A liberation theology for single people

A few years ago, when I was a psychology professor at Westmont College (an evangelical Christian college), I found myself consoling a distressed student. Courtney was a gifted, well-liked student who had already secured an exciting post-graduation job. But despite this reality, Courtney was in my office sobbing about the fact that she was set to graduate in 3 weeks and was not engaged. In fact, she was without a boyfriend or any prospects at all. Courtney should have been celebrating her impending achievement — or at least lumbering about in a senioritis-induced coma. But no, she was sobbing and screeching in my office, declaring that she could not face post-graduation life without a man by her side.

Drawing upon my dynamic experience as a single adult, I promised her, “You have no idea how much fun and adventure is ahead of you! Rent a house with a bunch of your friends, travel, enjoy your job, discover who you are — your 20s will be so much better than you think they’ll be.” Courtney lifted her head to face me head on and I could see dark lines of mascara running down her cheeks. Then with her right forearm, she took a clumsy swipe at her runny nose, smearing snot all over mascara-stained cheeks. And she said to me, “Dr. Cleveland, I appreciate your effort but I feel like I shouldn’t be taking advice from you. I mean, let’s face it: You’re my worst nightmare. You’re 29 and alone.”

I actually had to stifle a laugh because my first thought was, “Girlfriend, look in the mirror. You’re your own worst nightmare. You’re sitting here covered in snot and mascara on the eve of such a bright future. Meanwhile, I have a great life — I have a wonderful community, I’m in an invigorating career, I am leader at my church, I’m becoming more and more comfortable in my skin.” But I ultimately held my tongue and responded with compassion because as a social psychologist and someone who has grown up in American Christian culture, I understood that her anxiety, hopelessness and fear about singleness were primarily the product of her culture. She was reacting to the prospect of being single exactly the way she had been socially programmed to do. Indeed, her distress was an indictment on the dominant theologies in the Western church in which marriage is seen as more holy, more valuable, more fruitful and mature than singleness. (For more on this, please see my widely-read article Singled Out: How Churches Can Embrace Single Adults, which I wrote when I was “33 and alone.”)

That a marriage-centric American Church culture and a “Ring by Spring” Christian college cultural mandate could so deteriorate the soul of such a bright, beautiful, strong, Imago Dei-bearing single person broke my heart. So I hugged her, handed her a box of Kleenexes, and let her veg on my office couch for the rest of the afternoon. Because that was the most loving thing I could think to do.

Why a Liberation Theology?

Now that I’m “35 and alone,” I’m beginning to formally construct a liberation theology of singleness. This article is just a beginning — and I’m hoping for feedback from single people.

Even though the term “liberation theology” makes some people (especially conservative Christians) uncomfortable, I’ve chosen to use it because liberation theologies seek to free people who have been oppressed by dominant theologies. Liberation theologies accomplish this by uncovering the ways in which the oppressed people’s identities have been tarnished by the dominant theologies, and defining a new reality, in which the image of God in all are honored. For example, Mujerista (e.g., Latina) liberation theologian Ada María Isazi-Díaz described liberation theology as bringing “to birth new women and new men…knowing that such work requires the denunciation of all destructive sense of self-abnegation.”

Additionally, liberation theologies are typically written by and for people of color in opposition to dominant theologies. Due to brutal societal forces like mass incarceration, heterosexual brown and black people experience singleness at disproportionately higher rates than whites. For example, according to a 2009 Census Bureau study, 60% of college-educated black women have never been married compared to 38% of college-educated white women. Since brown and black people experience singleness at higher rates than whites, they are also more likely to be marginalized by the dominant Western church’s marriage-centric theology. In other words, in addition to dealing with racism and sexism (and other -isms), single black women like me also have to deal with being marginalized as single people in our churches.

There is much work to be done. In order for single people to be free and empowered to follow the path before us, we must reject the dominant theologies that oppress us and forge a new way of thinking, living and relating. In other words, we need a theology of singleness that liberates us.

The Love of God for Single People

A couple of weeks ago while I was at Biola University (an evangelical Christian institution), the administration highlighted a brand-new Center for Marriage and Relationships (CMR). Generously funded by the university, this center seeks to strengthen marriages by offering premarital resources, free marriage conferences, and online articles such as “5 Healthy Habits of Happy Couples.” To be fair, the CMR’s webpage does include one video on “healthy perspectives on marriage and singleness” in which singles are encouraged not to view singleness as “a malady to be cured.”  However, the large volume of marriage-centric resources compared to the lone video on singleness suggests that singleness — while perhaps not a malady — is definitely not worth thinking about, supporting or investing in.

I’m not interested in singling out (no pun intended) Biola’s CMR (in fact, I like and respect the folks who are leading it), but it’s a vivid and current contributor to a long-standing injustice. Despite the fact that almost half of U.S. adults are single and the majority of U.S. women are single, the dominant Christian culture insists on prioritizing and elevating marriage above singleness. The vast majority of resources, support and interest are channeled toward married people. Meanwhile single people are left out.

The marginalization of single people in the church is not just a sociological problem; it is also a theological problem. The dominant, marriage-centric theology — in which Christian colleges create centers for marriage (but not singleness) and pastors wax poetic about marriage (but not singleness) for 8-week sermon series — points to a God who loves single people a bit less than married people. Not only does this corrode the identities of single people who are rightful and invaluable members of the family of God, it tarnishes our perception of God.

For example, many marriage sermons focus on Ephesians 5, in which spouses are called to “Love one another as Christ loved the Church” (verse 25). Cool. That’s a great thing to shoot for in a marital relationship. However, pastors often make marriage the focal point of the passage when really the star of the passage is Christ’s love (and not marital love). Christ’s love is the standard, the fuel, and the hope. But when a sermon is primarily (if not wholly) devoted to marital love and the most oft-repeated human relational metaphor for God’s love is a marital one, single people are left to conclude that we are excluded from God’s love because we don’t have a spouse who “loves us like Christ loved the Church.”  Said differently, it communicates to single people that the human relational experience of God’s love is limited to the institution of marriage.

A liberation theology for single people proclaims that the God of the Single Person, the same God who embarked on a mission of Love, left the perfect Love of the Trinity, crossed metaphysical planes in pursuit of Love, took on human flesh as an act of Love, and ultimately expressed Love for all on the cross, says NO to any suggestion that Love is unavailable or less available to single people.

The Love of God for the Single Person isn’t limited by marriage-centric metaphors, which were written by marriage-centric apostles for marriage-centric ancient cultures, and are perpetuated by marriage-centric theologies today. In fact, if spouses are called to express Christ’s love to each other, then the God of the Single Person, who has a proven track record of going to any length to creatively express Love promises to be even more intimately present, powerfully loving, and full of embrace in the lives of those who are not recipients of spousal love. Indeed, the Love of God for single people is more present and powerful than any human love can be.

But in order to receive it, we must affirm that it exists.

The Image of God in Single People

The overemphasis on Ephesians 5 not only suggests that God’s love is more available to married people; it also suggests that married people, as the human actors in the God’s love/marriage metaphor, are better fit to bear God’s image. This suggestion (whether explicitly spoken or not) is consistent with a general false belief that married people are more holy (e.g., more like God) than single people.  As I wrote in Singled Out (see point #3), within the Western church, married people are automatically seen as image bearers – more holy, valuable, spiritually mature, useful, etc. 

A liberation theology for single people proclaims that God is neither married, nor single. God is relational. This means that God’s relational nature can be beautifully imaged by humans who are married or single. However, single people reflect the trinitarian nature of God in a unique way. As single people who are not committed to a dyadic/marital relationship with one other human being, we are free to invest in communities of people .

Like the Trinity, a community of three (not two) that is characterized by mutuality, equality, and interdependence, single people by nature of their social circumstances often inherently participate in communities that reflect the mutuality, equality, and interdependence that is at the very core of God’s relational nature. By participating in these communities, single people reflect a trinitarian (e.g., not dyadic/marital/biological) relational ethos – one of exchange, covenants that extend beyond the nuclear family, inclusivity, and spiritual rather than biological notions of family. I know many low income single women/mothers of color who practice this so well; their lived experience makes living in mutual, equal and interdependent community a necessity and in doing so, they image the relational trinitarian God in a beautiful and wholly distinct way.

The God of the Single Person who is reflected in the relational community of the trinity, came to earth as a single person and formed an intimate community that was not based on biological relationship (Mark 3:31-35). And even on the cross, the God of the Single Person reflected a trinitarian (not dyadic/marital/biological) relational ethos by blurring the lines between spiritual and biological family, asking his spiritual brother John to take care of his biological mother Mary.  As single people who embody such an ethos, we uniquely reflect God’s image. AMEN.


I’m speaking at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Singleness 2016 conference in Phoenix next month.  Come on out for more theology (including the power, hope and wisdom of God in single people), spirituality and practice of singleness.

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Trump, the White Man’s last gasp, and the Resurrection

IMG_1881Last week while I was going for a walk, an elderly white American gentleman named Ned struck up a conversation with me. He was a friendly, talkative guy and before long, the conversation turned to race in America because…well, because he was talking to me :). He told me about his experience of race as a young person in which the only black people he encountered were the domestic workers in his childhood home. His white world —  demarcated by segregated buses, schools, and public restrooms — was so socially distant from actual black people that he misunderstood the concept of race and believed that his family’s black nanny could wash away her “chocolate” skin to reveal white skin underneath. While chatting with Ned who is about Donald Trump’s age, I was reminded of how much the world has changed in his sixty-something years. While the neural connections in his young brain were forming, he was learning that racial hierarchy is legitimate, that blacks are to remain separate from and subordinate to whites, and that black people can become white if they just clean themselves up. For much of Ned’s lifetime, the social patterns in our mostly white, very segregated society confirmed and strengthened his racialized neural connections. But things are changing. Quickly.

The society in which Ned’s young brain was wired is pretty different from today’s society. Now,  he is likely to encounter a young black woman like me in his own neighborhood because her geographic location isn’t limited by segregation laws and redlining. He’s likely to meet black women who aren’t “the help” but actually sees themselves as his equal (and very well may be his boss or his grandchildren’s boss.) He’ll cross paths with black women who are highly educated and use their voice and influence to speak out against racial inequality. He might be surprised to learn that a black woman has been invited to preach at his church.


Though the American population is still predominantly white and characterized by segregation, it is diversifying and integrating at an unbelievably rapid pace. As a millennial, the most change has occurred during my lifetime as all spaces — rural, suburban and urban — have become significantly less white and more multiracial. Geographers note that in 1980 (the year I was born) America was still very homogenous and segregated; whites were the vast majority in two-thirds of all spaces. That means that if you were white, and you lived in one of those spaces, you could pretty much go about your entire day without encountering any people of color as fellow colleagues, classmates, congregants, concert attendees, etc. But by 2010 (the year I turned 30), “white” spaces had been reduced to only one-third of all spaces as immigration and birth rates among people of color exceeded those of whites.

Beyond geographic shifts, the distribution of power is also changing as more blacks and people of color are (slowly) gaining access to power. Whites still hold many of the powerful positions in our society, but that is shifting as more people of color are gaining access to higher education and upward mobility. Whites still possess the loudest and most influential voices in society, but the needle is slowly moving as new forms of media amplify the voices of people of color. The U.S. still boasts a strong economy, but other economies such as China’s and Brazil’s are giving it a run for its money and giving birth to smarter, stronger workforces that threaten the livelihoods of working American whites. Consequently, whites —especially white men, who benefit the most from our unequal racial system — don’t have as clear a path to success as they did before. These are unsettling times for white men like Ned.

887b211a6c14d0465509501cffda6970To people of color like me, the movement toward a more level playing field is occurring at a painfully glacial pace. But to many white men, the change is happening so fast and it all seems so painful!  Sociologists Henderson and Herring note that when white men begin to feel the effects of equality (e.g., they realize that they no longer receive preferential treatment or have power over others), it feels like discrimination to them.* Being treated like everyone else is not discrimination (in fact, it is the textbook definition of equality). But when you’ve lived atop the racial hierarchy for your entire life and grown accustomed to preferential treatment and disproportionate amounts of power, it’s emotionally painful and destabilizing when they’re taken away.** For this reason, many white men have a vested interest in upholding the racial hierarchy, even if they profess democratic ideals that suggest otherwise.

Moreover many white men, even those who didn’t have black domestic workers or grow up in the Jim Crow South, likely grew up in social spaces that implicitly supported racial segregation and hierarchy. More often than not, whites were in the majority, and the people in power — judge, pastor, teacher, police officer, boss, banker — were all white men. Whereas, people of color were relegated to supporting roles and separate social circles. Many whites (including the many who aren’t bigots) have been nonconsciously conditioned to believe that this way of life is normal which means safe which means good. Therefore, racial hierarchy = good, and even worth protecting. As a result, societal shifts toward racial equality are seen as violations of all that is good and natural, and are cognitively disruptive.


But beyond emotional distress and cognitive disruption, shifts toward racial equality can incite existential terror in white men who are experiencing systemic vulnerability for the first time. No longer guaranteed to be on top, no longer guaranteed to be in the majority, no longer guaranteed to be at the center of all that is hip, innovative and relevant, white men are no longer  an invincible social group. Social psychologists who study this type of existential terror have found that prejudice serves as a buffer and a way to manage the terror. When humans are feeling vulnerable (particularly about our own invincibility and mortality), we respond with prejudice towards those who are different.  This makes us feel better.***

Enter Donald Trump. His screeching, taunting, immature words reveal the tantrums of a desperate man who is trying to manage the existential terror of white men. 

q7ngqnki7ckhc7sfqzfxTrump’s xenophobic and racist political platform provides the “prejudice buffer” that many white men need in order to find relief from the pain of vulnerability. Given the changing racial dynamics in the U.S., it is no surprise that so many white men have gravitated toward Trump. His hateful rhetoric, with which he blames people of color for America’s problems, affirms white male identities and relieves their existential anxiety by assuring that he will restore order white male supremacy.   

He is their Great White Hope, their last gasp for relevancy, centrality and power in a society that will never again be entirely run by white men.


I’ve witnessed a lot of Trump tantrums in the Church, even among Christians who would never vote for Trump. These tantrums may not be as boisterous, public or overt as Donald Trump’s tantrums, but they serve the same purpose — to react to increased diversity and racial equality by supporting racial hierarchy, keeping white men on top, and marginalizing people of color.

Trump tantrum: When predominantly white Christian organizations refuse to support programs and initiatives that are solely designed to empower people of color, often by claiming that to do so would “marginalize white people.”

Trump tantrum: When a white male pastor organizes a multiracial church service, but is quickly threatened when people of color want to turn a “peaceful” service into a “militant’  service by talking about Black Lives Matter.

Trump tantrum: When a predominantly white Christian conference fills its speaker line-up with people of color who are sure to speak from the dominant white perspective.

Trump tantrum: When white theologians and biblical scholars devalue perspectives from people of color and refuse to give tenure to scholars of color who study topics that white men aren’t studying, often claiming that “it’s not serious scholarship.”

Trump tantrum: White male leaders who love having a person of color as their #2, but become threatened when that person expresses independent thinking, becomes “too influential”, or no longer serves their agenda.


These tantrums occur among Christians so regularly that it is clear that Trump and his vocal supporters aren’t the only ones suffering from existential terror. Whether they know it or not, many white Christians leaders are also reeling from the changing racial demographics and power dynamics.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. This Sunday, Christians around the world will celebrate the Resurrection which marks the inauguration of a new reality. Many of us genuinely long for God’s kin-dom to come, but don’t see that it is coming right before our eyes. When Jesus said, “Look! I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5) this is what he was talking about.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus made all things new by inverting the power structure and creating space for all people to flourish, not just the ones who’ve traditionally held power. In his vision of the kin-dom of God, Jesus clearly states that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16). Jesus promised a kin-dom in which the one marginalized sheep is more important, relevant and central to the story than the 99 sheep who already “belong.” The shifts away from white male supremacy and toward racial equality are consistent with the new reality that the resurrection promises and should be met with hope, courageous hearts and supportive action, rather than fear and existential terror. There is no place for Trump tantrums among people of the cross and resurrection.

In the process of making all things new, the all-powerful Jesus inverted the power structure to the point of his own death on the cross. Why would he expect anything different from his powerful followers?



*Herring, C. & Henderson, L., (2014). Diversity in Organizations: A Critical Examination.

**But not as emotionally painful and destabilizing as actual discrimination, which people of color have faced for centuries. Don’t get it twisted.

***For more on Terror Management Theory, start here.

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I’ve always secretly hated 1 Corinthians 13. As a perfectionist, I would read about all of the things that love is, be painfully reminded that my behaviors don’t perfectly adhere to the “love checklist”, swiftly conclude that I am nothing more than a clanging cymbal, and shrink away in shame. Then last week, a dear friend sent me Peter Haresnape’s translation of the chapter:

1 Corinthians 13 for Peacemakers by Peter Haresnape

If I speak about courage and justice, and siding with the oppressed, and speaking truth to power no matter the cost, but do not speak about love… I am just a loudmouth orator, a white saviour, a shameless self-promoter.

If I am excellent at nonviolent communication, and I take great pictures, and I know all the latest anti-oppressive lingo, and I can analyse racist systems so as to dismantle them entirely, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I fully embrace the work of prophet and activist and martyr, and get dragged away by the riot police or bombed by the military of my own country, but have not love, that is no use to anyone.

Love is patient. Love survives evil, war, oppression. It remains when the teargas clears and the children go back to school. It is still there when the water is protected. Love is kind, not arrogant, not insisting on its own way, but making space for joy and truth even in the hardest circumstance.

Whether it is love between two people, or love of a person for their community, or love of a community for its land, or love of justice and peace and equity, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Clever words will be forgotten. The most interesting facts are subject to revision. The best sermon you’ve ever heard – you will forget. Right now, everything we do is flawed and inaccurate. But. One day we’ll experience Truth with a Capital T. And then all this will be unnecessary.

Before I was mature, I was immature. In becoming mature, I left behind ways of speaking, thinking and reasoning that were immature.

Right now we’re hearing murmurs, reading translations, seeing shadows on the wall, but one day we’ll see face-to-face.

Right now, half of the time I’m guessing, but one day I will know beyond all doubt – and I will be fully known.

What remains when it is all stripped away is three things:

Faith that the flawed world as we see it is not all that there is;

Hope that the next generation will live in a better world;

and Love to give us the strength and motivation to build it.

The greatest of these is Love.

Honestly, the title alone made me wince. A 1 Corinthians 13 for peacemakers promised a checklist of love behaviors that isn’t comfortably vague, but one that veers distressingly close to my personal ethic, exposing in greater detail all of the ways in which I fail at love. It promised to amplify the shrill of the clanging cymbal. Sure enough, on the first reading, I was filled with shame.

But a few hours later in the day, I felt my heart being drawn back to Haresnape’s beautiful translation, as if it knew that the well is deeper and more refreshing than I had experienced it on the first draw. On the second reading, it occurred to me that 1 Corinthians 13 is not about my personal effort at love nor is it about a love that comes from me. In fact, it isn’t about my love at all. It’s about Love with a capital L. It’s not a standard by which to judge or measure myself; it’s a description of and invitation into Love. So, I don’t have to do anything and I can’t fail. I simply get to receive and participate in this Love that defines our world, is the truest reality, and lives on and on and on no matter what.

Marquee-Lights_002I have a very generous friend who prays with me every single morning. As part of our ritual, we do a brief breathing prayer. While taking deep, slow full body breaths, we prayerfully receive Love on the inhale and send out Joy on the exhale. In my mind, I envision the letters L-O-V-E lighting up one after the other as I inhale Love and the letters J-O-Y lighting up one after the other as I exhale Joy.

The beautiful thing about breathing is that it naturally occurs without my effort. The breath is always present, always sustaining, always nourishing, always working on my behalf. I simply get to receive it. In fact, not receiving it (e.g, holding my breath) is unnatural, effortful, and ultimately harmful.

Like the breath, Love is always present, always sustaining, always nourishing, always working for justice and the flourishing of all beings. Its existence and persistence requires nothing from me. I simply get to receive it and get swept up in its unending, supernatural flow.

When my heart is too battered by oppression and I can no longer will myself to maintain a soft heart, I can simply breathe in an L-O-V-E that is patient.

When I want to surrender to hatred after the first or second or third battle, I can simply breathe in an L-O-V-E that survives evil, war, oppression.

When I am beat by the forces of Empire, I can simply breathe in an L-O-V-E that remains when the teargas clears.

When I experience a small victory for justice, I can simply breathe in an L-O-V-E that is still there when the water is protected.

When I want to fight Empire with the weapons of Empire, I can simply breathe in an L-O-V-E that is kind, not arrogant, not insisting on its own way.

When I am deflated and hopeless, I can simply breathe in an L-O-V-E that makes space for joy and truth even in the hardest circumstance.

When I have nothing left to give, I can rest in the permanent realities of Faith, Hope and Love:

Faith that the flawed world as we see it is not all that there is;

Hope that the next generation will live in a better world;

and Love to give us the strength and motivation to build it.

The greatest of these is Love.


Special thanks to Peter Haresnape and Christian Peacemaker Teams for the permission to reprint 1 Corinthians for Peacemakers.

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An announcement

Dear friends,

I want to let you know that I have decided to leave my position as the Director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, effective immediately. Over the last few months, it has become clear to me that it is not a good fit. I plan to fulfill my commitment to teach at Duke this spring, while simultaneously discerning next steps. I appreciate your prayers and support.


Lots of love,

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The Privilege of Hopelessness

“Despair is a luxury of the bourgeoisie.” – overheard in a Palestinian refugee camp

This fall, as I’ve battled to maintain hope in the midst of continuing police brutality toward black bodies, increased hatred for our Muslim brothers and sisters, the public support for wildly oppressive comments from wildly oppressive Presidential candidates, the continuing crisis in Palestine-Israel and more, I’ve begun to think more deeply about why it is so hard for me, a person of privilege, to contend for hope in the fight for justice. It seems that privileged folks should be perched atop the hope ladder, generously doling out hope to the people below who don’t have access to resources that can improve their lives. But I’ve found that in my own life (and in the lives of many of my students), it’s far too easy to slink into hopelessness, and ultimately disengagement, as I turn to face the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to justice.

Surprisingly-but-not-so-surprisingly to me, the more I think about hopelessness and privilege, the more I’m convinced that hopelessness can be a marker of privilege. Privilege is an enemy of hope.

Privilege distances us from the God of Hope

 My Rwandan friends who live and worship and make peace in Kigali regularly tell me that we Westerners are the impoverished ones. “We pray for you all,” they say. “When you have so many material things, you can’t really know what it means to truly turn to God for all that you need: the power to forgive, food to feed your children, healing from the trauma of genocide, stability in the midst of an unstable society, or hope to keep fighting HIV.”

My friends are right. My privilege – my access to power, influence and agency due to my social location — clogs the pipeline between me and God, reducing my ability to receive the always present, always powerful flow of hope, comfort, and empowerment. When faced with a tragic injustice, I have the option of turning toward other things that will bring me temporary solace: Netflix and Jelly Belly binges effectively numb my pain; and a victory (of the bargain variety) at Nordstrom Rack goes a surprisingly long towards boosting my (false) sense of power.

But even when privileged folks resist the urge to disengage, and instead join the fight for justice, we often engage in strategies that deplete us of hope. The Psalmist described what it looks like when privileged folks fight the good fight: “Some trust in political power [some translations say horses], some in military might [chariots]” This is in contrast to the oppressed people with whom he identifies: “but we trust in the Name of YHWH, our God!” (Psalm 20:7, emphasis mine)

We privileged folks often put our faith in our weapons of privilege: the strong critical thinking skills we acquired at our fancy liberal arts college, the professional networks of attorneys, business leaders, pastors and community leaders that we have on our speed dial, and the relative ease with which we can raise money for a good cause. These efforts might be fueled by good intentions, but they often lead us to focus on the finite weapons of privilege, rather than the infinite well of hope that is only found in God. They lure our eyes and hearts and busy bodies toward the finite resources of our world rather than the infinite power, wisdom, hope and freedom that we can encounter if we simply stop and turn our eyes, hearts and bodies toward our infinite Creator.

Privilege distances us from systemic pain and tragedy

Ironically, it is often the people who are the most distant from systemic injustice who are the most paralyzed by hopelessness. Often times, the privileged person’s distance from systemic injustice leads to what social psychologists call a collapse of compassion. When we encounter a tragedy that involves lots of people (as is often the case in justice issues), we are motivated to regulate our emotions, distancing ourselves from the immense pain that we would experience if we paid close attention to each individual story within the tragedy.[1]

As Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” When we witness injustice in an up-close-and-personal way – like if we’re personally oppressed or we’re in close relationship with a person who is oppressed – we tend to open the floodgates of compassion toward the one or few individuals with whom we have a personal connection. But when we witness an injustice from a distance, and this injustice affects masses of people (e.g., police brutality towards black people, the oppression of the Palestinians, etc.) we are easily overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. Rather than fortifying our compassion in response to such need, our compassion collapses and we disengage into hopelessness.

After conducting research on this collapse of compassion, social psychologists Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne concluded that “large-scale tragedies in which the most victims are in need of help will ironically be the least likely to motivate helping.”

But when we are intimately connected to systemic pain and tragedy, either personally or through close relationships, we are often able to respond with compassion and hope. When visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Boston, I read the following inscription by a survivor named Geerda Weissman Klein:

“Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present it to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”

Imagine a world in which the bearer of hope is a little girl who is so systematically oppressed that she has no logical reason to believe that she will even live to the end of the day. Nevertheless, she defiantly cares for her one treasure because she is hopeful that she will be able to give it to her friend at the end of the day.

Hope by George Frederic Watts

Hope by George Frederic Watts

This painting, Hope by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) was heavily criticized by GK Chesterton who said that it should have been titled Despair. Perhaps Chesterton’s privileged mindset prevented him from seeing that an oppressed woman holding a broken harp was actually the ideal bearer of hope. In contrast to Chesterton, black liberation preacher and scholar Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright described Watt’s painting in a 1990 sermon on the subject of Hope – “with her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music and praise God … To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope … that’s the real word God will have us hear from this passage and from Watt’s painting.”

Perhaps it is those who are intimately connected to systemic injustice, rather than the privileged, who should sit atop the hope ladder. And perhaps it is time for us privileged folks to stand in solidarity below them, follow their lead, and join them in the pursuit of hope. Advent is the perfect time to do so.

[1] Cameron & Paine, JPSP, 2011


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Short conversations on privilege and leadership

Last month, I had the chance to sit down with Tod Bolsinger (Vice President for Formation and Vocation at Fuller Theological Seminary) to discuss the intersections between privilege and leadership.

We covered quite a bit of ground, including: How should leaders be thinking about their own privilege? What does humility look like when you’re privileged? How should your social location affect your leadership capacity, particularly when you’re leading cross-culturally? How do we begin to think theologically about privilege and leadership?

The result is this series of brief videos. I hope you find them to be both encouraging and challenging.

On privilege:

On humility:

On cultivating sociological imagination:

On embodying mutuality

On leadership and sociological imagination:

On practices for sociological imagination:

On Christian calling

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3 Reasons Why I Hate Diversity

54227Today, I’m over at Ed Stetzer’s blog at ChristianityToday.com reflecting on recent research that shows that American churchgoers continue to balk at the idea of diversity. Head on over there and join the conversation!



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Why black millennials will lead us to a more equitable society

NOTE: The editorial team at Sojourners asked me to write a short piece for a series on Black Future Month. My piece is published over at Sojourners as well as below. Be sure to check out the rest of the Black Future Month series!

Black_Lives_Matter_protestThe zeitgeist is clear. Much like Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement, the tragic string of murders of blacks in 2014 catalyzed another movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This movement picks up where the civil rights movement left off, addressing systemic racial injustice in the legal and penal system, educational system, and economic system. In some ways, the battles we fight are more challenging than the ones our grandparents fought. Undeniably, we face off in a more complex world and against forms of systemic racism that are so subtle that they are almost invisible. Nevertheless, due to a unique combination of gifts and experiences, I’m hopeful that my generation of black millennials is ready to lead us on to a more equitable society. Here are three reasons why.

1. We are propelled by the prophetic legacy of the past.
With a technological savvy that gives us unprecedented access to the true history of our people, and as perhaps the last generation to breathe the same air as the civil rights generation, we draw upon the legacies of the past as we move forward. When I sense that my capacity to forgive is waning, I recall my recent conversations with several survivors of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and I’m reminded of the inner healing that forgiveness promises. When I am tempted to pander to the powers that be, I call my radical granddad and ask him to tell me again about the many Black Panthers meetings that took place at the church he pastored in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s. When I feel that I’m losing my courage, I read Ida B. Wells’ autobiography and am reminded that we are not alone. We are connected — part of a chain of black activists, each generation inspiring the next. Our heroes guide us every day.


2. We are cross-cultural.
We grew up in a multicultural world and are equipped to lead in a multicultural world. A sociology study that examined local diversity from 1980 (the year I was born) to 2010 (the year I turned 30), found that all spaces — urban, suburban and rural — showed significant increases in diversity over the 30-year time span. During our lifetime, it’s become increasingly difficult to find fully segregated spaces. As a result, many black millennials have interacted with a wide variety of cultural groups outside of the black community and have, by necessity, acquired cross-cultural communication and relational skills. Relatedly, as the black experience in America has become increasingly varied, we have become increasingly attuned to the non-racial cultural identities (e.g., gender, class, sexuality, religion) that intersect with race and affect our experiences and movement in society.

This cross-cultural aptitude enables us to engage the complexities of our time — a time in which rampant institutional racism is juxtaposed with the unprecedented success of individual black Americans. Many of us gasped when we watched the film Selma and were reminded that the 1960s images of police brutality toward black Americans are eerily similar to the 2014 images. Meanwhile, many of us are also glued to our television screens when Fox’s new hit showEmpire, which portrays the making of a wealthy black dynasty, comes on. Both depictions resonate with us because both are accurate. We live in a complex world, one in which there are many different versions of the black experience. But our nuanced, multicultural understanding enables us to identify continuing systemic racism despite the individual success of black Americans. Further, it allows us to recognize and more effectively address the reality that all forms of injustice (racial, class, gender, etc.) are interconnected.

3. We still have our faith.
Much has been said about millennials leaving the church. But what typically goes unsaid is that only white millennials are leaving the church. Black millennials are still connected to faith communities — in both formal and informal ways. When I visit black churches all over the country, I see lots of ministry leaders and congregants that are my age. Indeed, a 2007 Pew Forum report found that black millennials make up 24 percent of historically black churches. Despite the ongoing frustrations of being black in America, black millennials haven’t given up on the faith that powered centuries of justice movements, including the abolitionist, anti-lynching, and civil rights movements. We haven’t given up on God and God hasn’t given up on us! Black millennials are engaging the God who understands our pain and demystifies our complex world. We are engaging the God whose death on the cross shouts #BlackLivesMatter and whose resurrection gives us hope for our future!

Please check out the rest of Black Future Month series at Sojourners.

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3 MLK quotes that convict me today

All quotes are taken from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s essay An Experiment in Love (1958) which he wrote to describe the nonviolent philosophy behind the Montgomery bus boycott.



A fifth point regarding nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resistor not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.

This idea goes hand-in-hand with a book that is absolutely slaying me right now: Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. In it, Volf reminds us that for evil to fully triumph, two acts of evil must be committed. The perpetrator must commit an evil act and the victim must return an evil act in response to the first act. What both MLK and Volf make clear is that the victim’s contribution to the triumph of evil doesn’t have to take a behavioral form. Indeed, it doesn’t even have to be spoken. Evil can manifest itself in thoughts (e.g., self-righteousness), emotions (e.g., resentment), and, as Volf brilliantly describes in his book, memories (e.g., skewed recollections that dehumanize the perpetrator).

Last month when I was in Haifa (northern Israel), I spoke with a Palestinian activist who said that resorting to violence even once, as a one-time exception to the rule, is a mistake because once violence is committed it “stays with you, even after the liberation.” Those of us who have been victimized know how easy it is to justify a violent behavior, thought, emotion or memory just this once because it’s the only way I can cope with this evil. It’s so important for me to remember that I too can help evil triumph in lasting ways.


We speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. Agape is a disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.

MLK challenges us one step further by saying that in addition to not hating those who oppress us we must prophetically love them, even before they seemingly deserve it.  The key to this is seeing oppressors as neighbors. When we “discover the neighbor in every man” we are choosing to identify with them, using our common humanity as the basis that guides our interaction.

I love that MLK uses the term neighbor because it implies geographical closeness. This is interesting because at the beginning of his essay, he mentions that the Sermon on the Mount initially fueled the nonviolent movement toward integration and reconciliation in Montgomery, AL. Coincidentally, I recently heard Fr. Greg Boyle say that the Sermon on the Mount “isn’t a spirituality, it’s a geography.” It tells us how to interact with others, who to spend time with, and where to physically situate ourselves in the social world. This geographical landscape inverts the unjust power structure (Matt. 5:1-12), doesn’t allow resentment to impede reconciliation (Matt. 5:21-26), makes great space for mercy (Matt. 5:7), empowers those who speak out for justice (Matt. 5:9, 14-16), is nonviolent and non-retaliatory (Matt:5:38-42), calls its inhabitants to actively march toward enemies in love (Matt. 5:43-48), and resists materialism (Matt. 6:19-21).

 It is striking to me that it was the Sermon on the Mount that first inspired MLK and others to re-envision the geography of the family of God. Not settling for the geographical reality of segregation and racial inequality, they pursued integration and justice in order to create a new geography, a beloved community in which former oppressors and victims could be neighbors. But in order to accomplish this he had to prophetically see his oppressors as neighbors before it was a physical reality. His mental category for “neighbor” had to include the oppressor.

My mental category for “neighbor” has to include the oppressor too. This challenges me to the core because if I’m not careful, I can easily spend all of my time with people of color and/or socially-conscious people who are actively fighting injustice. And social psychology research reveals that our mental categories are significantly informed by our experiences. Since neighbors are the people with whom I spend time, I can easily acquire a category for “neighbor” that excludes people that “just don’t get it.” My mental geography reflects my physical geography; the more I spend meaningful time with people, the more I mentally categorize them as neighbors.

Consequently, non-justice-oriented people (who I’m less inclined to spend time with) are not part of my “us.” In other words, I don’t see them as neighbors. I don’t naturally extend agape toward them. I may resist external physical violence toward them (because I’m so awesome), but I don’t naturally feel the need to resist internal spiritual violence toward them. I can label, dismiss, and even harbor resentment toward them without feeling all that guilty. But MLK doesn’t let me off the hook! His words challenge me to vigilantly evaluate and re-arrange my physical geography, so that my mental geography can prophetically see oppressors as neighbors, even before they live into that reality.


The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history.

The cross challenges me to keep reconciling no matter the cost; the resurrection empowers me to keep hoping no matter the physical reality; the Holy Spirit reminds me that I’m simply participating in a process that was set in motion long ago and that I’m not actually in charge. Amen!

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10 Reconciliation Books to Read (2014)

the 10 best reconciliation books I read this year

reconciliation books to read 2014

I read so many great books in 2014! Here are the reconciliation-related ones that impacted me the most (in no particular order).

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I try to listen to and learn from people both inside and outside of my so-called tribe. So just because a book is on this list doesn’t mean that I endorse or agree with everything that the author does, believes, writes, or says. I chose these books because they have sharpened my thinking around issues of reconciliation and unity…as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17). Enjoy!

dinsmore1. My Name is Child of God…Not “Those People”: A First Person Look at Poverty by Julia Dinsmore (2007)

Better than just about any other author, Dinsmore articulates why anti-poverty work is central to the Gospel — and she does it with personal stories that will warm, haunt and challenge your heart. An internationally known activist, spoken word artist and speaker, Julia also wrote a critically-acclaimed poem called “My name is Not ‘Those People'” performed here by actor Danny Glover:

raheb2. Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes by Mitri Raheb (2014)

Meeting theologian Mitri Raheb was the highlight of my recent trip to Palestine. Faith in the Face of Empire, his most recent book, is simply brilliant. In it, Raheb challenges readers to see the Bible and the conflict in Israel/Palestine through the eyes of the oppressed. And in doing so, he exposes Western bias, pride, silencing and dominance, and calls Western Christians to engage differently.


ala_final_flatcover3. A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World edited by A.O. Green and Joanna Harder (2014)

I was honored to write an endorsement for this book: “What a rich collaborative offering! A Living Alternative draws from diverse perspectives to sing a thoughtful and inspiring chorus on the ways in which peacemakers can follow Jesus’ counter-cultural mission as we seek to understand, engage and transform our world. Including both theological foundations and strategic action steps, this book is an excellent resource for all who wish to interact with our complex, multicultural, and post-Christian world out of hope, rather than fear.”

51ZWPHXNysL4. Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service by Chris Heuertz and Christine Pohl (2010)

I’m mad that I just discovered this excellent little book this year. But I’m glad I got to read it with my Intro to Reconciliation students because we had some great conversations about what it means to relate, minister and serve as privileged people. This book is practical, insightful and a great discussion centerpiece for small groups, churches and classes.

sacredpauses_final-cover-page-0015. Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal by April Yamasaki (2013)

The longer I do reconciliation work, the more I realize that connecting with God is the most important part of the work. And who better to learn from than a woman of color pastor who is also deeply passionate about justice and peacemaking! April’s book is literally a godsend. She introduces readers to a variety of spiritual practices that help reconciliation busy bees like me to slow our roll and connect with the Great Reconciler.

url6. To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City by Mark Gornik (2002)

This book has already earned a reputation for being a contemporary classic and I can understand why! Like Divided by Faith is a must-read for racial reconcilers, To Live in Peace is a must-read for inner city reconcilers. Gornik, a director at the City Seminary of New York, presents a thorough but accessible primer on how the inner city came to be, the call of the Church to do justice and community-building in the inner city, the practicals of peacemaking in the inner city, and a prophetic vision for what can be.

20140218081121!The_Righteous_Mind7. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (2013)

This book literally took my breath away. If you liked Disunity in Christ, you will love this book. Haidt, also a social psychologist, is more philosophical (and frankly, smarter) than I am. But I take solace in the fact that I’m funnier than he is :)


occupy8. Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude by Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan (2013)

I read this book in preparation for the Fuller D.Min class on reconciliation, power and privilege in the church that I’ll teach this coming summer. Occupy Religion may have been written as a theological response to a movement that has since subsided, but the ideas it presents about power imbalances are just as relevant as ever. Rieger and Pui-lan present an enlightening theological critique of power, particularly of structural “invisible” power within the Church, as well as a prophetic theology of the multitude (e.g., of power equity).

imgres9. Privilege: The Making of An Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School by Shamus Rahman Khan (2011)

This book is a game-changer. Khan, a sociologist, spent a year doing field work at an elite New England prep school in order to examine the “new privilege,” one that has more to do with how one relates to the world, than what one inherited at birth. This book is also deep. Khan describes the current “democratic inequality” in America, how privileged people explain away the singular success stories of the oppressed, and the new ethic of privilege that is more centered around work than leisure (and thus more challenging to identify).

41Pn5r8fl0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_10. Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength by Chanequa Walker-Barnes (2014)

Literally, for anyone who is a black woman or cares about black women. I loved this book so much that I wrote a post about it: Farewell, StrongBlackWoman




A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together by Scot McKnight (I love this book! It’s the theological mac to my social psychological cheese.)

Our Global Families: Christians Embracing Common Identity in our Changing World by Todd Johnson and Cindy Wu

Looking for more books? Check out Reconciliation Books to Read (2013)!

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