Last week I gave the opening address before 1,500 people at the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference in Dallas, Texas. Having lived outside the U.S. in Asia the past five years, I accepted this invitation with fear and trembling. But CCDA is family. During my Mississippi years with Voice of Calvary (the ministry founded by Rev. John Perkins), I was part of the founding of this remarkable network of courageous Christians living and working for justice and reconciliation at the margins of America. In the 30 years since, CCDA has become perhaps the most ethnically, economically, and intergenerationally diverse major gathering of Christians in the U.S. Yet I was also aware that CCDA was in a time of crisis which was testing their identity and future viability. And when family calls, you answer. In a talk titled “Renewals Need Renewing,” I felt called to speak to a new time I see in America not only of rising division, of “us” versus “them,” but also a time with a dangerous impulse to move from disagreement to demonization. In such a time, the church itself is called to renewal. Here is the message I shared with my beloved CCDA family last week.
Many places of pain and hope have changed me. Growing up in South Korea during military dictatorship. College in Vermont, interrupted by an unforgettable human being named John Perkins. Went to his Mississippi ministry for six months, and stayed 17 years. Later, 10 years of peace work in Africa. The past five years in Korea with Mennonite Central Committee, serving with my wife Donna. Working on both sides of the divide, in South Korea and in North Korea.
But one place of pain haunts me the most.
In 2004 I made my first visit to Africa, to Rwanda. It was ten years after the Rwanda genocide. In 1994, in just 100 days, 800,000 people were slaughtered in ethnic killing. Often neighbor killing neighbor. But there is also a painful church story. One church leader said many Christians joined in killing. And he posed a challenging question: “How do we form Christians who say ‘no’ to killing? We have to re-evangelize Rwanda all other again.”
In places of division and injustice today, the church is faced with a critical question: What kind of Christianity are we evangelizing the world into? How does the blood of tribalism become stronger than the waters of baptism? There are times when the church needs to be born again … again. A time comes when renewals need renewing.
In 1960 Mississippi was entrenched in racial injustice. To confront the crisis, John and Vera Mae Perkins relocated from California back home. In the town of Mendenhall, a renewal movement began through the power of the “3 R’s” – relocation, reconciliation, redistribution. “Voice of Calvary,” “VOC” – that first Christian community development ministry brought powerful renewal to Mississippi.
But 20 years later, the VOC renewal needed to be renewed. That’s when I went to Mississippi with my big six-month commitment. But I was seduced by the CCD vision. I stayed longer. Hey, I even joined the gospel choir. A white guy who learned to sing, rock, and clap at the same time – friends, that wasn’t easy!
But two years later, a racial crisis broke out in our church. Here’s what bothered me: the black folks weren’t talking about racism outside our church, but inside our church. My church. They were talking about me. It was a painful time. I almost left. Facing the challenge of how I benefit from being white. But I came to see that I loved to work for justice for all … if it didn’t threaten privilege for me. Yes, we were very diverse. But we learned that diversity without shared power is tokenism. We learned a 4th “R” was needed: Repentance. There is no reconciliation without repentance. All of us, both white and black, had to be changed. It wasn’t pretty. Some left. I learned renewal is costly. Renewal is dying to self, being raised into new life. Our community was born again … again. And VOC’s renewal was renewed.
Thirty years ago CCDA was born. The heart of “Christian Community Development”? Living the alternative. The civil rights movement changed laws. But injustice and poverty were deeply entrenched. The battle had to go neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, church by church, life by life. CCDA – a renewal movement led by churches and communities at the margins of America. CCDA gave a powerful answer to that question from Rwanda: “How do we form Christians who say ‘no’ to racism, ‘no’ to social exclusion, ‘no’ to neglect of the poor and oppressed?”
But renewals need renewing. And here is one part of our crisis today: In America, a time of bitter division and polarization. “Us” versus “Them.” Rising income inequality. Dividing church denominations. Fierce battles over questions of sexuality and gender identity. A time of many enemies of compassion showing their faces. Resurgent racism and white nationalism. Persecution and jailing of immigrant people, separating children from parents.
But more than this: It is also a time with a dangerous impulse to move from disagreement to demonization. Not only in the political realm. “Us” versus “Them” also infects what is near to us – our own ministries and churches. We too can become captive.
The first mission of the church is not to change the world … but to repent. Renewal begins with facing the demons within ourselves. The divisions between ourselves.
In Mississippi, after the racial crisis in our church, a group of us went deeper. Across racial and economic lines, we believed we needed each other to follow Jesus more faithfully. Eventually we took a radical step. We bought a property, moved in together as families and singles, and became an intentional Christian community called “Antioch.”
That’s where I became friends with John and Vera Mae’s son Spencer. Eventually Spencer and I were crossing America, teaching about racial justice and reconciliation. We coined a word for our relationship from Philippians 4: “yokefellows” – yoked in common mission. We became so close, sometimes people forgot who was Spencer and who was Chris. And, believe me, we were hard to confuse – him the linebacker and me the placekicker.
But after 12 years, our Antioch Community was in crisis. We were worn out. And my relationship with Spencer unraveled. Our lists of each other’s sins began to grow: “You did this to me.” “Well that’s because you did that to me.” “Well you did that to me…” And filling me with shame was this: I felt rising envy toward Spencer. Jealous of his success. Of his gifts. And Spencer, demanding too much from others. We were traveling the nation, and we couldn’t stand each other. And here’s the thing: We were even organizing a major conference on reconciliation! It was just three months away. Our renewal needed renewing. But I said I was ready to leave Antioch. Spencer was furious. And I was fed up.
But to demonstrate we were good Christian boys, we sought counsel from two beloved mentors. And all they wanted to talk about was this: The need to give each other grace. Grace? Are you kidding me? Grace didn’t sound fair. No, we wanted no part of that. We both wanted to win.
Here’s what Spencer wrote later about the crisis:
“In my mind, we were just going through the motions. The damage was already done. The pain, too great … But neither of us was prepared for the overwhelming simplicity … the complete absurdity … the illogical genius … of God’s amazing grace. In all my years of evangelical teaching, I never understood until now that God intended for grace to be a way of life for God’s followers … At our relationship’s weakest moment, Chris and I saw we could either hold on to our grievances and demand that all our hurts be redressed. Or we could follow God’s example, give each other grace, and trust God when we lacked the ability to forgive … We chose grace.”
Spencer and I still believed that God’s peace must be as big as healing the race problem in America. Yet at the very same time, we came to see that God’s peace is never bigger than the person nearest to you who is most difficult to love. God’s peace is never bigger than facing the poison of disunity in our own hearts. In our CCD ministries and churches. In CCDA itself. If we don’t live a life of peace with those nearest to us, how will we be formed to offer hope in this troubled time?
But the renewal went further.
The big conference finally happened. 300 people came to Jackson. The final night, Spencer and I spoke side by side. Spencer had been wrestling with a question: What does it mean to bring together the power of grace together with the power of opposing injustice? That night Spencer said this:
What’s so amazing about grace is that God forgives us and embraces us even though we don’t deserve it. This means that if I know this loving God who is so full of grace, I will forgive, accept, and embrace those who, like me, don’t deserve my grace and forgiveness. Our willingness and ability to give grace or to forgive others is an accurate indicator of how well we know God.
And with great passion, Spencer also said this:
But nothing – nothing – that I have been learning about grace diminishes my belief in Christians working for justice… We must continue to speak on behalf of those who are oppressed. We must warn oppressors. But my willingness to forgive them is not dependent on how they respond. Being able to extend grace and to forgive people sets… us… free… The ability to give grace while preaching justice – this will make our witness even more effective.
The room was quiet when Spencer said those words. This was a costly calling.
Three days later, at age 44, to our enormous grief, a sudden heart attack took our dear brother Spencer from this earth. But before he left, Spencer had glimpsed a new land of renewal.
“Love your enemies,” said Jesus. Those words disturbed his disciples. Yet Jesus was striking at the roots of sin and violence. The new order of Jesus is not a duplication of the old order of power. It is a whole new reality.
Movements which oppose injustice in a spirit of grace threaten the systems of division and demonization. Mahatma Gandhi in India, battling colonial powers, inspired by the way of Jesus to love enemies … and he was killed by a member of his own religious group. Martin Luther King, opposing injustice in a spirit of grace… and he was killed by a white Christian nationalist. Above all, Jesus Christ himself. “Love your enemies,” he said … and they nailed him to a cross.
Loving enemies doesn’t mean ignoring injustice. Loving enemies does not minimize sin or evil. Loving those who hurt and offend – loving those we are in deep disagreement with – loving them does not mean pretending everything is okay. Because Love without truth lies.
But at the same time: Truth without love kills. The love of Christ resists oppression and abuse. And the love of Christ always seeks to restore, seeks the well-being of others. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus washed the feet of Judas who would betray him. And Peter who would deny him. He washes the feet of those who oppose him not after they repent, but “while we are yet sinners.” In Christ, justice and liberation are not separated from love and reconciliation.
I close with a final story. I want to widen our lens to the world. Because the church is a global church. We need them, and they need us.
The past five years living in Asia I have seen troubling times. During the U.S. war in Vietnam, Dr. King said America was in danger of becoming a nation of “Might without morality. Power without compassion. Strength without sight.” In Asia I saw American blinders about our might in the world. Yet I also saw other rising powers. “Make China Great Again.” “Make Japan Great Again.” U.S. military exercises near the North Korean border. North Korean missile threats. At one point we developed evacuation plans. It is a dangerous time of rising nationalism and militarism. Many powers are seeking to divide.
What kind of Christianity has power to create a new reality of peace? How do we form Christians who say no to rising nationalism? No to demonization across divides?
Each year in Asia we organized a Forum on Reconciliation. In 2015 we met in Nagasaki, Japan. 75 leaders: Women and men. Younger and older. Protestant and Catholic. From China mainland, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea. So much bitter history and current tensions between them. Over six days together there was much turbulence.
The turning point was our day of pilgrimage into Nagasaki. Our final stop was a small museum. Going to the museum was risky. It tells the long history of Japanese military atrocities against Korea and China. Earlier we went where the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb during World War II. 40,000 Japanese people instantly killed. But a pastor from China said the bomb was good news: “It liberated China from Japan,” he said. “It was revenge for Japanese massacres of Chinese.” During the week Koreans were complaining about the Japanese: “They should be apologizing more.” And Japanese complained about the Koreans: “We can never satisfy them. How long must we wait to be forgiven?”
When we arrived at the museum, I was nervous. “What’s going to happen here?” We walked through together. Looked at the painful photographs. Read the stories. Korean women in sexual slavery. Massacres of Chinese. Japan’s bitter colonization of Korea.
But it was our Japanese leaders who had insisted we go to the museum. Because they believed “love without truth is a lie.” And as Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans walked through the museum, with all the week’s turbulence, with deep differences still standing between them, something began to happen. I saw small groups talking together. I saw divided stories becoming shared stories. And I saw tears. Shared tears. Later, a Japanese professor said it was a transformational moment in her life. She saw a picture of an enslaved Korean woman. “I have to wipe out their tears,” she said. “Her tears became my tears.”
As we were about to leave the museum, I saw a Christian leader from Japan shaking with emotion. A Korean leader saw him. Approached him. Embraced him. And spoke these words: “We must never let this happen again.”
“We must never…” We. Not a Korean We. Not a Japanese We. A new We. A “We” where Christ alone is Lord. That museum at the margins became a place of conversion. A place of dying. And a place of being raised into new life.
In these troubled times, we in CCDA are called into a new time of dying and being raised. The Psalmist saw a day where “truth and mercy embrace, and justice and peace kiss.” May CCDA go forward thirty more years pursuing God’s love for justice … while receiving the amazing grace of God deep into our bones.