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Let’s talk about the law that the state of Arizona passed last year shortly after its infamous anti-immigration legislation. The anti-immigration bill received most of the attention, understandably so, but this one feels more troubling to me. At its core this new law, which went into effect January 1, “prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Check out this story of a Latino ethnic studies class at a Tucson, Arizona, high school to get a real-life sense for how this law will be targeting ethnic-based courses and programs. And below is a PBS news report on the issue from late last year.

On the one hand, it’s obvious that no public-school program should be teaching insurrection against the government or hatred against another race. But who gets to decide what constitutes those things? (Just a guess, it likely will not be folks of a non-white ethnic heritage.)

At its heart, this law seems to be driven by xenophobic fear and paranoia.  It troubles me that it gives the state the power to imperiously assign sinister motives to courses and programs designed to expose students to aspects of American history that often get overlooked or ignored in the regular curriculum. While there certainly may be situations where these ethnic-based programs challenge the typical majority-culture American view on history and politics, it’s a stretch to suggest that this naturally promotes “the overthrow of the United States” or “resentment toward a race or class of people.” In fact, isn’t that kind of insulting to the teachers and students who participate in these courses?

I don’t know, folks. This one really bothers me. The American classroom should be a place where the reality of our history can be honestly discussed, debated, and wrestled with. This law feels just a tad “un-American.” But what do you think? Unlike the architects of this legislation, I’d love to hear some other perspectives.

I had the honor of interviewing Michael Emerson at the 'Divided by Faith' 10th-anniversary conference.

Finally, by popular demand, here is video footage from the opening night of the Divided by Faith tenth anniversary conference that took place back in October at Indiana Wesleyan University. You may recall my earlier blog post about the event. Thanks much to conference coordinator Rusty Hawkins for organizing the event and making this video availabe. The first night of the conference begins with yours truly interviewing Rice University socilogist and Divided by Faith co-author Michael Emerson. (Feel free to fast-forward through my rambling and go directly to the “meat” of Dr. Emerson’s responses.)

The interview segment is followed by a panel discussion on pursuing diversity in the church that features Dr. Wayne Schmidt (Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University), Rev. Alvin Bibbs (executive director of Multicultural Church Relations, Willow Creek Association), Dr. Curtiss DeYoung (Bethel University), and Rev. Kyle Ray (Lead Pastor, Kentwood Community Church in Michigan). Dr. Emerson and I were called back up during the concluding Q & A session.

All in all, it was a very engaging conference, with provocative and insightful presentations from a variety of Christian scholars who all share a passion for reconciliation and unity in the church. I’m so grateful to have been a part of it.

I learned yesterday that my dear friend Dr. Howard O. Jones passed away on Sunday at age 89. Dr. Jones was the first African American evangelist to join Billy Graham’s ministry team back in the 1950s. In my book, Reconciliation Blues, I talk about some of the hostility and discrimination that he encountered from other Christians because of his race. I helped him write his autobiography, which was published by Moody in 2003.

As I worked with Dr. Jones, I was struck primarily by his passion for God and for preaching the Good News. The gospel seemed to naturally exude from him, no matter what he was doing or discussing. He was a preacher to the core, and he sincerely believed that a relationship with Christ would provide the answer to any problem or trial that we face in this life.

I also was struck by Dr. Jones’ devotion to his beloved wife, Wanda, who had been his partner in ministry for more than 50 years. Together they raised five kids and traveled the world to preach the Word of God. When I first met Dr. Jones back in 1997, Wanda had been battling the effects of Alzheimer’s disease for a few years. I recall accompanying Dr. Jones to the Oberlin, Ohio, nursing home where Wanda was a resident for the last few years of her life. I remember the tender way that he fed her and read to her from his Bible. Though she could no longer speak, her eyes seemed to light up as he spoke to her. When Wanda died in 2001, Dr. Jones was devastated. But he held on to his faith in God, and he would tell Wanda’s story (and pass out copies of her book) wherever he went.

Dr. Jones was a great man of God who loved Christ with all is heart. I’m grateful that  I had the chance to know him personally and to help him record his story for posterity. He leaves behind a legacy of faith, courage, and reconciliation that should inspire the church for generations to come.

If you’re interested, you can read my 1998 Christianity Today profile of Dr. Jones. I interviewed him for Decision magazine back in 2002. Also, his autobiography, Gospel Trailblazer, is available through Amazon.

It was ten years ago that my Christianity Today colleague, Mark Galli, and I moderated a forum based on issues raised by the then-new book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. That CT forum featured an illustrious panel of pastors and theologians, including Elward Ellis, Robert Franklin, Charles Lyons, John Ortberg, and J. I. Packer. We discussed the book’s central theme (that evangelical theology actually contributes to the race problem in America) and grappled with its implications for the church. It was an important moment and hopefully a helpful article for CT’s readers.

Well, in a stunning reminder of how quickly time flies (and how old I’m getting), we are now looking at the ten-year anniversary of that seminal book’s release. In commemoration of this event, Indiana Wesleyan University is hosting “Divided by Faith: A Decade Retrospective” next weekend (Oct. 15-16). This unique conference will use that 10th anniversary as an occasion to reflect on the progress and missteps made in the arena of racial reconciliation and diversity among evangelicals over the past decade, and will feature a variety of scholars and panel discussions. You can find out more here. I’ll have the honor of interviewing Michael Emerson during the Friday-evening session.

If you’re in the area (or can swing a quick flight to Indiana), please think about attending. I’d love to see you there.

There’s a great conversation going on at David Swanson’s blog regarding something I said in my commentary on Shirley Sherrod that was published at UrbanFaith.com. At one point in that commentary, I suggest that, to the minds of some white people, being called a “racist” might feel like the equivalent of calling a black person a “nigger.” It was just one of those secondary thoughts that occurred to me while I was writing that I decided to include in the article, but it turned out to be the line that David, and I’m sure many others, got stuck on. So, the discussion at David’s blog revolves around whether that observation is true. Most of the participants over there disagree with my suggestion, but I think their thoughtful responses prove that it’s a worthwhile idea to ponder.

Anyway, my good friend Shlomo chimed in at David’s blog to defend me against some of the mild criticism I was getting there, which I thought was very generous on his part. Thanks, Shlomo. But, as I noted in a comment that I left there, I’m not offended by those who disagree with my statement. In fact, I love it when folks can wrestle honestly with this race stuff.

All that to say, I thought I’d post the response that I left at David’s blog here too, just in case you’d like to read it.

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I was a bit reluctant to comment here at first, because I don’t want to come across as sounding defensive. But I do want to thank David for getting this excellent discussion going, and my dear brother Shlomo for coming to my defense.

But, I must say, I was not offended by Tomi’s statement. Part of my purpose in writing the Sherrod post (and most of the race-related commentaries that I write) is to get people thinking about the issue from different perspectives. I’m black, but as I write I try to place myself in the shoes of the white or Asian or Latino or Native American persons whom I hope will read my stuff. With the Sherrod piece, in particular, I was trying to imagine the situation from the perspective of the white conservative who has heard the “racist” label pointed in his direction for too long, even as he observes in our culture what seems to him to be racist and hateful talk coming from the very black folk who would dare accuse him of prejudice and hate.

As I’ve listened to Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and other lesser-known but still outspoken conservatives, it occurred to me that, to their minds, the “racist” tag must hurt in the same way that they believe the n-word hurts black people. How else to explain the fervent expressions of anger and resentment that the r-word elicits from some white conservatives? In making that observation, I was not suggesting that the two words are truly equal in their historical power to hurt and humiliate. But in this current era of racial change and upheaval (some of us might call it progress), where many whites feel threatened by what they sense as a loss of their rights and privileges, that r-word may feel to them like an unassailable weapon that smears and dehumanizes them and, more or less, shuts down the possibility of any further discussion.

So, on the one hand, I agree with Tomi that it was a “ridiculous” comparison for me to make. But I suspect it doesn’t sound as far-fetched to some of our more conservative brothers and sisters.

Last week, after the Sherrod story blew up, NPR’s Tell Me More had playwright Anna Deavere Smith on to discuss how Americans talk about race in politics, media, and personal relationships. As she chatted with host Michel Martin, she said something that really stuck with me. She said:

“Everybody thinks they know about race because everybody has one. But knowing about race has less to do with the race you have; it has to do with the race you don’t have. It has to do with the extent to which you seek out that which is different from you to have knowledge and to create collaborations. And I think that’s what we don’t know enough about right now.”

I thought that was a brilliant assessment of where we are in America with race—and where we need to go.

I’ve intentionally held off on commenting on the Shirley Sherrod story until now. I guess I didn’t want to make the same mistake as all the other folks who chimed in before all the facts were known. Of course, any story about race is a constantly moving target, so who knows what new wrinkles the saga will bring this week? In any event, you can now read my reflections on last week’s developments at UrbanFaith.com.

I know that most folks are tired of hearing about the whole LeBron James saga. For the past few weeks, it’s been nonstop speculation and rumors. Then, finally, last week James shocked the world, especially Northeast Ohio, with his decision to bolt to Miami for better weather—and presumably a better chance to win an NBA championship. I reflect on the drama in a commentary at UrbanFaith.com, where I explore the various messianic monikers that have been attached to James by his marketers and himself (e.g., the King, the Chosen One) and I wonder whether now a more appropriate biblical metaphor might be “the Prodigal Son.”

I know there are more important things happening in the world, and that when it comes down to it LeBron is only a basketball player. But, as Washington Post columnist and ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon says in this great piece, the LeBron story touches on so many other cultural flashpoints beyond simply sports. We’re talking issues of money and power, family and friendship, civic pride and loyalty, manhood and responsibility, and, of course, race.

You’ve got Dan Gilbert, the bitter owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, posting a scathing anti-James screed at the team’s website, accusing his former employee of betraying the team as well as his hometown. You’ve got folks in Ohio burning jerseys and scrambling to dismantle the gigantic downtown murals of LeBron that, to the outsider, always appeared just a little bit too excessive (like a shrine to a Greek deity, or like the Jackson brothers strolling triumphantly over the earth). And now you’ve got Jesse Jackson accusing Gilbert of viewing James as a runaway slave.

You knew the race angle was coming. It’s never too far away when you’re talking about professional sports in America, especially in the NBA, where 99 percent of the ballplayers are black and 99 percent of the franchise owners are white. William Rhoden’s controversial 2006 book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is just one of many commentaries linking pro sports in modern America to the slave trade of yesteryear. 

I wish Rev. Jackson wouldn’t have been the one to verbalize the obvious pachyderm in the room (“There he goes again, injecting race into everything!” folks will say), but there it is.

Personally, while I think it’s probably impossible to completely extract race from the issue of power relationships in pro sports, I believe Gilbert should be allowed to rant, rage, and generally come across as an emotional jerk without being accused of racism. He simply reacted like any scorned human being whose business just lost an estimated $100 million in value probably would. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. That said, I think it would’ve been wise for him to wait a few days before issuing a statement. The unintentional damage that he caused his franchise through his outburst could be worse in the long term than losing LeBron James.

Still, it’s unfair to imply that Gilbert is acting out of a “slave master mentality” just because he happens to be white and LeBron is black. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Gilbert might be a mean, arrogant, and impulsive billionaire who was trying to save face. But why add “racist” to the equation without sufficient proof?

But back to LeBron James. As long as he’s still able to do the things that LeBron James does on the basketball court, his reputation as a superstar player, though tarnished, will recover. The real tragedy, in my view, is the way James made his announcement. He had every right to leave Cleveland, but why do it in such a … ahem … cavalier manner? He was apparently so disconnected from the reality of his decision—and focused on his own self-interest—that he could not grasp the full implications of rejecting his former team and his devoted fans in Northeast Ohio on national TV in an overblown ESPN special. Or, as some have speculated, maybe he did it that way to inflict maximum pain on Gilbert and his franchise for some behind-the-scenes reason.

Either way, I hope James will someday grow into a more mature understanding of humility and compassion. Come to think of it, in an odd way, maybe that’s why he’s going to a place with two other elite stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (not to mention team president Pat Riley). Maybe he’s leaving the comfort, security, and adoration found in Cleveland because in his home state he’ll always be venerated as “the Chosen One.” Maybe he needs to escape to Miami to become human again.

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