America’s Cancelation Policy: Reflections on ‘Cancel Culture’ and the Church’s Relationship to It

The voices are loud. Demanding. Angry. And often unnuanced.

“This ‘cancel culture’ has to stop! If something offends you, then just don’t listen to it! Or don’t watch it! Or don’t read it!”

Other loud voices emerge from a different portion of the philosophical spectrum:

“This isn’t about ‘cancel culture!’ This is about correcting wrongs that we have tolerated for far too long!”

As people entrench themselves in both intensified anger and fortified viewpoints, accusations and presuppositions often begin to take priority over nuanced discernment. One group asserts that a portion of its history is being taken away. Another declares the moral high ground en route to what it perceives to be a nobler future. The end result is a lingering fracture that no doctor can heal (not even Dr. Seuss).

Some respond to the fracture with defensiveness or territorialism. Others with dismissiveness. Still others with retaliatory ridicule and an eagerness to belittle perspectives that run counter to their own. In the often complex and sometimes confounding sociological maelstrom and philosophical commotion, faith communities (like the church) have a unique opportunity both to speak a countercultural message and to model the kind of distinctive priorities that bear witness to the theological narrative by which they are endeavoring to live. Sadly, instead of incarnating a different way, the church too often settles for one of the viewpoints handed to it by a divided culture, the segments of which are all too eager to have faith communities on their side.

So where does that leave the church? What sense might the church make of the “cancel culture” debate? And how might the church respond to it in a manner that reflects the priorities of Jesus, a commitment to justice, an appreciation of history and its complexity, and a vision for our nation’s integrity?

While I can offer no definitive answers, I am led to believe that the church’s navigation of the current territory will require the continued consideration of these practical and theological convictions:

Conviction #1: The work of “canceling,” even when deemed morally necessary, will always illuminate both the noteworthy inconsistencies of the cancelation process and the inherent hypocrisies of those claiming to be its overseers.

Critics of “cancel culture” rightly point out that decisions about who or what gets canceled (and who or what does not) are often subject to the inconsistent priorities and proclivities of an erratic culture and its flawed arbiters. Racism is rightly condemned, but by a nation built largely upon the back of slavery. Misogyny is rightly decried, but by a culture that often sexualizes even its children and youth. Intolerance is rightly rebuked, but often by the intolerant. These manifestations of moral inconsistency and hypocrisy do not in any way justify an abandonment of public moral censuring. They do, however, elucidate a shared fallenness that should, at the very least, inspire both intensified caution and a resistance to weaponized sanctimony when it comes to the activity of public condemnation. To borrow the imagery of Jesus, the ones who endeavor to cancel, irrespective of their sense of moral rightness, do well to recognize the “plank” in their own personal histories, even as they endeavor to remove the offending “speck” from a variety of different eyes.

Conviction #2: At its worst, public rebuke becomes the moral posturing of a nation seeking to castigate a convenient scapegoat. At its best, such rebuke becomes a nation’s rightful rejection of that which we tolerate or accommodate only at our own moral peril. 

The challenge for the church is to bring to the conversation about public condemnation the kind of steady critical thinking that distinguishes between the pursuit of justice and the demonization of dissenting voices. Only then can the church’s people move beyond image management and virtue signaling in order to add their hearts, voices, and energies to the complex and critical work of helping our nation’s narrative to reflect the truth of who we have been, the reality of who we are, and the vision of who we aspire to be.

Conviction #3: When there is a public denunciation of something or someone based upon a general moral consensus, the church’s most Christ-honoring response is to choose patient attentiveness instead of cynicism and to practice repentance instead of deflection.

A common criticism of “cancel culture” is that it focuses on all the wrong things. “How can people possibly worry about cartoons and a handful of Dr. Seuss books,” the argument goes, “when popular musicians are free to render highly sexualized performances with sexually graphic lyrics at the televised Grammy Awards?” Such deflection illuminates both the complexity of cultural cancelation and the strong disagreement that exists over its priorities. The church would do well to remember, however, that repentance is not a resource that becomes depleted with frequent usage. Rather, repentance is a way of life that makes redemptive room for all the wrongs that demand correction and all the distortions that demand reconfiguration. To put it another way, the church’s people must not allow the current ABSENCE of repentance over some issues to harden their hearts to the current PRESENCE of repentance over other issues. Disagreements about what requires repentance will certainly continue. The church, however, reflects the heart of Jesus most vibrantly when it joins the work of repentance wherever it is occurring instead of belittling that work for not yet finding expression in other places.

Conviction #4: In a climate of “cancel culture,” the church is called to elevate the conversation by becoming more fluent in its own unique and redemptive theological language.

The culture’s emphasis on “cancelation” becomes an opportunity for the church to reengage the deep rhythms of confession, repentance, rebirth, justification, and sanctification. When the culture traffics in the ethos of punishment, the church articulates afresh the importance of social holiness, the urgency of correcting injustice, and the moral necessity of taking responsibility for one’s behavior and being held accountable for its consequences. When the culture demands retribution, the church calls for transformation. And when the culture labels a soul irredeemable, the church tells the old, old story of a grace in which, mercifully, a soul’s cancelation is simply not an option.

Conviction #5: “Cancel culture” has the potential to become either a toxic methodology by which to ruin the lives of identified opponents or a means of refinement that helps to purify the cultural air.

Where publicized denunciation is weaponized without accountability—where it becomes, in other words, less of a prophetic denunciation of wrongdoing and more of a calculated effort to silence all dissent and incapacitate all dissenters, the church has a moral responsibility to name the harm being caused, to advocate for the ones harmed, and to work toward a just rectification. On the other hand, where such denunciation reflects a nation’s earnest and disciplined journey of sanctification, the church can join the effort rightly, since sanctification is a central and beautiful theme in the church’s own grand story.

The convictions that I have enumerated here reflect my belief that “cancel culture” need not be conceptualized or treated as the church’s enemy. I am more inclined to look upon it as the imperfect and inconsistent methodology of a culture that is seeking to clarify its ever-expanding vision for what it wants to be and what it does not want to be—what it wishes to elevate and repudiate. Naturally, the church cannot expect a complete alignment between its priorities and the culture’s when it comes to the shared work of public remonstration and moral correction. I am convinced, however, that prayerful and consistent scrutiny will illuminate far more common ground than one might at first assume—as though God is steadily at work to bring both the church and the world into the kind of salvific symbiosis that moves the entirety of creation toward the redemption for which it groans. 

Someone said to me recently, “But what if ‘cancel culture’ tries to cancel the church?”

I offered the only response that came to me in the moment.

“Someone already tried to cancel the church two-thousand years ago. The result was an empty tomb, a ‘Hallelujah’ that still resonates, and a life that not even death can nullify.”

After the Election

Do you ever experience nights in which sleep becomes secondary to prayer and in which outcries to God become as natural as breathing and every bit as desperate? 

The last several nights have been like that for me—and, I suspect, for many others—simply because of the sense of urgency around the presidential election and all that is at stake in the days ahead.

May I speak to you about the specific nature of my current prayer, in the hope that my feeble petitions might resonate with your own prayerful spirit?

I am praying for President-elect Joe Biden, that his heart will break for the issues that matter most; that the noblest portions of his character will find dynamic expression in his leadership; that repentance, where necessary, will become authentically transformational for him; and that his presidency will be devoted to the kind of work that broadens our country’s grandness, deepens its integrity, and strengthens its unity.

I am praying for President-elect Biden’s family members, that they will be protected from the harm that global scrutiny so frequently causes and that they might be inspired to love and nurture one another with intentionality and attentiveness throughout these days of important transition.

I am praying for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her family, adding my voice and heart to the celebration of what her election represents in our country’s history. As the first woman and woman of color elected to the Vice Presidency, her election stands as a strong and vibrant repudiation of the sexism and racism that have been so painfully prevalent throughout our history.

I am praying for President Donald Trump, his family, and his staff, and for Vice President Mike Pence and his family, that they might know the sustaining and lifechanging grace of God in every portion of their journey.

I am praying for the healing of a nation that is starkly and frighteningly divided and whose divisions reflect substantial ideological differences that cannot be reduced to Facebook pronouncements and a smug dismissal of opposing viewpoints. I hold in my heart today my dear friends who, with me, see this election’s outcome as a long-awaited answer to prayer. I also hold in my heart my dear friends who are disappointed, angered, or heartbroken by this election’s outcome. Both types of people are part of the nation that President-elect Biden is preparing to lead. Both must be taken seriously.

I am praying for those who have felt wounded, mistreated, and diminished throughout this election season, that their vision and hope might be fully restored.

I am praying that the people of our great country (elected leaders and neighbors close by) will move toward a more comprehensive, reasoned, authentic, and respectful way of talking with one another about the vitally important matters that this election season has illuminated—including issues of race, gender, immigration, abortion, economics, and healthcare. I long for the kind of sustained and integrated dialogue in which people refuse to become so exclusively fixated on their own viewpoints that they can no longer value the perspectives and experiences of others.

Finally, I am praying for the church, which is the portion of the world where I spend most of my time and where I invest most of my energy. May the church commit itself afresh to the healing of a nation and to the hearing of all voices. May its people devote themselves anew to the work of justice, mercy, and Gospel-grounded transformation. And may its sacrificial ministry be a prophetic indication to the world that, while the church approaches the election of our political leaders with reverent seriousness and commitment, our deepest hope lies in the reign of God and the reconfigured lives and communities that God’s grace makes possible.

Breathe in, friends. Breathe out. Pray deeply. Be gentle with one another. And then meditate on this: 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?—Micah 6:8

Reflections on a Presidential Election and the Divisions That Intensify It

We are approaching a presidential election that represents a culmination of the most politically and philosophically divisive campaign season that I have ever experienced.

Throughout the last several months, strongly held convictions and deeply felt emotions have put a strain on many families and friendships, on many pastors and congregations, and on many hearts and lives. After Tuesday, no matter how the election turns out, there will be excitement and a sense of victory among some, and deep frustration—perhaps even anguish—among others. And, as citizens of this great nation, we will all bear our share of emotional scars, irrespective of for whom we cast our vote.

I know that most of the people reading these paragraphs hold plenty of strong opinions about the election, and that anything like consensus is elusive at best. Further, I understand that you most likely encounter a diversity of political viewpoints in your network of relationships that sometimes causes your head to spin and your heart to hurt.

The last four years have illuminated a divide in our culture—and even in our faith communities—that, while perhaps long present, has never been so starkly and painfully delineated. The church, which is the faith community in which I both live out my vocation and nurture my spiritual formation, currently accommodates a divergence of perspectives related to the Presidency of Donald Trump that can sometimes lead to what feels like either severe ecclesiastical schizophrenia or a bad case of spiritual whiplash. 

An articulate Christian defense of Trump’s Presidency can be found in the writing of Eric Metaxas, who included these words in his op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal (January 7, 2020):

If slavery was rightly considered wicked—and both a moral and political issue—how can this macabre practice [abortion] be anything else? How can Christians pretend this isn’t the principal moral issue of our time, as slavery was in 1860? Can’t these issues of historic significance outweigh whatever the president’s moral failings might be?…The pejorative du jour is to call evangelicals ‘transactional,’ as though buying a loaf of bread and not simply praying for one were somehow faithless. But what is sneeringly called ‘transactional’ is representational government, in which patriotic citizens vote, deputizing others to act on their behalf for the good of the country. Isn’t it conceivable that faithful Christians think Mr. Trump is the best choice?…Christians are staggered to see good souls who stand by millennia-old religious convictions portrayed as deplorable bigots. Democrats—and many Republicans, too—simply look away, seemingly resigned to a culturally Marxist future in which they too may at any minute be rent asunder by woke mobs. Given this new reality, is it any wonder Mr. Trump’s bellicosity often draws cheers?  Or that the appointment of originalist judges has become so urgent that some people are willing to countenance a chief executive who tweets like a WWE figure?

In stark contrast to Metaxas’ conceptualization of Trump as Christianity’s “best choice” and a necessary response to an American culture that is bounding headlong toward a “Marxist future,” John Pavlovitz, another articulate Christian voice, recently published a provocative blog post entitled “No, I Won’t Agree to Disagree About This President. You’re Just Wrong” (October 18, 2020). In his post, Pavlovitz gives expression to a moral anguish that he believes is worth dividing over:

At this point, with the past four years as a resume, your alignment with this president means that we are fundamentally disconnected on what is morally acceptable—and I’ve simply seen too much to explain that away or rationalize your intentions or give you the benefit of the doubt any longer. I know what your reaffirmation of him is telling me about your disregard for the lives of people of color, about your opinion of women, about your attitude toward Science, about the faith you so loudly profess, and about your elemental disrespect for bedrock truth. I now can see how pliable your morality is, the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make, the ever-descending bottom you’re following into, in order to feel victorious in a war you don’t even know why you’re fighting…This isn’t just a schism on one issue or a single piece of legislation, as those things would be manageable. This isn’t a matter of politics or preference. This is a pervasive, sprawling, saturating separation about the way we see the world and what we value and how we want to move through this life. Agreeing to disagree with you in these matters, would mean silencing myself and more importantly, betraying the people who bear the burdens of your political affiliations—and this is not something I’m willing to do…Your devaluing of black lives is not an opinion. Your acceptance of falsehoods is not an opinion. Your defiance of facts in a pandemic is not an opinion. Your hostility toward immigrants is not an opinion. These are fundamental heart issues.

The divergence of theological thought reflected by these two Christian writers is as compelling as it is unsettling. These are contrasting worldviews that, while not mutually exclusive, bring to light differing moral priorities and disparate ideas about what matters most to Jesus. Would the starkness of the disparity be different if there were a greater number of pro-life Democrats? Or more Republicans concerned about racism, the climate, and access to healthcare? Perhaps. As it stands, however, faithful followers of Jesus, along with many other faith communities, find themselves every bit as divided as the culture that surrounds them, if not more so.

I do not offer solutions in these paragraphs. In fact, I am not at all convinced that a solution exists. The cultural and ecclesiastical divide is not a problem to be solved as much as it is a formative tension to navigate—a moral strain that, if stewarded with both an attentiveness to what is at stake and a stubborn refusal to demonize, has the potential to make us into a more compassionate nation and a more virtuous church.

Of course, it will always be easier to make enemies of one another, protecting our preferred categories and clarifying the battle lines. Moral strains and formative tensions, after all, are excruciatingly difficult. Weaponizing our priorities in order to excoriate those who do not freight them as we do is a perpetual temptation, and an enticing one at that.

But I am hoping that there is another way. I am hoping that Biden supporters might force themselves over the next several weeks and months to listen patiently to the hearts of those Americans who will cast their vote for Trump, not because they are racists or misogynists, but perhaps because of their conviction that a nation’s governing ethos is at stake and their belief that abortion is a monumental moral crisis that outweighs all other concerns and upon which the integrity of America hinges. Likewise, I am hoping that Trump supporters will compel themselves to appreciate the priorities of those who will vote for Biden, not because they gravitate toward socialism or an indifference to the unborn, but because they have come to the conclusion that both the character and actions of the current President are toxic to our nation’s vitality, corrosive to our national integrity, and ruinous to our noblest aspirations.

My vision for this “other way” is based upon neither a desire for moral equivalence (since not all positions can be equally right) nor a contentment with shallow civility (since the issues at hand are far too important to be swept under the carpet of an anemic geniality). Rather, my vision finds its impetus in the two-fold conviction that the betterment of our nation depends on the navigation of our moral tension and not its militarization, and that our grandest future is far more comprehensive than what can be generated by any one party’s platform. To put it simply, for the sake of moral accountability and philosophical holism, we need one another, even if we do not want to. Such a recognition of the need for the “other” is woven into the very fabric of the American dream. In fact, this very principle often leads to the righting of agonizing wrongs during those periods when the American dream becomes nightmarish for many.

All of this inspires me to offer the following hopes—not because I think I know any more than you do, but simply because my heart will not allow me to be silent:

First, if you are someone who prays and believes in the power of prayer, then I hope that you will be intentional about praying your way into a deep and durable preparedness as we head into the election. More specifically, I hope that you will pray with urgency

  • for peace and integrity in our nation, before, during, and after the election
  • for your personal strength to become an active agent of the peace for which you are praying
  • for the hearts and spirits of the people in your network of relationships—both the people with whom you agree and those whose viewpoints you oppose
  • for President Trump, former Vice President Biden, Vice President Pence, and Senator Harris and their families
  • and for your own heart, that it might not succumb to despair, cynicism, or resentment.

Second, if you are someone who embraces the Bible as a source of spiritual revelation or guidance, then I hope that you will experience a healthy engagement with Biblical truth so that you might keep the election in perspective and help those around you to do the same. For example, in recent weeks, I have found great encouragement in Isaiah 40—a wonderfully evocative section of Scripture in which the prophet speaks urgent and powerful words of comfort, hope, and assurance to God’s people. Verses 22 and 23 of Isaiah 40 have resonated for me with particular clarity: “It is the Lord who sits above the circle of the earth…who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” I hear in these words a compelling reminder of the fact that a presidential election, while tremendously important, will not diminish the sovereignty of the One we worship, nor will it impede God’s authority over “the circle of the earth.” The prophet concludes by reminding us that “The Lord is the everlasting God” who renews the strength of the faint so that “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:28-31). I am hoping that you will nurture your own spirit in this kind of Biblical truth, so that you might resist the temptation to kneel at the wrong altar in the days following the election.

Third, I hope that you will think about how to create safe spaces of prayer and healing silence for the people in your family, neighborhood, social network, and faith community during the next several weeks—even virtually. My sense is that people need such safe spaces more than ever, whether they realize it or not. The current noise in our culture is loud, complex, and relentless. Help the people in your corner of the world to find their way into quiet spaces of prayer in which the Holy Spirit can begin to heal wounds, restore hope, and illuminate the many convictions that unite us.

Fourth, I hope that you will practice good and attentive stewardship over all of your communication, spoken and written, remembering that you are addressing a political spectrum of which no single portion can lay claim to the entirety of either the Gospel or the moral high ground. Hold your personal convictions, but do not weaponize them. Preach the Gospel, but do not reduce the pulpit to an instrument through which to vent your personal spleen. Advocate for justice, but recognize that there are differing perspectives in your community concerning what the fullness of justice looks like and which portions of justice warrant the highest prioritization. Speak into social media, but speak graciously and carefully, so that you do not become “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” There will be plenty of voices crying out following the election. In the midst of that outcry, work hard to ensure that your voice is helpful rather than hurtful.

Fifth, if you are a leader in the church, I hope that you will make certain that your congregational worship on the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, November 7 and 8, is rich with fervent hope, energized prayer, and the proclamation of a Savior who cannot be claimed by any political party or confined to any party’s platform. Your congregation will need that kind of worship. Help them to experience it.

Finally, if you are Christian, I hope that you will commit yourself afresh to the bold, creative, and tenacious love that Jesus himself describes in his Sermon on the Mount—a love extended even toward our “enemies” and those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48). This kind of love, of course, has nothing to do with how much we agree with a person or even the amount of affection we hold for her or him. Rather, the love to which Jesus calls us is deeply rooted in the often countercultural work of respecting the personhood of those with whom we are ideologically conflicted, showing compassion to those who are on the other end of a variety of spectrums, and blessing our philosophical opponents with our refusal to assume the worst about them. Practically speaking, such love produces authentic concern for the heartbroken (instead of gloating) if our preferred candidate is elected and authentic graciousness (instead of vitriol) if our preferred candidate is not elected. Jesus seemed to believe that this kind of love reflects the very character of God and that its embodiment among his followers illuminates both the nature of God’s reign and the heart of God’s vision for what the world can be at its very best. I am hoping in prayer that the people called Church are known primarily for their love, both throughout this week and beyond this week.

On October 6, 1774, John Wesley wrote these important words in his journal: 

I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them

1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy

2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and

 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.

May we find in these words a call to both civic responsibility and continued graciousness. May we also embrace the wisdom of Wesley’s counsel to resist the sharpening of our spirits against those whose political perspectives (and votes) differ from ours.

If you have read this far, please be assured that I am with you in this hard and important journey, praying in a spirit of deep gratitude for the honor of walking alongside you. If you feel that I have not gone far enough in what I have written, or if you find in my words what sounds far too much like a support for unholy compromises, I certainly receive that criticism. Likewise, if you feel that I have gone too far, or that I have strayed dangerously beyond the boundaries of that for which I am trained, you may very well be right. 

At the heart of the post, though, is nothing more (and nothing less) than my personal and unrelenting belief that our nation and its faith communities have a deeper and more expansive greatness in their future. Getting there, however, will require courageous navigation and an unwavering commitment to choosing hope over fear, cooperation over partisanship, and, perhaps most importantly, integrity over demagoguery. 

Jesus on Paying Taxes: A Deft Navigation of Empire and Kingdom

[They asked Jesus], ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said… ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:17-22)

At first, it all seems tidy and efficient, does it not? 

During a time when the Jewish people lived under the weight of an often oppressive and corrupt Roman system of taxation (which would have required them to pay large sums of money to the very empire whose rule was a daily affront to their theological sensibilities), Jesus is asked a straightforward question about tax responsibilities as they relate to the faith community. Jesus, after asking to see a Roman coin and pointing out to the people the likeness and title of the emperor imprinted upon it, responds succinctly: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Easy and clean, right? Jesus is defining an organized set of compartments. “Here’s your citizen compartment over here, and there’s your faith compartment over there. This part of your life is your obligation to the empire, and that part of your life is your commitment to God.” Problem solved. Next!

But, hold on for a minute. Think with me about the deeper layers of this moment of Scripture.

If Jesus’ response had been nothing more than a practical reinforcement of tidy social compartments (as in “Just go ahead and pay your taxes and be a good citizen—and don’t forget to pray!”), it would hardly have generated amazement from the questioners. And amazement, says the Scripture, is precisely what Jesus’ response inspired.

It compels us to ask the question—What was so amazing about Jesus’ response?

Perhaps part of the questioners’ amazement had to do the fact that the question itself was designed to draw Jesus into a conceptual no-win scenario. If, for example, Jesus had simply said, “Yes, by all means, pay your taxes to the empire,” he would have alienated a large portion of the Jewish community that had regularly experienced the exploitive nature of Roman taxation and that would have been looking for something more than institutional compliance from Jesus. Likewise, if Jesus had answered, “Absolutely not—Don’t give a single coin to this twisted empire,” he would have quickly been charged with sedition and likely arrested, which would have brought his earthly ministry to closure before its time.

Jesus offers neither of these responses to the question. Instead, he expands the landscape of the question in a manner that invites the questioners (and listeners nearby) to shift their focus from taxation to theology—from the emperor and his tax laws to God and God’s perfect sovereignty.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

In order to appreciate the nuance of Jesus’ response, ponder this: What, ultimately, belongs to the emperor? In fact, what truly “belongs” to any emperor?

In a word, nothing.

Every emperor, ruler, monarch, prime minister, or president who has ever lived (including the one Jesus references) holds authority and power for a season, but eventually returns to dust, as does his or her illusions of control and ownership. What, then, does this Roman Emperor (to whom Jesus refers) own today, and what belongs to him?

Nothing.

By contrast, what belongs to God?

In a word, everything.

Our coins and our capabilities. Our accumulated resources and our well-developed skill sets. Our deepest allegiance and our very lives. All of what we have and all of what we are is looked upon rightly only when it is seen as being under the proprietorship and dominion of the One about whom the Psalmist writes these words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein”  (Psalm 24:1). In theological terms, what emperor could ever claim rightful ownership over a person’s taxes when the emperor’s very breath is breathed only by the sheer grace of the Creator?

With this perspective in mind, listen to Jesus’ response to the question once again, and picture how someone with strong convictions about God’s sovereignty might have interpreted it:

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

It is less of an answer to the question about taxes and more of a theological statement about who God is and who the emperor is. “Wait,” Jesus seems to be saying, “Not so fast. You are looking to force me into the trap of a straightforward answer. But try this response on for size: Go ahead and give to the emperor what ‘belongs’ to the emperor. Just don’t forget to render to God all the things over which God has rightful claim!”

Any Roman official within earshot might have muttered, “Well, at least he didn’t tell people NOT to pay taxes.”

Likewise, any person of faith might have heard in Jesus’ words nothing less than a clever affirmation of several truths: that, in the end, everything is God’s and nothing is Caesar’s; that even a tax payment comes under God’s holy proprietorship long before its absorption into the empire’s machinery; and that, even if a Jewish person pays taxes to Rome to preserve a necessary peace, s/he does so, not because the tax belongs to the emperor, but because both the taxpayer and the emperor belong to God.

What, then, do we find in this “deeper-than-we-may-have-thought” portion of Scripture? 

We find a Jesus who can simultaneously avoid a conceptual trap while at the same time calling people to grander narratives. 

We find an affirmation of the truth that any tax we pay, any vote we cast, and any allegiance we pledge to a flag is an act of God-given conviction and not the rightful property of any empire.

Most of all, we find a glimpse of a Kingdom where the reign of God in a human life defines a soul far more than an empire ever could and where God’s sovereignty over all things makes even an oppressive system of taxation seem temporarily bearable.

No wonder the questioners “were amazed…and went away.”

There may be truth in this Scripture that Christ-followers would do well to embrace or re-embrace in 2020, especially during a season that tempts us so relentlessly to align with “the empire” (in one way or another) with a fervor that borders on idolatry and a zeal that distorts the priorities of a Jesus-shaped life.

Thank you for traveling deeply into this moment of Scripture with me. I hope that it was worth the trip.

A Banquet of Grace, An Expanded Guest List, and a Demanding Dress Code

Jesus so often taught in parables—strange little stories that creatively subverted the hearer’s presuppositions and illuminated the often-countercultural priorities that characterize the new “Way” that Jesus inaugurated.

Perhaps Jesus knew that this newly-inaugurated “Way” was far too grand and far too expansive to be taught through bullet points and prosaic discourse. This Way required the mystery, nuance, and dynamism of peculiar narratives—stories that are sometimes heartwarming and other times unsettling. 

This weekend, many Christian preachers will focus on one of these stories from Jesus (Matthew 22:1-14). It is a story about a king preparing a huge wedding banquet for his son. In the story, many invitations to the banquet are sent, but those who receive them find a variety of reasons not to attend the banquet. The desperate king sends his servants to help the invitees to understand the urgency of what they are missing, but they “made light of it and went away.” Some of the invitees even go so far as to kill the king’s servants. 

(Apparently, the nature of this banquet was controversial enough to inspire violent resistance.)

The king, enraged and clearly not to be trifled with, deploys his troops. They deal swiftly and fiercely with those who had killed the king’s servants, annihilating them and destroying their habitation. 

(Apparently, there are dire consequences to responding to this king’s invitation with nothing but violent resistance and abject rejection.)

Refusing to allow the banquet to be diminished or ruined by those who rejected his invitation…

(Apparently, this banquet is far too important to cancel or reschedule.)

…the king sends his servants into the streets, instructing them to invite “everyone you find.” The servants become a veritable hospitality committee, gathering all kinds of folks (“both good and bad”) who are only too eager to attend a lavish banquet in a world that had regularly communicated to them that they had no place at such banquets. The banquet hall is packed—standing room only. The guest list, however, now includes folks with whom the original invitees would probably never have rubbed shoulders. 

(Apparently, this king is not at all limited by the cultural, societal, and religious boundaries upon which some of the original invitees might have insisted.)

All is well, then, in the story. The banquet is on. The hall is packed. Celebration is plentiful. But…wait. This king, who had been so gracious with his invitations, stumbles upon a guest who is not wearing the proper garment for the occasion. 

(Apparently, showing up for this banquet without a commitment to honoring the dress code is as serious an offense as not showing up at all.) 

The king’s response to the offense seems exaggerated in its severity. He has the offender bound and thrown into the “outer darkness”—a place where those who now recognize the pain and regret of squandered invitations can only weep and gnash their teeth. 

(Apparently, at this banquet, those who do not clothe themselves rightly run the risk of besmirching the very nature of the banquet itself and dishonoring the host in a manner that angers and breaks his heart.)

With that, the story ends. “Here,” Jesus says. “The kingdom of heaven that I am bringing into the world is something like this story. Pay attention to it. Let the story into your heart and mind.”

Um…excuse me, Jesus. But…what?!

How could the kingdom of heaven—the in-breaking Way of Jesus—be something like this bizarre little story about a banquet, its insolent and rebellious invitees, its expanded guest list, and its strict dress code?!

Part of the beauty of the parable is that Jesus does not spell out its meaning. He permits us to hold the story without an explication, without a detailed hermeneutical analysis. He trusts the story to stand on its own, strange as it is, just as he trusts the Spirit to illuminate the story’s meaning over time.

I certainly do not have a definitive and exhaustive interpretation to offer to you. I am neither a Biblical scholar nor a hermeneutical genius. In fact, I am far from either. 

But the story has me pondering…

…pondering…

…pondering the “banquet” of God’s grace where the guest list is always more expansive than the one I would develop, and where I might just encounter plenty of souls that, to be honest, I never thought would be there and that I have probably already written off as “not to be invited;”

pondering the frequency with which I trivialize my own invitation to the banquet, turning away from it in order to accommodate a variety of distractions that both diminish my gratitude and distort my priorities;

pondering how often I do not give attention to my own “wardrobe,” believing that the t-shirt of my self-righteousness is sufficient when, in fact, the banquet demands nothing less than a commitment to “clothe [myself] with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12);

pondering a grace that is always free but never cheap, always inviting but also demanding, always welcoming of “both good and bad” but also expecting a change of “garments.”

The parable is not an allegory. Jesus is not saying, “this king is God.” 

But he is telling us that salvation is something like the rhythms and dynamics we find in the story. Salvation, in other words, is both invitational and transformational; both freely offered (even to the people we would never invite) and freely resistible (although there are painful consequences to such resistance); both unparalleled in its hospitality and unyielding in its demand for a sanctified wardrobe of newly-embraced priorities; both reflective of the Divine Heart’s love and illuminating of that same Heart’s capacity to be wounded, broken, and angered. 

As I ponder all of this, I find myself longing that the church will begin to see itself, less as the determiner of the banquet’s guest list, and more as a potential reflection of what it looks like to be dressed rightly at the party.

A Yearning for the World That Breonna Deserved

If we are well-acquainted, I trust that you know something about the heart from which these words come. If, on the other hand, our association is you may be tempted to assume the worst about my motives or intentions. I pray that you will resist that temptation.

(Artwork: “Breonna Taylor” by Alice X. Zhang)

If we are well-acquainted, then I trust that you know something about the heart from which these words come. If, on the other hand, our association has not been nurtured by time, you may be tempted to assume the worst about my motives or intentions. I pray that the tone and content of my words might inspire you to resist that temptation.

I am perpetually grateful and prayerful for those law enforcement officers whose character breeds integrity, whose foundational commitment is to the protection of all people, and whose vision for justice inspires within them a willingness to be accountable to the very citizenry they serve and defend. The safety of our communities, in so many ways, depends upon the everyday work of such noble agents of law enforcement. I laud, honor, and celebrate the many officers (some of whom I have known personally) whose virtuousness and courage my words describe. Always have. Always will.

And yet, the tragic police shooting death of an unarmed Breonna Tayor in her apartment on March 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky and the perplexing ruling of a grand jury on September 23, 2020 (specifically, the ruling that no officers involved in the shooting would be directly charged in her death) indicate that something is woefully and systemically distorted.

I readily acknowledge that I am not an expert in the pertinent legal particulars surrounding the case. Nor am I privy to all of the details of the shooting to which the grand jury would have had access.

But I do know that five of the many bullets that police fired into Breonna Taylor’s apartment on March 13 (in response to a single shot fired by her boyfriend, the precise details of which are unclear) entered her body and ended her life. Her violent, unnecessary death and the grand jury’s subsequent ruling leave a host of troubling questions hanging in the air that America currently breathes.

Where will accountability be found in the shooting death of an unarmed 26-year-old hospital worker?

When does police response cross the important line that separates justification from recklessness—or that separates self-defense from some form of manslaughter? And when will the discernment of such line-crossing apply to Breonna Taylor and not only her neighbors?

When does justice for a life demand a far more extensive pursuit than a grand jury can render?

What reforms are necessary in the law (Better search warrants? Better communicational processes and suspect-tracking? Better training and accountability?) to ensure the prevention of similar tragedies and aftermaths?

And who are the voices at every level of leadership that will refuse to see the death of Breonna Taylor as anything less than a clarion call for a justice not yet realized?

I pray that we will not back away from these questions, settling for either a protective silence that guards our comfort or, worse, a callous indifference that diminishes our moral sensibilities.

Please hear me. I loudly decry any violence committed in the name of protest, including the ugly and inexcusable violence that led to the shooting of Louisville police officers last evening. Such violence is an assault on the very spirit of justice that all authentic protest pursues, and it cannot be either condoned or ignored. “Hate multiplies hate,” said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “violence multiplies violence…in a descending spiral of destruction.” 

At the same time, I pray fervently that we will not fixate so myopically on the deplorable violence of some protestors that we fail to bring a morally-necessary outrage to the stark racial injustices and inequities that inspire protestation in the first place.

Please hear me. I am aware of the concerns of those in our communities and congregations who are either offended or unsettled by the nomenclature of “white privilege” and “systemic racism.”

At the same time, I pray urgently that we will not allow our resentment over certain concepts either to harden our hearts to the realities that those concepts illuminate or to blind us to the fact that Breonna Taylor, as a citizen of color, experienced this world and this nation’s legal system very differently than a white citizen would.

Please hear me. I join many of you in experiencing both weariness and discouragement in the work of dismantling racism in all of its expressions.

At the same time, I pray desperately that whatever weariness we might experience in the work of dismantling racism might serve only to deepen our sensitivity to the far more profound weariness of those who are confronted every single day with unfair presuppositions and dehumanizing mistreatment because of their race.

If, at any point in this post, I have come across as condescending or self-righteous, please forgive me. Perhaps I have said too much or communicated what I have said wrongly or irresponsibly. Or perhaps I have not said enough.

To be honest, I simply needed to write…something—if only to attach some words to the inarticulate cries of my heart. 

They are cries for a justice not yet realized.

They are cries for Breonna and the absence of the world she deserved.

They are cries for the consistent mattering of black and brown lives, so that the sacred worth of all lives might be rightly discerned and honored.

God’s Revolutionary Economics

(Artwork: Icon, “Laborers in the Vineyard”)

Of all the passages of Scripture that I have preached or taught over the course of my thirty-one years of ministry, no passage has inspired more energized questions—or outright anger—from people than this weekend’s lectionary Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16. 

In the passage, Jesus tells a story about an entrepreneurial landowner, hiring laborers for a day’s work in his vineyard. Some of the laborers work a full day, morning until evening. Other laborers receive their job offers later in the day and work a shorter period of time in the vineyard—some half a day, others only for an hour or two.

Then the story gets strange. 

When evening falls, and the landowner distributes to the laborers their wages, he gives to all of the laborers the same amount. The laborers had spent different periods of time in the vineyard–some a full day, others a part day–but the landowner offers the same remuneration to each.

As one might imagine, the laborers who had worked the full day are outraged, since “they thought they would receive more.” They grumble to the landowner, laud their efforts over those of their coworkers, and lament what they perceive to be the unfairness of the situation.

The landowner, in response to their complaints, plays the “my vineyard, my rules” card. “Look,” he says, “relax! You have received the wage you were promised. But I have chosen to give to the later workers the same amount.” Then the landowner asks two questions that dramatically shift the focus of the conversation from economics to metaphysics: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or, are you envious or resentful because I am generous?”

With that the story ends.

“Here,” Jesus essentially says, “the reign of God that I am inaugurating is like this story. It is a new reality in which the distribution of grace is governed by a transformed economics in which even the last to arrive find the same generosity as those who arrived first.”

Over the years, I have often been stunned at how angry this story has made some church folk.

“I don’t blame the workers for being furious, ‘cause I’m kind of ticked off too!”

Or,

“Why would Jesus tell a story that champions what sounds like a twisted form of socialism?!”

Or,

“How can a story about unfairness help us to understand what the kingdom of heaven is like?!”

One person even compared the end-of-day laborers to those who live horrible lives and then experience a deathbed conversion to Jesus. “It just doesn’t seem right for people who come late to Jesus to receive the same provision (or salvation) as those who have been working at it for a much longer time. Please tell me God is a more practical landowner than that!”

Jesus’ story, you see, is an assault on our capitalistic sensibilities and our well-cultivated theology of earning. The very content of the story flies in the face of our long-held conviction that anything of true value must be justified by one’s efforts and accomplishments before it can be legitimately received.

Still, Jesus begins the story with words that will not go away: “For the kingdom of heaven is like this…”

And therein lies the point. If this were only a story about economics, we would be left only with an unrealistic landowner and a disgruntled workforce. When we pause to remember that this is a story about God’s kingdom, however, it becomes a glimpse of the wildly impractical and wholly unmerited grace upon which all of us depend—a decidedly uncapitalistic grace that is abundantly offered to both early-arrivers and latecomers; to longtime disciples and last-minute “thieves on the cross;” to those who have walked with Jesus from childhood and those who have clumsily stumbled both toward him and away from him, whispering his name all the while without even comprehending its significance.

The story makes us angry because we tend to want to manage and control the kingdom of which the story speaks in the same manner in which we try to manage and control everything else in our lives—with a rigid understanding of who it is that “deserves” certain blessings and outcomes. How often, for example, do we lose ourselves in a distorted spiritual economics, becoming so fixated on who “deserves” our love and compassion (and who does not) that we end up losing the impulse to love altogether? Or the impulse to forgive? Or the impulse to serve?

Jesus’ story reminds us that God stubbornly refuses to impose so equational a rubric on a “vineyard” that only God is qualified to steward. And God’s non-conformity to practicality in this regard should inspire nothing less than a loud “hallelujah” in our souls, since not one of us (not even the brazen soul that is convinced that s/he “deserves” it) merits the provision of God’s grace that God so generously offers to us.

If the story makes you a bit angry, you are in good company. Remember, though, that your quarrel is not with the story itself. Rather, your quarrel is with the scandalous methodology of a God who, in Jesus, has established a vineyard where workers find unmerited abundance rather than fair compensation; where distorted hierarchies give way to a widespread recognition of a shared dependency upon the generosity of the landowner; and where distribution is governed by a revolutionary economy of grace that the landowner chooses to offer lavishly.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like this…”

A Prayer at the Beginning of a Strange and Difficult New School Year

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God of the Ages, who cares deeply about what transpires in both the sanctuary and the classroom; at both the dinner table and the school cafeteria; in both the comforts of home and the hallways of our educational institutions; through both in-person and virtual learning:

We cry out to you on behalf of students in these pandemic-laden days. Some of these students are very young, heading off for their first day of kindergarten. Some are a bit older, enrolled in elementary school or middle school or high school. Others are headed off to college, or perhaps into a new season of graduate study. Others are entering the workforce in order to begin a journey of lifelong learning. All of them are attempting to navigate the rhythms and demands of both in-person and online education, all the while cultivating a patience and a discipline that the realities of COVID-19 require.

Open the minds of the students, that they might be available to their teachers and receptive to meaningful learning, by whatever methodology it takes place. Open their hearts, that they might be compassionately attentive to the other people whose lives intersect with theirs in the journey of their education. Even now, O God, the faces of many different students are appearing in our prayerful reflection. Grant that, as the students learn about mathematics and science and literature and history and language and a host of other subjects, they might also learn a deeper reverence for the One in whom all knowledge is ultimately to be found.

We cry out to you on behalf of teachers, all of whom are working creatively and diligently to create environments that are safe for the students and conducive to their learning.  Strengthen them in their labor. Energize them in their task. Guard them against any cynicism that would make a classroom into a cold and unpleasant place. Deepen their love, not only for their subject matter, but also for the ones they teach. By the power of your Holy Spirit, equip these teachers to be the instruments of compassionate tutelage that you are calling them to be, so that their commitment to their students might find full expression, both in physical classrooms and virtual ones. Bless them with your comfort and encouragement as they balance their concerns for their own safety with their devotion to their students, online and in-person.

We cry out to you on behalf of school administrators and staff. College presidents, deans, financial officers, planners, and registrars. Superintendents, principals, vice-principals, and guidance counselors. Nurses, school psychologists, and behavioral counselors. Administrative assistants, receptionists, custodial staff, security officers, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. These are the souls whose sacred responsibility it is to generate a safe and nurturing environment in which holistic learning might take place. Enable them to enter this season with courage and vision, since none of them have experience in doing their work during a pandemic. Bless them with an ever-deepening awareness of their purpose, and grant to them the strength to fulfill it.

We cry out to you on behalf of families, many of which are struggling in painful ways during this season of transition. Some parents are finding it particularly difficult to let their children go as they head off to school in this often-frightening world. Some children and youth are burdened by a sense of insecurity as they enter into a new season of life and learning. Other families are dealing with the heavy emotional weight of having to rearrange schedules and routines in order to accommodate their child’s (or their children’s) online learning. Weave the different threads of these family circumstances into the rich and vibrant tapestry of your grace, so that the members of these families might be drawn closer to one another and closer to you.

Build a protective fortress, O God, around our schools and our institutions of higher learning and both the physical and virtual classrooms that they offer. Guard them against violence, hatred, bullying, and hurtful manipulation. Make every classroom and office into a sanctuary for your presence, so that, through our system of education, many will be led to recognize that a reverence for you is the beginning of all wisdom. We pray this prayer out of a variety of faith traditions. Personally, I pray it in the name of Jesus, whose transforming grace is the curriculum by which his followers live, move, and find their being. Amen.

We Are Better Than This: The Perils of Weaponized Grief

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Both the inadequacy of my thinking and the limitations of my discernment have been regularly revealed over the course of my life. Please know that I am painfully aware of both as I write what I am about to write. I offer these words, not as one laboring under the delusion of absolute rightness, but as an openhearted seeker attempting to give voice to a deep internal struggle that will not go away.

My soul is sad. The collective resentment in our nation has inspired people in recent days to weaponize one grief against another, thereby distorting the profundity of both. Insufficient and caustic interpretations of current events and recent tragedies are producing bitterness more than they are illuminating truth.

Allow me to explain what I am describing.

The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd (all of whom are representative of a much longer list of black and brown people) have painfully awakened our nation to racial injustice and inequity that have been too frequently ignored or tolerated. Their deaths, tragic and terrible, bear witness to what I have come to understand all too well from personal experience—that people of color experience a very different world than I do as a white male. This difference finds expression in law enforcement statistics and documented social narratives. It reveals itself through observed examples of undervaluation and mistreatment. It can be heard in the cavalier articulation of racial slurs, the perpetuation of institutionalized presuppositions, and an exaggeratedly fierce defense of certain flags, mascots, and statues. It hides in patterns, rhythms, and ideas that have become part of the sociological air that we breathe.

The “difference” that I am describing inspires within me, not a sense of guilt, but a heightened attentiveness; not an apology for being white, but a recognition that being white grants to me societal advantages that people of color are not automatically granted.

At the heart of the cry “black lives matter”—a cry that resonates with particular clarity in the aftermath of the killings referenced above—is the conviction that the struggle for racial justice and equity must be taken seriously and embraced in order for all lives to be valued equally. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are heartbreaking affronts to our moral sensibilities. Their voices call to our hearts, beckoning us to affirm the sacred worth of black and brown lives and bodies in a world in which they are too often treated as though they do not matter.

The appalling shooting death of 5-year-old Cannon Hinnant at the hands of a 25-year-old black neighbor in Wilson, North Carolina is another recent tragedy, expansive in its scope. A precious young life senselessly lost. A family devastated. A community undone. Another act of unthinkable violence. Grief beyond words. A little boy denied the journey into youth and adulthood that he should have enjoyed. His killer, within a day, was apprehended, arrested, and charged with first degree murder.

The intersection of these profound grief experiences is precisely where things become complicated and troubling. Perhaps that fact should come as no surprise to us. Our stewardship over our grief, after all, is one of the most significant and complex forms of stewardship that we will ever practice. The content of that stewardship will either deepen a heart or harden a heart.

The burden in my spirit at present is that a portion of the nation is practicing what I am experiencing as a truncated or malformed grief stewardship. This malformation is taking the form of an all-too-familiar demonization of the media—as in, “Why has the media been so ‘deafeningly silent’ about Cannon Hinnant’s murder in comparison to the coverage of George Floyd?” Such language, of course, fueled by politicized fervor, carries with it an accusation against either the media’s perceived irresponsibility or assumed agenda or both. The consequences of this accusation are intensified resentment and more clearly defined battle lines.

The malformation also takes the form of a race-based subjugation of one grief narrative to another: “You say that black lives matter? I say that Cannon’s life matters! You say speak THEIR names? I say speak Cannon’s name!” The end result is that two experiences of grief are positioned unfairly and hurtfully against one another, thereby obscuring the realities that both experiences illuminate.

I believe that we are better than this. We are collectively wiser and more careful in our thinking than this. We are more compassionate and gracious than this.

When we pit the death of Cannon Hinnant against the death of George Floyd (irrespective of how noble we believe our intentions to be) and utilize the comparison a means by which to castigate the media, we run the risk of reducing the murder of a young boy to an instrument of demonization. Beyond this, when we utilize Cannon’s death as an opportunity to express resentment over the cultural energy that is currently being devoted to the work of ensuring racial justice, we unnecessarily kneel on the neck of the mattering of black lives.

It does not have to be this way. We can allow Ahmaud Arbery’s story be its own story. And Breonna Taylor’s. And George Floyd’s. And Cannon Hinnant’s.

For these multiple urgencies to be rightly honored, however, moral people have to resist the temptation to settle for insufficient and denunciatory interpretations that only serve, in the long run, to gaslight and obscure.

I believe that we are better than this. We have to be.