“The Sun is Up”: A Conversation with Martha Kearse

Rev. Dr. Martha Dixon Kearse is Senior Pastor of Peakland Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA. She was formerly the Minister to Children and Family Life (2001) and Associate Minister (2012) at St. John’s Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC.

Growing up in central Virginia, Martha graduated high school in Lynchburg. She then earned her BA in English and Education at the College of William and Mary. In 1985, she moved to Charlotte to teach high school English until 1997. Martha received her Master of Divinity in Pastoral Studies from the M. Christopher White School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University in 2007 and was ordained by St. John’s Baptist Church that same year. She received her Doctorate in Ministry at Gardner-Webb University in 2017. Martha and her husband Monty have four children ranging from ages 21 to 25.

Dr. Kearse talks to Michael about her book, The Sun is Up: One Minister’s Awakening to Racial Reconciliation.


Michael Cheuk 0:07
This is Michael Cheuk, and this is another edition of Communication Matters. And today, gosh, I am so excited to have an opportunity to talk to Reverend Martha Dixon Kearse! She wrote a book last year … published last year. The Sun Is Up: One Minister’s Awakening to Racial Reconciliation. And Martha, it is so good… we’re actually doing this live, face-to-face!

Martha Kearse 0:33
Yeah, it’s great. It’s great. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Michael Cheuk 0:36
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Martha Kearse 0:46
I’m a minister. It’s a second career. I was a high school English teacher, and grew up in Virginia, moved to Charlotte to teach high school. And then after I got married, and had these three children and was living the life, somehow that was the time that it was like, God was like, “Hey, now become a minister.” So that was 2001 was when I went into ministry. And that’s been kind of my life. I started out as a children’s minister, and then moved from there through kind of feeling the call to preach. And then last year got called to a church in Lynchburg.

Michael Cheuk 1:31

Martha Kearse 1:32
It’s pretty great.

Michael Cheuk 1:32
Yeah. Well, you know, me living in Charlottesville…welcome to the neighborhood!

Martha Kearse 1:36
Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s good to be in Virginia again.

Michael Cheuk 1:39
I’m so glad. Yeah. And you actually have family, you have some roots in Lynchburg, too.

That’s right. So I’ve lived in Lynchburg when I was in middle school and high school. And my parents don’t still live there. They moved to Virginia Beach. But yeah, so I know, I know, some people there and Lynchburg hasn’t changed all that much. It’s still pretty much the same. So that’s pretty nice.

That’s great.

Martha Kearse 2:03
Yes, I enjoy it.

Michael Cheuk 2:04
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about your book. The Sun Is Up. And first of all, I really appreciate it the way that you shared your life and your stories. And I love your notes. They’re so funny.

Martha Kearse 2:21
Oh, good! Good. Well, I kind of stole that technique from some other writers. But it’s a tough conversation. And I, I never want that to seem glib. But I also think if there is some lightness to be had in the moment, it can smooth over the conversation. So yeah, yeah.

Michael Cheuk 2:46
This is a serious topic. But I think the way that you have approached it, there’s so much humanity, but you’re able to see the humor.

Yes, sometimes. Yeah. Yeah.

In many times, it’s not at the expense of others. You’re just naming what’s going on in you.

I try not to. I don’t want to be mean, or to make fun of somebody else. But yeah, in the moment, like, you know, some of these things, you run up against things that don’t make sense or are just silly and wrong and backwards. And so yeah, finding the humor in that helps me to deal with the talking about something so hard.

Yes, yes. Well, what’s the book about?

Martha Kearse 3:32
Well, so two things kind of happened for one at once for me in my life, I was working on my doctorate. And at the same time, I ran into, got thrown into some social justice stuff. And kind of culminated in 2015. I had an opportunity to go with the Baptist Peace Fellowship, which is now Baptist Peace Fellowship of North Carolina (Bautista por La Paz). They sent a delegation to Ferguson, Mo. That year was the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting, and there was going to be a Moral Monday event. And so we went, I went with the delegation, and we were trained for like a week, and then we were part of this Moral Monday thing, part of which was to get arrested. And so that kind of put me on a different journey. And then, and then one year later, in Charlotte, September of 2016, was when Keith Lamont Scott got shot. And then there were protests in Charlotte. And so then for it to happen there in Charlotte, and for most of the white people in Charlotte, who a lot of whom are my friends, not to have had the experience, not have had the training, and not to understand a lot of the things that were behind it, was kind of rising to the surface. I had the advantage of having had some training, and, I had the advantage of having had that experience. And so I started to think, okay, I could be someone who helps white people hear what this is about.

So that’s kind of, and then so then it became part of my doctoral dissertation, or they call it a report, it’s not really a dissertation. What I decided to do was exploring this idea of the theology of biblical hospitality, as it relates to race. So if you think of us as being kind of the owners of land, well then when someone comes on to our land, how are we supposed to treat them? And biblical theology addresses that. It’s pervasive, it’s pervasive, right? So applying that to this, and seeing if that could help people to kind of wake up is the language I that I like, in the language of the Black Lives Matter movement of waking up to, “Oh, this is what I need to carry. This is what I’ve been doing. These are my actual sins.” So yeah.

Michael Cheuk 6:54
And I think you were talking about your own experience. Your experience goes before much farther back.

Martha Kearse 7:02
Well, right. Yeah. So I mean, you can’t live in the south and not have lived with the racial divides. That’s just that’s just been so as the teacher, you know, Charlotte was like this poster child for desegregation. And when I got there in 1985, it was like, it was like going well, … as well as could be expected. But it was it, you know, that part seemed to be succeeding. And then for that to take an just an absolute turn. And for the schools to become re-segregated, which is what they are right now. They’re they’re not completely segregated, but they are mostly, and then to watch how we didn’t really make any progress during my adult years. I’m 55. So the 30 years of my life that I’ve really been a conscious adult, we have not moved forward. We’ve not sought what we all thought. You know, Star Trek was like, every everybody gets along. We thought, Hey, this is we’re going to be going forward, and we’re not. And so that, that puzzling question of “Why not?” I think that’s something that most people think about every day. Like, why is this still a thing? Why are we still talking about it?

Michael Cheuk 8:36
I think when you talk about “Why can’t we get along?” right? I think one of your chapters like you know, “Love is NOT all you need.”

Martha Kearse 8:45
No, no, right. Right. So one of the things I think is very true of white culture, is that white culture says, “I own what I actually did.” That’s mature. “But I don’t own what I didn’t do.” So the problem with conversations about race has been went for black America, they’ve needed us to say, We’re sorry for slavery. They’ve needed us to say we’re sorry for Jim Crow. But they’ve hit the generation that didn’t own slaves and didn’t create Jim Crow. And so that generation is to do well, we, you know, sorry, that happened. But we didn’t do it. And so that ends the conversation with black people being extraordinarily frustrated with us, and angry, and rightfully so, because they’re not getting any apology. They’re not getting reparations, they’re not getting the things that …

Michael Cheuk 8:47
sometimes not even acknowledgement …

Martha Kearse 9:48
That’s right, that’s right, not even acknowledgement and certainly not justice. And, and, you know, white people being like, “Well, I didn’t do it, I don’t know to want for me, I can’t go back in time.” And one of the things that became clear to me over these last few years was, “What is our piece?” And that’s what I thought maybe I could help people understand that our piece was … we’ve been pretending that lynching was not pervasive. And that everybody didn’t know what was going on. We’ve been pretending that redlining didn’t destroy our cities and destroy whole neighborhoods. And take people’s property … Yes, this injustice, we’ve been pretending that, you know, a lot of the this privilege that we have, is merit based, and that we did that. And so talking about “Okay, how do you own that you didn’t earn? Everything you’ve got?” That’s, it’s tough. It’s really tough. But it is also true. And I think it’s … even though it’s difficult, it’s more likely that you can have a conversation about something when somebody hears you say it, and they go, “Well, that’s kinda, it’s kinda true. I did kind of do that.”

Michael Cheuk 11:19
Yeah. You also talk about abject failure. And we don’t, we don’t like failure. We never like to admit it, much less actually fail. Yeah, but it just sounds like as you share about your life, and in the congregations that you have served. I really appreciated the fact that you also named “These are the ways — in which maybe even out of good intentions — you failed …

Martha Kearse 11:50
Oh, yeah, I failed.

Michael Cheuk 11:51
I failed.

Martha Kearse 11:53
I think. I don’t know if this is true or not. But I have ADHD. And one of the things about having a learning disability is you learn early in your life, you’re going to need help. And you also know you’re gonna, you’re going to totally screw something up, you are going to mess something up. And so I don’t have … I DO have some perfectionism. And that’s it’s not true. Wouldn’t be true to say, I don’t have any. But I think I have a little more ability to go “Oh, yeah, I totally screwed that up.” Because I’ve had to say it. And so that’s kind of been one of the gifts I give in the communities, like I say to them when I go in, so I’m going to screw up … you just wait. And you’ll know when you see it …

Michael Cheuk 12:38
You just prepare them …

Martha Kearse 12:39
… just be ready. I’m going to totally mess this up. And so be that’s you’re my backup. And I think that’s, that’s something maybe I can offer is like Okay, so this perfectionism that works on us. And it does. I mean, middle class culture is all about the appearance of perfection. And it works on this coming generation. My children, your children. It weighs heavily on them to be to start being tested for perfection in the third grade, to start having homework in kindergarten, I don’t want to blame the schools … because it’s everywhere.

Michael Cheuk 13:24
It’s everywhere. It’s social media, and that kind of, you know, putting up that appearance on Instagram.

Martha Kearse 13:30
One of the things I was talking about this past week was hair and women, and how now, a woman has to like be conscious of every single hair on her body. All the hairs need to be accounted for and in place and the right color, and the right texture, and doing the right thing all at the same time. And it’s like,

Michael Cheuk 13:52
that’s a heavy burden …

Martha Kearse 13:54
It’s exhausting! And sometimes you’re responsible for your best friends hair as well. Because if she goes out not looking good, she’s gonna get mad at you. So yeah, I think I think one of the gifts we need to be giving each other as people of faith is saying, “Oh, no, you’re going to screw something up. Yeah, and I’m not going to stop loving you when you do that. I’m going to be there because I’m gonna screw something up.” I’m very conscious that I’m going to that’s what the that’s the Message. You can’t read that Book and not see that every person in there is like the wrong person who does it the wrong way and and pathetically offers an excuse for their failure and fails again. And God offers them grace and grace and grace and second chances and third chances. And if that’s not like the perfect example of … that’s how to live. Be ready, because everybody around us gonna mess this thing up. But if you continue to love them, you will find that’s a good way to live. That’s, that’s a happy positive way to live. So I think I think that, that failure thing. I hear more about it. So I’m hoping that the culture is turning a little bit of a corner.

Michael Cheuk 15:20
What you just said, to me, is a much more expansive and beautiful picture of hospitality.

Martha Kearse 15:30
Yeah, yeah. And, and I really love the language of biblical hospitality. It’s something that when I read it, when I started to study it, and there are excellent books about it. This is not this is not meant to be an exhaustive, theological tome, on biblical hospitality, but rather using that

Michael Cheuk 15:53

Martha Kearse 15:54
But this idea, and in fact, my Rabbi friends, it’s so central to Jewish faith. This idea you were a stranger …

Michael Cheuk 16:08
you were an alien,

Martha Kearse 16:09
You were the alien, you know what that is, therefore, you offer justice; therefore, you offer welcome. And, and how we lost that as as Christians, and ignored it. I mean, I was doing my doctoral work before it rose to the surface. For me, so, you know, this is something we need to recapture — this idea of hospitality. And I, I really like thinking of hospitality, as the very first job is “Our people safe?” And one of the things when I’m been talking to people about this book, I say, if you go into, say, a concert, or you’re, you’re someplace for a conference, the first thing you want to know, where does the first thing you look for .. it’s the bathroom. You need to know that you’re safe, that if you’re there in this building all day, and then the second thing you’re going to do is going to look for somebody who’s non threatening. If you don’t know anybody, you’re going to look for a safe person to sit beside, are you going to sit in the back by yourself. Yeah. Because you need to feel safe. And we have not attended to each other’s safety. And not even among middle class, if you want to narrow it down to who we have been kind of protecting. We’re not even safe in our little enclaves, because we haven’t been attending to it.

Michael Cheuk 17:44
I have learned from pastors and also activists who tell me that in a space like this, if the most vulnerable and marginalized are safe, then chances are all the rest of us are also safe. Yeah, yeah.

Martha Kearse 18:01
That was really powerful for me in the training in Ferguson, Reverend Sekou would teach us that. The ethic there was, if if a black female transgender woman, if she was safe, then everybody beyond — because she would be the most vulnerable — if she safe, everybody beyond her would be safe. And that was like, Yes! Yes! If if somebody who is a refugee, an immigrant, and doesn’t have any family around, if that person is safe, well then most of the rest of us are going to be safe. If you think about who it is that that we’ve left to the side. And a lot of the one of the one of the ethicists that I really grew to admire was T. B. Maston. And because one of the things he invokes is, when he’s talking about race, in the issues of race, he says, “Look, I don’t find any way for there to be an excuse. Because no matter what somebody else is, once they’ve entered your realm, you’re responsible for making sure they’re safe.” I don’t care if you have more money, I don’t care if you’re smarter, I don’t care. What the Bible says is “They’re your responsibility, and you’re supposed to treat them better than yourself.”

Michael Cheuk 19:45
One final thing too that I respect about you, and really all pastors who are on the, on the front line, and yet with his or her own congregation, is “How does one do this hard work of providing hospitality to the congregation that you’ve been called … and then following the call to expand that hospitality, to the widows and the orphans, to the immigrants to those who are maybe gender non-conforming … everybody?”

Martha Kearse 20:27
So I appreciate you asking that. Because I think we don’t talk about it very much. And it is a very delicate balance, when you’ve been called to a congregation, they, in my mind, are your first priority. But the thing you’re called to do is to connect them to a life of faith. And, and Jesus was not a safe guy, in terms of, culturally, he’s out there pushing buttons, right, and left,

Michael Cheuk 21:00
he crossed a lot of barriers …

Martha Kearse 21:01
He did. So, you know, walking that line of helping to connect them — to me, the first job is the congregation to which I’ve been called. But using the language of hospitality and safety within that system. So so one of the things that I’ve decided to do is to try and say, well, you’re not safe with each other, because you haven’t attended to safety. So if you haven’t talked about gender non conforming in a definitive way, so that, you know, if somebody’s child identifies like that, the whole system is safe. You know, if you’re not, if you’re not ready for the child who shows up with the tattoo, the child who shows up … cause they’re going to do that, the child who shows up with the blue hair, the child who then the child who shows up having an addiction problem, the child who shows up with mental illness … if you’ve not attended to your group, and the safety of your group, you’re not safe for that child. So that’s, to me, that’s the starting place. If you’re going to do the work of being a people of faith, the first task is being safe for each other. And as that, I think that as that safety rises in the community, as they start to understand the language, they start to, they start to frankly, see their children show up with addiction, with mental health issues, with gender non-conforming issues. And all of the sudden the community is learning. So for example, in a community where a kid can come to his or her parents and say, “I’m gay,” and know that when they go to their community face, the whole community of faith is going to say, “We love you.” When they when they begin to experience that, then they’ll start looking outward. And they’ll be able, I think, to look outwards and start to see “Oh, but is he safe at school? Oh, but is he safe when he goes to Starbucks and uses the bathroom?” And so those social justice issues then become personal to them. It’s the only way I know how to do it. I do. One little dilemma, which you’re aware of I’m sure is that this book showed up within months of my starting at a new congregation. And I had something like a panic attack, the day that the book came out, because while I had been honest about like, “I’m doing this book,” and they knew, they knew I’d been arrested. They knew my whole story. They hadn’t read the book. And so, you know, one of the things I’ve been trying to say to them is, my priority is still you. This work is part of that priority. It’s part of that. But it’s not instead, and it’s not like, you know, it’s not a hobby like bike riding. It’s folded in.

Michael Cheuk 24:38
When they called you they called ALL of you.

Martha Kearse 24:43
So, you know, the the business of faith is, it’s harder than it looks. And I think it’s harder than we were made to believe when we were children. That it was just about being nice.

Michael Cheuk 24:56
Say the prayer, get your ticket.

Martha Kearse 25:00
And you do the things, you know, you show up at the things. And it actually amounts to, you know: I don’t care about the things. I don’t care how many Wednesday nights you come to … not keeping track of how many Sunday school classes do you do. What does seem to matter is, “Are you making this part of who you are? Are you letting God in to your day to day life?” And that does seem to matter. And it’s much harder. It’s not nearly as easy as punching your ticket.

Michael Cheuk 25:35
Yes, yes. I really appreciate this conversation. And I think this is what you wrote, is about your life. But I think just in our conversation the last 20 minutes or so, that this is about your calling to gather God’s people into a space where each person is seen fully who he or she or they are, there is the safety. And when that happens, there can be conciliation and reconciliation across all different lines … racially, yes, just the all the various ways that we in our society, divide and categorize people heirarchically. And, you know, I’m just hearing you, like, having this wide, expansive… you know, this is God’s house. And we’re going to be a community called to hold each other lovingly.

Martha Kearse 26:52
Well, I mean, that’s the goal. Right? And I think that, again, my experiences that when communities start to experience that, there’s this looseness that comes, and all of a sudden, they’re like, “I had no idea. It could be like this.” One of the profound experiences was … I can’t remember whether this actually got into the book, but I did this sermon about lynching.

Michael Cheuk 27:28
Yes, it’s chapter nine.

Martha Kearse 27:32
Yeah. And I was in this group that we had started with Friendship Missionary Baptist there in Charlotte. And so it was the week before I was going to do this sermon … it was on you know, “Don’t bear false witness.” And the thing that kept coming to me was “That’s our sin, we’ve been bearing false witness.” So I go to this group, and it’s about about half African American, half white. And I said, “This is what I’m going to talk about this Sunday. What do you guys think?” And to a person, these … the blessings of this group was, we’re all church people. We all … every single one of us was like, “Yeah, my mom made me go every single… So we shared that ethic in common. And going around the room, every single one of the African American people was just like, “You have to, you have to, it’s going … it’s going to be hard, but you have to.” And then two of them came. Oh, that’s I know. I know. I know. And so yeah, that that thing, that blessing of having them offer us the grace of saying, “Do your hard work. We’re with you. We don’t hate you. We’re not looking for revenge or anything really from you, except that you do your hard work.” And that was yeah, that was very … I will never forget looking out in the congregation and seeing those two people right there. It’s like, “Oh, my God. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” So that’s the that’s the goal, I think. Yeah.

Michael Cheuk 29:19
Well, thank you so much, Martha, for having this conversation. And how can people get your book?

Martha Kearse 29:27
It’s available on Amazon. It’s published by Smyth and Helwys, so it’s available on their website as well, but Amazon has it in there’s a Kindle version.

Michael Cheuk 29:37

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Conversation with Jonathan Walton

Jonathan P. Walton is an area ministry director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship‘s New York/New Jersey region. He previously served for ten years as director of the New York City Urban Project. He writes regularly for Huffington Postmedium.com, and is the author of three books of poetry and short stories.

Jonathan talks to Michael about his book, Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive: And the Truth That Sets Us Free.

Additional resources recommended by Jonathan:

  1. 2030 Calling: Here is a vision video of what we’re hoping to do by 2030.
  2. Emotionally Healthy Activist: I would LOVE for a group of folks in Charlottesville to do the pilot of our emotionally healthy activist course. Total it will be 8 sessions. 
  3. Podcasts: you can search for IVED on i-Tunes and check out our podcasts or click here


Michael Cheuk 0:04
Hello, this is Michael Cheuk and I am doing another edition of Communication Matters. And today, I have the honor of interviewing Jonathan Walton. Jonathan just wrote a new book called Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive, and the Truth That Sets Us Free. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book. And one of the things that, as I was reading through, like, “Oh my gosh, Jonathan pastored … I mean, he lived and grew up in Broadnax, Virginia, which is in Southside Virginia.”

Jonathan Walton 0:04
I always try to make time for people who are trying to talk with me from where I’m from. I think one of the things that was really hard for me when I left Virginia was like, “How could I still impact a place that I that shaped me, even though I don’t live there anymore, and God didn’t call me there?” But I’ve been blessed. For the last 10 years have upwards of 1000 students come from University of Virginia, and VCU, and James Madison, and ODU, and Longwood and be able to minister to those students who are now pastors and teachers and leaders in Charlottesville and Northern Virginia and Farmville and things like that. So, um, I didn’t know that when I left Virginia, I would be able to disciple people from Virginia, but I’m really grateful that God has made a way for that. So I’m really glad to be talking to you.

Michael Cheuk 1:23
That’s great. That’s great. Thank you. So, you wrote this book, and I’m just kind of curious. Um, who’s your intended audience? Is it mostly students?

Jonathan Walton 1:34
Yeah. So I think if we were to think about the target for the book, I would think of a bulls-eye. The center of the bulls-eye is people who are in the boat, right? That is, it’s written for people who are interested in these issues, want to follow Jesus. This is not like a 101 kind of Christian pop entertainment, stuff about race, and then it goes away after three months, it’s not that. It’s really written as a a tool for discipleship. And so what I was hoping to do is give a biblical framework and Christ centered language to activists who may not have that background, and then push them to actually become the ministers of reconciliation that God has called us to, so they are the target. But outside of them, I’m hoping that they would then take these and go have those conversations with people who don’t have the same race, gender, class, status, faith-based belief that they do. So we’re able to engage with one another well, because pride, narcissism and hurry are the enemies of emotionally healthy activism. And so my book hopefully, will help people slow down and then say, hey, like, “Can we go… can we can we get a small group together and talk about this was why their questions”, and things like that. But it’s my target is not the person who doesn’t believe that racism is a thing, or doesn’t believe that militarism and materialism are our enemies. It’s not to convince anybody. That some people will be convinced, and that’s great. But it’s not a “Hey, guys, like I think this is true. It’s like no, Revelation 18 is true. Babylon will be destroyed. How do we leave Babylon?” That’s what this is about.

Michael Cheuk 3:11
Right. Right. Well, then let’s just kind of dive right in, because in this book, you have 12 lies that hold America captive. And it seems to me if I read it correctly, the whole thesis is, you know, the lies of white American folk religion, versus the truth of Christ and God’s kingdom. And I see you holding on to, I mean, not holding on, but just kind of like lifting up: “So here’s a narrative that we have been fed. But here is the scriptures, and here’s Christ and God’s kingdom. And so, which narrative? What story? How are you going to (respond)?” That’s how I read the book.

Jonathan Walton 3:58
Yes, that is literally how each chapter is set up. It’s like, “Hey, this is a lie.” And not just the lie that like, it’s nice to think about. But this is how I live my life. Like, when we start making claims of purpose and a destiny and identity and more and morals. You’re talking about a religion, you’re not just talking about, like a political structure, like how to get healthcare, you’re making decisions about people. So when we say who can vote, and who can’t vote, or where we’re going to bomb, or we’re not going to bomb or who’s going to be invaded or how colonization happens, we’re making decisions about people’s humanity. And there when Europeans came to America, and then went all over the world, they literally tried to remake the world in their image. And there’s, there’s theology written about that.

Michael Cheuk 4:49
Right. Right.

Jonathan Walton 4:50
And so we have to be able to wrestle with the reality that like, there is always a Babylon at work. And there’s always a kingdom of God at work. And if we’re not careful, then we will be a part of Babylon. Like, it’s, if every store that I go to, every meal I have, there’s opportunities for me to praise God, the Father, Son in the Spirit, or to participate in the exploitation of violence that Babylon necessitates. And that is overwhelming, which is why we’re not the Messiah and Jesus is. So I think, yeah, that’s I tried to paint that picture and then give some practical steps for leaving, leaving the idols that are surrounding us and are literally all over the world because America, in media militarism, has sent me materialism has sent the entire world, invited the world, into this system of worship through work, and money and accumulation hierarchy. And that’s just not what God intended it all

Michael Cheuk 5:55
Right, and you pull no punches in your opening salvo right? Lie #1: We are a christian nation. Boom!

Jonathan Walton 6:05
I didn’t, I did not want people to read, to start the book and feel duped. Or to think, oh, we have to be set up to make sure we can have this conversation. And reality is there are communities of people who’ve been having this conversation for a long time. And they can use the people who’ve been having this conversation, or haven’t started it. And I think we need to stop coddling people and say this is reality. And we get pastor them through that, to Shepherd them through that. But to avoid the hard stuff, I think does a disservice to people who have been suffering for a long time. How do we actually hold the tension, as opposed to just avoiding it and saying, “Let’s just take a little more time.” No! It’s really hard to say that to native people who don’t have running water. Really hard to say, “Oh, just more time.” You know, Martin Luther King worried about that, and his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Other people thought, “I have the privilege of moving on in so many ways. And I think God is saying like, no, don’t move on, like, please engage.” And so that was why chapter one start off with the biggest lie, which is: God will not have Gods before him. And that’s idolatry, you know?

Michael Cheuk 7:27
Yeah. Yeah. So how does one hold that tension? Because we definitely feel this tension in my work with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. There are pastors that are saying, “Look, how much more conversations do we need to have?” Right? “I mean, we’ve been doing this for 400 years … in my lifetime, I’ve been doing this many, many times.” I think some of the white pastors will say, “Oh, but we went to know you better. We wanted to hear your stories. Can you teach us?” In your perspective, what has worked in holding both of those things (the urgency and the patience)?

Jonathan Walton 8:08
Yeah, I think, um, I think there’s a lot of tools that are helpful, but I’ll try to be succinct. I think that’s when Pete Scazzero and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality talks about our emotional maturity being linked to our spiritual maturity. I think that there’s an intuitive leap there that needs lots of stones to make the connection. But once you make them, it’s like, oh, “I am uncomfortable with conflict. That’s why I don’t like to do this. I feel attacked. That’s why I don’t want to keep having this conversation. I feel disempowered. That’s why I don’t want to continue engaging.” It’s not that you’re actually disempowered, or that you’re actually threatened, or that your reality… like, but we don’t know how to deal with the tension. So I think, to phrase it another way, a student asked me, “How much am I supposed to lament?” And I said, every day, just make it as normal as everything else. Right? And then we will be comfortable with our full range of emotions rather they be joy or pain or delight, or sorrow, to be a full body person means that I can mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. And I think it’s impossible to mourn with those who mourn if your goal is life, liberty and happiness. It’s impossible, because … we have set up a culture — like when I asked my daughter when I get home every day, I asked her: “Did you have fun?”

Jonathan Walton 9:41
Because into my psyche is that she’s, she should have enjoyed her day, as of and I have to work hard not to correct her emotions when she sad, or like, tell my wife to like, just cheer up and keep on going. Like, the reality is, if I’m not willing to sit in the pain of my family, and my own pain, then I’m not going to do it out there. And so if we see the ministry of reconciliation is holy work, we’ll lean into God to hang in that tension. But if we see the ministry of reconciliation is something apart from the faith that we have in Jesus, we’re just gonna, we’re just going to burn out. Which is what I think a lot of people … we don’t know how to reconcile the the subversiveness of the gospel with our discipleship. When we need to, desperately. Or we’re not going to be able to sit in any conflict for a long period of time. In church, we can’t even make decisions about budgeting, because people know how to talk about money … can’t make decisions about sexuality, because people don’t know how to deal with conflict. Right? I think it really comes down to our levels of emotional health, and whether or not our discipleship is actually tactile, or is it (just) heady, you know.

Michael Cheuk 10:57
Man, Jonathan, so I what I’m hear you saying is that the tension that we experience in fill among the pastors in our Collective and perhaps in our community too … instead of saying, “Hurry up and let’s fix this,” maybe is more about, “Let’s sit in this more,” and ask “What is God trying to teach us through all this?”

Jonathan Walton 11:26
Yes. Because so for example, if you would like to, like y’all can sign up for emotionally healthy activist course. Right? I wish that I could have written both books at the same time, but I couldn’t do that. But like, we have rubrics to help people like, if I am a follower of Jesus, and I’m sent by God to do justice, it’s impossible for me to go without being sent. So we would protest totally differently if we prayed before we went, if we pray while we were there, and we prayed after we left, totally different if I showed up at a protest, and I didn’t need to feel seen, felt, validated, valued, or worthy or praised by the people who were there, I would protest totally different. And all of those things we can get in the presence of the living God. So if I show up to love you, and I don’t need anything from you, I can sit across from a white supremacist and have a conversation. Because I don’t need validation from them. I don’t need a stamp of approval, I don’t need a pat on the head. I don’t need a donation. I don’t need anything. I’m literally there to show them that I’m made in the image of God. And because I know that they are too.

Michael Cheuk 12:38
You also don’t even need the street cred of your own group: “Look how I can dismiss this white supremacist…”

Jonathan Walton 12:50
Right. Right. And so what you end up having, and there’s a great documentary about the there’s a young man, I think it is Daryl Davis, he’s not young, he’s a little bit older. But he sits down across from KKK white supremacists. And in the documentary, there’s a really terrible interaction between him and a Black Lives Matter activist in Baltimore. And what’s interesting about the ministry of reconciliation is that we have to understand that like, there are many walls that we’re crossing all the time. And you see him, this 1950s and 60s, activist sitting down with a 20 year old, and he’s like, the 20 year old will not make space for reconciliation. But then the older person, Daryl Davis doesn’t actually make space for this youth. So reconciliation can’t happen between the younger and the older. So the reconciliation is multi-layered, which is why I think Jesus being at the center always keeps us on our knees, always keeps us humble. Whereas if we center what we’re trying to do, then we will falter very, very quickly. We have to identify with those motives are, and that’s what we do in the course.

Jonathan Walton 14:04
There’s one student last week, I said, I don’t have to ask you, if you’re going to protest, I can just ask you what your mom and dad told you about conflict. If you don’t believe conflict is good, you’re never going to go out on the street. If you don’t believe conflict is good, we’re never going to be able to have a conversation about this stuff. And so, and she ultimately said, you know, like, there is no issue that I would protest for. It wouldn’t matter, you know, so stuff like that.

Michael Cheuk 14:32
Yeah. Wow. You know, we had talked about previously about how you have so many students from Virginia coming to you, and how they just, they were still having a hard time processing. Right. What happened on August 12, with the death of Heather Heyer, and all of that. Could you talk a little bit more about that? Because I love to hear your perspective. You know, from where you are, you may give us some insights, because we’re too close to the situation.

Jonathan Walton 15:04
Yeah, I mean, I think something that I wrote about last year before the book came out was, if we were able to see just like, again, a video game, you see how much how much life the person has, right? But instead of seeing the meter, above them, saying how much vitality they have, we saw how much unprocessed pain they were carrying. You able to sit down across from someone and see like, oh, they’ve got a mountain of unprocessed trauma that they’re carrying around. And so that is what I felt with the University of Virginia students when they’ve come the last few years. So I had students from the University of Virginia before Martese Johnson was beaten by the university police. And so I helped to shepherd the fellowship through addressing that, right? They literally just came from our training, and they got back to camp, and this happened. And so they were able to organize prayer meetings, they’re able to organize laments, they were able to build Bible studies and discipleship groups. The staff who was there at the time, Derek Monue (sp?) was able to say, this is not an obstacle to ministry, this is an opportunity for people to meet Jesus, the Risen King. And so that type of stuff was able to happen, because you had people on campus who had been trained, not in how to address a short term thing, but actually invite people to walk towards Jesus together.

And that, you know, with what happened on August 12, I think that what students are carrying, particularly those students that are people of color, when they walk into campus, what they’re hoping to find is safety, to be themselves. Now, what’s interesting about that, is at the exact same time, where white supremacy does to white people who feel besieged, is they too are looking for a safety. Right. So you have two groups of scared people, right? coming together who are unwilling to be themselves. Right? And so they posture as though everything is fine. And I think we are taught to be that way until a crisis happens. So for me, like, we have exercises in the book to have conversations about ethnic identity, that makes comfortable space to talk about race and power, because usually we only talk about race and power in America when there’s a crisis. And no one makes healthy decisions when we feel besieged. And when we talk about white supremacy, white people are under siege of white supremacy, as well as people of color. White supremacy has no friends, doesn’t benefit anyone. But we’ve been taught that it does. And so my hope would be, particularly for my students from Virginia, is that when they come here, and with the courses we do, the books that I’m writing and the resources that we make, is you have food for the journey to be able to have the conversation.

Jonathan Walton 18:16
And I hope to be doing that for as long as I can.

Michael Cheuk 18:21
Also sounds like, you know, when we confront people with lies, we can just say, “So here are the facts, brother. And you’re wrong.” Right? Right. I think what I’m hearing from you is that where we’ve seen in social media, and in our culture right now, sometimes we don’t even know what the facts are.

Jonathan Walton 18:45
Right? Right.

Michael Cheuk 18:48
Or some people will try to say that this is false news or whatever. Right? So yeah, I’m think deeply emotional. Embodied. You can call it, implicit bias, you can talk about confirmation bias, you can put them all of those kinds of things, but it’s all wrapped around with such strong need to tell myself, “I’m really a good person.” Instead of, you know, saying “for all have sinned, and fallen short, and that truly, you know, I’m really, truly a sinner, but only saved by the grace of God.”

Jonathan Walton 19:26
No, well, I think we are really, we are really, really uncomfortable with confession. Because that means you have to reflect, which means you have to slow down, which means we won’t be as productive. And our entire society is based on everyone being as productive as possible.

Michael Cheuk 19:43
Right…to feed economic capitalists engine,

Jonathan Walton 19:47
Yes. And like so I think for me, like the image that has been — I didn’t use this image in the book… But if we used the image of a plantation, and say, okay, what’s the goal of living on a plantation? The goal of living on plantations to be in the big house, that’s the goal, to do as little work as possible, and receive the most benefit. That’s the goal. And the way that we do that, downstream of us is by keeping the people who make our lives possible, as busy and as occupied as possible, to not reflect, to not slow down, to not see, just keep going. And the reality is that like, if we don’t slow down, we won’t reflect. And if we don’t reflect, we don’t learn. And we and many, many, many, many, many followers of Jesus have not learned anything about how to follow Jesus. We know how to think about God. Right, and like, oh, how it should be. But there is a young man who said he became a Christian when he was 21, for 21 years, he’s been a first year Christian. And that’s, that’s so much of what our spirituality looks like. I don’t fault people. But I do believe that there is a there is a deception at work by powers and principalities and spiritual wickedness in high places to keep us moving in this way. And when we decide to resist, there will be fleshly stuff that I’ve ever, you know, the unholy trinity, right? The flesh, the world, the devil, those things will come into play. And that is where I think discipleship really happens. But we’re not, and I don’t think … the Barna group did a study about this, like most people are not being mentored, which means you’re not being discipled. And so if if we’re not discipling people around these things, this is what we’re going to get. We’re going to get people who literally live like the culture of the world. Because what else? Like if we say most of our discipleship around sexuality is pornography, then it makes sense that this is. If most of our discipleship around like how to treat men and women is either toxic masculinity as it’s called, or a patriarchy. Like, we wonder why, we’re reaping what we reaping?

Michael Cheuk 22:03
Yeah. Because the system is this perfectly designed to create the results.

Jonathan Walton 22:09
Yeah. And I think someone said, in Charlottesville last year, like this is not who we are. No, no, it is who we are. Like, let’s just can we can we say that? Because Yeah, because it is who we are. I am prejudiced. My wife is Chinese and Korean. And when I got married, I realized, Oh, I have issues with Chinese and Korean people. Like that… Wait, I’m afraid in this Bible study to be my full self. And I’m projecting my fear. Like I wrote about that, like,

Michael Cheuk 22:40
Yes, you did.

Jonathan Walton 22:41
Yeah. And so if we, but if we cannot confess it, we can address it. And God can’t bless it. Because on the opposite side of confession, is always blessing and forgiveness. But we have not experienced it as a culture. People who confessed what happens are ostracized, stripped of their platform and isolated. And like, that’s not how the kingdom of God operate.

Michael Cheuk 23:03
Well, I do want to say just how vulnerable you are in the book, as you confess. And so I never read it as just somebody who had … who has it all together, and just saying, “Look, wake up, and do right.” Right? But that, that you’re on this journey to?

Jonathan Walton 23:27
I’m glad that that’s the case. Yeah. The only reason that I have not written Emotionally Healthy Activist, like it’s just a course right now, is because I have people in my life who say, Jonathan, like, these are great ideas, but you don’t embody this. See? Right? You know, and I and I appreciate having a publisher that’s like, when you’re ready, you can write it, you know, because the reality is, I think it’s, it is so easy for me to write a Bible study or write reflection exercise. Much, much harder to do those things. Like to write a 40 day Lenten thing and like I, we write things that we don’t even do them as pastors and leaders. And so, I’m glad that the sentiment that I’m on the journey as well and I’m not finished was was, was picked up in the book. That’s, that’s really helpful. Thanks.

Michael Cheuk 24:23
Well, good, good. Well, looks like we’re at the end of our time together. Any takeaways that you would like for me and others to … ?

Jonathan Walton 24:33
Um, yeah, shameless plug, I would love to stay in touch with people in Virginia. Um, if you need anything, please ask. I am, I am invested in Virginia. And so all of our resources are available on the best places patreon.com/ived. And I want and I, I really want to implore people, particularly who are older and want to start up people who are younger, or people who are of one ethnic identity and racial assignment and want to talk a lot like we have to have conversations across difference. Or we’re just doing what the world wants. And so however, I can help that process to happen … being in the muck, being in the mire, like with people I’m glad to do. I’m not interested in Christian entertainment, or producing Christian material. But I’m very interested in how do we make disciples of all nations that baptize name of the Father, Son, the Holy Spirit, cast out demons and heal the sick and do all the things that he commissioned us to do. So if y’all want to do that, I am glad to help as, as as my emotional boundaries and physical capacity can handle.

Michael Cheuk 25:53
Sure, sure. Well, can I just say how grateful I am that you have given me this time stretching your physical and emotional boundaries, even as it is. So thank you so much, Jonathan, and Blessings to you as you continue your work. Pray for us. We will pray for you.

Jonathan Walton 26:13
I appreciate it. Thanks. Can I pray right now, a blessing that’s at the end of the book? Awesome.

Jonathan Walton 26:19
So may God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships that you might live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people in the planet that you might work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war that you might reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world that you can do what others claim cannot be done to bring justice, kindness and the good news of Jesus to every corner of creation especially to the children and to the poor. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Michael Cheuk 27:07

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Conversation with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a speaker, spiritual writer, who, along with his wife Leah, founded Rutba House a house of hospitality where the formerly homeless share community with the formerly housed. He has also worked with the Rev. William Barber on the Poor People’s Campaign. Rev. Wilson-Hartgrove talks to Michael about his 2018 book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.


Michael Cheuk 0:04
I’m Michael Cheuk, the host of Communication Matters. And today I have the privilege of having a conversation with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. He is the author of the book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slave Holder Religion. I have really been challenged by this book. And I look forward to having this conversation with you, Jonathan, about your work, both in written form, but also in living embody form continually in terms of racial justice, so thank you.

JW-H 0:39

Thank you. I’m glad to talk to you and to the Collective via this video. I’m grateful for the work you’re doing there in Charlottesville.

Michael Cheuk 0:49
Well, thank you so much. Yes, to begin … Reconstructing the Gospel. What’s the main thesis?

JW-H 1:00
Well, I’m borrowing “Reconstruction” from American history there, you know, the period following the Civil War was a time when there was a broad recognition that in order to recognize all people as citizens and guarantee equal protection under the law, the structures of our society would have to be reconstructed. And there was a massive resistance to that in the South that was shrouded in religious veneer. As a matter of fact, historians called that period of backlash against reconstruction, “Redemption.” And so they take a theological term, and they do so rightly, because it was often preachers who were telling southerners that they needed to be redeemed from black people who had political power and from what they perceived as, or what they framed as northern corruption coming and destroying their way of life. And that led to the era of white supremacy in this nation’s history that was not just about the south. It was about whiteness being framed as a norm. And, and everything from science to sociology being used to justify that white supremacy, and religion working hand in glove with that, right. So slaveholder religion is not just about the southern denominations that separated from Northern or, you know, other …

Michael Cheuk 2:42
anti-slavery denominations, so to speak,

JW-H 2:44
Yeah, not just … but it’s the influence that that whole conversation has had on what we think we understand when we talk about church and Christianity in America. And this book is about my own journey of trying to understand how reconstruction can be a framework to help us understand what Jesus is up to, and what the real gifts are, that can invite us into the heart of the gospel, that tradition that I often call the freedom church, a tradition that has always resisted slave holder religion, on the edges of plantations, you know, with folks who got away to the brush harbors when slavery was still the law of the land. But that tradition has continued and all sorts of fugitive and an interracial ways, right? It’s not never been just a quote unquote, “black church.” It’s always been a church for all people. Right? And I think ultimately, that is the richest witness we have in the American story of what the way of Jesus looks like in our world. So it’s really a book about trying to highlight that to to help people understand Jesus through the lens of the great gift of freedom church in America.

Michael Cheuk 4:07
Yeah. I think as I read your book, there is such an awareness and intentionality about our “embodiedness.” I mean, you talk about blindness, you talk about our broken bodies, our shriveled hearts, our deaf ears. And I’d love to hear more about how you see all of those things working together to reconstruct our whole beings as individuals and as a society.

JW-H 4:48
Yeah, well, I think part of what I have to realize is someone who’s been a long journey of trying to find freedom from the habits and practices of slaveholder religion is that I had inherited a way of understanding Jesus and the Christian story, that that was, by and large, disembodied, and that that had everything to do with the history of justifying the enslavement of black bodies. Right, so going back and reading, the actual structure of the arguments that were made, during the 19th century to say, that, you know, enslaving African people was actually good for them. White preachers argued in the south, because it allowed for their souls to be saved in the Hereafter, and, and that there was no necessary change in the condition of their bodies, but that it was a good because it promised them eternal salvation. That that distinction between the embodied reality of faith and the inner destination of this imagine soul, because somehow be separated from body that has deeply shaped American Christianity in many, many different dreams. And so I think it’s, it’s a part of the culture in which we are called to, you know, turn from the habits of this world toward eternal life. And, and if we understand eternal life, as a way of embodying the reality that Jesus Christ in flesh, when he dwelt among us, and demonstrated in, you know, a community that Jesus was forming, and that Jesus promised would be a reality in the body that’s called the church, I think that we can begin to understand the sort of multiple levels on which embodying the message of Jesus is really what it means to be Christian.

Michael Cheuk 6:43
Yeah, yeah. So I must confess, … I have a tendency to think that kind of doing this work, right, is something that maybe I can merely think my way through … a conversion of certain ways of believing. And I think what you’re trying to tell me and others is that this reconstructing the gospel really calls for the transformation of our bodies rooted in communities, because your book has a lot to say about actual practices. And not just about merely our head knowledge. So, did I read that right? Or am I catching that correctly?

JW-H 7:42
Oh, yes, yes. I’m glad it’s coming through loud and clear.

And you know, I’m saying what I’ve learned from my own experience, I mean, I’m a deeply shaped by, you know, the intellectual traditions of the Evangelical Church in the United States, you know, the institutions of higher education that trained me. So I get that, and, you know, I have benefited from critical reflection on things. So I’m not in any way discounting the role of reason, or critical thought plays in the life of faith. But, you know, I think about just being true to the tradition that we’ve inherited, that, that the intellectual life in the true Christian faith is always faith, seeking understanding. And in some ways, I think slave holder religion obscured the way in which faith is necessarily an embodied reality that’s experienced in the body. And that what theology has always been at best is secondary to that, right? It’s a reflection on, you know, what does that mean? And how do we make sense of that in terms of thinking … But no, until you’ve experienced the reality of Jesus being present to us in a community, of a loving community, that’s real. And that breaks down the social habits and divisions that we’ve inherited, and that so often separate us, I don’t think we can understand very well, what faith means. So when I talk about this book, these days, I often, in group group work, find myself just wanting to teach people to sing the songs. Sing the songs of the freedom church, because in so many ways, I think those songs resonate in the body. Right, you can’t sing without letting them hum in your gut. And there’s something about that, hum, I think that communicates to us the deep truth of the tradition.

Michael Cheuk 9:53
Yeah, especially toward the end of your book, I mean, the healing of the heart. And you, you talked about, about your experiences, and, and how the singing of those gospel hymns and songs were very transformative.

JW-H 10:10
So yeah, actually, this makes me think there’s a great window into this gift of the tradition that is captured in a film that’s coming out. So Easter weekend, they’re finally releasing the film of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album. It was recorded in 1972, but they botched the technical stuff of it. It’s, you know, kind of been in a dustbin for a while. But anyway, it’s been restored. And I’ve had a chance to screen it with the poor people’s campaign. And it’s absolutely incredible! Because what it captures is the conversation, the communal conversation that’s happening between between her, as you know, a master of the craft, and that tradition, and the choir and the others she’s working with She’s working with the Reverend James Cleveland, who’s one of greatest gospel artist, the 20th century. She’s doing that in conversation with a congregation that’s there. It’s recorded in a church. And in some ways, I think it captures on film, what I’ve often seen sitting on the pulpit of churches, where you can watch how the music is moving through people’s bodies. And the gospel that is preached is in some ways inhabited in that song.

Michael Cheuk 11:27
As you’re saying that, so I’ve been a pastor for about 20 years in white churches. But in the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of worshiping in black churches. And my experience is that when I worship in the black church, it’s more “bodily.” There’s more of a conversation. When I preach as the minister of my church, right, it felt to me like a monologue.

JW-H 12:03

Michael Cheuk 12:04
Whereas while worshiping in a black church, there is this kind of communal 360 conversation that goes around …

JW-H 12:16
Yeah, if what you’re saying is true, somebody’s going to say “Yes, Lord!” And if you’re getting a little heady, they’re gonna say “Help him, Jesus!”

Michael Cheuk 12:22
Right! Right! Yeah, yeah. And is that what you’re alluding to in terms of this, this dialogue, this conversation that’s happening all around, so that becomes a truly a communal thing. And maybe even less this hierarchical (thing), whereby the preacher is always like on a high pulpit: “This is the word.” And we just kind of receive it. Whereas the other is, is more like a give-and-take. And there’s a movement of the Spirit so that if there is even a printed bulletin, right? there is freedom to say, “The Spirit ain’t going there!” It just kind of go with what they sense in their bodies.

JW-H 13:10
Yeah. Yeah, I think, you know, transgressing our religious sense of order is an important part of living into the gospel. Jesus actually says this, you know, when the woman who’s called Mary, in one of the Gospels comes in, and washes his feet, and breaks the jar and you know, uses her tears. It’s very disruptive to the Pharisees and folks … the respectable people at the dinner. And Jesus says pointedly, that wherever the gospel is preached, this story must be told. And it’s striking to me how we’ve sanitized that from the experience of worship. In most of American Christianity, there’s actually a culture that refuses to be interrupted. And I think there’s an openness in the freedom church to the fact that God is greater than any order that we imagine or try to impose on what God might be up to. And doesn’t mean we don’t plan and it doesn’t mean that there’s not structure and craft that goes on into singing and preaching and all that. But, yeah, there’s an openness to recognize that God can show up. And if God really shows up, you know, the person who’s supposed to be in charge might fall out on the floor. You know, it’s entirely possible. And, and if it does, that’s not the end. That’s actually the beginning of something important. So I think that openness to the Spirit is an important part of what has to be learned if we want to leave slave holder religion behind.

Michael Cheuk 14:53
What I’m hearing from you, too, is, those of us who have been conditioned by our previous college, have assume that we have control. Yeah. And when we don’t have control, it disrupts us. Yeah, mentally, spiritually, physically, and it is very, very uncomfortable. But in communities where they have experienced oppression, they know within their very body that in so many ways, life is out of their control. And it is almost like a school of discipleship to fully trust in the Providence and the provisions of, of Almighty God.

JW-H 15:51
Yeah. Yeah. Wow, so much of the Bible then begins to make sense, you know, the stuff that just does that I was kind of taught, at least implicitly to just dismiss because it wasn’t practical, you know, give to whoever asks, How in the world, are you going to do that? If you think you’re in control? Like, you know, that’s no, that’s no a guiding principle, it’s not in the bylaws of any foundation. Who gives … who gives to whoever asked? This, this is not a strategic plan. But this is a way of engaging when you know, you’re not in control. Right? Right, that any any request of you is an interruption that could be a gift. So you open yourself to radical receptivity. Jesus is trying to invite us into that. And I think whiteness is a lie that closes us off to that truth of the gospel.

What you said about control, I think is, is probably a better description of what whiteness actually is, than us using the color words that we’ve inherited, because I really don’t think whiteness has much of anything to do with the shade of skin, especially as it’s performed today. Basically, anyone can be white as long as they’re willing to perform the expectations of whiteness. But basically, what that means is to pretend that you’re in control. Because of course, that’s what the plantation economy depended on, right? You ever acknowledged that you weren’t in control? And they were way more of the people enslaved than there were the enslavers? How could you maintain the thing if you didn’t pretend that you are in control and that God had ordained you to be in control? That’s the foundational lie of slaveholder religion, that God somehow blessed this system that gave some small group people control over the bodies ofeveryone else.

Michael Cheuk 17:43
Right, right. And so there, then we have do some machinations theologically, and through biblical interpretation, and literally through laws and structures and systems in order to maintain control by a small group of people over others. Yeah, for the sake of profit and comfort and privilege.

JW-H 18:10
Yeah. And I think talking about what that does to bodies, to people who live within those structures, is helpful to get us beyond the kind of, you know, impasse we have in so many conversations about race where … white people are often trying to sort of flip the conversation around in these what I find to be fairly pointless conversations [around] reverse discrimination, … when as a matter of fact, like whiteness is this lie, that people with lighter skin were invited to perform, in order to prop up a system that actually didn’t benefit most of them. Poor white people haven’t benefited much from racism, either. But they have been sort of attracted to the myth that, you know, even if they weren’t much, they were at least better than a black person.

And I think, I think part of finding freedom from that is hearing this radical message of Jesus, which is essentially summed up in Psalm 118, that the stone that the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone. That’s like what it’s all about, that the system, the world system — that gets called various things in Scripture, but is always at root, a manifestation of sin of rebellion against God — that world system rejects people that God made. And the good news of Jesus is that those people who’ve been rejected, are actually in a position to show all of us what it means to really be human. And so when we join the community, where the rejected people are elevated to the position of being, you know, the capstone on the arch, then then we can realize what it means for all of us to be human. And to realize that sort of exaltation of people based on this lie, was actually bad for the people who were exalted too! You know there’s, there’s nothing worse than believing that you have some, not only divine right, but responsibility to control other people. That’s this, that’s destructive of the soul. And it has warped people into this imagination of control that has kept us from, from receiving the gift that God wants to offer us. So that’s why I think exposing the lie of slaveholder religion is really only a pathway towards like opening ourselves to the gift, to really recognize what it is that Jesus is offering us.

Michael Cheuk 21:13
I want to take what you’ve just said, and turn that into the work that we’re doing in the Collective. I think, you know, we we’re a group of probably about 25 people who come every month. And right now, currently most are white. We probably have five or six black leaders, and they were, they were the leaders from the beginning. But I sense, I mean, I think there’s always this kind of … here, here are some things that we’re experiencing and hearing, right? The number one: maybe a little bit of grief that there aren’t more black faith leaders who are part of this collective. That’s number one. Number two, is maybe there’s a temptation on our part, those who are not black to kind of takeover, frankly, you know, to kind of take the take the lead. There’s also the tension of those of us who really want to hear and to listen, — which listening was a very big part toward the end of your book, right? — to listen to the story and experiences of our black brothers and sisters. But they tell us that some of those things, you know, that they’re really tired of constantly over and over again, re-traumatizing themselves to tell these stories to white people. And many times they could do their own research and Google it and understand without them having to always put themselves out there, right? And then finally, this sense of I think, among most of the white pastors, there’s a need to go slow in reconstructing the gospel, so to speak, in their own faith communities. While we hear, I hear, loud and clear that for many of our black leaders, they have a sense of urgency. They say, look, you know, we’ve had 400 years of oppression. And that’s enough! What tangible actions can we do to make life more safe, equitable for black people, for people of color?

JW-H 23:59
Well, I don’t think it has to be extremely complicated. Because the people who’ve had their backs pressed against the wall in this nation’s story have been pretty clear throughout about what they want. And have been organized in, you know, organizations like the NAACP for a century. So I think the response from folks you’re in relationship with make sense of people do get tired of repeating themselves. I think most folks just want people who are waking up to the realities that they have experienced and born in their bodies, to show some genuine commitment to do something about it. So you know, join your NAACP, join the poor people’s campaign, join the movements that have been trying to work for racial justice in this country. And then show up and do the things that those people asked you to do.

I don’t think it’s incredibly complicated. But it but it is difficult, because it’s often costly to people who have inherited all of these — I mean, part of whiteness is inheriting these kind of categories. Where I think often for Christians, there are proposals that sound radical, because you’ve been told that they’re radical. You know, there are some circles in which people are beginning to talk about reparations? Like, why would anybody who reads the Bible not think that reparations, whenever there’s an injustice, matter? Like, that seems pretty basic, but people have been, you know, [told] that’s a radical idea, and that it would disturb people, and they leave the church or whatever.

So, I think just a sort of a simple commitment to show up and to do the things that people have been asking folks to do is one piece of it. And the other thing is that I think most white folks — or most people who’ve been conditioned by whiteness, — also, we need to open ourselves to the way in which sorrow and joy dwell together, in beloved community. To just show up to do the things you asked to do, but to not always be so serious about it. If you want to survive, the freedom church says you got to be able to sing sometimes, you got to be able to dance sometimes. To be able to eat good food, and enjoy one another, and talk about something other than the issues. You got to actually care what’s going on people’s lives and how their mom and dad and cousins are doing. Like that’s, that’s a big part of, and to appreciate the richness of culture that is there.

I think most, most people who think they’re white, have no idea how ignorant they are, of the way in which even the culture that we think we understand has largely been appropriated and pulled out of the context in which it makes sense and is part of a community. And I think to, to simply want to be part of the community that has produced the greatest gifts that have emerged out of this nation: gospel music, jazz music. Yeah, I think if you have any sense of the contemplative tradition and Christian history, you ought to want to — like if you heard John Coltrane play one song — you want to want to be part of a culture in which you would show up in a place where somebody is doing that on Saturday? Why would you want to be part of that?

Michael Cheuk 28:16
Yeah. Ah, so I think once again, what I’m hearing from you is, there already have been people doing this work. So join them, and let them take the lead. But as you do the work, also understand that we are in relationship, and so we can have fun, and we can play and we can appreciate the gifts that we all bring, but especially those that we’re trying to … I think for me, as I hear this, and hooks, my great temptation, like to be the savior. And, and just to follow what Christ did, and be incarnational and lived among the people. Right. So that’s, that’s, maybe that’s my takeaway, from what you’ve just said.

JW-H 29:22
Yeah. Yeah, white people might not need as many vacations if they, if they had some decent block parties to go to …

I never ceased to be amazed by how much people spend on cruises. It just scratch my head, I have no desire to go on a cruise. I don’t know why people want to do that. But in some ways, I think it again, like, you know, I’m not saying that there’s never a time to get away from people. But it does seem to me to be an expression, even that kind of American notion of a vacation, seems to me to an expression of how the so-called privileged people in this society, understand somehow that their so-called privilege is not a real privilege. There’s still the sense that people want to get away from it. And I think, I think we ought to pay attention to that, and listen to it, and, and ask ourselves what that says about the life that we’re pursuing. And whether it, whether it is what the Bible calls to life, that’s really life. Or whether we need to learn from people who know how to take care of one another, know how to love one another, know how to enjoy life a little bit while they’re going through. Learn from them what it means to really live.

Michael Cheuk 30:45
Yeah, thank you. Well, I see that we are at the end of our time. Do have a parting word, to those who might be viewing this video?

JW-H 30:59
Well, the me just say to those of you who were in Virginia, who like me down here in North Carolina, you know, have to pray and find our way right in the belly of what was the birthplace of the plantation economy. I think we’re living in a moment, when, as Malcolm X used to say that the chickens are coming home to roost, in terms of this history that we’ve inherited. And I know that is scary and painful. And I’ve spent a little time with you all there in Charlottesville. And I know that there are options of violence and and this white nationalism that that you all have seen have been traumatizing to a lot of people. And so I just want to lean into the contemplative wisdom of the freedom church, to encourage people to — well, as we say, in church — to take, take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there, which is not a way of saying that you can lay it down once and for all, but a way of saying that we can enter together into a kind of communal contemplation, where we can tend to these wounds, even while we continue to struggle. So that’s my prayer for y’all that you will take care of one another love one another, even as you continue to maintain a bold witness against the lies that are that are really destructive, not only for our black and brown sisters and brothers who are bearing the greatest burden of this, but also for those young white men who — who a few of them live there, many of them have shown up from elsewhere — who are being sold a bill of goods by by a neo-capitalist regime that’s in decline, and can’t offer all of the titillation that maybe it did to their parents, to keep things going. And yet, is still trying to sell this false identity as a way of holding on to control. I think that’s what we need to be freed from. So I’m praying for your healing, for mine, and for us to be able to maintain a witness to a better way.

Michael Cheuk 33:20
Thank you so so much, really appreciate it. And to know that there are folks like you and others who are doing this work and who continue to press on. It’s an inspiration to us. And so thank you for the work that you do. And we just continue to be faithful in the ways that God has called us and continue to call.

JW-H 33:43
Amen. Bless you. Good to be with you.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Conversation with Tod Bolsinger

Dr. Tod Bolsinger is Vice President and Chief of Leadership Formation and Assistant Professor of Practice Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Bolsinger has authored three books, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms LivesShow Time: Living Down Hypocrisy by Living Out the Faith, and we will have a conversation around his third book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory and its implications for the work of racial justice and equity.

Video Highlights

1:30 – Racism as an adaptive challenge. “The key to Lewis and Clark’s being able to go into uncharted territory was their capacity to learn from people that they would have considered marginalized.”

2:03 – When the expedition crossed the Lemhigh Pass … “the only person who wasn’t lost was a native American, teenage, nursing mother, Sacagewea.”

3:00 – The Lewis and Clark corps had to “grapple with their own bias to learn to listen to Sacagewea and to recognize her as the expert in this uncharted territory.”

3:14 – “The place where the church is growing and thriving is the global south, the majority world, the immigrant church, and mostly, the African American church and the Latino church. The places where the church is declining these days are the traditional churches in the West.”

4:21 – Distinction between a technical problem and an adaptive challenge. Technical problem – a problem that an expert can solve Adaptive challenge – an expert can’t solve it. It requires the learner and the group to learn and to face losses so that they can be able to get their capacity and perspective they need to be able to face that challenge. It takes growth. It’s learning and loss.

5:15 – “One of the hardest parts about implicit bias is if we don’t know we have them, we will default back to our training…”

5:25 – In our dominant culture, “we believe that for every problem, we either should have the solution or we should find the solution. The problem is will, and not your inability to even see the problem. Adaptive challenges require you to do deep observation before you try to do intervention. Observations that lead to interpretations that lead to interventions. It’s really about the multiplicity of voices being able to see the problem more clearly before you try to solve it.”

7:40 – The implicit bias inherent in assuming western (white, male, European) systematic theology as the normative theology, and “other” theologies (e.g. liberation, feminist, black, etc.) as “contextual” theologies.

9:50 – “Change is always experienced as loss. People aren’t resisting change, they’re resisting the loss.” 13:48 – Personal practices of observing, learning, and listening instead of giving advice.

14:50 – Cultural competency vs. cultural humility

16:36 – “We need both experience and expertise. We need more of us at the table, not less.”

16:50 – “We need to safety to learn as we go, and we mostly learn by failing. How can we fail safe, and learn from our failures?”

17:30 – “What I need is a place where I can show up and I know it’s OK if you correct me if I say or think or miss something. And I also need to know that you are not going to hold back because you’re afraid of insulting or hurting me. And that you are a competent person who own your own stuff, so that when I step on your toes, or say something wrong, you’re not going to kick me out of the room because what I’m learning to do is something I don’t know how to do.”

18:03 – Part of what adaptive leadership is about, is about learning. “Adaptation is when the environment changes, and for you to thrive, you need to be able to hold onto the thing the most important about your sense of your core DNA and learn how to adapt into this new environment. That learning takes humility, and it requires loss, and it means wrestling with competing values.”

19:15 – When we consult with churches, we spend the bulk of our time asking the question: “What are you going to hold on to? What should never change about you? What is it about your core DNA that if you lost it, you stop being yourself?” It doesn’t do any good for you to adapt into something that you are not.

21:00 – “Christianity and faith is about laying down for the sake of God’s work in the world.”

21:53 – What to remember and what to forget. “The Scriptures are filled with places where the people of God forget…and they fall into idolatry. And they are told to remember. But part of what they have to do is to forget their privilege to remember their roots.”

23:30 – “We default to our old mental models over and over again. Repentance is learning to see what God is doing.”

25:19 – “Being adopted into God’s family and sharing that common memory. “Part of what it means to be the people of God is that we are adopted into a new family that shares a purpose that will ultimately be about the entire enfolding of the entire world. And not in a hegemonic way, but in a way that all the kingdoms of the world knows Christ and where there is now justice and goodness, and every tear is gone and every unrighteousness is banished. And that becomes the way that we live into this future. And for most of us, if we’re used to holding on to what is familiar to us, we will never get to experience what the Scriptures say is core to God’s family.”

Conversation with John Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor, and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past four years his blog “Stuff That Needs To Be Said” has reached a diverse worldwide audience. A 20-year veteran of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. In 2017 he released his first book, A Bigger Table. His new book, Hope and Other Superpowers, arrived on November 6th.

We talk about how Christians and churches can be more involved in advocating for justice and equity for all people.

Video Highlights

JP – In the past couple of years, faith communities have been given a gift to decide: “What are we really doing here at this geographic spot?” “At this time in the history of the planet, what is our responsibility? And what about the character of Jesus? 1:37

Michael – What are the steps that could be helpful to help a congregation move from being standstill … to taking a step or two?” 3:40

JP – I think part of it is being a story learner, to be able to be a listener, of another person’s experience, without speaking into it, without judgment, without any rebuttal. And so making space where people can simply be heard, and to let that sort of person’s experience of faith or life or America speak for themselves, and to let those stories change us. In my personal experience, you know, that’s what changed me — better stories, truer stories. 4:08

Michael – Political activism as pastoral care to the community… 5:23

JP – I asked people to consider emulating the compassionate, activist heart of Jesus. So the idea that his movement in the world and his outward work was always propelled by his deep empathy for hurting people. 5:49

JP – You know, compassion or activism or response to the world is not something we do for this fixed period of time. We are hourly trying to figure out how to cultivate the compassionate heart of Jesus. And it’s not going to come easy. There are muscles that we have to get trained to use and to keep using for sure. 7:00

Michael – I love the image of building up the muscles, right? And so in your own experience, what kind of muscles — name those muscles — that have been helpful? 7:26

JP – Simply the muscles of empathy and compassion, to say, I’m going to try to imagine that there’s an experience of life that other people are having that is not like mine, and to always be looking for ways to learn those stories, and then to endeavor. 7:40

Michael – So how do you deal with resistance, both (kind of) from outside the community that may not understand but many times in churches and faith communities, the resistance is from within the community because people aren’t kind of in the same place? 8:50

JP – And I think again, it’s you’re going no matter what you do, if you do nothing, or if you do something you think is really benign, or, you know, if a pastor gives a message, it’s always going to be interpreted by 50, or 100 or thousand people. And they’re all say, this either inspired me or offended me. And so you have to, I think, especially as leadership, you have to be willing to take on those things. But to really keep clarifying, this is why we do what we do. 9:12

Michael – in your experience, in your own faith community, in the work that you do, who are the people who have seen what you have done and said, “Wow, that’s the faith community that I want to be a part of”? 10:45

JP – Well, you know, what’s really gratifying right now, Michael, is, you know, my readership has grown in with agnostics, and atheists and former Christians and people who were sort of not involved with faith communities, and they’re saying, “The things that you’re talking about are things that matter deeply to me.” So things like compassion and mercy and justice and equality. And those things transcend faith tradition. They’re also the most beautiful parts of our faith tradition, right? When you when you begin to work out what it looked like to be a person of Jesus that is going to draw people to you, it’s not about speaking words that kind of get them in the door. It’s not about some fancy sort of sermon. It’s about you know, embodying the heart of Jesus. And I think that is the best evangelism that you can have. It’s actually trying to leave people feeling and understanding the world the way Jesus did. You know, he always left people with more dignity, he always saw the invisible, you know. He always had respect even when he disagreed, … their humanity was always preserved. So the more we do that, I think the more people are going to say that something I want to be a part of. 11:04