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My Jesus Is Contaminated

 

“I can say ‘you’ because you’re part of the whole system. You profit from it. In fact, you make your living from it... your Jesus is contaminated, just like everything else you’ve tried to force upon us is contaminated.”

A Time For Burning

 


 

On June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof shot and killed nine black men and women in Charleston, South Carolina in what is now known as the Charleston Church Massacre.

The next day, I wrote out and published a prayer for their community, desiring to stand with them in some kind of solidarity, while confessing “my ignorance of the longstanding, deep-rooted issues that may have been related to fueling this tragedy—let alone the injustices before it—[which] have left me, at best, feeling completely inadequate to speak anything into them and, at worst, condemned and afraid.”

I remember, one year later, on the 4th of July, in 2016, when Lecrae posted an image of seven black Americans picking cotton in a field, with the caption, “My family on July 4th, 1776.” I was on tour in Muncie, Indiana, at a barbecue with my wife and friends.

I followed the “aftermath“ of his “unAmerican” post closely. Watched the vitriol that compounded. How “anti-Patriotic.” The false dichotomies between race and gospel.

I remembered Eric Garner (July 17, 2014) and Michael Brown's (August 9, 2014) deaths, back-to-back in the summer of 2014, two years prior, and Trayvon Martin’s (February 26, 2012), two years before that. I empathized with the men I followed online, heartbroken. But the far-removed reality was still far-removed from mine. I didn’t know how to lend a voice. I tried to listen, but I don’t know how hard I tried to learn (and that “not knowing” is telling enough).

I now understand that that is called apathy, and it blinds you to the suffering of others in favor of your own comfort.

Two days after Lecrae posted his photo, Philando Castile (July 6, 2016) was shot and killed. I was driving through Missouri and stopped in at a Joplin hotel to sleep before taking the tour-trek home.

Two month's later, Terence Crutcher (September 16, 2016) was murdered.

I didn’t know about Freddie Gray, killed for possessing a knife.

I didn’t know about John Crawford, shot in Walmart for holding a BB gun.

I didn’t know about Amadou Diallo’s murder, shot nineteen times with semi-automatic rifles after pulling a wallet from his back pocket.

I didn’t know about Walter Scott’s murder, following a traffic stop because his brake light was out.

I didn’t know about Corey Jones' murder, shot six times, standing next to his disabled vehicle.

I didn’t know about Keith Lamont Scott, the wrong man, married with seven children.

Fruitvale Station told me about Oscar Grant—the movie, not the actual incident.

Truth be told, I didn’t know many of these people’s names (and that list is as far from exhaustive as you can get) until this weekend, when my heart broke along with so many others’.

NINE MINUTES.

I’m broken at the realization that I have been and no longer want to be included among—as Charles Morgan Jr. said following the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombings nearly 40 years ago—"all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence."

I have acknowledged and bickered with others about the existence of white supremacy and systemic racism for years. I think it's safe to say that I am naturally empathetic. I feel the heartbreak of others quickly and deeply. I cry a lot. I haven't been able to stop this weekend. But while I’ve wanted to be present with and for, I have never truly experienced the crushing awareness of my own sin in relation to the truths I gave ascent to.

Among the black men and women who I follow—some are friends/acquaintances I know personally, and some are simply people whose voices I trust— I hear pleas that are equal parts “shut up and listen," "amplify black voices," and “white people: it is not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressor—you do it.”

Whether for fear of my idols or my own imperfections and inadequacies expressed as far back as five years ago during that published Charleston-prayer, or the fact that I didn’t pry my eyelids open to see what was happening in order to give full vent to something like what this might be, I have not risked the awkward, inevitable incompleteness of being a white man who really shares his conviction in a definitive or educated way.

I'm trying.

Sometimes, I'm not sure what "action" looks like (which, to be clear, is another confession rooted in willful ignorance—not a justification). Following the last two days' worth of tears shed, I am convicted that at the very least, action entails the opening of my mouth to speak words that might land on listening ears in an audience that I—by some weird and unprecedented miracle—have as some form of "public figure."

So, I'm simply going to try to express my heart to my people. Not as the lofty, but as the learner. Also, it is based upon personal perspective and experience, which I hope you—whoever you are—can keep in mind if and when something I say feels like an attack. The internet—and social media in particular—has become something against which people brace themselves so forcefully that they feel as though every statement shared, no matter what it is, is intended to be a specific attack against you, in particular. We've got to get out of that mind frame if we're ever going to do anything other than argue and take offense at one another's expression.

First of all, clearly and succinctly: I stand in solidarity with the black community and against social injustice and systemic racism that stands to tear it down. Black lives matter. Unequivocally. Without any caveats, "buts" or "alsos."

Anticipating the inevitable "all lives matter" response, I've found this to be a helpful analogy floating around the internet lately: "

Saying 'All Lives Matter' as a response to 'Black Lives Matter' is like saying the fire department should spray down all houses in a neighborhood even though only one house is on fire... because all houses matter. Yes, your house matters, too, but your house is not on fire."

That much established, I can only speak from my own experience and context, and mine is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which does come with the realization that, as a white New Mexican in what is not primarily a white-and-black racial divide — but a Native American one — and with two best friends from the Zia and Gallup pueblos, I am constantly aware that any time I speak on behalf of the brutalized in this conversation, it is simultaneously applicable there, as well. I have one hell of a long way to go in both cases.

Nevertheless, I am talking about this specific statement—black lives matter—and I do think that it's fair to say that though I have called this place "home" for a long time, a huge portion of the past ten years of my life as a touring artist have been lived outside of it, and I am not the same man that I think I would be had I not lived inside of a car for a decade, experiencing life outside of this culture.

Because of that reality (or, at least, according to my mom, who I am able to have these conversations with), I have often found myself at political/social/theological odds with many of the people who are closest to me, here. That's beautiful, because I'd be an arrogant bastard (and trust me, I can be an arrogant bastard) to write something like this hoping others listen without listening back, myself. So, this is my world.

If we are going to talk in generalities, I tend to lean more towards the "left/liberal" in all three categories, while many of my family and friends—do not. This is not vilification. Do not read anger or judgement into my words. None of this is passive aggressive. This is not a subtweet. We have our own conversations, and I’m sure that we’ll have more. This entire post is about my blind spots, which are many. I am simply providing context.

Before I go any further, I am not a a fan of sweeping blanket statements, and the absurdity and absolute repugnance of even having to speak about image bearers of God in relation to anyone's ideological bent is nauseating. Nevertheless, is that not where we find ourselves, stuck inside of categorical nightmares like red and blue and donkey and elephant and all of the baggage they contain?

And so I share my experience because I think that many people—my age, my demographic and my faith-legacy in particular—can relate to both the cognitive dissonance and paralysis that comes from seeing an outworking of faith that resonates and is being discussed or acted upon elsewhere while still feeling confined to a what is more generally associated with a “conservative” narrative of orderliness, culture-wars, and what we perceive to be a systemic dismissal of the downtrodden in our immediate context (or at least, as a part of the history that still holds us by the shirt collar). And that paralysis is called a great many things—spinelessness and cowardice included—that compound their guilt and quicken sinking sand. Oftentimes it is those things, but about-facing is also a process that seems not to happen overnight.

We cannot understand how others cannot do the thing that we think they should do, but also: we cannot do them (or do not do them) ourselves. And so we are just as frustrated with ourselves as with others, aware of the hypocrisy that gives way to self-loathing and a complete turning inward on oneself, instead of taking the step, risking the trip and the fall, tripping and falling indeed, and then taking another.

[A brief caveat/attempt at avoiding brash vilification: one of the dominant cries in this current moment is that silence equals complicity. In a very short amount of time, I have come to believe that, which is why I'm choosing to write this today. However, I think it's worth saying that—for a cry that quickly turns to damnation based upon the presumption that social media statements are implicit in what it means to speak—although it is my conviction and choice to do so because of my place as some sort of “public figure,” to speak is not necessarily the equivalent of to post on social media. I’m not trying to make allowances for those who ignore their call to do so, but I am also willing to bet that some of the loudest people on social media are completely devoid of actions that substantiate their retweetable “camaraderie” in real life. Perhaps silence does equal complicity, but I think it's fair to say that so do speaking voices exist off the Twitter timeline.]

I am writing this because I want to, without pressure and regardless of what extrinsic reward or defamation might exist on the other side of that action. I simply believe that it is right, as though a switch was hit that moved me from fear to action.

And I am aware that here especially, to do anything—and especially to speak to power—not rooted in deep, centuries-long fear is itself, a privilege.

This Sunday, my friend Alex Early at Redemption Church in Seattle, Washington, delivered a sermon that was the final push for me to march in this weekend's protest in downtown Albuquerque. That's a whole other story. In short, I spent all day trying to write this, but couldn't get past the loudest voice in my spirit, asking:

"When are you going to be a doer of the Word, and not just a hearer?"

I heard it over and over again, and then, to quote Alex:

"It is the Christian response—it is the Spirit-led response—to look at suffering, injustice, pain and racism, and weep with those who are weeping."

[And I know that that doesn't manifest itself—for everyone—in going out to a rally.]

"This is not an option, this is a commandment from our Apostle—for us to be relationally and emotionally engage in the world in such a way that when we see the suffering of other human beings, we move toward them in great compassion...

The gospel that does not speak to and practice and seek justice on behalf of those who are brutalized and marginalized is no gospel whatsoever in a time like this.

A gospel that merely is a private, individualized, personal relationship-only-between-the-individual-and-God that someone does in their head, only? That is not the gospel.

The gospel has practical, tangible, gritty, horizontal, relational implications."

Do you want to know a huge reason why so many people—maybe you, maybe your friends, maybe your kids—are leaving the church and their faith behind in droves?

Do you think it's because they enjoy the way their body aches, or the anxiety, or the way they can't function out of anything other than anger, or the way it feels like everything has completely fallen apart? Do you think it's fun to be flipped upside down when you wake up to see yourself inside of a world where love was only hypothetical?

Let it be clear: it is no wonder to me whatsoever - NONE - that people are calling it quits on the faith they thought they knew. And the response is almost always, “yeah his people... ugh... but what if we just returned to Jesus?”

Jesus is seen or not seen through people.

A friend of mine wrote me the other day to share this quote that resonated with him:

"The fact that you have to build a narrative for a man to be loved and given justice is repulsive. Even if he was a capital criminal he deserved to be treated as someone created in God's image. I'm done coddling Christians that can only love people if they deem them to be lovable."

Who is it that Jesus said is not worthy of love?

“Quia amasti me, fecisti me amabilem. (In loving me, you made me lovable.)”

— Brennan Manning

Why is it so difficult to imagine that it could have been you?

Your brothers'/sisters'/mothers'/fathers' face on the pavement?

Why can’t you open your eyes?

Why can’t I open my mouth?

Again, if this is inflammatory it is also contextual, but American Christianity, the brand, has lost the tangible if it ever existed in the first place.

But our chairs are so comfortable!

For a system whose premise is built upon the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, we are so unforgiving. I know that good people exist here and I hope you hear my own self included in the critique and I know that blanket statements here are as unfair as blanket statements about all cops being racists. Please. My own sister-in-law is a police officer and I respect her. She’s told me that she’s never seen the kind of racism or police brutality being protested right now during her entire career in ABQ. Good. I hope she never does.

So blanket statement are largely unhelpful. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist for a reason.

I cannot imagine a worse, less-honest or unforgiving world to be in than the "Christian" market. And I hate that I have to write that, but I do, and many readers won’t understand that, but it’s true. I’ve straddled it for over ten years, professionally, and my entire life, personally, and it’s true. I'm telling you it's true.

Music, church, books, trinkets, nations, whatever.

It is literally no wonder and not at all surprising to me that pastors are more ready to kill themselves than they are ready to let others see who they actually are, or speak up. The world that we’ve created is atrocious, and that reality—devastating as it is—simply feels like a given.

And I know that I'm talking about myself, because there have been so many times that, rather than risking what it takes to function from my convictions, I have hid in the shadows because it is there that I find the boring complacency that privilege affords me.

That's why I shared the quote/video clip at the start of this post.

I am a part of the whole system. I do profit from it. In fact, I do make my living off of it. That cut me to the heart. Do you know how many things I've not said for fear? My friend calls that, “becoming the Judas.” How much silver is in my pockets? Did you know that I am just recently discovering that the truth actually does set you free?

So many of my friends have left. So many. It's devastating to discover that loving others comes more naturally on the outside of a system whose entire claim is to be predicated upon Love, incarnate.

This isn't a farewell, but an explanation given regarding many of my and my peers' frustration with what is happening in the world this weekend specifically related to faith systems or cute truisms that often seem to exist as little more than hyperbole, inaction and complicity.

To come full circle, part of me loves that Lecrae is still a rapper to white evangelicalism, and part of me wishes he could be free. I have a love/hate relationship with it, myself. Hate, because it often feels like a prison. Love, because I can’t help but not. For some reason, if there is a God then the one who holds my heart is named Jesus and sometimes his grip pisses me off but I can't help but see him as beautiful in the midst of so much ugliness and I didn't see him abandon everyone no matter how many tables he had to throw over.

And he threw over tables. My world knows very little about dealing with emotion in a healthy way. Anger and rage are most often posited as sinful, and because of our fear of expressing the truth, we devolve into flaccid, avoidant people in the name of a God who is furious at the blaspheming of his name through the dehumanization of children made in his image and likeness.

To quote Ron and Vicke Burke: 

"Rage is exactly what happens inside when you awake to find that you have been living a lie.”

I have no interest, whatsoever, in continuing to submit to systems wherein I feel as though I need to lie to myself and others in order to be accepted, propped or paid up by them. So, I wrote this novel. And if this novel means I've lost you or am lost to you then I am finally ready to accept that reality, and let the chips fall where they may, but I have lied to myself and cushioned myself in too many ways for too long, and I am done with it.

I know that there are horrific things happening in the name of George Floyd. I know that people are taking his name in vain. I know that his own children have denounced it. I know that good police officers are being thrown under the bus. I know how conflicting it feels to march in protest when so many protests devolve into riots that have put law enforcement officials like my sister-in-law in danger. I know that people who shouldn't be in danger, are. That property that shouldn't be vandalized, is. As I write this, I know it’s getting worse, and that’s another novel in and of itself. Yesterday morning, I saw a black man, trying to protect his storefront, beat almost to death by another black kid who hit him over and over and over again with his skateboard trucks. It was one of the most brutal things I’ve ever seen in my life. Tears poured from my eyes a split second after the camera neared his body on the ground. I’ll never be able to unsee it. I can't watch the George Floyd video. I saw Castille’s and nearly threw up. Killer Mike called it murder porn, and it is and things like that that shouldn't have to exist for people to speak up and take action and change their minds but they do and to my shame I have had to wait until now to write something like this.

I repent of apathy, knowing full well that I will have to do so again.

I repent of sinking into fear. It is, by far, my deepest, most recurring sin. I'll have to repent again.

Who is my neighbor?

I want to consider something based upon a tweet I just read with over 600 shares and 8,500 likes, which says, "Lemme say it for the millionth time... Christians are the worst people you can find..."

For the literal love of God:

Be.

Do.

Speak.

Something different.

I had the thought, near the end of Alex's sermon, when he was wrapping up with the Good Samaritan, that perhaps—in a faith tradition co-opted by power and political expediency (by both “sides”)—we should listen to the words in that tweet, and repent of having become so far removed from the least of these that our presence-as-a-salve is entirely unexpected to anyone bloodied on the side of the road.

Perhaps, for me, doing—at least for now—means doing what I always do: writing. I hope it is something.

The world is ripe with opportunity for us to speak, to co-suffer, to lend a hand, to provide a donkey, to go out of our way, to put our money where our mouth is, to be a salve, to be Christ to one another.

They don’t have to align with your worldview. They don’t have to believe what you do. They sure as hell don’t have to look like you, and thank God they don’t, these people as masterpieces, because pure white is a boring-ass world.

Finally, this has been a novel, and I hope that its length has not been counter-productive given the call to "listen." I am a verbal/written processor, and am simply attempting to give voice to conviction, and the things that I have been listening to, am trying to learn, and feel compelled to pen.

Levi

“Was there ever a person in the Bible whose silence was redemptive? Yes... one: Jesus’. Jesus, in his silence, intentionally suffered injustice. And when he rose from the grave, he had much to say. I’m grateful for a weeping Jesus who can identify in this moment with us.” — A. Early