Friday, June 26, 2009
Come on in ya'll it's about to start. My cousins and I (all between the ages of 5 and 8) dropped what we were doing, ran into the living room, quieted our voices and together with our families gathered in front of the t.v. to watch the Jackson 5. We were mesmerized, enthralled, entertained and impressed all at the same time. And little Michael Jackson was the star of the show. Here was a kid just a bit older than we commanding the stage and giving hope (shortly lived for the vast majority of us) that we too could do the same. It's difficult to put into words what the Jackson 5 meant to me and most every other black child in the late sixties and early 70's. Their sound, dancing, songs, clothes and afros signaled one thing and one thing only. They were BAD!
For many within the Black community during that time the Jackson 5 were more than just a group of talented brothers from Indiana who happened to have one unqiue, extraordinaly talented brother. They were part of the Motown business phenomena that produced hit after hit after hit with multiple groups and singers. The same crowd that filled the Spectrum in South Philly to cheer the Jackson 5 returned for the Temps, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops. Motown, The Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson in particular were an important part of our lives. They provided the soundtrack that helped get us through the 60's and into the 70's.
But things change, music progresses and little kid stars grow up and move onto other things. By the end of the 70's Motown moved to L.A., the Jackson 5 broke up and Mike went out on his own. My musical tastes in the the teen years veered from Billy Joel, to Earth Wind and Fire and other grown up acts. In the early 80's just as the black community was getting used to a new form of music called rap, Michael Jackson roared back and became the king of pop. Michael Jackson went from child prodigy to a legitimate on his own mega-superstar that did what few if any had ever done. He literally dominated the mid eighties making him one of the few singers who enjoyed significant success in three separate decades.
Much will be said about Michael's troubling and turbulent life. But before we evangelicals wax eloquent on another life that had everything but Jesus let's keep something in mind. From the time he was a small child Michael Jackson was pushed into the massive celebrity and fame. While we can lament how his life unfolded we should at least understand how it could have unfolded in that manner and be humble enough admit that we too would have had a difficult time had we been blessed with such once in a lifetime talent. And as far as I know most highly talented, very wealthy and famous people live and die without Jesus. I don't know Steve Jobs but my guess is that he was closer to death than many and yet I don't know if the man has repented of his sins and placed his faith in Jesus. But I'm pretty sure that most evangelicals who swear by their Macs don't think much about that as they fire up their machines, listen to their ipods and download apps on their iphones. True, Micheal's life and story were tragic, but judging from the rest of the celebrities in our fame saturated and ravaged culture it was not unusual. Speaking of the cult of celebrity let's be sure to check ours before we excoriate the world who swooned over Michael and stoked the fires of his double-edged fame. As much as we try and separate from the world we too like our celebrities and we do indeed celebrate when one of our own gains a bit of notoriety among the culture.
Sadly Michael Jackson's life was tragic and his death perhaps even more so. But remember saints but for the grace of God there go I. We usually invoke that phrase as we pass the homeless soul begging for his daily bread at a major intersection. However, it's probably more appropriate to think about it when we lose someone of Michael Jackson's stature. His life and death highlight our need for God's grace because apart from it we'd be just as lost regardless of whether or not we had all the other aspects of our lives together which as we know Michael did not. Michael Jackson entertained and impacted millions of people during his life. They will celebrate his talent and mourn his death. Should our Lord give us the opportunity to do so let's mourn with them and if given the chance to talk about his life be sure to remember that we too would be broken, confused and lost apart from God's marvelous grace found in Jesus Christ.
To Him Who Loves Us...
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
"It's a terrifying thing," she said, "for a community to hear that two black men in a black Cadillac grabbed a woman and her daughter."
Now that's an interesting statement isn't it. One would think that it's a terrifying thing for any community to hear that a woman and her daugther were grabbed and then shoved into the back of a car in broad daylight by anyone. But for reasons we know all too well the terror level jumps off the scale when an overwhelmingly white community (Bucks County PA is nearly 95% white) hears that two BLACK men grabbled a woman and her daughter. But the report wasn't merely confined to a few people in Bucks County. It seems that as soon as the police received a cell phone call from a woman who accused two BLACK men of abducting her and her child the report hit the local Philly area newscast at warp 9 and by the time the evening news cycle hit that was the big story for the 4 plus Million residents of the greater Delaware Valley. The 'liberal' media went into overdrive posting the young mother's picture, interviewing neighbors and telling her story. Bonnie's apparent abduction quickly hit the national news and for a day or so the hunt was on for the mythical BLACK men who brazenly rear ended Bonnie's vehicle and then supposedly got out of their Caddilac, pulled Bonnie and her child from their car, shoved them into the the trunk (not the back seat mind you) of the Caddy and then drove off. This all in broad daylight, (btw is there any such thing as narrow daylight) during rush hour at a busy intersection. And yet, no one else saw this. In a society where everyone and their 10 year old brat has a cell phone two BLACK men were apparently able to cause an accident, kidnap a woman and her daughter and no one else called the cops. And for reasons still unknown to me the police didn't seem to find that in the least bit odd.
For many Black folks the issue isn't just that Bonnie Sweeten played the 'BLACK man did it card' again, it's the ease of which it was accepted by the Bucks County police and news media. It was only after Bonnie's story began to unravel that some unsettling details began to come out regarding her recent activities much of which appears to involve embezzling money from the accounts of former close friends.
I'm bringing this up with the hope that we can learn something about ourselves, our society and our witness. We may have come a long way baby, but we still have a long way to go. 'But Lance, this woman committed an isolated incident that's now in the past'. We'll never get past race if you and others keep bringing incidents like these up to highlight our differences'. Perhaps. It's just that in this case the Clyde to Bonnie's caper included an eager police force and news media. Once the story broke the news media repeatedly declared that Bonnie had called from the trunk of a car driven by two BLACK men. After the truth came out all they seemed to say is the Bonnie committed a hoax. Perhaps I'm a concerned father about to send his BLACK teenage son to college and wonder what might happen if.... Perhaps we won't get past the issue of race/ethnicity unless and until we do actually talk about it. Perhaps if Bonnie was involved in a church where she regularly worshiped with, served with, got to know and love some BLACK men this ugly incident would never have happened in the first place. And perhaps the church should remember that the gospel cannot affect entrenched racial attitudes (whether they spring from blacks, whites or whomever) if we persist in being unwilling to even acknowledge they exist.
Whatever you think (and I'm sure I'll hear from some of you) there is one thing we can agree upon. Bonnie Sweeten set out to commit an act of fraud and knew that she could at least get a good head start by claiming that two BLACK men did it. And she was right.
Oh, and the quote that began this post. That was from Bucks County District Attorney Michelle Henry.
To Him Who Loves Us...
Monday, June 01, 2009
'In the 60's the government fought a war on poverty and poverty won'. I'm pretty sure you've heard that one before. It's usually the prelude to a homily on how the church either abdicated its responsibility to care for the poor or the government usurped that role for themselves. The line of thinking behind such statements is that God charged the church to provide for the poor and that government has no business fishing in that pool.
I believe this thinking is faulty on a number of levels. That doesn't mean that the church as the church (I'll explain in a minute) shouldn't engage in consistent acts of mercy toward the poor along with advocating for justice for the poor and less powerful. What did I mean that the church as the church should commit to consistent mercy? Simply that the church (either denominationally or locally) acts as the body of Christ, representing her Lord in the capacity of witnessing of His mercy and justice to the community in which she serves. That's different from saying that individual believers should do acts of mercy with the conviction that the church only acts in an official capacity when she gathers for the formal worship of our Lord.
The fact that I'm for churches advocating for the poor and doing acts of mercy doesn't mean however that I believe that suburban churches and believers should assume the responsibility of reversing the cycle of poverty that's gripped several generations of poor people who live in America's large cities. Why is that? To begin with it's unlikely that suburban churches would really put the resources needed to tackle the problem which is deep and complex. Most churches (whether urban or suburban) follow the normal institutional sociological pattern of using their resources on themselves. As they grow and develop they tend to hire and expend resources on people and programs that for the most part serve the needs and desires of the church. I'm not saying if that's right or wrong, just that it is. Since that's the case it would be nearly impossible for a single church to commit resources to serve their needs and the needs of the poor. Could a group of churches or denomination do this? Perhaps, but think about this for a moment. Over forty years have passed since President Johnson initiated the Great Society and well over ten have slipped by since President Clinton declared that the era of big government is over. In all that time few if any evangelical denominations or group of churches has stepped forth to grapple with the challenges of the poor head on. This may be a difficult point for us to accept because it means that even if the government retired from caring for the poor tomorrow we know that the church wouldn't immediately step up to fill the gap.
The myriad of needs that challenge the poor and less powerful are a another reason that the church is not equipped to fully address this issue. A child born to an impoverished black family today will face a daunting maze of challenges to rise from that status. The church would have to find a way to connect with that child and his or her family and begin to see to the proper nutritional, social, emotional and intellectual needs even before they began formal education. Being that home schooling is an unlikely option some other type of academically challenging education must be sought and to give you an idea of what that could entail my son's private Christian school will charge nearly a thousand dollars per month to educate an elementary child in the coming school year. Take a breath for a moment. I've merely mentioned an avenue to begin helping one child out of one family. I haven't even dealt with health care needs, a stable home environment, setting aside money for college, developing non-academic interest etc. Nor have I delved into how to serve the rest of that family, their immediate neighbors and community.
Aside from directly serving the poor and less powerful there are the many factors that impact them that the church would have to at least consider. These factors involve the entrenched disinvestment in America's large cities, the ever changing world economic landscape, the complexity of large scale economic systems and the difficulty in addressing the effects of long-term, generational poverty among others. Addressing the needs of the poor is far, far more complex than giving a family a dinner basket on Thanksgiving or a child a toy on Christmas. A substantial portion of America's population was caught in the grip of cyclical poverty long before President Johnson suggested the Great Society. That will not be reversed in a season, year or even perhaps a decade.
One more thought on why the suburban church will most likely not ride to the rescue of the poor. The prevailing line of thought among of many evangelicals with respect to the poor is that they must do what is needed to lift themselves from poverty. Many evangelicals believe in less government (except for the military and law enforcement sectors) because of their convictions that government is by nature inefficient and ill-suited to do much more than the basics of protecting the country from outside harm and insuring a general degree of law and order within the land. Added to this is the evangelical conviction that the problems of the poor have much more to do with unwise choices and personal irresponsibility. While I don't want to debate these things now I do think it's helpful to highlight that the mindset that believes the poor should take much more responsibility for their own lives may be less likely to want the church of which he is a member to expend resources to assist them to do so. For them the issue isn't should the government or the church help the poor, it's why aren't the poor doing more to help themselves.
There does however remain a way the church could potentially make a substantial impact upon the poor, but that's for the next post.
To Him Who Loves Us...