The new edition of Fathom Magazine just came out, and it’s all in on all things imago dei. There is a great piece on clothing as cultural language, a beautiful poem about peanut butter and motherhood, and also a piece by me on raising Boaz-es in a hypermasculine world. It’s one of the best new magazines for thinking Christians out there. Give them a read and spread the word!
“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”
If popular media trends are any indication, people have been asking that question for a very long while, but we’re not satisfied with the answers. For the last fifty years, Hollywood has been doing a brisk trade in TV franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek, and comic book movie universes featuring the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men, selling stories that stoke our imaginations, and haunt our dreams, as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be human.
The surge in interest in science fiction and superheroes stories has happened concurrently with the rise of the Digital Age. Both “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” rose to popularity in the 1960s, during the first wave of mainframe computing. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the spinoff that launched so many others, soared to popular and critical acclaim in the early 1990s, during the building of what Al Gore famously named the “Information Superhighway”. The DC and Marvel comic movie empires grew in the midst of the first Silicon Valley dot-com boom, bust, and recovery, as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook grew from successful start-ups into the technology monoliths they are today.
This trend can be partially explained by the way technology has infiltrated the way movies and television are made. The more technologically advanced the story telling is, the more convincingly real the stories become.
But that’s not the only reason, nor the most important one.
From the invention of the first super computer to the launch of the latest mobile app, the central goal of the technological revolution has been the transcendence of human limits – ones like time, location, and knowledge. Thanks to the wonder of FaceTime and WiFi, we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds instead of days. Laptops, tablets, and video conferencing systems let us work anywhere, anytime. The (potential) answer to any question is as close as the click of a mouse. And if bad weather and crazed children have you cursing the limits of time, space and knowledge, collectively, just ask Alexa. She’ll have 45 minutes of peace and quiet delivered to your door in a matter of hours.
But not all of our limitations are so easily surmounted.
The most enduring limits of our human state involve our bodily capabilities and the raw materials with which we exercise them. Our physical, mental, and emotional capacities are all subjected to the vagaries of our environment, circumstances, genetics, disease, and disaster. No matter how fully we ever realize our potential, it eventually diminishes and dies, gradually, or in a single, terrible instant.
There isn’t an app for fixing that, at least not yet.
It’s the combined intractability and universality of these limits that produces cheers, and tears of wonder, each time technology helps us get one step closer to conquering one of them. Whether it’s an artificial heart or pancreas or womb, a brain implant that restores hearing or stills seizures, or an exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk – nothing is more thrilling than seeing the limits of our bodily brokenness overcome.
This is the place where worldviews collide, and divide.
According to secular humanism (the dominant ideology of technology industry leaders and workers), humans are uniquely evolved organic matter, possessing an intricate blend of features and flaws. The boundaries of our bodies are fluid. We are eminently malleable, and infinitely upgradeable. The meaning of our humanity is as variable a construct as its substance.
The Bible says differently.
The Bible says that humans are wondrously made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 139:13-16),(Genesis 1:26). Because of this, all of the boundaries of our humanity have meaning, and none of them are neutral. Many of those boundaries are “as designed”. They display God’s character (Genesis 1:31). They enable us to serve each other as we fulfill God’s creation mandate (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). They demonstrably display the differences between the Maker and the made (Psalm 121:4).
Many others are the consequence of our fallenness (Romans 3:9-19), or the fallenness of the world in which we live. (Proverbs 13:23) The common grace of our God-reflecting desire to rescue and heal, and our capacity to create, and the particular grace of the work of the Holy Spirit, help us retrace the boundaries of our humanity more closely over God’s design in some ways. But we are utterly incapable of doing it completely, nor were we ever made to.
That work can only be done by Jesus.
Jesus was with God at the beginning (John 1:2), forming living being from dust, and life-bearer from living being (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). In his incarnation, the limitless one took on human limits (Philippians 2:6-8), living perfectly within them on our behalf. Then he submitted himself to humanity’s greatest limit in death, shattering its hold on us through his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).
Sin is what causes us to see the different boundaries of our humanity – our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our gender, – as tools to divide and oppress.
Jesus is the one who covers that sin, not by erasing our boundaries, but by redeeming them, and uniting all of us, as human beings, in him.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
This is the statement the world needs the most. The one it keeps asking for. The one the church still hasn’t written.
For all of its good intentions, the Nashville statement answers questions the world thinks it already has answers for, without sufficiently addressing the ones the world knows that it doesn’t. They are questions the world has been asking for years, ones the church has largely overlooked.
And while the world continues its quest for answers, Silicon Valley has been steadily, effectively reframing the question.
“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”
We’re living in an era of unprecedented human transformation. Does the question really matter that much?
This morning on The Briefing, Al Mohler proposed that people’s responses to the Nashville Statement would fall into one of at least four categories:
- Those certain of its rightness, who would be committed to outspokenly supporting it.
- Those reticent about its rightness, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
- Those uncertain about its rightness, without yet knowing why, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
- Those certain of its wrongness, who would be determined to repudiate it.
I’d like to humbly propose adding a 5th, one that might change the way we consider the other 4:
- Those concerned that its rightness in some aspects, is so overshadowed by its wrongness in others, that it’s impossible to support, in its current form.
This is the group in which I find myself.
It’s important to note the variety of points of disagreement people in this group have raised, as well as the their number:
- The perception of cognitive dissonance with an organization and some of its signers who are comfortable drawing dotted lines around the doctrine of the Trinity in pencil, now drawing bold ones around matters of anthropology in permanent marker
- The perception of cognitive dissonance in a statement affirming biblical orthodoxy in sexuality, coming from the same leaders whose endorsement of a serial adulterer and abuser of women swept him into the Presidency
- The narrowness of the statement’s focus
- The rigidity of its approach
- And its timing, in a season of so much immediate and intense physical suffering, nationally and internationally, not to mention protracted civil unrest.
It’s also important to note how many of the people in the group offering up some, or all, of these points of concern, agree with the statement’s basic assertions about sexuality and marriage,and most essentially, with the affirmation and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ with which the statement ends. (No one that I know of in this group is offering up anything about Article 14 other than “Amen and Maranatha”.)
In other word, this group is not comprised of the usual suspects who drag their soapboxes out anytime the letters LGBTQ start trending on Twitter (although, yes, they’ve shown up this time as well).
These are faithful brothers and sisters of the household of God, whose collective public work, and personal testimonies, make their concerns worthy of consideration.
The preamble of the Nashville Statement asserts that Western culture is in a season of “massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” On this point, almost everyone, from the statement’s ardent supporters, to its angriest critics, are potentially agreed.
A statement that began there, then proceeded from it, could do much clarifying good.
But in its current form, the Nashville Statement seems to be the equivalent of a brick path that’s been unevenly laid down. When so many committed, thoughtful Christians are stumbling over it, it would be judicious to examine the way the bricks were placed, not just assume the only problem is that people aren’t looking where they’re going.
I’ve never watched “The Apprentice.” The fact that the star of the show is now the President of the United States hasn’t made me any more inclined to watch it. But I’m familiar with the show’s famous tagline, and I occasionally use it with my daughters, because it reinforces one of our family’s most sacred values, one that is the very heartbeat of the gospel.
Whenever one of my girls has legitimately dropped a logistical or behavioral ball – carelessly broken something, not followed through on a task they owned, said something disrespectful to me – and they’re genuinely remorseful and asking for forgiveness, after granting it, I look them in the eye lovingly and say “You’re fired.” They respond as they should, and do, with a rueful giggle, and maybe roll of the eyes. They know I’m joking. They know, to the depth of their souls, that there is nothing they can ever do that can separate them from my love. At least, that’s what I’m teaching them.
We’re a family. Family doesn’t fire each other. Family forgives.
It also repents, and makes restitution, and builds boundaries, and lays down paths, so that each family member in it grows into the human being God created them to be. But all along the way, it forgives.
Companies in my city are increasingly fond of not just self-identifying as a family, but of setting up structures and perks to persuade current and potential employees that they are one. From three meals a day, exercise facilities and after-hours activities, to onsite medical clinics and daycare, Silicon Valley companies go to extreme lengths to telegraph care for their employees’ needs to enable their optimal contribution and commitment.
Few companies take this concept as far as Google. Ironically, their standout benefits all have to do with employees’ nuclear families. Parental leave is generous – 18 weeks for moms, 6 weeks for dads. (Do I dare note the inequity in that? Hold that thought.) They even throw in “baby bonding bucks” – a bonus to cover diapers, formula and the plethora of other needs new parenting creates. Should tragedy strike and a Google employee dies, the surviving spouse gets 50% of the Google employee’s salary for 10 years, their children younger than 19 receive $1000 a month each, and all of their stock options vest immediately. Then again, if you’re a woman concerned that your biological clock is ticking too fast while you’re trying to establish your career, Google will help you pay to freeze your eggs to delay family building altogether, indefinitely.
As nice as this all might sound, this week, one Google employee learned a hard lesson about the limits of the Silicon Valley corporate definition of family.
Google has been one of a number of Silicon Valley companies struggling recently under a weight of allegations of varying types of discrimination against women – from unequal pay, to disproportionate representation in leadership, to various hostile work environment behaviors. For the past three years, Google has been working to actively address the imbalances, spending in excess of $250M in recruitment efforts to build a more diverse workforce.
Last Friday, one of Google’s own (a “Googler”, to borrow the Google term) wrote a ten-page internal memo to try to do his Googley part to help solve the problem.
In the memo, the engineer (now identified at as James Damore) asserted that part of Google’s challenges with diversity stem from observable disparities in aptitudes and interests between men and women that scientific studies indicate are traceable, in part, to biology. Consequently, he asserts, Google should not be striving for absolute equal representation. They should, though, work to narrow the gender gap by creating policies that both acknowledge and account for generalized gender differences -e.g. make engineering more people-oriented and collaborative – while continuing to resist tribalism in viewing both men and women as individuals, rather than uniform members of a group. (His most thought-provoking and regrettably overlooked suggestion? Addressing the current inflexibility in the male gender role.)
Damore works hard to make his intentions clear – he observes a problem inside his company, he wants to help solve it, he wants Google to succeed. That feels like a worthy goal for anyone who identifies as a Googler. Notably, he acknowledges that biases and blind spots are universal, which means he himself is likely to possess some, and thus is looking to promote dialog and discussion as a means of collective growth. Nevertheless, he framed his assertions, conclusions, and recommendations in ways that guaranteed the merits of his arguments would be ignored, subsumed as they were in a sea of generalizations and inflammatory phrasing.
In the name of doing something Damore thought was in line with Google’s family values, Damore dropped not just one ball, but a whole bunch of them. The question became how Google was going to respond.
Later that same day, Google’s new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance sent out an internal memo stating that Damore’s manifesto “…advanced incorrect assumptions about gender….it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes, or encourages.” By the end of the day, Damore confirmed that he’d been fired.
Yesterday, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, sent out yet another memo, in which he asserted that “to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” Damore’s manifesto actually concurs with this assertion, and some of its arguments are centered on ways to counteract that issue. Nevertheless, Pichai notes that as a result of the memo, some groups within Google are hurting and feeling judged. Consequently, Pichai states, he’s cutting his own family vacation in Europe short to come back to Google to help continue to steer the conversations.
When the story first broke, it triggered some vivid memories about time I myself sent off an email at work that got me in some temporary hot water (although not fired). The experience left a sufficient impression on me that, years later, when someone who worked for me did the same thing, I intervened on his behalf to mitigate the consequences.
I’ve read that those kind of empathetic impulses are more attributable to women. Perhaps that explains Damore’s recommendaton in his manifesto that Google de-emphasize empathy as a corporate value. And given Google’s still problematically male leadership, it perhaps also explains why they de-emphasized empathy in their treatment of Damore, and just stuck with the facts as they interpreted them.
The cycle of commentary on Google’s response, and the underlying issues that triggered it, don’t show any signs of slowing down. In the meantime, James Damore is free to spend as much time with his own family as he would like.
One other than Google, that is.
I recently finished the fourth week of the hermeneutics class that my pastor, Josh, has been leading for a small group of women at my church, and it’s been the bomb-diggity. (Josh once commented in passing that “Paul was straight up gangster”, so I’m just following his lead with the hipster speak.)
Part of the reason I’m loving this class so much is its structure. Josh is walking us through a book of the Bible (Ruth), and teaching us one or two hermeneutical principles with each section we study. We then compare our own study with a someone else’s (in this case, Paul Miller’s solid work “A Loving Life”), to strengthen our ability to test an outside author’s examination of a text against the hermeneutical principles we’re learning. The final step is a discussion about a discipleship relationship we’re accountable to pursue, to apply what we’re learning in our shepherding of other women.
Like I said, bomb to the digitty.
Truth be told, I didn’t drive to last week’s study last night brimming with hope over what God was going to teach us. God had been walking me through some trials that had me identifying with Naomi way more than I had anticipated. I was emotionally drained and spiritually empty. This was a humbling irony given I that was the one who had been asking for and praying for this class to happen for a solid six months. I was dragging myself to the study on commitment autopilot, with my mind and heart overfull with the cares and disappointments of the last several months, and it all felt wrong.
The exercise we’d been assigned that week was one of fitting micro and macro together. We were to read through Ruth in its entirety several times, asking ourselves how the last four verses in chapter 1 fit into the arc of the entire narrative. I had been immediately drawn to the way this final set of verses passage acted as the completion of the circle begun in the first verses. In the first five verses of chapter one, Naomi had left famine-stricken Bethlehem with a husband and two sons. In the last four verses, she was returning with none of them.
“She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21 ESV)
Naomi’s words summarized her interpretation of all that had transpired up to that point; she had left Bethlehem full and was returning empty, all at the hands of the LORD. But the author’s closing comment about the barley harvest gives us a window into what Naomi could not yet see, and what would unfold in the next chapter. I thought this was the insight Josh was wanting us to see.
It took about twenty minutes of discussion and guidance from Josh to unpack how much deeper this section really goes.
The book of Ruth concludes with a group of women speaking over Naomi words that stand in contrast to Naomi’s words at the end of chapter 1. The blessings the women describe extend far beyond Naomi personally. What the LORD did for and through Naomi was something that had begun long before her, through the line of her new son-in law’s ancestor Perez, who himself was born out of the aftermath of a whole-scale family collapse. And it would continue long after her, through the lineage of her grandson to David, and from David to Jesus. And from Jesus to the entire world.
“Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:14-17 ESV)
All of this was foreshadowed in the last verse of chapter 1.
Naomi believed she was coming home bereft of everything that signified God’s blessing and care for her. What she couldn’t see was how God was already preparing her, and the generations who would follow her, for blessings that were even greater than the ones she had lost. The seeds of the blessings God was preparing to pour out on and through Naomi, had been planted in the soil of her present trials, and were already beginning to grow. She just couldn’t see them yet.
In many ways, Naomi was looking at her circumstances the way her ancestor Eve had looked at hers. Naomi was focussing on what she had lost, and not what she had. But unlike Eve, Naomi chose not to turn her heart away from God. She turned towards Him as best as she was able – to His land and His people. And in doing so, she placed herself exactly where she needed to be for God to do abundantly beyond what she could have asked or thought.
God had been at work for Naomi’s good, and our good, all along. The hard things of chapter 1 and the blessings of chapter 4 were inextricably linked. They always are.
There is no resurrection without death.
You would have had to be there to witness the way Josh let us sit with our various initial impressions and thoughts, before leading us to, and through, the words of Naomi’s friends in chapter 4. He took his time. There were uncomfortable silences. If brains could sweat, ours surely were.
As Josh finally lead us through the parallelisms between Naomi’s words in chapter 1, and the words of the women in chapter 4, it was as though the Holy Spirit superimposed my name onto Naomi’s. I could see the trajectory of my heart, and I could see how God was calling me to respond. I could see Him – His trustworthiness, His mercy, and His deep, deep love.
And so my thoughts on my drive away from the study were entirely different from the ones I had had on the way there.
Beyond the way God had worked in my own heart, I was struck afresh by the process God had followed to do it, and what that meant when it comes to the discipline of Bible study and principles of hermeneutics. I’ve read the book of Ruth countless times. I’m familiar with the way it is often taught to women, with all of its drama and romance and relatable characters. I’ve heard the “Waiting for Your Boaz” and the “Living Like Ruth” sermons, and rolled my eyes through most of them. Shallow wading through the surface of the book of Ruth yields shallow, and narrow, insights. But weeks spent in deep, directed study, grounded in tried and true principles of biblical exposition, that reveal the character and the work of God, has yielded fruit that has been nourishing and strengthening my soul, and changing the way I think and act.
I was raised in a tradition that valued training in doctrine and hermeneutics as ends in themselves, and I’ve got the scars to show for it. But this week I was reminded anew of how hermeneutics done right, as a means to the highest and best end of knowing God in a way that changes you, is truly good for the soul.
*Since so many of you had asked, my pastor gladly permitted me to share the syllabus and notes from the initial session he wrote. From scratch.
Seriously – Bomb.Dig.Git.Ty.
If you end up using/leveraging them, and they’re a blessing to you or your church, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to let him know in as many ways as possible how much this ministry is a needed blessing.
I’ve read a lot of pastoral and scholarly treatments on 1 Samuel 2 that dive directly into the depths of Hannah’s prayer; I haven’t read so many that consider the significance of its timing. Hannah’s words of prayerful exultation don’t occur when she first finds out she’s pregnant, as with Mary’s. Nor do they happen just after she’s given birth, like Eve. Hannah’s prayer occurs several years after God has answered her previous prayer in giving her a son, when she’s preparing to honor her vow to God and give her son back.
In “Through His Eyes – God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible”, Jerram Barrs asserts that, through Hannah’s words, “we come to believe that Hannah gives up Samuel to Eli joyfully” (165). Later, he characterizes it, in contrast to her earlier prayer, as a “song of happiness” (166), a notion at which I arched one highly skeptical, perfectly sculpted lady eyebrow when I first read it.
Two years after I had cried myself to sleep over my singleness after my best friend’s wedding, I had finally walked down the aisle at my own, and was now laying in a hospital bed in the maternity ward, gazing at my new baby girl as she slept in a warm, padded crib next to me.
For the first nine months of her life, my daughter had lived under my heart, her body literally tethered to mine. For 24 hours a day, my body had given itself over completely to nourishing, strengthening, and protecting hers. Then the day came when my body pushed hers out into the world and away from mine. Now she slept, in peaceful vulnerability, all by herself.
My daughter was barely six inches away from me, but it felt like sixty miles. It was as though a piece of my heart had been torn from me and was clinging stubbornly to hers, still beating. The feeling faded with time, but has never entirely disappeared.
With each milestone of separation and independence that followed (for her and the two sisters who came after her) – the first night at home in her own crib, the first morning at preschool, the first sleepover, the first boy-girl party, the first driving lesson – it would return. If you ask most women with children, they’ll describe something similar – that whenever our children are out of the protective reach of our eyes and our arms, a piece of our heart goes with them.
The environment in which Hannah was leaving her barely preschool aged son was not one that was exactly primed for being raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Samuel was being handed over to the custody of a passive old man with failing eyesight, and his two grown sons who treated the house of God like their personal party palace. Aspirational models of biblical manhood they most certainly weren’t.
And let’s not forget the situation to which Hannah would be returning, after she pried her beloved son’s arms from her neck and and travelled back home to Ramah without him. We can hope that Peninah’s taunting might have abated in the wake of Samuel’s birth. But the noisy presence of her children would have served as a continual reminder of the son Hannah could see and hold only once a year. And Elkanah, the husband who could have intervened but didn’t, would probably have continued in his clueless confusion over why his wife was still crying.
It’s no wonder modern Bible translators go back and forth on whether Hannah says she is really giving her son back to God, or if he’s just on loan.
However much joy Hannah expresses in the opening lines of her prayer, it was most certainly a joy mixed with tears. But in this way, Hannah’s prayer models the attitude Paul exhorts the Corinthians to pursue in 2 Corinthians 6:2-10 of rejoicing in the midst of sorrow. Hannah’s words are the words of a woman who has learned through experience how to bear up under the trials and tribulations of life, not by pretending they don’t exist, nor by giving in to despair, but by leaning fully and continually on the One who has been sovereign over them.
The LORD is wiser and stronger than any adversary. (1 Sam. 2:1,3,10)
All the world’s resources in avoiding or overcoming adversity – strength, riches, power – are His. He grants them, and withholds them, as He sees fit. (1 Sam. 2:4-8)
The power over life and death is His. (1 Sam. 2:6)
All He requires is our faithfulness. (1 Sam. 2:9)
God had proven Himself faithful to Hannah in the trials of her past. He would be equally faithful to her, and to her son, in the future.
Hannah’s prayer is the prayer any of us can pray whenever we are standing in between God’s deliverance from adversity or trials in our past, and the prospect of adversity overshadowing our future.
When the job offer finally comes, or the abusive boss moves on.
When the medical report reads“negative”, or the pregnancy test reads “positive”.
When an LEO husband comes home safely from his shift.
Or an African American son comes home safely from a party.
When the job offer hasn’t come, and the abusive boss is still there.
When the medical report reads “positive”, or the next pregnancy test reads “negative”.
When your husband is deployed into combat, or your wife is being wheeled into brain surgery.
When your child starts preschool, or public school, or college on the other side of the country.
As you drive away from the rehab center, the prison, or the cemetery.
As a white woman hugs her husband or son goodbye before he drives to work.
As an African American woman does the same.
Through Hannah’s prayers, and what God both before and after them, we see how God was working to do abundantly beyond what Hannah could ever ask or think. In time, God blessed Hannah with other sons and daughters. But He did so much more than that.
The son Hannah had given to God, grew up to anoint the king through which an even greater King, the promised Messiah, would come. In his incarnation, life, death and resurrection, Jesus experienced everything to which Hannah testified. He suffered weakness, poverty, hunger, and persecution. He lived a fully human life of perfect faithfulness to God. He laid his life down and subjected himself to death. And now He sits, exalted, at God’s right hand, preparing to return to judge the earth and make all things new.
Hannah’s prayer models a way of praying over, singing about, and talking about God’s sovereignty and care in the midst of all of our circumstances – past, present, and future – because of the One who reigns over them all.
I was sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, as Philando Castile sat bleeding to death in his car. I was getting ready for an important day of meetings, and I’d put myself on strict social-media lockdown to stay focussed. So it wasn’t until the following afternoon, when my meetings were over and I was in the back of an Uber car, driving through the thick Arkansas humidity back to the cool comfort of my hotel, that I finally read the news.
Being away from home meant I was free to read longer, and more in depth than I otherwise would have that night. I had spent part of my travel time out to Little Rock reading about the death of Alton Sterling, which had happened just one day earlier. The customary cycle of commentating and social media back and forthing about Sterling’s death between my longtime white community of friends, and my growing community of African American friends, had barely abated. Now a new cycle was starting before the previous one had even slowed down. It was almost too much for my mind to process, or my soul to bear.
The next day, I had three hours before I needed to be at Clinton Airport for my flight back to San Jose. I noticed that my route to the airport would take me past a high school that was designated as a National Historic Landmark. My curiosity was piqued – could anything historically significant come out of Arkansas? A couple of clicks laid my ignorance bare. With all the questions swirling in my mind in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death, it seemed providential that I just happened to be four miles away from one place that might offer some answers. I decided I should visit.
Little Rock Central High School was the school of the “Little Rock Nine” – the three African American boys and six African American girls who were the first black students to attend one of the largest and most highly regarded all-white schools in America, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. That ruling declared that “separate but equal” segregated education was a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution. But Arkansas civic leaders were determined to ignore the ruling, and maintain the racially segregated status quo.
When the NAACP helped register the nine students before the beginning of the 1957 school year, Arkansas Governor Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to forcibly prevent the students from entering the school on the first day of class. President Eisenhower then sent in the 101st Airborne Division to force the Arkansas National Guard to stand down, and ensure that the nine students would be escorted in safely.
For nine months, the Little Rock Nine attended classes under the presumably protective watch of the 101st Airborne Division. But the reality of what they experienced was almost unimaginable. They suffered relentless psychological torture and physical abuse by students. Teachers and administrators ignored their pleas for help. The soldiers and other law enforcement agencies who were their security detail did little beyond what they had been forcibly ordered by the Federal government to keep them physically protected.
Several of them finished high school elsewhere, but the majority endured, and eventually graduated. Little Rock Central High School was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982. In 1999, the Little Rock Nine were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest offer given to civilian American citizens, in recognition of how their courage and determination, in spite of their youth, catalyzed a nation toward greater awareness and action in the fight for civil rights for African Americans.
I walked into the Visitors’ Center having never heard one word of this chapter in America’s civil rights story. I had spent my high school years overseas, and my college years at a conservative Christian liberal arts school. Over the past several years, I had grown increasingly uncertain about the scope, and especially the slant, of my understanding of American history, let alone the church’s role in it all. But I didn’t know yet how much I didn’t know.
The LRCHS Visitors’ Center sits diagonally across from the still-operating school. A collection of exhibits are positioned strategically near large windows, so you can see the school and its sidewalks in the near distance, and envision the dramatic events unfolding as you learn about them.
The entire center is riveting, but it was the moments I spent standing in front of this picture of Elizabeth Eckford that I’ll never forget.
She is walking away from her new school after being turned away from the entrance by the Arkansas National Guard. The picture stands in the exact middle of the center. On a wall to its left are quotes from judges and politicians, referencing landmark rulings and arguments in the years leading up to that day, some of them referencing God or the Bible. To its right, only slightly further away, is another enlarged photograph, this one of Emmett Till’s mother gazing at the mutilated face of her son as he lays in an open coffin. Also close by is an exhibit dedicated to the role of the new media of television in bringing this event directly into the living rooms of ordinary Americans.
The tapestry of thoughts that ran through my mind as I took in that scene were woven from the innumerable threads of providence that brought me to stand in front of it. My oldest daughter was the same age that Elizabeth Eckford was then. My middle daughter was the same age as Emmett Till was when he was lynched. The white woman with the face contorted in rage resembled any number of the women at my youngest daughter’s private Christian school (including me). I gazed at the passive faces of the military officers in the background, and at the adjacent pictures of television newscasters delivering live commentary from nearby sidewalk corners. With the morning media coverage of Diamond Reynold’s horrifying commentary recorded on her iPhone and posted on Facebook so fresh on my mind, it suddenly became crystal clear how the same confluence of factors at work in America in 1957, were working themselves out in identical ways in America in (then) 2016.
Before I headed to the airport, I stopped at the gift shop and bought books for each of my daughters, and one for myself titled “Warriors Don’t Cry”. An autobiography of another of the Little Rock Nine named Melba Beals, it reads like the memoir of a survivor of a POW camp. Tears streamed down my face, unchecked, as I read it from cover to cover on the flight home.
All of the same themes I had observed in the Visitors’ Center as I stood in front of Elizabeth Eckford’s picture, repeated themselves in Melba Beals’ story:
- The institutional entrenchment of unjust laws and abusive authority structures, buttressed by Biblical language and ideological blackmail
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the battle for the segregated South shifted to America’s institutions – law courts, schools, police forces, and churches.
- The prophetic power of visual media
Mamie Mobley insistence that her son’s casket be left open so that as many people as possible would be confronted by the horror of his death lead to the picture that was the visual spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement in earnest.
Two years later, ordinary citizens watched history unfold via the televisions in their living rooms, as the Little Rock Nine made their way home through an epithet- spewing mob via the new media of live television.
- The unfathomable courage and resolve of black women (many of them Christians)
From the mothers and grandmothers of the Little Rock Nine and their advocates like NAACP chapter president Daisy Bates, to women like Mamie Till, Rosa Parks, JoAnn Robinson and others, black women both endured and resisted immense political and personal pressure to push forward the work of racial equality and justice for African Americans
- The passive (and active) complicity of white Christians
Judges, politicians and pastors deployed Biblical language and theological arguments as offensive weapons against integration. Professing Christians absorbed them, and embraced entrenched racism and segregation as “biblical”. Christian dissenters and desegregation advocates were marginalized, labelled as liberals or heretics, so that many ordinary Christians capitulated to pressure to remain silent in the name of keeping peace.
Those themes have emerged yet again this past week in the aftermath of Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s acquittal in Philando Castile’s death, as new video and still images of the incident and its aftermath, and commentary on it, are rolling through social media.*
Whatever thinking, reading, writing, and social media interacting I’ve done on topic of the gospel and racial reconciliation since then was birthed from what God did in my mind and heart over those two days in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The term some groups use to describe my experience is being “woke”: the scales of ignorance have permanently fallen from my eyes so that I now see what African Americans have been testifying to for so long. It’s not a term I’m comfortable using. Wobbly grammar aside, I don’t know that it’s the most appropriate term culturally for a forty-something white lady from Silicon Valley to adopt for herself. But beyond that, it’s the way many people treat “wokeness” as a binary state – one in which you live completely, or not at all – that prevents me from embracing it, at least for myself.
My evolving understanding, and awkward, imperfect attempts to speak and act consistently with the gospel in all this feels more akin to how Neo felt in the famous red pill/blue pill scene in The Matrix.
I’m barely beyond the disorientation of waking up, covered in the slime of my ignorance, surrounded by a legion of others still unconscious. Gracious new friends are helping me build muscles atrophied from lack of use. My eyes hurt, because I’ve never used them before. And that’s about as far as it feels like I’ve come.
As I’ve lurched and stumbled through dialog about race and the gospel in the digital world of social media, and the personal world of my local church contexts (both the one I’m in now and well as ones from previous seasons of life), I’ve found myself in the same place as other white Christians in times past. I’ve experienced the subtle, and unsubtle, criticism and distancing by other white Christians, and heard the suggestions that I’ve “gone liberal” and fallen in with the so-called gospel-diluting “SJW”s. I’ve felt the tiny stings of social media unfollowing and mutings, when I’ve shared stories in the hopes others might finally be persuaded in the same way that stories persuaded me. Remembering the immeasurably worse my black sisters have endured, and continue to endure, convicts me when I’m tempted to silence, and simply spurs me to ask God to increase my faith and give me courage like theirs.
A different hurt comes from a place my reading hadn’t lead me to expect. When white Christians like me take a step forward in advocating for racial reconciliation or restitution, whether a small one on social media, or a slightly bigger one involving collective action, our attempts are sometimes met by some black Christians with cynicism, judgement, or a barrage of “so what are you going to do right now”s and “not enough”s. When you’ve discovered that some of the pillars of your understanding of the gospel are rotten, and you’re doing your uneducated best to replace them, the extra burden of law and guilt we’re given to wear weighs us down, and tempts us to quit. Remembering the far worse burdens my black brothers and sisters have borne for centuries without quitting, and the gospel of grace which gives all of our burdens to Jesus, spurs me to keep going anyway.
The lament over the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer was the biggest and loudest by Christians I’ve yet observed. It gives me hope that we may be living in what future generations of Christians might look back on as the real Great Awakening of the American church.
But it will require many more Christians to embrace the gospel in asking for God to reveal our blindness, to take the sins He reveals of our collective indifference, willful ignorance, and complicitness to the foot of the cross and leave them there,
and then ask Him to give us the grace to speak, and to act, precisely because so many generations of our forefathers and mothers would not.
*I’ve declined to include the video or still images of Philando Castile’s death, to respect both the African American community who are so constantly traumatized by these images, and the LEO community struggling to work under the dark shadow the unrighteous acts by some cast over the honorable and sacrificial service of the rest.