Series 08: For the Love of Exploring Our Faith | Episode 01
Unequally Saved: The Church’s Role in Racism with Lisa Sharon Harper
We have a powerful start to a brand-new series: For the Love of Exploring Our Faith. Speaker, writer and activist Lisa Sharon Harper comes from a long line of Americans—African-Americans who have been in America since 1687. Slavery existed in her family. Lisa wrestles with the Good News of the Gospel and how that translates to folks who have been victims of race motivated atrocities—from people who claimed that Gospel as their truth. She walks us through the history of evangelism and where some things got twisted. Prepare to be schooled and to take in some eye-opening information (pen and paper at the ready!) because Lisa breaks it down for us with the meanings of original Hebrew writings and shows us the truth of what God intended His Kingdom to be–“ALL blessing all.”
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey everybody. Jen Hatmaker here. Welcome to the show, For the Love Podcast. Super glad to have you today. We just have a really strong series that we are in right now and I’m glad you’re here for it. It is called For The Love of Exploring Our Faith and we have some of the most intelligent, brilliant, wise, and diverse voices in faith in our world right now. They are leading us well and they’re asking good and important questions–and today’s guest is no exception. I’m super grateful to welcome to the show today Lisa Sharon Harper, who I have followed and learned from for years and years and years.
Lisa is a prolific speaker, and writer, and an activist–in the most sincere sense of the term. I mean, from Ferguson to New York to Germany to the White House to South Africa. Her life is very fascinating. She leads trainings and helps mobilize clergy and community leaders around shared ideas for the common good. She’s the founder and president of Freedom Road, which is an amazing group that takes people on pilgrimages and is dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap in our nation through forums and experiences. It’s really fascinating. We talk a little bit about that and have links to it later. She’s written several books including her most recent book The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, which was recognized as a 2016 “book of the year” by the Englewood Review of Books and listed by Relevant Magazine as one of the six books that will change the way see the world. So, she is a really interesting and important thinker.
She’s a columnist. She’s an Auburn Theological Seminary Senior Fellow, she’s appeared on everything you can imagine. She’s in the ordination process right now with the Evangelical Covenant Church, which we’ll also talk about for a second. She is fiery, she is passionate. She is very, very smart; very, very knowledgeable; deeply grounded in scripture and theology and history and truth. She’s going to light us up today. I mean, get your pen out because you’re going to hear some fire today. So, help me welcome to the show Lisa Sharon Harper.
Okay. Lisa, welcome to the show. I’m so happy you’re here this morning.
Lisa: Jen, thank you so much for having me on, this is actually really awesome. Thank you.
Jen: It is for me too. I have admired you and respected you, and followed you for some time, and we actually finally met face to face … was it two years ago in Montgomery?
Lisa: Well, it was December 2015 so give or take a few months.
Jen: Yeah, we actually met at theEqual Justice Initiative with Brian Stevenson in Montgomery, where we learned under him for two days. It was really monumental. There were so many interesting people in that room.
Lisa: The people who were there were all leading faith leaders and activists, so I mean, I can see how it felt like a hundred because they were all extremely significant influencers in our nation.
Lisa: So, it was pretty exciting, yeah.
Jen: It was. It was a really powerful room, and he is of course … I do not believe that I am being … this is not hyperbole. I find him to be a modern-day hero, and really special in our generation, and so I was so happy to meet you face to face and watch you do what you do in live action. You’re really something special, and I’m so happy to have you on this show, specifically kicking off this series, which is “Exploring Our Faith”.
Lisa: Oh, awesome. Thank you.
Jen: Super interested in everything you’re going to tell us and teach us, what you have to say from a Biblical standpoint specifically about justice, about equality, about restoration. What the gospel has to say about moving towards shalom, which you’ve laid out in beautiful manner, not just in your life, but in your work, in your writing.
So, we’re going to move into that. I really love your theology and your teaching on shalom. We’re gonna get to that and how that involves overcoming a world that has allowed slavery and poverty and racism to flourish.
Can you talk about you a little bit? Can you tell our listeners who you are and what moved you toward this path. Give us a little bit of background on what has shaped your Biblical perspective, what has led you to adopt your current view of the gospel. Tell everybody a little story about Lisa.
Lisa: So, my Mom comes from a long line of people who have been in the United States at least since 1687.
We know the first generation to get here got here before 1687, and they had a child that was born in 1687. She was half Irish and half African. Her parents were both indentured servants to different people and had an affair, and Maudlin Magee and Sambo Game. Sambo, they named him Sambo. I’m sure that wasn’t his African name, hello somebody, and then she was taken in and raised by Maudlin and her husband as if she was part of their family. They died, she was then indentured until she was 31, according to the law in Maryland, and then set free.
And so since about 1710, 1715 or so, that line of our family has been free, and so…
Jen: Wow. I have goosebumps.
Lisa: I know.
Jen: That is, that is … I don’t feel like I know anybody who has that deep long history in America like that. Wow.
Lisa: I know, and I mean, in black folk. I mean, literally, let me tell you. Until I got connected on Ancestry.com, I, just like everybody else, I couldn’t trace my heritage back past the Civil War. I knew the name of the last adult slave in our family, because we actually have a picture of her and we have oral history, and my grandmother was raised by her. It’s that recent.
Jen: Oh gosh.
Lisa: My grandmother literally was raised by my third great-grandmother, Leah Ballard. But that was as far back as we could go, and that’s on my Mom’s mom’s side. But on her Dad’s side, that’s where this other lineage comes from. On my father’s side, they were more recent immigrants to America, after the Annexation of Puerto Rico, where his mother and father lived … or rather where his father lived, they moved to America, and everybody in that line of the family was settled in America by 1930 from Puerto Rico. But they originally came from Saint Kitts, Nevis, and really all over the Caribbean, because it was so poor people island hopped in order to find work.
In fact, I even know that my great-great-great-grandfather and his uncle, or sorry, his brother, my great-great-great-uncle, or great-great, they were in Panama building the Panama Canal, most likely.
Lisa: Yeah, so there’s all this … It’s incredible, actually, to see the connections of history. But my Mom was a part of SNCC. She literally was a part of the black power movement. She helped to open the office of the student non-violent coordinating committee in Philadelphia, dated Stokely Carmichael for a minute.
Jen: Wow, get outta here.
Lisa: … I’m not kidding. So, this is part of … I really in many ways had no choice. It’s in me. But I became an evangelical, and so in 1983, I walked down … Yeah, that dates me, I know, but whatever. I have a joke right now that I used to be really, really proud of my gray hairs. I never dyed my hair ever. I vowed I would never do it. And just recently, when I turned 49, I dyed my hair.
Jen: Yeah. Girl, there’s no shame. There’s no shame in it.
Lisa: But anyway, so back in 1983, I walked down the aisle. Like, I literally, I call it jumping the broom with Jesus. I walked down the aisle at a Sunday evening PM church meeting, gave my life to Jesus, cried at the altar, and it was not fake. It was real. There was a real transformation that happened there. I’ve never been the same, ever, and part of that is because I know I’m not alone.
My Mom had remarried, and we moved down to Cape May, New Jersey, and in Cape May, I went from Philadelphia, a mostly black city at the time, I think it was 60% black, to my family being the only black family in a five-mile radius. Yeah, we were solidly middle class. We had a little fountain in the front of our yard, and so we actually were targets.
In high school, I had two boys from our high school, one of them a friend of mine in seventh grade, stalked our house every night for a week and came driving by after they got out of work, yelling at our house, “Nigger, go back to Africa. Nigger, go back to Africa.”
Lisa: And here I was going to youth group, experiencing that, and not being able to share it because I didn’t think others would understand it.
Jen: Yeah, totally.
Lisa: So here I am, I’m an evangelical, I’ve given my life to Jesus. Very soon after, I was told by my friends … We’re like 14, we can’t vote, but they told me I have to become a Republican. So, my journey has been one of, in many ways, reconciling this real saving faith with something that was laid on top of it that has nothing to do with the actual faith in Jesus, that was a mandate of, I believe a twisted and distorted faith that had political implications. And those political implications were not in the classic sense political, as in determining how the polis should live according the scripture, the polis the people, but rather a partisan implication.
In other words, republicanism equaled evangelicalism, and it took me about 20 years to actually be set free from that, and that was because I met my first evangelicals who were democrats, and I met that guy in New York City. He was a Nazarene, and he was at the Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene back when it was right off Broadway, and I was working there at an off Broadway theater when I was a theater person. That’s another part of my story.
Then, when I moved to Los Angeles in order to go deeper in my understanding of how to love the poor more effectively, I was going to church at theLA First Church of the Nazarene, and I found out in the midst of this Bresee Institute for Urban Mission, I found out that Bresee, Phineas F. Bresee, the founder of the Church of the Nazarene in the United States, he was famously quoted saying, “There is no holiness without social holiness.” In other words, yeah, right? This is back in the 1800’s. That church formed in the 1890’s, and they formed on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and they had Native American and white people worshiping together. I think they might have even had a couple black folk, but they definitely had rich and poor worshiping together.
They worshiped in this thing called the Glory Barn, literally a big red barn that is now Skid Row. They had homeless people and the president of USC worshiping together, right, so-
Jen: Wow. So rare still. I mean not only are churches racially segregated, but they are absolutely economically segregated too.
Jen: So, so special and rare.
Lisa: But that has all been a part of my story, but I would actually say that probably the most significant thing right now that turned the corner for me is I was involved in a Christian ministry on a college campus, a national ministry connected to international ministry. It was the 1990’s, and I had been arguing that we should return to theFour Spiritual Laws, because people had kind of given it up. Bill Hybels had his bridge diagram now.
You basically had this onslaught of people who were trying to communicate the Good News of the gospel, so everybody’s trying to reduce it so that somebody can see it in a blink.
Lisa: But I was saying, “We have to get back to the Four Spiritual Laws. This is what’s real,” ’cause I was in Campus Crusade back in the day, like in undergrad … a leader. But then I went on a pilgrimage, and that pilgrimage changed my life.
Jen: Where’d you go?
Lisa: We did a four week pilgrimage through the American south. We retraced the Cherokee Trail of Tears for the first two weeks-
Jen: Wow, that’s powerful.
Lisa: Then we retraced the African Experience in America for the second two weeks, from slavery through civil rights, and I’ll tell you what, my family, Leah Ballard in particular, and others, lived that history. Leah was enslaved until the end of the Civil War, or until the Emancipation Proclamation. She was enslaved down in South Carolina. She had 17 children.
Jen: Wow, gosh.
Lisa: Which I didn’t even have a category for this back then, but now I understand. She was most likely what they call a breeder.
Jen: Yeah, oh man.
Lisa: In other words, her job on the plantation to breed money for her master.
Lisa: The thing is, we know she had 17 children ’cause Leah raised my grandmother, and that’s what my grandmother told us. So we have it right out of her mouth, but after the Civil War, she only had five children, so most of her children were likely sold all over the south.
Jen: And you know what, I can’t quit thinking about as you’re telling this, that just wasn’t that long ago. I mean, she raised your grandmother. That was just two generations ago. That was such recent history.
Lisa: That’s right.
Jen: There’s sort of, as we whitewash the atrocities of our own American narrative, there’s this very real inclination to push it in storytelling so far backwards. It was so long ago. We’re so beyond it. We’re just so incredibly far removed from the roots and the evil of slavery.
So, I think when a lot of white people specifically want to push we’re a post-racial society, it’s just simply impossible to conceive of a nation that spent 300 years in racism and slavery and subjugation and inequality, to imagine that in 60 years it’s fixed. You know, it’s done. We’re over it.
I remember the first teacher that said that to my ears, and it was so incredibly profound, that we can look to our parents and our grandparents, and certainly our great-grandparents, and see it alive and well.
Lisa: Oh my gosh, yeah.
Look at this.
So, I just came, literally this last weekend, I was on the MLK pilgrimage with Faith and Politics Institute, and with John Lewis.
It’s in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the garbage workers’ strike, and the death of Dr. King, which is coming up April 4th.
So, we’re there, and we’re in Selma now … I’m sorry, Birmingham. We’re at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and I learn for the very first time, and I’ve been there several times, but I never realized this, that in Alabama, they outlawed black churches having spires on the tops of their churches because they didn’t want them to look beautiful.
Jen: Wow. I’ve never heard that.
Lisa: So, when you see …Yeah, so when you go into Alabama and you see all these historic churches, black churches, historic black churches, and they don’t have spires. They look like they were built to have spires, but the thing is they were all removed. All the spires were removed at one point, and so now they kind of look stunted.
So, the thing is, the subjugation was that detailed.
Jen: That’s right.
Lisa: … It was in every single aspect of life, and it wasn’t … This is the thing that got me this last weekend. It wasn’t neutral. It wasn’t just white folks living their lives and black folks being impoverished as well. They just didn’t-
Jen: It was intentional.
Lisa: … They just needed a leg up that they didn’t get when they came out of slavery and so whatever … No. The white establishment in the segregated south, and in the north actually, it wasn’t just the south, but it was actually intentional. There was an intentional pushing down, crushing even, of the image of God in people of African descent.
But I don’t think it was because they hated black people. I think it was because they wanted and needed to in their own mind, needed to maintain a sense of their own supremacy.
Jen: Of course. I mean, that’s its root.
Lisa: That is the root. Exactly. That is the root of the construct itself of race. And that has really helped. In many ways, it’s helped me to transform my understanding of even the Good News of the gospel.
When I came off of that pilgrimage in 2003, and came to the end of it and asked myself, could I go up … could I knock on my great-great-great-grandmother Leah Ballard’s door one night, after she had been raped for maybe the fifth time that day, because that was her job was to get raped, and not just by other enslaved African men who they forced to rape her, but also by the master and by his white help … and also by his sons and also by his company who came through in order to relieve themselves. That was her job, right? So, she was sex trafficked, in other words. So, that’s what we’re talking about, right?
Jen: That’s right.
Lisa: So, could I go up to her and could I knock on her door, and could I say, “Great-great-great-great-grandmother Leah Ballard, I have good news for you. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
Jen: That’s really powerful.
Lisa: Could I go up to her and could I say, “But you are sinful, and therefore separated from God.”
Jen: Oh man.
Lisa: ” …But Jesus has died to pay the penalty for your sin. So, all you need to do is to pray this little prayer at the back of the booklet,” which of course I was arguing for, right, at the time, “and then you would get to go to heaven.”
I had to realize and come to the realization that the answer to that question was “no.” No.
Lisa: She would not jump for joy. It would not be received as good news, and that, Jen, that rocked me because as an evangelical, the gospel is the center of my universe. The Good News of Jesus literally is what set me free, so if it’s not good enough for my own family-
Jen: That’s right.
Lisa: …if it’s not good enough for those who need good news the most, then maybe … one of two things. Maybe it’s not good news at all, or maybe my understanding of the Good News of Jesus is not actually Jesus’ understanding of the Good News.
Jen: That is so interesting and fascinating, kind of a gut punch. I see this right now in the evangelical impulse to resist activism, to resist those of us who are crying for justice in ways that make them uncomfortable, and the resistance is packaged, that sounds something like, “You know what, we just need to dial it into Jesus.” You know what I mean?
Jen: “Jesus is all we should really be preaching, and don’t get down in the weeds here when Jesus is the answer.” It’s a silencer, because it’s packaged as faithful, and it’s packaged as pious, but the truth is, what you are explaining is it literally leaves behind the gospel. You are required to leave it behind.
Lisa: It leaves Jesus behind.
Lisa: Even Paul had his moment where he realized that … When Paul stated in Galatians 3:27-29, when he stated, he actually said, “This is what the baptism of Jesus is all about. If you are baptized in Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek. There is no longer male nor female. There is no longer slave nor free.”
First of all, if you’re human, you have the image of God. If you have the image of God, you’re human.
Lisa: So, if you’re human, you have the image of God, and if you have the image of God, according to the text, you are called by God, and created with the capacity to exercise dominion, to exercise stewardship of the world, to make choices that impact the world. In other words, you are not only free, but you are called to lead the world.
So, at the heart of what it means to be human, is to be called to exercise dominion. So, what Paul does in Galatians 3:27-29, is what he says is, “When you are baptized in Christ, you are now cleaned of the lenses of empire, and now you see all as God sees them, called to exercise dominion in the world, not subjugated by human hierarchy.” That changes everything.
And I believe, personally what I’ve come to believe, so after that pilgrimage, I was rocked. I literally, literally was, I believe, clinically depressed for like a year.
Jen: Yeah, wow.
Lisa: Because again, because my whole worldview was rocked.
Jen: Of course.
Lisa: I didn’t know which way was up or down because all of a sudden my understanding of the gospel fell mute. It had nothing to say…
Lisa: …to my own family.
Jen: That’s right.
Lisa: So, it led me to go deep into Genesis. And I tell you, sister, I’ve been living in Genesis now for, what is it now, 15 years. I’ve been living in Genesis 1-14, and then all the implications throughout the whole rest of scripture, and what I’ve learned in that is that on the first page of the Bible, we see the kingdom of God. On the first page of the Bible, we see what it looks like when God reigns. And what it looks like when God reigns, God looks at the end of the day and says, “This is very good,” right?
Lisa: God says … and those words “very good” are “Tov Meod.” And they are spoken usually in the context of Epoch Hebrew poetry, “Tov” in particular, that’s where it appears is in Epoch Hebrew poetry. And it’s a connector of thoughts. It’s a connector of breaths. Literally that’s how it functions in the actual text, but also the Hebrews would have understood goodness to exist between things, not in the thing itself. It’s the Greeks that understood perfection or goodness to exist inside the thing.
So, it was a Greek project to become perfect, or to find the perfect chair, or to find the perfectly leveled stage. So, they were looking at things being perfect, and that was their project. That was not the Hebrew project. And we do not have a Greek faith, we have a Hebrew faith. Our faith comes from the Hebrews.
So, what did the Hebrews believe? They believed that goodness existed between things, and that word Meod…
Jen: That’s beautiful.
Lisa: Yeah, right? Right? So, that word Meod actually means “very,” but even more than that it means “abundant, forceful.” One could even argue “violent.” Violently good. Abundantly, over flowingly good. Crazy, crazy, crazy good, I like to say.
Lisa: So, what God was saying at the end of the sixth day then, and what God’s dominion looks like is the radical wellness of all relationships in creation-
Jen: That’s good. That’s great.
Lisa: … that we—“all blesses all” in God’s creation. And there is no cursing. There’s none. And the relationships, the relationship between humanity and God is “Tov Meod.” It is abundantly good. It’s forcefully good. Violently good.
Lisa: … And then the relationship between men and women is violently good. And the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation is forcefully good. And the relationship between all of creation and the way things work, the systems that govern us, is forcefully good. So that’s what God’s reign looks like. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like when you look around. It looks like “all blessing all.”
Jen: I’m like, I don’t know if you can hear me taking notes. It’s like I’m in church. I’m in church, you’re my pastor, I’m taking notes on the back of the bulletin.
Lisa: Oh my gosh.
Jen: That’s really beautiful, and it brings me back to our original starting point, which is the departure from all blesses all is so evil and it’s so dark. It’s so unlike God. It is so broken apart from the intent of the gospel. It is the opposite of good, it is the opposite of Jesus. So if we’re following just the theological fault line, then it would seem, one would think just even logically, if you can just follow theological logic, that these broken systems of poverty and of tyranny and of racism and of exploitation and power differential, would so deeply offend the soul of the believer that we would really honestly have no choice but to spend our lives, to use our faith communities as advocates to right what’s wrong.
Lisa: That’s exactly right.
Jen: … To say there’s really no other way for us to A, understand the gospel, and B, respond to it.
Jen: So, I’m curious, I would love your perspective on why, why you think, and this is not an easy answer or a short one I know, but specifically in traditional evangelical settings, why that church shies so drastically away from these social issues that other, like non faith-based orgs are running into, right?
Jen: They’re running into it with their eyes wide open, with their ears wide open, and yet here we see a large portion of the church, and obviously I’m generalizing. I’m painting with too wide a brush. There are plenty of churches that have lifted the veil of these sort of areas and tried to make a difference, and have run in where everybody else is running out. But overall, it seems like we are far more comfortable in our faith settings and our churches and our communities, pushing that aside and saying, “that’s not what we’re here for. That’s not the brunt of our gospel”. What is … why? Why, and how, and how have we gotten to that place where somebody in absolute honesty could say, “Let’s not make this political, right? We’re here to preach Jesus, and these social issues are political, not gospel-based.” How have we gotten so far?
Lisa: Well, I think that actually it goes back to our founding as a faith group. So, evangelicals were founded in the 16th, well 1600’s, all the way up through the early 1800’s, and so in Europe it was the 1600’s. Interestingly, I think that we had an understanding of the kingdom of God then, and it’s funny because it’s evangelicalism in Europe, my denomination is the Evangelical Covenant Church, an originally Swedish denomination.
My church in particular, the ECC, Evangelical Covenant Church, they believed in house churches. They didn’t want to have a state-based church. They didn’t want to have a hierarchical church where the people at the top knew God and people on the bottom just had to follow. No, they wanted to make sure that everybody had relationship with scripture.
That is a democratization of power right there. They taught people to read and they had house fathers. They had the house fathers as in people who were the Bible study leader basically, like early Bible study leaders. This is the 1600’s, 1700’s. But when it came to America, it came in the midst of the abolitionist movement, and it was evangelicals that led that movement, in Europe with William Wilberforce, and in America with Charles Finney. And it turns out, Jonathan Edwards the second, junior, he actually preached a sermon back in 1791 for a suffragist group.
Jen: Wow, early adopter.
Lisa: …In 1791. Early, like early adopter of both suffragism, in other words women’s empowerment, and abolitionism… But he preached a sermon against slavery back then.
So basically, you get to the 1800’s, and you have Charles Finney who creates the altar call in the midst of the second great awakening, and he’s calling people to the altar because he actually says you cannot be under the reign of God, you cannot say you’re a part of the … under the governance of God, the kingdom of God, and believe in slavery. And the reason I believe he thought that was because you can’t say you’re under the reign of God while you are simultaneously crushing the image of God on earth. You can’t do it.
Jen: That’s good. Right.
Lisa: So, this is the thing that was really fundamental for me, and this revelation came to me while standing on the stage in South Africa, speaking for the Justice conference there last year … actually literally a year ago. I was standing on the stage and it hit me. The ancients thought of the image of the king as being a marker of where that king ruled. So, like Jesus is in the temple with His … going back and forth with the Sadducees, pharisees, and scribes, and they’re trying to entrap Him.
They say, “Yo, yo, yo Jesus, should we be paying taxes?” That’s my Philly coming out there.
Jen: I like it. Yes. The Philly version-
Lisa: Philly girl. But yeah, so and then Jesus says to them, what? He says, “Go get me a coin.” And so they do, and He says, “Whose icon is on the coin?” That word icon is the same word, it’s the Greek version of the Hebrew word “tselem,” which is the word that’s used in Genesis 1:26 when he says, “Let us make humankind in our tselem.”
So he says, “Whose tselem” if you’re gonna talk Hebrew, “is on the coin?” And they say, “Caesar.” And He says, “Okay then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” In other words, because Caesar’s image is on that coin, Caesar owns the coin. It is Caesar’s dominion. And then what does He say? He says, “But give to God what is God’s.”
Well, what is God’s? We belong to God, because we bear the image of God. We have the tselem of God imprinted on us. Now get this. Like I said, the ancients thought of the image of the king as being a marker of where that king ruled. We were created to be markers of where God ruled, not where each other ruled, and where that marker flourishes, where you see images of the king at the entrance of the city and on the coins, and they’re all doing well, you know that that kingdom is flourishing. But where you see images of the king crushed, maligned, toppled, twisted, melted down, then you know that there is war against that king happening in that kingdom, or against that kingdom, because the image of the king is being crushed.
Well, look at it this way. I think that on the first page of Genesis, where either the priests or Moses are coming out of subjugation, and they declare that all humanity is made in the image of God, and they say, “And let them have dominion,” in case you don’t get it. “Let them exercise agency. Let them be freed from oppression. Let them actually steward the world.” What they’re saying is the image of God is a marker of where God rules, and the thing is, where those images are crushed, where people’s capacity to exercise dominion is limited, distorted, ignored, you are also limiting, distorting, crushing the image of God on earth, and therefore, declaring war against the kingdom of God.
So, what would it look like for us to lay down our arms against God? You see, I don’t think that we mean to declare war against God. I mean, even evangelicals who voted in someone who absolutely is declaring war against the image of God, every day, and the way that we are making decision about how the polis will live together. This current president believes in human hierarchy, and is legislating according to human hierarchy.
Lisa: He believes that only some people were called to exercise dominion in this world, and those people are Americans, and in particular, white Americans. In particular, Americans of Northern European birth, and those who are grafted into that through the racial construct called white.
And it’s not real. I mean, race is not a real thing. In ancestry DNA, there’s never a race that comes out white. You come out with different ethnic heritage. You come out having come from different people groups around the world-
Jen: Of course.
Lisa: …but whiteness does not exist, except for the power that we give it. And what we gave it back at the founding of our nation, literally in 1787 when we declared that people of African descent would only be three fifths of a human being. And then three years later in 1790, declared that only white men of good character, in other words Christian, could become naturalized citizens of the United States.
In other words, only white men could exercise dominion on this land, because that’s what naturalization does, it gives the right of the vote. It gives the right to own property. So that was something, a way that we declared in the very beginning of our nation, that we believe and will now legislate according to human hierarchy.
So, the gospel, I believe what the gospel has to say to that is that that, friends, is a lie. We have legislated and crafted our world around a spiritual lie. And the Good News of the gospel, if I were now to go to my third-great-great-grandmother, Leah, and I would say, “Leah, I have great news for you,” you know what I would say? This is what I would say. “Leah, the King of the kingdom of God pushed through time and space and came to earth in order to confront the kingdoms of men that are hell bent on crushing the image of God on earth…and that includes in you. Jesus came to set you free.”
Jen: That’s good.
Lisa: And here’s the thing, I believe that Jesus also came to set those who are pressed by the hierarchies of human belonging, including those who benefit from them, from the oppression of those hierarchies, because … The other thing that Genesis did, the fourth word in Genesis that I like to bring out is the word likeness. In the Hebrew, it’s the word dhemuth.”
We are made in the likeness of God, but we are not God, and I think that one of thing that human hierarchy does is it not only does it create a human hierarchy of human belonging, but I think that what we’ve done is we’ve actually set people of European descent up on such a high pedestal that actually what they’ve tried to do is to become God. They have not just been okay with being human. They’ve now tried to become God.
In other words, only God can speak and so something is, but in America, people who were deemed white by the states spoke according to the law, and said that people of African descent were three fifths of a human being, and so it was by the law.
Jen: That’s right.
Lisa: And they spoke and said that certain people groups were not fully human, and so it was. And after the Civil War, they spoke and said that black people could be picked up on a park bench for looking … I mean because they sat for too long, and thrown in jail, and that jail was the same plantation that they just got freed from, and they now had to work the land. They threw away the papers so they would never know exactly when this person came in, so they would never have to set them free.
And they were able to do that because they believed, they actually believed the lie that not only that black people were … people of African descent were quote “black,” but now blackness meant less than human, right? And whiteness means divine. Divinely called by God to steward the world.
Jen: That’s right.
Lisa: You see? You see the lie?
Lisa: Now, if you look at your neighbor, if you look at the person, if you look at the next homeless person you meet on the street, and if you look at a woman in a line to receive food stamps or to buy food at the supermarket and they’re using a card, you know a food stamp card, or if you look at an immigrant who is now in danger of being deported, and you look for the image of God behind their eyes, because it’s there, and you understand that the presence of that image of God means that they are called by God to exercise dominion in the world, then you can no longer see them as being created to drive your taxi. You can no longer see them as being created to mow your lawn, or being created to be controlled and confined in prisons and away from you, or in ghettos.
You understand then that it’s human systems that have been at war with the kingdom of God, crushing the image of God, and that’s why we show up. That’s why I got arrested in Ferguson. That’s whyI got arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court fighting against the death penalty, because the death penalty has an inequitable application because of the court system and the biases that appear in juries and judges being applied to people of African descent because people believe less than human.
And that’s why I fasted for 22 days and lost 30 pounds in 22 days in 2013 with the Fast for Families, for immigration reform, because our laws are crushing the image of God.
Jen: That’s right, because we’ve built them now, not just into our psyche, but into our systems-
Jen: Which is your point, that by our words, we are bringing it to pass.
Jen: Because words in a piece of legislation come to pass…
Lisa: That’s right.
Jen: … and they have real bearing on the lives of people. I really keep thinking, while you’re talking, I keep thinking about what your friend said, is who benefits, and inversely, which is just the exact same question, but it’s reversed, is who has the most to lose by challenging these systems, which is why I think even intrinsically … I think honestly, in most cases, even subconsciously, people that are in the dominant group, that are in the power group, are less likely to engage all these injustices and all this broken gospel because they have more to lose.
It’s just that simple and we know it deeply. And then not only do we sense that that might absolutely fundamentally alter our world, which it would, but we’ve inoculated ourselves from that tension and from that deep burden and movement of God by staying very largely segregated in very homogenous groups.
In my experience, some of the earliest steps to breaking down those lies, and allowing the Holy Spirit to change our minds, like literally change our minds and hearts, is proximity … that when all of the sudden, our personal world becomes less homogenous, less same, same, same, we invite in new neighbors, we listen to new voices, we start paying attention to different sorts of leaders, we say tell me your story, let’s break bread around a table, those worldviews, they start to crumble.
You can’t help it. You cannot help it because it’s as you said, you begin to see the image of God in somebody else.
Jen: So, I would like your thoughts as a pastor. How do we move away from that and into something that looks like Genesis 1?
Lisa: So, two things. One, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in their book Divided by Faith [Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America], they said, they only had one very hopeful sentence in that entire book. It’s a really, really hard book to get through because it really tells the truth. What they found was that because of the very nature of the white church in America, and especially the white evangelical church, in other words, the structure of it, the way that it works, the insulation of it, even the theology of it. There’s some things that actually hinder evangelicals’ ability to see and appreciate the impact that systems and structures can have on whole people groups.
And then you create an echo chamber when you only surround yourself with yourself basically, people who are like you, same class, same economic status, same race, same social location. Then you kind of get an echo chamber and you start thinking, and then interpreting the scripture all in the same way, without respect to other people’s points of view.
So, what they say, their one piece of good news in that entire book was that the one thing they saw that actually broadened evangelicals’, white evangelicals’ world view, was to be immersed. To be immersed in community that is not their own, and in particular what they said was African American community, to immerse yourself.
Now, not everybody can just pick up and move into a black neighborhood, nor do we actually even want that, because what that does is that immediately brings gentrification.
What they say is: that in as much as people of European descent who have been deemed white in the U.S. can immerse themselves in the stories, in the communities of the other, and in particular African American communities, then their worldview, their blinders will fall off. Their worldview will expand. They will then have their own worldview challenged, and that’s one of the reasons why Freedom Road, the group that I founded, it’s a consulting group, why we actually are so dedicated to pilgrimage. It’s not only because, although a large part of it is because I was so deeply transformed by pilgrimage, but it’s also because it literally is one of the main things that not only Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, sociologists, but also psychologists have actually named that being immersed in the other, it actually helps us to see differently.
So, pilgrimage gives the opportunity to be immersed in the story of the other, while also, if the pilgrimage is done right, being immersed in the community of the other, because in Freedom Road pilgrimages, one of our big things is that we work hard to make it so that each pilgrimage is at least half people of color, if not more than half people of color on that bus, so that everybody has an opportunity to actually be immersed in the community of the other. And the stories we tell each other, as well as the places we see, the land we stand on where things happened and decisions were made according to the rules of human hierarchy, it all changes us, along with the scripture. We soak in the scripture. We soak in the Biblical concept of shalom, asking what are the implications of what we’re seeing here on our understanding of the gospel,
So, Freedom Road: it’s a one week pilgrimage through the story of the control and confinement of people of African descent on U.S. soil. That’s from slavery through Jim Crow and mass incarceration to current day police brutality, and the parallel development of the political construct of whiteness.
So, we’re gonna start at EJI, interestingly enough, in Montgomery.
Jen: Love it.
Lisa:…and then we’re gonna move to Mississippi where we will retrace Emmett Till‘s last day alive. And then we’ll go to Memphis where we will investigate the garbage workers’ strike, which happened because of the control and confinement of black bodies. They wouldn’t allow black men to go inside during a rainstorm and eat their lunch. They had to eat their lunch out in the back of the garbage truck, and there was a malfunction, and the garbage truck began to operate while they were sitting in the back and they got crushed. That’s what actually launched the garbage workers’ strike.
Jen: Oh wow.
Lisa:...So, that brought Dr. King to Memphis, which is where he was assassinated. And then from there we’re going to go to Ferguson, where we will talk with the co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, Starsky Wilson, and go and stand on the ground where Michael Brown lost his life … and also talk with people like Bob Zellner, who was a white member of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, in Mississippi with Medgar Evers and just an incredible, incredible story that he has.
So, this is part of what it means, I think, this is part of our discipleship today, what it means to be a Jesus follower, is to follow Jesus into the deconstruction of those things that have constructed and reinforced human hierarchy. To begin to see differently.
Isn’t it funny that Jesus himself was a brown man from an oppressed people. Oppressed by the European empire. Do you see that? Do you see that?
Jen: That’s right.
Lisa: Every single person who wrote any word was writing from that location of oppression, to people who were oppressed, for people who were oppressed. So, what I’m saying is that we have to interrogate, we have to interrogate not just the scripture, ’cause I actually believe the scripture is holy, but I think we need to interrogate our read of the scripture, and the approach that we’ve been taking.
Lisa: My friend Bob Ekblad, who wrote the book, Reading the Bible With the Damned, he wrote a book really about his experience of doing Bible study with people who are imprisoned up in Washington. He learns a lot by doing Bible Study with the imprisoned, because what he says is that they actually see more in scripture than he ever would because they are reading the scripture from the social location of the ones who wrote it.
Jen: Wow. That’s pretty powerful.
Lisa: It is, right? So, I mean, I think that if we actually believe that the scripture is our authority, then we will actually treat it with the reverence it deserves.
Jen: That’s right.
Lisa: And to read it from the social location of the ones who wrote it too-
Jen: That’s good.
Lisa: With its context intact, all of it, the political context, the historical, and the cultural context.
Jen: Yes. What’s so tricky about that is in our culture, what you find is that a large portion of evangelicals have painted that community, the evangelical community as the ones who are being oppressed, right? We see that language a lot. “We are on the ropes. Everybody is against us. We are a marginalized in our culture.” I mean, this is common language.
Lisa: Wow. True, yeah.
Jen: “Nobody’s listening to us and we are the ones who are having to fight for our rights.” And so, with a simple channel change there, to imagine that these largely affluent, and I mean affluent in the sense of the whole world. I mean, in the sense of the whole world, we are. Affluent, white, privileged Christians, if you can convince your own self that you are the one that is oppressed, then just like that, not only do you not bear any responsibility toward your brothers and sisters who actually are, but you can turn scripture on its side to benefit you, yet again.
Lisa: Yeah, that’s deep.
Jen: So, I see that tendency right now in our culture when Christians constantly refer to themselves as being martyred and being left out and sidelined and hated, when in fact it’s not true. The whole sense of oppression there, the definition of oppression there is so fundamentally off base from its context as you mentioned.
Jen: I mean, we don’t even know how to spell oppressed.
Lisa: That’s right.
Jen: We’re not oppressed by Hollywood. Everybody give me a break. That is nonsense, but what it does, is it gives the church a free pass. It gives us a spiritual free pass to interpret scripture to our benefit, yet again, yet again, while being able to turn a blind eye to everybody else. And so it’s no small mountain to climb here.
Jen: It isn’t, and tearing it down is hard, and your fingers will get bloody. And you do it. This is one of the things that I respect about you the most, not just your brilliant mind and your deep understanding of the word, but you put your feet where your mouth is. You go, you walk to the places. You do the thing. You went to Charlottesville when it was dangerous … terrifying actually, where people were gonna lose … have loss of life, and you’re there. And you’re at the Supreme Court, and you are on the pilgrimage, and you do what you say. You live what you believe, and it’s really important.
And I think that you’re right, that this is the path that American Christians, at least, are going to have to take in order to find these deep waters of the gospel of God. But who wants to take them? Who wants to do that? We’d rather imagine that we are the victims of our own story, and that God is here to bless us more. You know, bless blessed people a little bit more than we’ve already been blessed.
Lisa: I think that people of European descent who were called white by the state, lost a huge thing when they allowed themselves to be called white. They lost their soul. They lost their core, because they allowed themselves to be defined by one thing, whether or not they had power.
Their whole identity is connected to one thing, the capacity to exercise dominion on this land. And so, if you are white and you are poor, there is deep, deep, deep shame there, because you shouldn’t be, because you’re white. You should be able to exercise dominion, and I think that’s why MAGA caught hold, like why they’re thinking they need to make America great again. I went to the Republican convention. I was actually there. I’m not a republican, but I was outside serving lemonade with the nuns on the bus. Yes, I was.
Jen: Of course, you were. Of course, you did that.
Lisa: I was with the people in the line, and asking them, “When you say, ‘Let’s make American great again,’ or when you think we need to go back, what is the time that you want to go back to?”
I’m telling you, this is what they said, “We need to go back before the New Deal. We need to go back, yes, to the 1920’s, the 1910’s.”
Lisa: Ladies, do we want to go back before women won the vote?
Lisa: Do we want to go back to that? Do we want to go back to the time when lynching was at an all-time high, when the Civil Rights Act had not been passed yet, the Voting Rights Act had not been passed yet, so there was no enforcement?
When your entire identity revolves around that question, about whether or not you have power, then you will protect it to the death. But you see, the only reason why white people of European descent are left with only that is because they actually gave up their ethnicity to become white.
Jen: That’s right. I never thought about it like that.
Lisa: They let go, they let go of their Irish heritage. They literally renounced their German heritage in order to grab hold of an identity that had only to do with one thing, power.
So, the challenge that I give people, both in my books, The Very Good Gospel, and also wherever I speak now, is I give people a … Now you want to put your feet….
I’m telling you. I’m telling your audience, your white audience, if you or your audience that is deemed white by the state, if you want to actually change the world, do this. If you want to be an accomplice in the reconstruction of the kingdom of God, or maybe not even an accomplice in the reconstruction of the kingdom of God, if you want to partner with God in the bringing of the kingdom on earth, then do this: subvert the hierarchies of human belonging. And the way to do that, the most easy way for you to do that, at least long term, is when the census comes around to your door in 2020, and it tells you to check a box called white, don’t do it.
Instead, write in your ethnicity, which you will be able to do. Write in your ethnicity. Write in the truth. Don’t allow your identity to be identified as only connected to one question, whether or not you have power, which is what whiteness was created to do. But instead, put all your ethnicities. German, Irish, if you have whatever. Do your DNA. There’s no excuse anymore. Go online. Ancestry, 23 & Me, any ancestry thing. Do your DNA. Find out who you are if you don’t know, and write it all in.
And then what will happen is that we will have to find another way to distribute power in America, ’cause right now it’s distributed, the census was the first and the most major way that resources are distributed. And in the very first census, there was only one race, white. The other race was slave, in 1790. In the next census, it was white, black, slave, or free. In the next census after that, it got a little more complicated. Now, today there are like 50 races, no joke, that are actually outlined, that you can choose in the census, and then you can also write stuff in.
But the only one that has never changed in all these years, since 1790, is white. Why do you think that is?
Jen: That’s wild.
Lisa: …because whiteness aggregates European power, and it creates a majority, a vast majority.
Jen: Wow, gosh.
Jen: It is so interesting to think about a group of white people rejecting that label and saying, “I’m Norwegian, I’m…”
Lisa: Norwegian American, yeah.
Jen: “I’m Norwegian American, I’m German American,” like just even saying it out loud levels the playing field. Wow. I am so challenged by that and moved by it, and I love your theology, and I love your advocacy because it’s so deeply rooted in the gospel and in God’s people and in his Shalom, and in his beautiful world where all blesses all, and I believe in it. I believe in that. You’re saying words that I believe and I believe to be true, and I do not think we are beyond hope or help. I do not think we are beyond repentance and repair, I don’t. I believe that the spirit of God is still willing to pour out on His people if we are willing to do this hard, gritty work, and it is. It is, because much will have to be shared, right?
Jen: On my end, much, much will have to be redistributed, reimagined. All the power positions are gonna have to be sort of recalibrated, and so that’s not easy work. It’s not simply a work of the mind and heart, it’s a work of systems and society, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I really don’t. I do think it’s a challenge, and these are the conversations that to me begin to move the needle, that start planting these ideas of Shalom and of wholeness and restoration in the mind of a Christ follower who has said, “This is what I believe. These are the ways of Jesus that I want to follow.”
I mean, this is the real stuff. This is not the American version of it. This is not the pre-packaged, partisan, morality-based version of faith that I’ve been handed my whole entire life. And so what I want to say to you is this: you’re a powerful prophet, you are a powerful teacher, you are leading in word and deed just like Jesus did, and I think He’s anointed you and I think you’re very special and you’re very gifted for this time, and I’m grateful to be on this planet with you at the same time. I want you to know that I’m listening, I’m watching, I’m paying attention. I want the people that listen to me to listen to you, and I’m really proud and really, really glad to be your sister. I want to ask you one last question.
Lisa: Aw, sure.
Jen: Will you leave everybody either a quote from a spiritual leader who you love who has moved and inspired you, or it could be a scripture that epitomizes your life’s work, and what it means to you and how it is fuel for the engine of what God has created you to do.
Lisa: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So, God created humankind in God’s image. In the image of God, God created them. Male and female, God created them.”
That is at the heart, I believe, of the Good News of the gospel.
Jen: Yeah. Literally heard and read that hundreds of times, and in the context of this conversation, it’s just so powerful.
Jen: Thank you, Lisa, for your time today, for your wisdom, and your leadership. I’m just so honored to know you and proud to work alongside of you.
So, for all my listeners, please accept my most sincere thanks for coming in here and preaching the word, lady. I mean, preaching the word like your mouth’s on fire.
Lisa: Aw, thank you. Thank you so much for asking me to be a part of this really important project that you’re doing, and I’m excited. I’m excited to see the response of your listeners, and honestly, I’m excited for 2020. I’m excited for that moment when Christians across America make a decision about which box they’ll check.
Jen: I like this. I like this so much. So, everybody listening, I’m gonna have all of Lisa’s information up on my transcript, which is on my website, at JenHatmaker.com. All of her books, all of her links, her website, the upcoming pilgrimage, and really all the work that she does. So, if you didn’t catch it as she started dropping it, I will have it all in one place. Okay sister, thanks for being on today.
Lisa: Thank you, Jen. God bless.
Ok wow, right? This series is not meant to be fluffy and squishy. It’s not meant to reinforce really easy spiritual ideas. We’ve been spoon fed with a silver spoon. It’s supposed to be provocative. It is supposed to be challenging. It is supposed to make us uncomfortable and push us. I hope that it did that today. I hope that some of the ideas really rubbed, right? Or, made us stop and think, or going to spur on a conversation later with the people that we do life with, and respect.
So, I appreciate Lisa so much in her tenacity, and her kind-hearted spirit, and her love for Jesus and for people. I mean, it’s really a force. So, like I mentioned, everything we mentioned today is going to be over on my website, JenHatmaker.com, underneath “podcast.” You’ll see this transcript, which by the way is a great resource for you–if you’re not using that, let me yet again redirect you to that page. We’ve loaded up with bonus content and pictures and links and obviously the transcription of the whole entire interview, if you want to read it later. So anyway, use that resource.
Guys, thanks for listening. Thanks for being here. Thanks for being with me during the series too. I’m excited to bring you a wide array of spiritual voices. I mean, we are literally running the gamut. So, stick with us on this series. I think you’re going to be really challenged, moved. As always, thank you for being really loyal and wonderful listeners.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!