On my day off this week I read The Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce W. Longenecker as an audiobook. I appreciated it quite a lot. It’s one of those books I’ve had on my list to read for at least a decade but never got around to until now.
The Lost Letters of Pergamum is historical fiction set in the first century, presented as a set of letters between a fictional character named Antipas and others, including Luke, as Antipas reads Luke’s first volume and learns about Christianity. It’s a great way to learn what life was like in the early church and Roman empire of Domitian. It functions almost as a broad contextual commentary for the Gospel of Luke, and serves as a good introduction to the first century Roman context of Acts, Paul’s letters, and Revelation.
I think it would be appropriate for anyone wanting a good introduction to the context of the New Testament Roman world. Highly recommended!
Jesus Christ must be the center and the norm for Christian public engagement. Why? Because Christ and Christ’s Spirit aren’t at work only in our hearts, families, and churches, but in our civic communities, cities, nations, and the entire world.
I’ve been engaged in quite a bit of recent discussion about the presence of racism and prejudice in the United States today. This is a list of resources that come to mind this morning and are thus weighted towards the recent. I think they are useful as background or direct input for consideration of the issue of racism in the United States today (June of 2020). I decided to document them in one place (and possibly update the list over time) in order to be able to share the resources list easily. Note that this list is particularly oriented towards the issue of racism related to African Americans. I’ve read, watched, or listened to all of these. I’m sure there are others that are valuable that I have forgotten or never experienced. I have attempted to leave out mere political demagoguery.
Some definitions are in order. First of all, some decades ago one of my teachers helped clarify some definitions for me after a race riot at my high school. As an African American teacher, he explained that racism is a belief in the superiority of one race over another. He further clarified that prejudice is a preconceived opinion or expectation. Thus prejudices may or may not be racist. I found this a useful distinction. Many people will admit to prejudices. Not that many will admit to racism. This distinction may prove useful in breaking the ice in what can be heated discussions. It won’t change the reality; but it might be helpful in defusing the heat.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – This is a book by Bryan Stevenson that I believe should be (if such a thing were possible) mandatory reading for every American Christian. The witness of Stevenson as he offers aid to the abandoned and condemned is challenging. His redemptive and loving response to racist attacks upon himself and others is even more telling. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. And yes, it was made into a feature movie called Just Mercy. The movie is really great. The book is better. See the movie. Buy and read the book. There has been progress; but what you see here is not over. Bryan Stevenson, whom I have never met, is a hero of mine nonetheless.
“The Persistence of Poverty” episode of The Indicator from Planet Money: “Why are some parts of Peru and Bolivia poor and others are not? The answer actually explains a lot about the modern world. And one of the economist Melissa Dell’s papers answers it by looking at something that happened roughly 450 years ago.” (Again, this podcast episode is one with implications for today’s America rather than directly addressing it.)
“Minneapolis Ranks Near The Bottom For Racial Equality“, a Planet Money newsletter. This newsletter has a number of links to interesting reports. “So, about Minneapolis… we found it, and the Twin Cities area more generally, has some of the most abysmal numbers on racial inequality in the nation. Here is a snapshot…”
Race in America 2019, published before the recent awful incidents and resulting protests, this Pew study shows perceptions of race in America. “More than 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on the position of black people in American society today. More than four-in-ten say the country hasn’t made enough progress toward racial equality, and there is some skepticism, particularly among blacks, that black people will ever have equal rights with whites, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.“
A 14-part film series called Eyes on the Prizewas broadcast on PBS as a part of The American Experience beginning in 1987. It is quite good as a background primer on the struggle for civil rights for black Americans.
A film called Freedom Riderswas broadcast on PBS as a part of The American Experience in 2010. It is another good background primer on the struggle for civil rights for black Americans. You will be able to find quite a few relevant films from The American Experience series.
The New York Times published The 1619 Project. There is some scholarly dissent from the data and conclusions presented in this project. In addition to the history and interpretation of history, and relevant to racial issues today, episode 5 (in two parts) details the experience of black sugar cane farmers June and Angie Provost and their family in Louisiana. Find the 1619 podcast wherever you get your podcasts.
Whatever you think of the case for reparations, it is worth at least understanding an intelligent young black man’s perspective. You may or may not find yourself agreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates 2014 argument. However, understanding his perspective is key.
Former president Barack Obama @BarackObama recently tweeted “In our @MBK_Alliance town hall yesterday, I mentioned James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. From 1962, it remains a seminal meditation on race by one of our greatest writers and relevant for understanding the pain and anger behind the protests.” You can read an excerpt online at the New Yorker. I can say that the pain and anger certainly come through. James Baldwin is, indeed, quite a writer. It will stir you up and inform you of his perspective. I will say up front that I found his understanding of Christianity and scripture quite flawed, but his experience of the church all too true of much common practice in America. Regardless, he represents a perspective that has been prominent for the better part of a century.
Update June 13, 2020 – Here is one fairly elaborate definition of “systemic racism”. It’s surprisingly difficult to find an agreed upon definition! I just think we continue to have a problem with racism and prejudice in the United States. I don’t care that much about the labels – except we need to communicate.
Update June 19, 2020 – The second season of the podcast series Scene on Radio is called Seeing White. It is about that “structural racism” that you hear folks talk about. Listen carefully. It’s very easy to think the topic is individual attitudes of bigotry or prejudice. It is not, even though that’s what most people think of when they hear the word “racism”. One could argue that the term “structural racism” is confusing for most people – and maybe it is. It is about pervasive systems that maintain a power imbalance in favor of white people, whomever “white people” are. Do you know who is white? How do you know? Are you white? Are you being co-opted to be white? Is there such a thing as “good white”? You may find yourself challenged by this listen. I learned a lot when I listened to it.
Update June 27, 2020 – My friend Art Gray posted publicly as below on Facebook recently. He is such a treasure and gift to the church in Long Beach!
Note: Sunday evening, May 31, 2020, after a day of peacefully protesting the murder of George Floyd and the treatment of Black people in our society, looters descended upon many parts of Long Beach, doing great damage to property and engaging in brazen acts of theft and violence.This note was written as cleanup was taking place and Covid-19 health measures remained in place.
First thing Monday morning I went down to the church building and found things were fine. I went to the roof and scouted the surrounding area; everything seemed calm – no columns of smoke like in 1992!
I started walking toward the downtown area, greeting people and being greeted… hearing stories of Sunday and Sunday night. Those I spoke with said they thought the looters were not locals and not protesters at all.
At least some looting crews were organized simply to loot while the police were distracted elsewhere, crassly taking advantage of the protests for thievery. There were crews with hammers and matching masks and shirts working in teams – some even with caravans of cars – who beat down any protesters who attempted to stop looting. That some would choose to dishonor the protests of the murder of George Floyd in this manner is unspeakable. So I’ll not speak of it more.
As I neared the downtown area, I saw what seemed like the entire city of Long Beach (and others) turn out to clean up, encourage, and stop any remaining looting.
Young, old, all kinds of people – mirroring the city’s population but with a lean towards the young. People were being reasonably careful to wear masks and such; but there were many people walking the streets and many cars passing through – sight seers? People in some cars were passing out water to cleanup crews. The downtown area was pretty much clean by 10 am – cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. The people cleaned litter in addition to broken glass and stuff from looting. Numerous folk were scrubbing off graffiti. There were (at least) hundreds of people milling around with brooms and bags and shovels with nothing left to clean and more people arriving. So the newly arrived were recommended to head for north Long Beach and other areas where it was rumored that cleaning was still needed. (By Tuesday artists were covering graffiti on boarded storefronts with artwork.) What remains now are repairs to broken windows and doors and other stuff that takes longer, and then getting back to carefully opening downtown business on account of past, present, and future Covid-19 measures.
I wanted to check on the new Antioch Church building on Pine, and was invited in and greeted by Pastor Wayne Chaney, Jr.
I found that Eric Marsh was also there; and Eric recruited me for the noontime Long Beach Prayer Collective prayer time online. I gladly agreed. Later, he also recruited Susana Sngiem to report in during the prayer time on her efforts through United Cambodian Community to help the businesses that were impacted at Anaheim and Atlantic, and elsewhere. After checking in on Antioch church on Pine and making a new friend (Wally), I walked on down to the Pike where I saw and greeted National Guard units. They said they were from nearby Southern California communities. They seemed a little ill at ease, so I thanked them for helping us keep Long Beach safe and peaceful.
I made my way back to the Friends Church building in time for the noontime prayer online, which included Pastor Gregory Sanders of The Rock (and President of the Long Beach Minister’s Alliance), Bishop Todd Ervin of Church One, and Noemi Chavez of Revive Church, and (of course) Eric Marsh. What a privilege to be part of that prayer time! I heard sirens a few times through the day, including during the prayer time, and prayed. The mayor (online) said there had been a few isolated attempts at looting. They were shut down fast.
The remainder of the day was more online meetings and finally organizing Long Beach Friends Church people for a prayer time at 8 PM to pray in concert with many other Long Beach churches for God’s peace in our city.
All in all, it was very encouraging to see the city turn out in force to clean up. I heard many who wanted to maintain the focus on protesting George Floyd’s murder – to overwhelm the distraction brought on by violence and looting. May it be so.
Some months ago, I watched the excellent Chernobylmini-series on television. In the last episode (number five) the protagonist, Legasov, reflects on his experience with the nuclear disaster. Powerful people tried to cover it up and hide the magnitude of the disaster from public view. His comments are timeless, but particularly apt in our day. Here’s a couple of the comments that have been haunting me in this time of extreme partisan politics that carry over even into management of pandemics.
We’re on dangerous ground right now, because of our secrets and our lies! They’re practically what define us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can longer remember it is even there. But it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.
And then later, he writes of his life as a scientist, apparently in contrast to government bureaucrats and politicians.
To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
I find it (perhaps naively) surprising and dismaying that so many who claim to follow the one who is the Truth seem more concerned with politics than inconvenient truth. Of course, many have said this, and said it better, before me. But still. Really? The debt will come due.
As Christians, we tend to think of the debt coming due when Jesus’ kingdom comes in its fullness. At that last trumpet, so to speak. That’s not Legasov’s point. Consider all the references to “the land of the living” in scripture. Are these referring to that distant future or to reality in even this fallen world? With all due respect to those scholars who explain “the land of the living” refers to the fullness of new creation, I’m just not using the term here in that way. Legasov is talking about how the truth has a way of making itself known in the face of lies, in this world as we know it today. It doesn’t stay buried in the land of the living.
Some didn’t want the Truth when he came into the land of the living 2000 years ago. He was a danger to their plans – and He remains so. We recently remembered how Jesus was crucified and left dead in the tomb. And then the Truth returned, unbowed, from the grave. That’s the way truth is, I think. You can only hide it away in the grave for so long before the sheer life of it comes back to haunt those who sought to keep it down. That’s because the truth reflects how God is – how Jesus is. You can’t keep him down. The world He created reflects that reality. The truth is out there, and he is jealous.
I long for simple truth in the land of the living – the land I live in now. I think this is the proper attitude for one who follows the Truth.
For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (Deuteronomy 4:24) The truth is of Him. He is the Truth. What is the cost of lies? It is death, naturally.
“None of us starts off with a pure internal ‘kit’ of impulses, hopes and fears. If you are true to ‘yourself’, you will end up a complete mess. The challenge is to take the ‘self’ you find within, and to choose wisely which impulses and desires to follow, and which ones to resist…”
“Some desires, says James, start a family tree of their own (verse 15). Desire is like a woman who conceives a child, and the child is sin: the act which flows directly from that part of the ‘self’ which pulls us away from the genuine life which God has for us. And when the child, sin, grows up and becomes mature, it too has a child. That child is death: the final result of following those desires which diminish that genuine human life.”
N.T. Wright Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John. and Judah comments on James 1:9-18