‘As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this’: Immigration, the Anthem, and Del Gray’s ’95 Theses’

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Dear Rebecca:

I came to the Mennonites through the Mennonite Brethren, and specifically through my alma mater, Tabor College, an MB school in my hometown of Hillsboro, Kansas. The MB church shares a lot of history with the folks who make up Mennonite Church USA, but the MB denomination is more evangelical and, in my experience, more reliably culturally conservative than its cousin.

This leads to occasional tension between the “Mennonite” side and “culturally conservative” side of the church, one that plays out often within the college. Whereas Mennonite colleges wrestle with whether to play the national anthem at all before sporting events, that was never a question at Tabor. Instead, I’m told the current controversy is over whether student-athletes should be required to stand for the anthem.

In response to the controversy — and to the recent observations of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door — Del Gray, a Bible professor at Tabor, put up his own “95 Theses” on Tabor’s “Wittenberg Door,” a place where students and faculty can post IRL comments on issues of concern. A friend sent Del’s document to me; he has granted me permission to reprint here.

I wanted to do so, because I think the following document is a powerful statement on one of our core themes here: Do Christians — especially Mennonite Christians — owe their allegiance more to earthly tribalism like country? Or does God come first, in such a way that makes country tribalism much more difficult? Some of what follows, I think, will seem very strange to our non-Mennonite readers — Del won’t even say “The Pledge of Allegiance” — but isn’t so unusual in a church with such a longstanding history of pacifism. There are some Tabor-specific inside jokes, but I think this piece stands on its own anyway. It is tough. It should be.

With respect,

Joel

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I Protest

Preamble

Exactly 500 hundred years ago on October 31st 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door in protest of abuses that he perceived in the dominant church of his culture.  Some historians say there might be a bit of legend in this account, but let’s not allow that to ruin a good story.  This act of protest led to an entire new branch of the church in western society.  The majority of us at Tabor College (except our beloved Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters) historically trace our denominational identity back to Luther’s bold act of courage and conscience that opened the door to a variety of other protest movements, including Mennonites, Baptists, Lutherans (duh), Methodists and basically all other American church denominations.  This protest was so successful that it has lasted 500 years and hundreds of millions of people today still identify themselves with a name that pays homage to Luther – Protestants, those who protest.

On this anniversary week of Luther’s protest, I offer my own protest against the heartbreaking movement of the dominant church in America away from the teachings of Jesus.  I have written this in a way that attempts to honor Luther’s own 95 Theses.

95(ish) Theses

Introduction

“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend … (insert other titles here if you want to) Del Gray, and very ordinary lecturer therein at Tabor College, intends to defend the following statements and is willing to discuss on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and discuss with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter (writing is a much better way of making and evaluating careful arguments anyway).

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

1. The evangelical church has lost its soul, trading the teachings of Jesus for politics.  As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.

2.  The evangelical church has become the latest in a long history of churches that have sought to transform their culture but ended up being transformed by it.  Instead of the world looking like the church the result has become the church looking like the world.

3. I protest that the evangelical church has come to equate conservative politics with Christianity.

4. It is not wrong for Christians to come to conservative political conclusions on issues, but it is a betrayal of conscience and of Jesus when we do so on an issue by ignoring the teachings of the Bible.

5. I protest when Christians make theological or ethical decisions based purely on aligning with the “right” political party.  Christians often say Jesus would not fit neatly into either party, but then that is exactly what we do.

6. I protest where the church has blatantly disregarded Jesus in favor of politics in the following issues:

 

Immigration The death penalty

Racism and Nationalism.

As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.

Immigration

7. I protest both the active agreement and passive complicity of the evangelical church in disregarding the Bible’s teachings about how God’s people should welcome immigrants.  As citizens of a country there are complicated social issues involved, but the nation is not our highest priority.  As Christians our first allegiance is to the undeniable call in the Bible to welcome foreigners, refugees, and outsiders, even when they are undocumented and studying in our schools, as an act of loving our neighbor.  When Christians forget that they have a higher calling than doing what is best for the nation, we flirt with idolatry. As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.

Death Penalty

8. I protest as forcefully as I can the evangelical church’s support of state-sponsored execution by the death penalty .  When Jesus said “love your enemies” I am absolutely, positively, certain that he did NOT mean to kill them.  As Christians we witness to a higher way of valuing all life, even when the consensus of our nation or our political party holds that killing is the right thing to do.  As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.

9. As a Christian I am pro-life, but Jesus’ version of pro-life does mean the same thing as the political platform.  Pro-life means ALL life; unborn and born, innocent and guilty, citizen and immigrant, rich and poor.  The Bible clearly and repeatedly affirms that all life is valuable to God and equal in Christ.  This means that we don’t kill criminals, we don’t kill babies, and that black lives DO matter.

Racism

10. Racism has been called America’s original sin.  Racism is a founding attitude in which our nation has been rooted and grew.  I protest in the strongest language possible the so-called Christians who affirm one race as superior to another and I protest the complicity of the evangelical church that denies racism and looks the other way because it is someone else’s problem.

11. I protest and condemn white supremacist groups that are marching in our city streets with guns and torches, yelling hate speech and threats against people of color, ordering them to leave or be killed.  Failing to condemn this because of political ambitions is a lack integrity that puts the kingdom of the world above the kingdom of God.  As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.

12. In the name of Jesus I protest anyone who claims to be a Christian and instead of condemning them calls these groups “very fine people.”  I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING AGAIN.  This is not 1962, this is 2017.  The church needs to wake up and speak out against this and witness to the truth we know in the Bible, even if it goes against the mainstream of our political party.

13. I protest that the evangelical church compromises its moral witness in the world when it uses theological and biblical justification for giving 81% of its support to a politician who blatantly disregards the teachings of Jesus with vulgar, hateful, demeaning speech targeted towards people of color, the marginalized, and oppressed. As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.

14. I propose that Colin Kaepernick is the contemporary voice of Martin Luther inasmuch as he has courageously and publicly protested abuses that are rampant in the dominant church in our society today.  This makes him one of my great heroes of the last few years.  I join him in this protest because as a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for racism.

Nationalism

15. I protest when Christians equate their nation with Christianity.  God and country are two very very different things and should never be confused.

16. Because the evangelical church has now identified itself almost exclusively with a political agenda, I can no longer use that label for myself.  This is painful for me because I was raised and educated in a strong evangelical tradition of which I once was proud but now am ashamed.

17. Because the evangelical church has now identified itself almost exclusively with a political agenda, the Mennonite Brethren should have a nationwide conversation to reconsider whether we want to call ourselves “Anabaptist-Evangelicals.”

18. The flag and the national anthem are NOT sacred, but are symbols of an earthly kingdom to which I owe no allegiance.  Treating the flag or anthem as sacred cheapens that which is truly sacred and is tantamount to idolatry.

19. God is our highest loyalty and as followers of Jesus we can have no allegiance to any other master.  Our citizenship is in heaven, as members of the kingdom of God not the kingdoms of this world.  My loyalty to God’s kingdom is absolute, even if that means disloyalty to my nation.  No one can serve two masters, so I choose to serve God alone.

20. Therefore I cannot and will not say the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America since it would be dishonest to say it knowing that I would break my oath as soon as my duty to nation comes in conflict with my ultimate allegiance to a different kingdom.

21. I have respect for some of the values and ideals of some nations, and I have no respect for other values and ideals of some nations.  As a follower of Jesus I evaluate these according to how well they agree with God’s values.  I give respect where it is due and do not feel compelled to show respect for ideas that run counter to Jesus’ teachings.  The Bible likewise models both of these attitudes toward the state when it urges respect some times and other times refers to the state as a dragon and beast that acts on behalf of Satan. I protest when the evangelical church insists that we uncritically respect all elements and symbols of our nation.

22. America is a great country (after having lived in many other countries I say this with some measure of expertise), and I respect many things about it.  But it is also a deeply flawed and broken nation that regularly pressures me to participate in a system that looks nothing like the kingdom of God.  When Christians begin to celebrate not just what is good but also what is broken and wrong in this nation because their ethical filter has become politics instead of Christ, I refuse to participate. Warriors who killed people as a result of their racist values should not be celebrated and honored as heroes.  As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.

23. Because the kingdom of God is upside down from the kingdoms of this world there should always be a counter cultural identity to the church that continually protests against the world.

93. (OK, I skipped some numbers but it had to add up to 95 at the end) When athletes respectfully kneel in peaceful protest of unbiblical racism during the national anthem, they are witnessing to God’s values on this issue.

94. Because kneeling is an inherently peaceful and respectful symbol and protesting racism is an inherently just message, it is dishonest when leaders of the evangelical church and our nation label these athletes “disrespectful” in an effort to discredit them and deflect attention away from the real issues of racism.

95. For these reasons I no longer stand for the national anthem.

(With inspiration from Martin Luther King and apologies to Martin Luther)

I join Colin Kaepernick and many other people of faith who witness to Jesus’ call on our lives on these issues.

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the evangelical church or in their populist leaders, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”

As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for racism, therefore …

Here I kneel, I can do no other.

In Christ,

Del Gray

DACA, Jesus, and family: A letter

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A DACA demonstration, by Bread for the World.

Dear Family,

Greetings to my dear ones across the world. Some of you are in Pakistan. Some in Canada. Many of you are scattered across the United States—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Michigan, Kansas, California, etc. I am writing to all of you to tell you a little about myself. I know we see each other at weddings or funerals every few years. We hug and we take photos for Facebook (so we can show off our saris). But I am starting to realize we do not really know each other.

Let me explain.

As you know, I am an immigration attorney. But the work I do is public interest law — I serve low-income families, the vulnerable. Part of the reason I do this work is because of the religious tradition I inherited from you. I am proud to be descended from generations of Pakistani Christians who took me to church every Sunday and made me memorize chapters and chapters of the Bible. It shaped who I am. My values.

You taught me how to love. Empathize. How to be kind. Serve others. And now here I am, working with undocumented immigrants during a time when they are being vilified by our own president.

Soon, the government will stop accepting renewal applications for DACA aka Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA helped almost 800,000 young men and women who came here as children get protection from deportation. DACA helped them to work legally and achieve their dreams of going to college, owing a home, starting a family.

Fam, I wish you could come and follow me around for a day. For the last few weeks, young people have sat across from me and cried as they talk about the fear they feel. They’ve shown me their grades, pictures of their toddlers and talked about graduate schools plans they are afraid to pursue. And now they’re left waiting. Wondering. Afraid.

When I see them, I see my parents, uncles and aunts when they immigrated to the States. I see you.

This is wrong. This isn’t the Christianity you taught me. You taught me Christianity is beyond all borders and nations. You taught me “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” You taught me to treat everyone like an angel. You would say, “What would Jesus do?” You made me sing, “Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world.” Does he though? Do you?

Do you know anyone with DACA? Odds are you do. You just don’t know you do. I am very thankful to know people like my former coworker and friend Rossmeri Ramirez. She has DACA and is speaking out about it. But we need others to speak out and support immigrants. We need you. I need you.

Family, we are scattered across the globe. We are the same. We eat the same food, flavor our basmati rice with the same mango pickle. We like the same clothes, we wear the same gold jewelry. We go to the same churches. But politically, we are very, very different.

Can you tell I am angry? I apologize. But I am angry. You shaped me into the person I am. You are proud of me. You believe in service and missions. And yet your politics is hurting the very people I am working to protect. This isn’t the Christianity I want to know. Can you explain it to me?

Yours,
Kishwer

Kishwer Vikaas is an immigration attorney living in Sacramento, California. She grew up attending Mennonite church and school in Lancaster County, Philadelphia and South Jersey. She used to write about South Asian pop culture for Sepia Mutiny, MTVDesi, The Aerogram, etc. but has since retired. You can find her on Twitter @phillygrrl.

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.

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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

A Cowboy Walks into a Church…

Dear Joel,

We were visiting the local United Church of Christ congregation for the second time. This congregation, like the other UCCs we’d spend time in, was small, slightly brainy, and very progressive. The pastor is a gay married man, and the congregation is LGBTQ welcoming, as the sign on the marquee says. The first sermon (delivered by a guest speaker, also a gay married reverend) had been exactly the kind of piece you would expect to hear on the Sunday of Pride Week if you have ever visited such churches: a call to remember those queer people, Christians and not, who have been hurt by a violent society and a call to repentance for Christianity and Christians’ role in that hurt–a needed message and one too seldom preached.

The surprising part of the visit was the young man in the pew behind us. Wearing dress jeans, cowboys boots, a button down shirt, and a tie, I recognized him as any of the young men I grew up with who weren’t going to buy dress slacks but wanted to look nice for church. (This is also the appropriate dress for a funeral in the rural community where I grew up.)  At the end of the service, the 50 or so people in attendance form a circle around the sanctuary and sing a song about friendship, and we stood next to each other. When we were done, I asked him if he were visiting.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a twang that told me he wasn’t from around these parts.

“And have you visited a UCC congregation before?”

“What’s that”? he asked.

“United Church of Christ. That’s the denomination this congregation is affiliated with.”

“Oh,” he replied. “At home we just call it ‘Church of Christ.'”

Well, now this made much more sense–but it also presented me with a quandary. There is (I later found) a Church of Christ (not to be confused with the Temple Lot or “Hedrickites,” and LDS denomination from Independence, Missouri) in the city where we live, a tiny congregation of just 15 people. And while I haven’t visited it, I have visited enough Churches of Christ to be able to tell you that they are about as different from United Church of Christ as can be. While there is variation in how they live out their faith, Churches of Christ see themselves not as starting in the 19th century (with the Stone-Campell movement that also led to the development of the Disciples of Christ church) but as coming directly out of first century Christianity. They view any practice that is not specifically outlined in the Christian New Testament as improper for church service–which is why they sing a cappella. Because of this, the most conservative Churches of Christ don’t support missionary or educational organizations and don’t collaborate with other organizations for social justice work.

Which is just about as far from the UCC as you can get. While the Church of Christ says that anything not mandated in the Bible or inferred by a very close reading is forbidden, the UCC’s current slogan is “God is Still Speaking.” In addition to the “LGBTQ friendly” sign on the church was a sign signaling that this congregation supports Family Promise, a nationwide effort to support families facing homelessness by keeping them intact (which most shelters won’t accommodate)–exactly the kind of work that many (though not all) Churches of Christ would object to.

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Above, the UCC logo: a black comma against a red background, with the words “God is still speaking,” 

So, should I have told this young man that he wasn’t in the “right” place?

I wrestled with it for a bit. I’m a religion scholar with an interest in congregational life, and I also respect religious conscience, so I wanted him to be where he wanted to be.

But he clearly wanted to be in a LGBTQ friendly service–or, at least, he was willing to be, thinking that this was a Church of Christ.

So, it could be that he was looking for a Church of Christ and found what he thought was one that said it was LGBTQ friendly and his commitment to his denomination overrode his hesitation about coming to a queer friendly place. I appreciate that kind of dedication. And if a commitment to his conservative church brought him to a welcoming and affirming one, even better!

Or it could be that he was looking for a Church of Christ and found what he thought was a queer friendly one and that was exactly what he was looking for. It could be that he’s been waiting his whole life for this.

I hope to see him again.

Rebecca