Seven predominately African American church buildings burn down in two weeks. Three are known arson cases while the others are still under investigation. I could be wrong, but I am not sure it is possible to argue this as coincidental. Not today. Not while the subject of racism has finally been lifted from the ashes of denial.
My worldview involves thinking about the world in light of two reigns (or you might say “kingdoms”).¹ One reign is what the apostle Paul referred to as the reign of sin and death. This is a systemic description of not just the human condition (it is more than human anthropology) but the socio-cultural condition (it speaks to socio-cultural anthropology). It is the sphere of human existence where violence and fear is both justified and exemplified, and where power is most often expressed through assertion capable of giving birth to injustice and oppression. It is the place where self-actualization is the trump card, and where I, or a society, is free to determine what is right, wrong, good and just. Sometimes these postures are dressed in the clothes of religion, sometimes not. Consequently, it becomes a society schooled in Denial and leads to an ongoing rebellion against God and His intentions for both humanity and the world, which have always been wholeness, compassion, righteousness and love. This is not to say that those living under this reign are bad people. Not at all. It is simply a part of my worldview that just is.
The other reign is what the apostle Paul calls the reign of grace. This too is a systemic description of both the human and socio-cultural condition. It is the sphere of our human existence where violence and fear is trumped by reconciliation and peace (shalom), and where power is expressed only through humble, self-giving love. It is the place where humility gives birth to generosity and hospitality. It is a place where faith is the light by which those living in this sphere both see and walk. But it is not a generic faith. It is a faith that rests singularly in a trust (not just a belief) that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord and King, and that as Lord and King He alone determines what is right, wrong, good and just, because it is believed that He is what God looks like.² As the apostle John once said, Jesus is “the divine Logic (logos) of God made flesh,” and He—his way of being and doing life in the world, including his death and triumphant resurrection–is what God has to say to humanity. God had so much to say to the world He loves that He couldn’t say it all in a collection of pages, so He had to say it in the form of a Person, specifically in and through His own Incarnation.³
Those who live under the reign of grace are called to pursue humility and trust that there is no need to resort to the old ways of violence and fear. Their hope, identity, and security rests in a kingdom that will never be in trouble. Those living here have nothing to prove and can let go of the defensive postures the reign of sin and death encourages because they are learning what it means to love and be loved. They remain aware that they share responsibility in the brokenness prevalent in society and are committed to living in God’s presence where their way of being in the world makes His reign tangible in the midst of the reign of sin and death. Finally, because those living under the reign of grace are a reconciled and forgiven community they are commanded to do what it takes to become a reconciling and forgiving community. They should become a community that refuses to be schooled in Denial and readily admit that the reign of sin and death upholds systems of injustice, violence and fear. They do not bury their heads in the sand or separate themselves from the world. They enter into it, even into the suffering and violence, because this is what their Lord has done. This way of being and doing in the world becomes their way of bearing witness to their Lord’s reign of grace.
But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I don’t.
I’ve lived in both “reigns.” Though I’ve chosen to live the rest of my life in the reign of grace there are times I find myself living according to the old rules of the reign of sin and death. The events of the past few weeks remind me that I’m not the only one.
Buildings like a CVS burn down in cities during public outcries in the form of protest, and suddenly my Facebook newsfeed explodes with opinions laced with words like “thugs,” “lazy” and “entitled.” Most of these opinions were coming from people claiming to live in the reign of grace who are called to embrace the way of life the reign of grace demands. Yet, church buildings where our African American brothers and sisters meet are burning down and I see little to nothing in the court of public opinion called Facebook. No outcries have filled my newsfeed from any of the friends who were anything but short on opinions during the protests. I cannot say why with certainty, but I have an idea.
The School of Denial
Denial has always had a few schools located in the reign of grace. It has employed many pastors, politicians and political pundits as it’s teachers. As fellow graduates of the School of Denial, these teachers are trained to offer rational, philosophical, sociological and theological explanations that are convincing and compelling. A false narrative of innocence is told in light of what we see, especially when it comes to the “isms” of society. Invitations to indifference and apathy are extended. A diploma of Denial is gladly received upon graduation in to a life of unrealized complicity to the reign from which we were rescued. It is here that,
the poor are politicized; racism is denied; religious certitude is paramount; the two-thirds world goes on mostly ignored; loving enemies is optional and situational; sexual preferences and orientations are threatening; freedom and hope is built upon nationalistic realities and promises that lead down various paths of entitlement.
The truth is I am an alum of the School of Denial. I have the diploma hanging on the wall of my heart. Occasionally I find myself returning for continuing education classes. But the longer I live in the reign of grace and allow the Sacred Text that bears witness to King Jesus confront my life, the more my denial turns to awareness and complicity to compassion.
The past few weeks remind me that I have a long way to go. I am still learning what it means to live in the reign of grace. The courts of public opinion reminds me that I am not alone.
May our Lord become our Teacher and may we become His faithful apprentices. May we follow Him to the peculiar and gracious way of life that is found in the reign of grace.
1. Romans 5:12-21 & C0lossians 1:13-14
2. Colossians 1:15-20; 2:9-10
3. John 1:1-4, 14-17; 21:25
photo: Associated Press