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, 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 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

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