled with a posse to Christiana, Pennsylvania, to retrieve men who had escaped slavery on his farm. Gorsuch met armed resistance from William Parker, a free black man, and others, black and white, who opposed the Fugitive Slave Act and slavery. Gorsuch was killed, and nearly 40 people, black and white, including several Quakers, were arrested and charged with treason. Most charges were dismissed.

But still, I had to answer the question. I stressed that the Civil War was over, even though I know it’s just taken new forms. The best part, I told my sweet, white son, is that he’d likely have a sizeable number of African American classmates, which hadn’t been the case in his Kansas public schools, though he had had many friends who were native American (especially when we lived in the Haskell neighborhood in Lawrence) and Mexican and central American.

He looked appalled. “Why,” he asked, “would a black person ever live in the South?” It made even less sense than the descendants of Union soldiers moving there.


Above, though progressive in other ways, Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough responded to the massacre of black Arkansans in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919 by rallying whites. 

Below, Exodusters in Nicodemus, Kansas in 1855. 


There are good reasons, of course, beyond the difficulty in picking up your life and moving it to a new region. Racism is everywhere, and perhaps it is easier to navigate in Arkansas or Louisiana or Georgia, which bring the benefits of being in a place with a long history of African Americans. We read up on how so many of our civil rights heroes were Southern and learned about the beauty of the myriad cultures of the African American South.

But still, the question: Why stay in a place built (literally, the infrastructure, the agriculture, the commerce) on your oppression?

I’ve been thinking about the question again with Lawrence Ware’s announcement in the New York Times that he is quitting the Southern Baptist Convention.  The SBC was founded as a defense against abolitionist Christianity; it’s origin is as a theological justification for keeping the captives captive.

Ware is a professor of philosophy and co-director of Africana studies at Oklahoma State, plus a pastor ordained in both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, founded by King. He renounced his SBC membership after those gathered at the recent national conference in Phoenix refused to take seriously the call the reject the racism of the alt-right, racism that the Trump campaign has deliberately fostered. Ware writes:

I want to be a member of a body of believers that is structured around my Christian beliefs of equity, not one that sees those issues as peripheral. The equality of all people should be a fundamental principle that is a starting point of the convention’s existence, not a side issue to be debated.

Ware’s departure brought criticism from those with little sympathy for someone who had spent his life as part of an anti-LGBTQ+, anti-woman organization and only left once he realized it was just too damned racist to be a part of anymore.

I understand that response. It informed by Fannie Lou Hamer’s stirring call: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” It’s the point behind intersectional activism, which requires us to think about the ways that different parts of our identities intersect and how those intersecting identities make us different from each other—even as they require us to collaborate in the movement for justice. Those who seek only their own safety will always lose it.

But I’ve also witnessed the destructiveness of call-out culture and efforts to overcome oppression that have been as much about purity, not hospitality, as are the worst churches. We too seldom have patience for each other’s growth, and we use other people’s weaknesses as an opportunity to show our own strength rather than our grace. Ware knew that the SBC was homophobic as well as racist, and he mentions his long-term grief about the organization’s failure to confront those prejudices in his letter; surely, he also knows of the group’s sexism, including its removal of women from the pulpit. He stayed because he felt that pressure from within was more powerful than pressure from without; he was hopeful.

We shouldn’t mock that, even if we don’t understand it. And we shouldn’t deride those whose process of recognizing the connections between oppressions is unlike ours.


BSA Needs to Apologize

Hi Joel,

The sleeping bag hasn’t yet aired out from my oldest child’s stay at Boy Scout camp last week, and today I dropped my daughter off at Girl Scout camp. Despite some ambivalence about Boy Scouts in particular, our family has benefitted from Scouting in ways I’m very grateful for.

So I say with a lot of love for this organization: saying that you are “wholly non-partisan” after Donald Trump’s crass, inappropriate speech to boys gathered for the National Jamboree is not enough. In fact, it adds insult to injury.


Above, a Boy Scout uniform amid the rubble after an EF3 tornado tore through the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in Sioux, Iowa, in 2008. Emergency responders had to use chainsaws to cut their way to the camp as the twister left a path of destruction 14 miles long. Four boys died, and more were injured, but the boys worked hard to put their knowledge of first aid to good use. Donald Trump knows nothing of heroism, sacrifice, valor, or bravery–in fact, he detests those things. He doesn’t deserve to speak before BSA, as his speech proved. 

It’s a lovely tradition that the sitting president of the US is the honorary president of BSA. Anyone who has the character to serve as POTUS should surely be able to handle the duties of honorary BSA president. But, as so many of us yell daily, these are not normal times. The current president could not handle the duties of being a Denny’s hostess or a customer service rep at any of the major telecom companies. He should never be given access to children or families.

And so, that tradition should have been suspended at the election of Donald Trump. The Boy Scouts cannot be responsible for what this vile person said–words that violated the stated values of Boy Scouts of America throughout.

But BSA is responsible for bringing this moral failure to speak before their members. Boy Scouts of America should have seen this coming a mile away. The main problem with Trump’s speech wasn’t that it was “too political” but that it was disrespectful, unkind, and self-centered–as so many of his speeches are.

At some point, we have to hold those who hand this man a microphone accountable. That includes BSA.



If you want to share your concerns about BSA’s failure to vet speakers, you can do so by writing to myscouting@scouting.org. Here is my letter, in case it is helpful:

Dear Boy Scouts of America,

The tradition of the current president of the United States serving as as honorary president of BSA is a noble one, but it should have been suspended with the election of Donald Trump. However you feel about his politics (and BSA’s effort to remain non-partisan is noble), he lacks character. He made it clear through the election process that he despises weaker people, speaks ill of those who cannot defend themselves, and and violates every single one of a Boy Scout’s values. He’s a promoter of pornography, gambling, sexual infidelity, and sexual violence against women.  While I wish that the current president did follow the Boy Scout law (Certainly America would be a better place if every leader lived out these values!), the current president’s words, actions, and history mock the best of Scouting. You knew that and you endangered the boys entrusted to your care at the National Jamboree.  You were foolish to trust him near children. As a parent of a Scout, I’m not just angry or disappointed–I’m discouraged at your lack of judgment. I didn’t watch that speech and think ill of the children who likely don’t know this man’s history of crass comments, but I was motivated to re-evaluate BSA’s ability to identify role models for boys.

Instead of offering a mealy-mouthed non-apology, change your policy to nominate an honorary president from among the many political leaders we have who do encompass the values of a Boy Scout.  And apologize. (Start with, “We displayed a lack of judgment in inviting a guest to speak who does not understand or embody Scout values.” This is true, and it is not an attack on Trump, as he is quite proud about his lack of values.)  It will cost you the support of Trump voters, but your integrity is worth it.

Rebecca Barrett-Fox

Parent of X,

Scout Troop XXX

City, State

Dorothea Lange and the power of bearing witness

Dear Rebecca:

I’m guessing you’ve seen this photo before. It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression, and has come to represent much about that era:



I saw this picture over the weekend at the Nelson-Atkins art museum in Kansas City, Mo. (It’s a terrific institution, by the way.) It was part of a broader exhibit highlighting the Depression-era work of Lange and other photographers, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott and Peter Sekaer.

It was stunning. It was, in fact, difficult emotional work. One of these photos is a powerful document. Dozens of them tell a story, immerse you, make it difficult to leave these lives in the past.

A couple of quick observations.

• Here’s another Lange photo from the era. My only thought: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”


Oh, how we hate poor people in this country.

• These pictures were taken all within the lifetimes of my grandparents. It’s both forever ago and just that close. The conditions that millions of Americans were living in — in makeshift shacks, built from mud or items rummaged from the trash, or simply not having enough to eat an being required to flee across the country in hopes they’d find some way to make a living — are those we associate, in modern America, with “third world countries or with pre-modern ways of living in our own. Truth is: What we think of us civilization — of a largely middle-class society, anyway — is both recent and fragile.

• This may be a weird response, but these photographs made me angrier yet about McCarthyism.

Let me explain.

If you were a person surviving the 1930s, bearing witness to what was going on around you — but not privy, at this point, to the destruction of Russian life under Stalin — it seems really easy me to see why a black person or a poor person in that era might’ve embraced, for a time, Communism. It makes all the sense in the world! To be judged for such conclusions by Cold Warriors — to lose or risk losing one’s livelihood in the 1950s because one got tired of all the poverty and oppression in the 1930s — is just … ugly.

• Finally, I’m reminded of the importance of bearing witness. To see what’s going on around you is difficult, sometimes. To document it — honestly and unflinchingly — is to increase the potential for a healthy response. God bless the people who do such work.

The “Dignity and Despair” exhibition runs through Nov. 26. Anybody in the Kansas City area between now and then would do well to see it for themselves.

Yours, Joel

Call for Mennonite writers!

The Mennonite has an open call for contributors writing about their experiences with Scripture. The call says:

The Mennonite, Inc. welcomes your original submissions and contributions for our October 2017 print magazine issue and corresponding online content focusing on Scripture: Texts that move and shape you.

Submissions are due no later than August 1, 2017.  

We welcome written reflections—personal stories, biblical or theological reflections, poetry and more (800-1200 words), as well as original photographymultimedia products (including, but not limited to, original song or music recordings, music playlists, videos and vlogs) and artwork on the theme.

Submissions could consider these or other questions related to the theme:

  • What is one Scripture passage that was a “theme text” or that has been particularly important to you throughout your life? Can you tell a story of how you discovered this text and what it has meant for you and your community?
  • Can you tell a story of a time when Scripture transformed your understanding? Or when Scripture challenged you? Encouraged you?  Sustained you?
  • From the 16th century on, Anabaptists have emphasized reading and interpreting Scripture in community. How has your understanding of Scripture been shaped by the communities where you have encountered it? What are some of the places, spaces or communities (congregations, friends, neighbors, strangers, family, enemies, Bible study group, etc.) that have shaped your understandings of Scripture?
  • What Scripture passages have you wrestled with or found confusing? Can you tell a story of how you approach and engage these passages?
  • How have your understandings of Scripture evolved or changed over time?
  • Are there regular practices that you engage as you read Scripture?
  • How has Scripture moved beyond simply reading the text into your life and the life of your community?
  • How has Scripture shaped your identity and sense of place in the world?


I hope some of our readers take up this challenge–I’d love to hear what folks have to say!

You can find details here.


Rod Dreher and the problem of doing racial reconciliation in church

Dear Rebecca:

A painful truth about the Church is that it is one of the most segregated institutions in American life. A second painful truth is that Rod Dreher’s writing these days tends to get my goat.

The most segregated hour in American life?

And so it is today with his post on doing racial reconciliation in the church. He’s concerned that white people are going to feel too defensive.

Talking across racial lines about issues of race and racial conflict will never, ever be easy, but if the church isn’t a place we can do this productively, where is? To do it productively requires humility on all sides. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If you want people to change, you have to show them mercy and grace. A white Evangelical friend of mine dropped out of a racial reconciliation group in his city — a group he joined because he’s serious about it — because it turned into a weekly ritual denunciation of Whiteness™.

And then:

If that’s what the encounter in church between blacks and whites comes down to, then there will never, ever be racial reconciliation. If facing the legacy of racism in the church in a healing way can only be done by whites hating themselves for being white, then all you will get is bitterness and defensiveness.

Here’s what’s crazy-making about this:

• Yes, it’s true that “all have sinned etc etc,” but when it comes to matters of race in America, it’s inescapably true that white people have sinned — or, more passively, reaped the rewards of that sin — much, much, much more than black people. “All have sinned” feels like a way to spread responsibility for sin when, as a matter of historical fact, the sinning is pretty localized. To white people.

(Note to critics: I do not deny black people can be prejudiced. But. There is no comparing the suffering of white people at the hands of blacks to the suffering of black people at the hands of whites. There will always be exceptions, but this is the rule.)

• In fact, Dreher offers no guidance to doing racial reconciliation in the church except this: Don’t make white people feel bad. But I’m not sure how racial reconciliation is done in the church if white people don’t feel bad. If white people can’t recognize the sins they’ve committed or how they’ve probably benefitted from the racial sins of others — even if it’s something as simple as having somebody, classwise, to feel superior to even if you’re at the bottom of the heap — if they can’t repent of this, how are our African-American brothers and sisters supposed to take us seriously?

• What Dreher’s formulation does, then, is put the work — emotional and otherwise — of racial reconciliation on the people to whom we need to be reconciled. There might be something Godly about that, but it’s also a bit superhuman, and it’s not fair for white people to expect that.

How to do racial reconciliation in the church, then? I don’t know. But I’d suggest:

• Listening.

• Being willing to accept one’s own responsibility for sin.

• To disregard the deep human need to offset one’s own sin by pointing out the sins of others.

• To pray a lot.

• And listen some more.

We’re going to have to practice humility. We are, on occasion, going to feel bad.

And no. I’ve not done nearly enough of this kind of work as I should.

Sadly, Joel

Feeling a little lost in discussions about the Bible in America? Help is on the way!


Let me tell you a secret: I’ve got a chapter in a forthcoming Oxford book. [Above, two women, one in a red sweater and one wearing a blue top, face the camera as they drink from coffee mugs. The woman in the red sweater has leaned in close to her friend to share a secret.]

Dear reader:

[Imagine us circled around a table upon which rests two cups of coffee. Soft but serious music plays in the background, like we’re in a commercial for a new pharmaceutical drug.]

You: It’s so hard to keep up with the news these days.

Me: Yes. Things are happening so fast!

You: Like, in Arkansas, state senator Jason Rapert got a new monument to the 10 Commandments installed on the grounds of the capitol–

Me: And then some guy drove his car through it! [Shaking my head.]

You: And what’s with the Kentucky governor supporting a new effort to teach the Bible in public schools?

Me: Matt Bevins? Yeah, he said the the curriculum won’t violate the Constitution but will just present the Bible in historical and literary context. Then out of the other side of his mouth, he said that “even atheists” should be able to get something out of the Bible because its got “a lot of wisdom” in it, which lets us know that he has a religious audience in mind. I’d be cautious if I lived in Kentucky,

You [putting your coffee cup down with frustration]: I wish there was some resource I could turn to for help understanding these debates–where they come from, why they are important, and why we can’t seem to settle them.

Me [reassuringly patting your hand while wiping up the splatters of coffee on the table with a napkin]: It’s okay, friend! We’ll find you the help you need. In fact, I’d like to share a special book with you that might just do the trick! [Reaches into bag and pulls out The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America, edited by Paul Gutjahr.]

With 42 chapters examining how the Christian Bible has been produced, interpreted, and used; its role in American art, history, and culture; and how specific traditions, including Judaism, Catholicism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and Mormonism, have approached it, The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America* offers readers insight by top scholars of religion in the United States. You’ll learn about how the Bible appears in the law, education, and politics as well as pop culture and sports.

Authors include evangelical scholar Mark Noll, Paul Harvey, the author, most recently, of Christianity and Race in the American South: A HistoryRandall J. Smithwho, among author books, wrote The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South, James S. Bielo, who is about to release his yet another fantastic book, this one called Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park, and Sue and Bill Trollinger, whose work on the Creation Museum is fantastic.

You: Thank you! Where can I learn more?

Me: You can pre-order your copy at Oxford.com, or tell your local librarian that you think the library should add the book to its holdings. The current projected date is late fall 2017, which will be here before you know it!

You: But will it be soon enough to help me slog through the most current religion news?

Me [with a wink]: Well, friend, that’s why you have me and Joel Mathis at SixOh6!

*Side affects of reading The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America may vary. Talk to your spiritual advisor or a religious studies professor–or just post your questions here–if you have any concerns.

Going low and crying wolf: How Harry Reid helped give us Donald Trump

Dear Rebecca:

You write: “Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power.”

I’ve got a story to tell, one that’s out there on the public record, but one that hasn’t been much remarked upon.

He lied. Did American democracy die?

It takes place during the Obama-Romney campaign of 2012. During the campaign, Mitt Romney was proving reluctant — as Donald Trump was, after him — to release some pertinent personal financial information. So Sen. Harry Reid, then the leader of Democrats in the Senate, decided to make a big deal about it.

Saying he had “no problem with somebody being really, really wealthy,” Reid sat up in his chair a bit before stirring the pot further. A month or so ago, he said, a person who had invested with Bain Capital called his office.

“Harry, he didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years,” Reid recounted the person as saying.

“He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain,” said Reid. “But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?

I wrote at the time that “Reid’s allegations look and smell a lot like bullcrap.”

Why? Because there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Reid is telling the truth. He’s offered no witnesses and no proof of his claims, only a “somebody told me” statement that wouldn’t get within a million miles of passing muster in a court of law. And when challenged to present his evidence, his response is that Romney can prove Reid’s allegations wrong—by releasing his tax forms.

Politically clever? Yes. Distasteful? It absolutely should be.

It turned out I was right. Reid later admitted lying, but said he had no regrets: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

Fast forward to the fall of 2016. Trump versus Clinton. Her emails have been hacked; Trump has asked the Russians to release them to the media. It’s all very suspicious. And Harry Reid, serving out his final days in the Senate, makes his move. He writes an angry letter to James Comey.

In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity. The public has a right to know this information. I wrote to you months ago calling for this information to be released to the public. There is no danger to American interests from releasing it. And yet, you continue to resist calls to inform the public of this critical information.

Here’s the thing: Reid was right! He was telling the truth! We found out later that Republicans had warned President Obama they’d accuse him of politicizing intelligence if he went public with this — and Obama, probably figuring Clinton would win anyway, decided to keep his mouth shut. Reid’s letter to Comey, when made public, represented one of the best possible chances to get this issue fixed firmly in the minds of the American voters.

Only … Reid’s accusation was treated like so much bullshit. Here’s the Washington Post:

Reid is saying that he has been told the FBI has evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And he’s not just saying this information came from mysterious and unnamed national security officials; he’s saying Comey himself has left him with this impression.

But there is no public evidence to support Reid’s claim of actual “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And were that to be the case, it would be a scandal of epic proportions.

Asked what evidence exists of such a connection, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson cited classified briefings.

“There have been classified briefings on this topic,” Jentleson said. “That is all I can say.”

Asked whether the letter means Comey has shared such information directly with Reid, Jentleson said, “Refer you to the language in the letter.”

This is the political equivalent of Reid lighting a match, dropping it on a dry ground and walking away.

The Post then mentioned Reid’s false allegation against Romney. And it included this old quote from Reid:

Is there a line he wouldn’t cross when it comes to political warfare?

“I don’t know what that line would be,” [Reid] said.

It was, in retrospect, a missed opportunity.

In 2012, when Reid made his first, pretty clearly bogus charges, there were no end of defenders. Why? Because, I was told, Romney hadn’t released his tax returns so who was to say Reid was wrong? And in any case, the other guys fight dirty so why shouldn’t we? We’re tired of always being the weak ones, right?

The problem being: When Reid’s credibility mattered most, when he could’ve used some “trust me” to help steer the nation on a different course, he’d spent it all on a crappy lie he probably didn’t even need to make in order for Obama to win.

Going low, politically, has its short-term rewards. It can be justified on that basis. But who wishes Americans had paid more attention to Harry Reid last fall? A lot of the same people who lauded his earlier lie.

Hey: Politics ain’t beanbag. It’s never going to be as clean as I like it. But there are costs to wallowing in the dirt, and they’re not just moral prissyness. They matter. We’re all living with how they matter now.

Yours, Joel