CRC Statement on Mass Shootings

During our Lenten Communion services, Rev. Betsy Aho led us in a lament on the existence of the phrase ‘another mass shooting.’ How can we not be upset when so many continue to be killed and hurt?

In light of several recent shootings, I am thankful that the Christian Reformed Church, which is the denomination that supports Campus Edge, recently put out a statement on mass shootings.

The following are some highlights of that statement:

“As Christian Reformed people, we grieve this loss of life. We grieve the hatred and extremism behind these acts of violence. We, as God’s church and society, grieve that we’ve been unable to put a stop to mass shootings

What these shootings have in common is a fuel of false narratives that the gunmen were allowed to feed on. They were hearing stories about, connecting with communities that support, and believing in the idea that some people are less human than others, and that these “others’” lives are worth less. As long as this fuel is allowed to continue, senseless deaths will continue.

White supremacist acts of terror have been committed in the United States from its earliest days, at the hands of those most often radicalized on the margins or in secret. Today, these ideas have come into the mainstream, and have been espoused and amplified by people in leadership, even in the highest elected offices.  

Words matter. Using dehumanizing and hateful speech when referring to immigrants, refugees, and people of color, fuels and affirms violent actions against them. And these words, especially when they come from people in leadership positions, greatly displease our God.

The document continues by providing biblical basis for their condemnation of racism, as well as condemnation for those, especially authority figures, who do not use their influence to do good to all people, especially those most vulnerable. We are encouraged to do something since “we know that words can fuel and affirm violent actions.” So the statement calls on all members of the CRC to “take an active stance against false narratives. We ask them to stand up against racism and acts of white supremacy. We ask them to speak up against words of misogyny and of hatred toward immigrants. We ask them to be proactively anti-racist, proactively anti-sexist, and to proactively promote the dignity of all people.”

We, too, at Campus Edge, encourage everyone to:

  • “pray for the president and prime minister of our respective countries, our elected officials, and those with the most resources and political influence, that they will use their positions of power to promote the dignity of all people, particularly people of color, immigrant communities, and women targeted by these shootings
  • pray for those who are grieving following incident of mass shootings and violence
  • pray for Latina/o, people of color, and immigrant pastors and congregants of the CRC who may be feeling overwhelming fear and grief at this time
  • pray for people of color, immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable and marginalized people who are too often the targets of hate speech and violence fueled by false narratives in society
  • pray that the individuals, who have been radicalized or are at risk of being radicalized by hateful rhetoric, would learn truth and find community with truth-tellers
  • lament the ways in which the church (and Christians) have not only been silent about these false narratives but has, at times, used them to oppress others
  • speak up from our individual places of influence when we notice hate-filled speech and white supremacist beliefs being shared around us
  • extend an act of kindness or encouraging word to your colleagues, neighbors, fellow church members, and friends that are Latina/o, immigrants, and/or people of color.”

Why don’t we talk about racism?

As part of our study at Campus Edge on difficult conversations, we talked about racism. It was an important topic as part of recognizing how God cares about justice and because not caring about racism takes away from our witness to who God is. During our discussion, one of the questions that came up is why we tend not to talk about racism in Christian circles. Part of the challenge is that many of us avoid difficult conversations in general, so that means we avoid most conversations that bring too closely into focus our identity, our feelings, and whether we are good enough.

Yet, part of the challenge is that it’s hard to believe that good church folk might be racist. Our actions, such as giving to the poor and advocating for justice, show that we strive to live out our love for God and our neighbor; why would anyone accuse us of racism? As Carolyn B. Helsel notes:

If we are generally good people who feed and clothe the homeless and give our money to the poor, it can feel as if we are being unjustly accused of racism when the rest of our behavior shows our moral intentions. Unfortunately, great harm comes to others not simply by our intentions, but by our inattentions. . . Separating intention from inattention means that if we say something that inadvertently hurts someone else, we do not need to get defensive. Instead, we can say, “I’m so sorry. I did not realize what that would sound like or feel like for you.”

Despite our best intentions, we are still sinners. Social science has shown that we tend to like people who are familiar to us and whom we understand, which means we tend to avoid people of different cultures (and even avoid making space for others’ differences). As Christena Cleveland puts it: “our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing.” Furthermore, when we’re feeling insecure, it’s easy to put others down; in other words, we do our best to disassociate with people who might be considered ‘losers.’ For more on this, I recommend Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ.

I confess that we at Campus Edge haven’t done a great job of acknowledging racism. Campus Edge’s vision focuses on creating community and integrating faith and intellect; we especially want to be there for people who are struggling with faith. It’s not immediately obvious how the question of racism fits in; yet, that might be because we’ve been ignoring how racism (or other -isms) make a community less welcoming and less supportive. Furthermore, when people use the Bible to support racism or even use one’s good intentions or faith to be indifferent to another person’s troubles and/or unique gifts, how can one not struggle with faith?

We’re working on this at Campus Edge. Pray that we might do a better job of caring about those around us who have been struggling in ways that we haven’t seen or acknowledged. I pray, too, that more people would have the courage to have about difficult conversations, especially connected to racism, justice, sexuality, and spirituality.

Songs of Joy and Lament: Amazing Grace

Apart from being enjoyable and enriching the soul, music has a story. While many of our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are familiar and well-worn, there are still stories to be told about where our music comes from and why it matters. This fall I (Mitchell) delighted in taking my church on a journey through some of my favorite music written for handbells. I’d like to explain some of the fascinating meaning and history embedded in this music, hoping that it will enliven your worship and provide some insights for the journey.

Amazing Grace (follow link to watch video)
Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of Amazing Grace is inexplicitly linked with the story of the transatlantic slave trade and is more nuanced than many people know.

While his mother hoped that he’d join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a plantation in Sierra Leone. He was later freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.

In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.

After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. (Saul of Tarsus, anyone?) Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and led several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans. (Despite the well-known refrain about “the hour I first believe”, Newton described his faith as a more gradual experience. “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards,” he later wrote)

In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest in the Church of England. He was ordained in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends were a part of the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by clergy. Inspired by texts of legendary hymn writers Isaac Watts (e.g. “O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (e.g. “Angels We Have Heard on High”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, “Amazing Grace” was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, New Britain, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)

Despite the dramatic story told in movies and plays that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God, it was not until 30 years later—in 1788—that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things and Newton’s life was certainly complicated. However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact that justice and redemption take time. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much later. Luckily he lived to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807, which finally abolished the African slave trade.

How are systems of injustice still perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from recognizing systems of injustice that are clearly wrong? Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by organized and consistent efforts. This takes time. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficult of facing the powers that be:

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (For the full story see Luke 18:1-8).

Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways in which our world is unjust and work toward mending the breach.

– Mitchell Eithun

So maybe it is about economics?

In our studies on the parables of Jesus, I’ve been struck by how often the parables talk about money and economics. Perhaps, though, as Jesus’ teachings tended to make people upset, it’s not that surprising: nothing quite gets people as upset as challenging them about money, power, and their self-importance.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) challenges readers both about economics and their self-importance.

The traditional understanding of this parable is that of grace: like the day’s wage that each person is paid at the end of the day, all those who believe are given salvation (irrelevant of how long they have been doing kingdom work). Salvation by grace alone (not by works) is one of the often repeated themes in Paul’s letters, so while there is something wonderful about being reminded about God’s extensive grace, there’s not much surprising in this message. Nor does it fully explain the ending of the parable – the part where the landowner basically tells the ‘early’ workers to get over themselves and highlights the generosity of the landowner in making sure all those who’d worked received enough for their daily needs.

It helps to look at the context. This parable is probably being told to the disciples. The text surrounding the passage doesn’t give the best picture of the disciples: they rebuke the people bringing their children to Jesus, they ask what they’ll earn because they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus, and then two of them ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom (and the others get upset at their audacity). The parable then rebukes the self-importance and entitlement of the disciples, something that many of us ‘older’ Christians also tend to have. The challenge to the hearers of this parable is thus:

“Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice over the good that enters other people’s lives, and why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated? . . . Even while we speak of justice, none of us is satisfied with average. We always think we deserve a little more.” Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 378.

As the text surrounding this parable talks a lot about money and our desire to get what we deserve, it is also important to wonder what the strange economics in the parable might have to say to us today. Amy-Jill Levine does a great job of pointing out how the justice portrayed in this parable is a justice that is not related only to saving grace but also to every day life:

“The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right.’ . . an economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough. . . . If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.”  Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 213, 218

Advocating for Refugees

As we often talk about justice in our studies, I am thankful that Campus Edge is connected to a denomination that cares deeply about speaking up for the marginalized. The Christian Reformed Church recently released an official statement about (the lack of) admission of refugees to the United States. The following are highlights of that statement:

 “We identify the proposed drastic cuts to the refugee resettlement program in the U.S. as a critical moment for the voice of the church. . .

Caring for refugees is a central issue of our faith, rooted in Scripture. We are commanded to welcome the stranger (Deut 10:19, Lev 19:34, Ex 23:9), to love our neighbor (Mk 12:31), to seek justice (Micah 6:8), and to come alongside the vulnerable (Psalm 82:3). We are called to hospitality both in order to give of our resources, and also to receive blessings (Heb 13:2). We are told that the presence of our Savior, Jesus, can be hidden the face of the stranger. (Matt 25:35). . .

Synod was particularly clear about the CRC’s commitment to refugee and immigrants in 2010, resolving that “God’s Word consistently directs the people of God to be welcoming toward the strangers in their midst and to extend special care to those most vulnerable to social or economic conditions that threaten their ability to survive.” It also called members of the church to advocate with government representatives for just policies, saying “…citizenship in the kingdom of God obligates believers to the highest law of love for God and neighbor above all, and the exercise of this love should lead believers to advocate for laws that will mandate the just and humane treatment of immigrant peoples.” . . .

We are grieved by that which stands in the way of our church’s calling, in particular, these further cuts to refugee resettlement.

  • We are deeply concerned about an emerging pattern of U.S. policies which are harming immigrant communities — for example, revoking legal pathways to immigration, restricting the definition of asylum, cutting refugee admissions and more.
  • We lament the thousands of vulnerable citizens who will remain in refugee camps for far too long, exposed to further violence and trauma, because of these reductions.
  • We grieve that this may impact the policies of other nations. After decades of receiving upwards of 75,000-100,000 refugees, this cut in the U.S. threatens to lead other countries to follow suit.”

Possible actions, including prayer, can be found on the CRC website.

Critiquing the American dream

In pub theology the other week, we talked about the American dream: what it was, whether it was inherently exploitative, and whether it has changed. According to Wikipedia, “The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about the danger of the American dream in Between the World and Me:

“When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you [my son].”

According to Coates, the American dream is inherently oppressive, as it causes us to focus primarily on our own personal good and escape from the reality around us, especially the role that race plays in hurting society.

Ryan Cooper, in “The American Dream is a Lie” concurs with Coates:

Coates connects this death [of the promising young man, Prince Jones], and the others much like it happening daily, directly to the American Dream. Gruesome human sacrifice is what undergirds the picket fences and ice cream socials of the “people who believe they are white.” . . .

[This] is not to deny the fact that many Americans enjoy considerable prosperity in this country. Many millions do float easily on the tide of America’s fantastic wealth. The lie is found in the universal application of the Dream, that America is a place where everyone can get a fair shot at a decent life. . .

The American Dream allows us whites to pretend that our relative affluence is the result of our own actions on a fair playing field. But it just ain’t so.”

 

Cooper’s article also contains an interesting and helpful quote by David Brooks where he points to the good that the American dream has given us:

“[A] dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility, and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past… It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. [The New York Times]

Brooks points us to the wonderful freedom and opportunity that has been present for many of us in (North) America, a freedom that has benefited many Christians, especially on account of the value placed on hard work and help for those in our network who are struggling. At the same time, it is important not to close our ears to Coates words, recognizing that, for many different reasons, the opportunities that each individual receives are not the same, and the hard work that we’ve put into things do not produce the same results. Furthermore, the focus on the individual and one’s own achievements has a degree of self-righteousness, selfishness and works righteousness is counter to the Christian teaching of loving one’s neighbour and the recognition that, as the Psalms often say, sometimes the wicked prosper.

Graduate students and the tax plan

Graduate (and professional) students are not particularly known for paying attention to news or politics. There just isn’t time and energy for that. Yet, the proposed tax plan has made a lot of graduate students pay attention, on account of the proposal to tax tuition waivers. For many students, this would increase the amount of taxes they pay by several thousand dollars, which causes a lot of anxiety among a population that does not generally have a lot of extra money.

Graduate students organized a walkout today to protest the tax plan. As NPR reported,

“Graduate students around the country walked out of their classes, office hours, and research labs to protest the House Republican tax plan Wednesday.

‘This plan is going to be disastrous for higher ed,’ said Jack Nicoludis, a Harvard graduate student in chemistry, who helped organize a protest on the campus. He said the bill would more than double his taxes’ . . . “

Lego Grad Student provides a helpful illustration of how significantly taxes would increase for many students. PhD Comics has also chimed in about the tax plan.

Irrelevant of your political leanings and/or your opinion of the proposed tax plan, please pray and advocate for those who are worried that they would be negatively affected by it and that creative solutions might be found so that the good research and innovation that is done by graduate students (and universities in general) might continue.

 

A prayer for our world

In light of everything that has happened in the last weeks, the following is a response from the leadership of the Christian Reformed Church:

Earlier this year, an estimated 20 million people were already living on the brink of starvation in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria. In August and September, hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria tore through the Caribbean and the United States, causing untold damage. As hurricane recovery began, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico killed more than 300 people and left 6,000 injured. Soon after, we heard about the plight of Rohingya refugees who were being massacred in Myanmar and were forced to flee for Bangladesh. And more recently, we were faced with news of a terrible attack on the streets of Edmonton, a horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, and raging wildfires in California.

These are just a handful of the hurts taking place in our world right now. There are also daily acts of racism and injustice, persecution of people because of their faith, and ongoing discrimination against people with disabilities.

Our hearts are heavy as we consider all of this suffering. The sheer scope and scale of need can overwhelm us and leave us feeling helpless to respond. Yet, even in times of immense darkness and suffering we are reminded that God is in control.

[Please] join us in a time of both lament and praise. We wish to express the heaviness on our hearts, to stand in solidarity with those who hurt, and to grieve and mourn for that which has been lost. We also celebrate that we serve a God who heals brokenness and despair, who hears our cries, and who has promised to heal our broken and hurting world.

Please pray.

Taken from https://www.crcna.org/news-and-views/council-delegates-urges-prayer-our-hurting-world

Responding to Charlottesville

Staying silent after the events this weekend in Charlottesville is not an option. At the same time, many graduate and professional students don’t know how to respond. Certainly most graduate students (Christian or not) would condemn racism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, and any other sort of hatred towards another person. Yet, responding well to a situation is hard: unfortunately, most graduate and professional students find it hard to find enough time both to research what actually happened and to participate in good events that truly speak against this hatred.

I, too, don’t know enough or understand enough about what happened in Charlottesville. I am thankful, however, that I am part of a wider church (Christian Reformed Church and beyond) that has others who have already written wise words in response.

Jul Medenblik, the president of Calvin Seminary, highlighted both how Calvin Seminary is a “diverse, international community [that] is a wonderful anticipation of the great multitude ‘from every nation, tribe, people, and language’ who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ (Rev. 7:9-10)” and that they take “seriously the call of Synod 1996 of the Christian Reformed Church ‘to witness publicly against racism, prejudice, and related unemployment, poverty, and injustices and in defense of all people as image bearers of God.'” Because of this, they/we “condemn all manifestations of nationalist racism and white supremacy, including recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.” An official statement of the Christian Reformed Church can be found here.

Chong, a former campus minister, has written a helpful and pointed article in the CRC’s monthly magazine, arguing that we are not only to denounce racism but also that we are to respond further by praying, examining ourselves and working.

Finally, to understand better the situation this past weekend, I suggest reading Brian McLaren’s first person account of his experience there (as clergy) where he also suggests next steps.