Saturday, August 12, 2017

How do you change the minds of white supremacists?

"I submit that the ultimate religious question today is no longer the Reformation's "How can I find a gracious God?" It is instead, "How can I find God in my enemy?" What guilt was for Luther, the enemy has become for us: the goad that can drive us to God." (Walter Wink)

Since reading this thesis of Wink's, I've been gnawing at it. He's probably right, though it's not a thesis you can accept all at once. Like God's grace, it may take a lifetime to accept noetically what is already true soteriologically: that God's graciousness precedes our appropriation of it.

Luther found it very hard to accept that God was gracious. He strove to be justified by God, and was finally won over (while reading Romans) to a different way of thinking: that it is God's righteousness that is active in our salvation, not ours. We are made righteous. We do not make ourselves righteous.

Today, very few people are agonizing over Luther's question. They already assume God is gracious, if they think of God much at all.

But the modern world presents other challenges. Sometimes people argue that epistemology (meaning) is the greatest concern of the modern, over against the Reformation concern for salvation. Does my life have a purpose? Does it have meaning? These are supposedly the questions, and they are indeed pressing questions.

But really, if I look at the people around me, and scrutinize myself, it's much more the question Wink asks, that drives us: "How can I find God in my enemy?"

Because the truth is I consider white supremacists my enemy. They have appropriated, manipulated, and distorted the liturgies of the church, the image of God in the human, and in every way possible are attempting to corrupt Christianity in a direction that is of the anti-Christ. White supremacists are my enemy. Which of course then also means that the current president is my enemy also, since he protects and encourages white supremacy.

And since I know this to be true, it's very hard for me to even consider the possibility that the image of God is in them also. But if I'm going to take my own theology seriously (as Wink does), then I must. Because if I deny the image of God in my enemy, then I give in to their theology, which denies the image of God in the millions of people who don't look like them.

Returning to the original question: How can I change the mind of a white supremacist?

It might be that I can't. Change a white supremacist's mind, I mean. Anyone who is overtly a part of a neo-Nazi group or the KKK may be beyond my abilities of persuasion. They are lost.

There are methods, though, ways to go about the changing of hearts and minds. My wisest friends keep reminding me the best way to change someone's mind is empathy.

Well, that's hard. Really hard. Empathy for the KKK? How do I even do that? Well, watching Edward Norton's American History X is one way. When you watch how such cults operate from the inside, you can at least join my colleagues in Charlottesville who were praying for the young boys/men who were mingling with the professional neo-Nazis there, because they are so susceptible to manipulation and influence.

I can also sympathize by recognizing my complicity. White supremacy is a system from which I have benefitted throughout my life, even if I try to repudiate the doctrine. It's in my culture, a grounding fact in my life. So perhaps I can empathize that much, that I share some of the complicity even if I don't proclaim allegiance to the system.

If you are wondering where the church is, where the clergy (especially the historically mainline) are, I can tell you: they were on the front lines, arm in arm with non-violent resisters #blacklivesmatter, surrounding the white supremacists, resisting them with hymns and prayers, offering healing for those injured.

American faith leaders in my denomination and tradition, though still struggling to disentangle our church and theology from racism, has learned some lessons from the co-optation of the church during the Nazi regime, the co-optation of the church by the KKK.

They articulated a counter-vision today over against the vision of the neo-Nazis.

Because faithful Christians in our day know that race in America is THE theological front lines. Race was a crucial issue even in the early church, sorting out who was included (Gentiles, Jews), and remains a hotly contested theological question today, especially in a nation like ours with a legacy of race-based chattel slavery.

Part of the conversation becomes: which ways are most effective in countering white supremacy. Some of the most powerful people in our nation are white supremacists: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions. This fact legitimizes and blesses vocal white supremacist ideology among the more general population.

One response is to fight back. I can understand why some try to change white supremacy by fighting against it, literally and physically. This is how we handle many other contests. Our nation believes in meeting military force with greater military force. So too some believe the way to beat white supremacy is with a stronger and violent response.

By and large, the Christian church has not endorsed this approach. Some of our most effective and powerful leaders have made remarkable changes bending the arc of the world towards justice through non-violent resistance. This was the approach the clergy in Charlottesville took today. They were present, not violent, bearing witness, singing, praying.

It is an icon of sorts: a Unite the Right rally enveloped and surrounded by faithful Christians, especially clergy, simply praying.

Such nonviolent resistance is the opposite of the silent complicity more prevalent in our nation. We need to recognize and confess that although it is the silence of Donald Trump and others failing to speak out against white supremacy and alt-right terrorism that emboldens, it is actually our local and small silences that have provided the fertile ground for such white supremacy to grow and flourish nationally.

So back to empathy... is there a way to find God in our enemy in a way that does not function as tacit complicity? Sometimes, I think when religious language is invoked, what people hear is encouragement to roll over, just accept, do nothing, as if the response to God's grace were passivity (and so inherently also complicity).

I'm not much interested in that. I'm a fighter. So I want to keep appropriate boundaries AND empathize with my enemy. I am called to pray for my enemy. My Lord expects this of me. But prayer can take many forms. I can pray for the defeat of my enemy. I can pray for them to trip and fall. I can pray for their deliverance, for a change of heart.

Even if I listen to the other command, to love my enemies and do good to those who hate me... well... that will take a lifetime to pursue, and I'll never get it right, but by God that's really the only way.

But love does not turn us into quivering masses of availability, amorphous selves with no backbone. No, real love is fierce. It burns to know and be known. It goads us along, because whatever God is, whoever God is, They are found precisely there, in whatever it is we love.

So do I love my hatred of my enemy more than my enemy itself? If I do, will that change anything? No, if I'm going to change the mind of a white supremacist, I'm going to have to love the hell out of them. Which means I'd have to know them, while being tenaciously myself, in God and finding God.

If they're a terrorist, this means I'll be praying they'll go to jail for a very long time. That's still love. I even know from experience that one of the surest places to find God is in jail.

The real prisons are in the minds of those who think they are free.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The August Recess | Faithful support of immigration and a robust international affairs budget

It’s now the August recess, a good time for our elected officials to hear from people of faith. If you’re reading this, I know you are committed on some level or another to work for the good of your neighbor, especially those who are marginalized or vulnerable. In order to do that well, you need to think not only about how to help the powerless, but also how to impact and change the minds of the powerful.

So far this year I’ve made a couple of trips to Washington D.C., advocating on biblical and Christian grounds for sustained global poverty relief, humane immigration policies, and robust refugee admission levels.

Some of these meetings have gone remarkably. We discover shared commitments and values. Other meetings are more dispiriting. You meet, take a photo, smile, then discover the politician was hard at work drafting legislation that directly undermines or even attacks the very work in which you are engaged.

Consider Senator Tom Cotton’s dangerous and harmful RAISE Act. Like the equally troubling activism of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who has threatened legal action if the Trump administration does not phase out DACA, it appears Cotton’s legislation is designed primarily to score political points. 

If the RAISE Act or the DACA lawsuit are political feints, then I’m calling on Cotton and all politicians to act with greater integrity. Please do not play with the lives of refugees and immigrants to score political points. Instead, say what you mean, and do the moral and right thing. Follow that direct command of Jesus: “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).

If Cotton’s RAISE Act is not a feint, then it is even more unconscionable, because much of it is basically lifted from resources like FAIR, short for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group ( It’s intentionally racist policy posing as economic self-interest.

Tom Cotton erroneously believe that lower skilled immigration has a dampening effect on the United States economy, especially wages for working class people. The basic facts stand opposed to this belief. Overall, low-skilled immigration has a net impact on wages closer to zero. Low skilled immigration has a positive impact on the rest of the economy, especially in the long-term ( 

Immigrants either perform the undesirable work which opens up business and more jobs for Americans, or they start new businesses that create jobs for Americans ( Immigrants lead to an increase of jobs and a decrease in crime. These are the basic facts, and the fact that Tom Cotton refuses to acknowledge them, or even offers alternative facts, is indication the extent to which he is operating out of ideology rather than reality, serving his own political expediency rather than the needs of his constituents or the best interests of immigrant families.

My own faith community strongly opposes the RAISE Act, which it considers a dangerous and harmful piece of legislation. Linda Hartke, the CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, writes, “While everyone agrees that our immigration system is in desperate need of reform, this bill only causes more harm. This piece of legislation would separate hundreds of thousands of family members from their loved ones here in the U.S. and throughout the world. Further, in a rush to score political points, this bill foolishly disregards the countless contributions that refugees and immigrants bring to our state and local economies.”

If we turn to the international affairs budget, here we can find widespread bipartisan and interfaith support, all united against the Trump administration’s budget proposal. Even a politician like Mitch McConnell came out in support of poverty-focused development and humanitarian assistance. A majority of our elected officials know that at a time of rising needs around the world, it is unconscionable to consider the Administration’s proposed budget, which slashes the International Affairs Budget by 32% and within that, humanitarian and development assistance by 44%.

We also know the world stands on the brink of an unprecedented four famines in 2017. In northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, severe food insecurity currently affects approximately 30 million people, according to humanitarian organization Oxfam, including 10 million who face emergency and famine conditions. At the moment, the world (also) faces a record 65 million refugees globally due to conflict, persecution, and disaster. Millions are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the scale of this crisis continues to outweigh the planned response. At a time of rising needs, any cuts to foreign aid is immoral, short-sighted and costly – both to people in crisis and to the US international standing in the world.

Given that the International Affairs Budget is just $.006 of the federal budget dollar, a country whose religious traditions encourage a tithe is instead giving foreign assistance that amounts to a rounding error rather than a tithe. 

If Tom Cotton values working people, immigrants, and Arkansans, he should do at least the following. First, he should roll back his RAISE Act campaign, and expressly recognize that it caters to the worst kind of xenophobia that energizes some of our national politics. It inaccurately scapegoats immigrants as having a negative impact on our economy, when in fact "40 percent of Fortune 500 businesses were started by immigrants and their children, "many of whom did not speak English or came here as refugees.” (

Second, he would listen to faith voices and immigrant voices in his own state. If he has read this column, he’s heard one faith voice. Local immigration groups say putting a focus on skills and not families isn't a good representation of American values, especially not Northwest Arkansan values. Mireya Reith, Founding Executive Director of  Arkansas United Community Coalition, says, Not only is this bill completely out of line with our economic needs in Arkansas, but also shows that Arkansas has no idea who the immigrants are in this state.” (

If Senator Cotton wants to lead our nation in a focus on family-values, faith, and economic prosperity, he would find ways to work across the aisle to actually reform our broken immigration system. There are ways, given our wealth and size and gifts, to resettle many more refugees than he is proposing, offer a path to citizenship for many different kinds of immigrants and their families, and provide the kind of poverty-focused aid internationally that benefits our national security interests and brings much needed relief in globally perilous times. Xenophobic policies appeal instead to the selfish side of our nature, rather than the generosity of faith, spirit and purpose that makes our nation great.