40: Lisa Sharon Harper - Good news & bad news
Lisa Sharon Harper talks about what Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court really means, how we got here, and what the gospel has to say about it.
Nate: Alright, welcome to Almost Heretical. So excited today to be joined by Lisa Sharon Harper. She’s the author of The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right and the founder of Freedom Road. You can find all of her work at lisasharonharper.com. She’s such a wonderful person and leader, and we really, really encourage you to go grab her book. If this is your first time listening to Almost Heretical, first, so glad to have you here. Each episode, we work to give the Bible and God back to you. If you’ve had a complicated or painful relationship with the church or the Bible, we want you to know that you are not alone. There are millions and millions of others, and we are here with you on this journey. We do this show because we want to deweaponize the Bible and the church. If you have a story of hurt related to the Bible, church, Christianity, Christian community, we are so, so sorry. And if you’d like to reach out to us, we’d love that. We read every single email we receive at almostheretical.com. Once you listen to this episode, if you want to go back and listen to more, I’d suggest checking out the recent series we just did on gender and Paul. Okay, let’s jump into this wonderful chat with Lisa Sharon Harper.
Nate: Lisa, we’re so excited. We’ve wanted to have you on the show for a long, long time, and a lot of our listeners really love and appreciate your work, so welcome!
Lisa Sharon Harper: Well, thank you so much. It’s really, really awesome to be with you guys. Really fun to meet you on Twitter and then to be able to talk with you and see your faces here. So how cool.
Tim: I would love if we could just jump right into the emotional turmoil of the last couple weeks. So I know, so this is Sunday. Yesterday Brett Kavanaugh was officially confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Can you just—can we just jump into this? I know for thousands and thousands of American people, especially women, especially victims of sexual assault, this whole last couple weeks has been a roller coaster of trauma, of re-inflicted pain, and a whole world of pain. So can we just start with how has this affected you personally, and what are you taking away from these last couple weeks?
Lisa: Yeah, wow, ooh what a question! It’s actually been an incredibly intense last… almost three, well a little over two months. Ever since it was announced that Anthony Kennedy was stepping down, I would say that my gander got up. And there was a sense of a red flag moment. Studying the history; understanding how the court works; understanding how the court works in relationship to the other two branches of government, and how this configuration of the court, currently, before Kavanaugh, really set up a situation that we haven’t seen, literally have not seen since 1896. Understanding that, the thing that really brought me into this struggle was understanding the stakes for my niece and future generations. Not only with regard to her as a woman, but for her as a black woman. And all people of color, all immigrants, all people who are minorities in any way, whether they be religious minorities, or minorities in terms of gender identity or sexuality, or nationality, language, all of those different identity groups are literally at stake here. And that was very clear. Here’s the reason that was clear. It’s because I understand the history. I understand that the one thing that threads all of this together is not Roe v. Wade; it’s actually Brown v. Board of Education. That in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruled that all people in the United States are deserving of equal protection of the law and that separate is not equal, and so therefore integration was mandated, especially in school systems. So that is actually when the culture wars began, that the culture wars erupted. Just one year later, Emmett Till was lynched. And he wasn’t just lynched; he was massacred. Just one individual person was literally annihilated by the men who brutally beat him, stripped him, some accounts say castrated him, wrapped him in razor wire, and then dumped his body over the side of a bridge into the Tallahatchie River with a mill tied around his neck. You know, you don’t do that if you just want to kill somebody. You do that when you want to annihilate someone. So it was then that the culture war began. Because what happened was that Brown v. Board of Education was a threat to white supremacy, and not just white supremacy but white space. It was a threat to whites-only spaces in Jim Crow America and white supremacy in terms of the vote. So from that point on you had the growth—and it didn’t just start here, in terms of the civil rights movement, I don’t want to give that impression—but certainly the mass movement was catalyzed by the death of Emmett Till. And it was in that struggle that you saw houses bombed by segregationists who were actually pushing back against Brown v. Board of Education. You saw women and other white children jeering and spitting on the Little Rock Nine. You saw four little girls bombed in a church in 1963, and that is actually what led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And then you see people fighting for the right to vote, just for self-determination, in the South, not only in the South, but certainly centered in the South with the Southern Freedom Movement, with the march from Selma to Montgomery. And then you see Bloody Sunday. So there’s always a push back, and that was the actually culture war. What the people who were pushing back on the side of segregation said is, they said they were fighting to maintain their way of life. That is a culture war. But then what you had was you had the passage of civil rights acts, the Voting Rights Act of ‘65, the Immigration Act of ‘65, Housing Rights Act, or Housing Act, rather. And all of the legislation that passed in the War on Poverty. And white folks got scared, particularly in the South, and in particular Dixiecrats. And they moved over to the Republican party—they were wooed to the Republican party by Nixon. And then you had this really critical moment in 1973 or ‘74 when Bob Jones University receives a piece of mail from the IRS saying, “You are no longer eligible for tax exemption because you are in violation of a new code in the tax code that says you must be in compliance with the Civil Rights Act,” which is founded on what? Brown v. Board of Education! So they fight. They fight all the way to 1983. They fight in order win the ability to hold white space on their Christian college campus. And who comes to their rescue? Who tries to come to their rescue? Jerry Falwell. Jim Bakker. This guy named Paul Weyrich, who was a politico at the time, a political operative for the conservative movement. And they lost that case, but they looked around and they realized, “We’ve actually built a movement, here. What should we now leverage this movement, how can we leverage this movement?” And that’s when they chose abortion. They said, “Ah, abortion is starting to be looked at negatively in the country, and so we can capitalize on that. And that’s when abortion was actually chosen as the flagbearer of the conservative movement, flag-bearing issue. But it wasn’t abortion that actually, that moved them. It was segregation; it was the fight against segregation. And I believe the centering on the courts as the number one strategy of the conservative movement and the right, the religious right in particular, it is not only to flip Roe v. Wade—which won’t actually achieve its end goal, which is to end abortion. When you flip Roe v. Wade, all you’re going to do is send the decision back to states, and the states will actually decide at that point. And the states that have the most likelihood to go ahead and outlaw abortion are also the ones that have the least number of people having abortions right now, the lowest rates of abortion and the lowest number of people in their states. The ones with the highest populations and the highest rates of abortions are far less likely to actually overturn it in those states. So you’re not actually going to save that many babies by overturning Roe v. Wade. We know how to end abortion, or how to drastically lessen the rates of abortion in America, and that is to cut poverty. Abortion follows poverty. But what will it do? We know that one thing it definitely will do—there’s never been a majority ruling in the Supreme Court in the 228 history of the Supreme Court that has protected the rights of minorities. Never. Not one time. And so with a majority conservative court, people of color and other minorities can look forward to now 40 years, thirty to forty years, two to three generations of rulings that whittle back Brown v. Board of Education, because that is the one major Supreme Court ruling that all of the civil rights legislation rests on. So in many ways, yesterday we saw the conservative movement move their piece on a chessboard and call, “Check,” to people of color in the United States. But I’m praying that God has another move.
Tim: Wow. Thanks for sharing all that. I personally haven’t been able to connect all those dots, so I was kind of feeling and sensing the last few weeks, kind of as an encapsulation of the last two years, since Trump was elected, and seeing this as kind of like a perfect little synopsis of the whole movement. You’re actually painting this picture, it’s an encapsulation of most of our history, including the evangelical church’s culture wars. So again, back to that question. If it is, and it does feel to you, like an act of saying, “Check,” by white conservative America, how the heck are you coping right now with that, and then how are you taking steps forward?
Lisa: Well, I think that my coping is through taking steps forward. They’re literally one in the same. My faith, and I think that faith in general, faith is not something, it doesn’t come in the head, it comes in the feet. It comes in the hands. And as you do, you gain faith; as I do, as I call people to vote—because that is the only thing now, really, literally, the only thing that can save the America that is an inclusive America, the America that guarantees the rights of all of its people, all people within its borders. Citizens and noncitizens, because even noncitizens deserve human rights. Even noncitizens have the human dignity offered to them by the image of God, which God has planted in them, and so are also deserving of equal protection of the law. And so we actually, we are literally, literally, are at a make-it-or-break-it moment for the United States. I’m not, I mean I don’t think that I’m one of those people who cries wolf, you know? I’m certainly not a conspiracy theorist, that’s not me. But I know history, and I know right now where we’re at. And I’m also listening to trained historians, people like Jon Meacham and Michael Beschloss, and the historians that actually, these are the people who have been writing American history for a long time. They are actually saying, Jon Meacham just the other day, just yesterday was saying, “Right now, today, we are sealing American jurisprudence for the next forty years.” That’s what he said. Forty years of shaping the Constitution. The Constitution will now be shaped in the image of far right wing conservatism. So how do I have hope? I have hope by going back to the first page of the Bible, and the reality that there was darkness in the beginning and there was chaos, and there was destruction. There was desolation, that’s what that word darkness means in the Hebrew. It can be translated in all of those ways. That was what was there in the beginning. And the Spirit of God hovered over the deep, and the deep, for the ones who were writing that text—according to the theory I believe, which is that the Babylonian, the priests who were exiting the Babylonian exile were the ones who wrote that text on their way out as they had been freed. It’s interesting to me that the creation story of the Babylonians actually says that the deep, the waters, is where their gods lived, it’s where their gods warred for supremacy, Tiamat and Marduk and others. And here we have on the first page in the Bible, in the creation story that these priests who were exiting Babylon, they say the Spirit of the Supreme God hovers over the deep, hovers over the gods of their oppressors. And it’s that Supreme God, in the hovering; it’s not just hanging out, it’s literally hovering or brooding like a chicken broods over its eggs about to birth something. And it’s that God who births light, just simply by commanding it to be. And that’s what God does; God cuts the darkness. So when we look at history, we can always find points in history when darkness seemed to blot out the sun. We see 246 years of slavery, and 90 years of Jim Crow, and 50 years of mass incarceration. And we see the Holocaust, and we see apartheid, and we see the desolation that happened in the Balkans with the Balkan wars and all of that destruction. And right now, what’s happening in Sudan, and what happened in Darfur. In the moment, all of those times, there’s always a sense that this will never end, that darkness has won. But none of those things, none of those things has gone on for infinity. There has always been an end to the darkness, and that is light. Light always wins. And so I’m in the middle of this very, very dark moment, and it is my belief in the fact that God is, and this is who God is, that God cuts darkness. That’s what God does, that’s part of who God is. That gives me hope, and hope enough to walk the next step, which was, last night, to fill out my absentee voting ballot and to put out the word to every single person who says they believe in justice, they want justice, to fill out their absentee voting ballot and to show at the polls on November 6th.
Nate: Yeah, I really appreciate the hope that you just brought into this, because I know it’s been a time of a lot of despair for a lot of people. I guess what’s so hard for me personally is when this is all being supported, lifted up, pushed forward by people who claim to love the very same book and the very same God that I claim to love and I know lots of people claim to love and don’t land at the same spot. It seems like it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re talking about two completely different gospels, two completely different Bibles. We’re reading this thing completely differently. It’s really two different religions. We’re talking about two completely different religions. And just wonder if you can speak to that a bit?
Lisa: Well, yeah, that’s my book.
Nate: Yeah, totally.
Lisa: That’s The Very Good Gospel, that’s what it came from. It literally sprung from a pilgrimage that I took about fifteen years ago. And on that pilgrimage I came out of a pretty fundamentalist evangelical background. At the time I was on staff with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which actually at the time, I remember my staff supervisors in our training saying, “We’re not fundamentalist, we’re evangelical.” But ironically, when I left Intervarsity I had a conversation with Steve Hayner, the president of Intervarsity during most of my years there, and I had a conversation with him while writing my first book, and I asked him, “So where do Intervarsity fall on the spectrum?” And he said, “Oh, Intervarsity’s fundamentalist.” I was like, “Oh my God! That makes my time at Intervarsity make sense!” But here’s the reason that’s important, is because Intervarsity is, it came out of the fundamentalist soil of the 1940s, and the fundamentalism hit its apex in American from the 1920s, and then went underground with the monkey trials that were pretty embarrassing as they were trying to outlaw teaching of evolution. But it was from that soil that groups like Intervarsity and Campus Crusade for Christ and Christianity Today sprung. And even Billy Graham Association; all of the major flagship evangelical organizations sprang out of that fundamentalist soil. And the thing about fundamentalism is that it shrinks the gospel. That’s what it does; that is the point, to bring it down to “fundamentals,” points, principles. But what that does is it lifts Jesus out of the context of Jesus’ own story. And you cannot understand Jesus, you can’t, outside of the context of Jesus’ story. You can’t understand Jesus if you don’t understand that Jesus was a brown man, Jesus was an indigenous man, Jesus was a colonized person living in colonized, occupied territory. You can’t understand Jesus if you don’t understand that one of the tactics of war of the Romans was to spread salt all over the land so that it would not grow its own vegetation, so that the people would be dependent on Rome for its food. That’s one of the classic tactics of colonization, is to create dependency on the colonizer. And so when Jesus says to his people, says to the crowds, “Pray this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven. Not Abba, as Caesar tells us to say, but our Father in heaven. Hallowed be Your name. Your name is the highest name, not Caesar’s, even though Caesar wants to tell us his is the highest name. Your will be done, not Caesar’s. On earth as it is in heaven—not just in heaven, but also on earth, right here. Make your will be done right here. And give us this day our daily bread, God—not Caesar.’” One of Caesar’s practices, as Obery Hendricks points out in his book The Politics of Jesus, one of Caesar’s was to throw loaves of bread to the people. Just like Donald Trump threw paper towels to suffering and dying people in Puerto Rico. When I saw that, all I could think of was Caesar, how Caesar tossed bread loaves, saying, “I am your benefactor.” Well, Jesus says, “No, say to your Father in heaven, ‘Give us this day our daily bread, God,’ not Caesar, not the occupier, not the colonizer.” So you can’t understand Jesus if you don’t understand his context. And you can’t understand him if you don’t understand the larger context, which is an entire people in every single book of the Bible including Genesis, every book in the Bible being written by brown, colonized people, or people under threat of colonization. That would be the case of David and Solomon. But even they, two kings, were kings of a dinky kingdom that kept getting sacked. That’s the whole reason we have the Babylonian exile, you know? That’s the point! So you have a scripture, a holy text, that comes from colonized people for colonized people. But it has been interpreted by empire and passed down by empire. And so I think that’s why we get two different religions. We get one religion that is the religion of empire; and we get the other religion that is really a religion of the oppressed, or at least in alliance with the oppressed. And what happened to me on my pilgrimage is I got to the end of that summer having gone through, retraced the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the African experience in American from slavery to civil rights, both of which are my own family’s stories according to our own oral tradition and DNA. And understanding that when I get to the end of that journey, I have no words. When I think about, what does my understanding of the gospel have to say to this? It was mute. The four spiritual laws have nothing to say—nothing to say!—to the Cherokee Trail of Tears, to the experience of slavery. And I imagined myself going and knocking on the door of my three times great grandmother, Lea Ballard, the last adult slave in our family, and saying, “Great-great-great Grandmom, I have great news for you!” And the thing is, she had seventeen children, most likely because she was what they called a breeder. So just take that in. The confluence of patriarchy and white nationalism is right there in my grandmother’s body. She was forced to “breed money” for her master. And that meant her job—that she never got paid for!—was to be raped every day, multiple times a day. So I imagined going up to her and saying, “Lea, I have great word, great news for you: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sin. But you’re sinful and you’re banned from God, so all you need to do now is pray this prayer and you get to go to heaven!” And I asked myself, “Would that be considered, received, as good news by Lea Ballard?” And the answer was no. And that led me into a year of depression, because as an evangelical, the basis of my life was the gospel. So you take that from me and I have nothing. And then thirteen years of wrestling over, “What does the gospel, what is Jesus’ gospel?” And that’s what led me to write The Very Good Gospel.
Tim: One thing I couldn’t help but notice in your book, The Very Good Gospel, but also I’ve seen it in some of your other works, and it’s resonated profoundly with me, is you mention the Magnificat often. I think over the last couple years of my own spiritual journey, the line in Mary’s song where she celebrates the good news that has just come her way, that God casts down the powerful from their thrones and uplifts the lowly, that the gospel I now believe in, like you, which is different from the one I used to believe in, that’s as good a summary of that gospel as anything, right?
Lisa: It is! That’s the good news!
Tim: And it’s right there, Luke puts it right there up front and center for us to read the whole rest of the story through that lens. But it makes me think of, as you talk about, there’s a religion of the empire, or as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has called it, a slaveholder religion. A religion of the powerful that has used Jesus and coopted the Bible and all of that, and then there’s historically always been the Christianity at the margins, of the oppressed, the enslaved, the lowly. But there also seems to me today to be this large middle space of just kind of passive, silent, a gospel that just tries to not be in the conversation and doesn’t speak to politics. It’s the kind of gospel that says you should never talk about voting or political candidates, it’s trying to nonpartisan all the time. And then that has kind of stirred, at least I’ve seen some conversation of like, should unity be the ideal in the church, or is this a time to be divided? And people looking at Jesus’ story and seeing, no, actually, his life was incredibly divisive, and it actually separated the powerful from the lowly. Can you just speak to that? I can imagine you, as you say, thirteen or fourteen years ago, you never would have pointed to getting to the polls this November as one of the primary ways as a Christian that we enact good news and justice. But I think a lot of us have come to a place where we’ve realized, actually, if we stop short of that, we might actually just be perpetuating this religion of the empire, even if we don’t want to be.
Lisa: Yeah, I think that for me, this goes, again going back to the first page of the Bible. There’s so much you said there. I was trying to keep tabs on things I wanted to say, so I’m just going to speak and hope it comes! On that first page of the Bible, one of the things that you see after you see the power of God to cut darkness, then you see God creating order, and at the very end, like on the last day, at the end of the last day, God says, “This is all very good.” That’s actually where the title of the book comes from, The Very Good Gospel. It’s about how very good everything was in the very beginning and the fact that what that is, that very goodness, is what shalom looks like, it’s what the kingdom, what the rule of God looks like when it actually happens. And that very goodness does not, when God says this is all very good, He’s not saying, “That’s a very good walrus I just made,” or, “That’s a very good piece of creation.” No, what God, that goodness, tov, that’s the Hebrew word, it literally exists, it is a connector of thoughts. That’s how it exists in the text, the syntax. It’s “... good … good … it’s good.” That’s how that word tov is usually used in the context of epic Hebrew poetry. But then secondly, as a concept, the Hebrews who were listening to that text, listening to the text the very first time, they would have understood that what God was pointing was the ties between things. So that goodness, the very goodness, for the Hebrews, was not actually located inside the thing, it was located between things. So that God’s focus, what God was concerned about, was the relationship between things. And that very is meod, and it means abundant, forceful, overflowing, radically good. So then you go a little bit further up in the text, go back, rather, back in the text, to Genesis 1:26, and you have two words that stand out. There’s the word tselem, or the word image, and then there’s the word radah, which is the word dominion. And so the word image, what God is saying is that all humanity is made in the image of God. This is a radical notion; it’s something that no other civilization up to that point had ever declared, which is that God’s image is not only located in kings and queens, which was the norm of the time of belief, but it’s located in everybody! So everybody possesses the same measure, the same heft of dignity we would normally bestow on royalty. You see that? And then, if you’re not sure what that means, just to clarify what they say is, “And let them exercise dominion.” And this is, remember, a people coming out of oppression. If you understand that context, for them to say this is incredibly radical! What they’re saying is that all living humanity, all humanity was created to rule, created to exercise stewardship of the world, to care for the world, cultivate it, protect it, serve it. And so when you limit the capacity of anyone to exercise dominion, to make choices that impact their world, you are also limiting the image of God on earth. And I would actually now go to saw that the original hearers understood that image of the king to be a marker of where that king rules. Where that marker, like on the image of a coin, on the bust at the beginning of a city, like when you’re entering, you see that bust of Caesar and you know, this is where Caesar rules. You see that coin with Caesar’s head on it and you know, this is where Caesar rules; this is Caesar’s town. Well, we bear the image of God; we are supposed to be markers of where God rules! And so when we govern in ways that twist or break or cover over or annihilate the image of God on earth by limiting the capacity of people to exercise dominion, what we’re actually doing is we are declaring war! Against God! Because that’s how the ancients declared war. The ancients would topple the images of that king in that city. That’s when you knew insurrection was happening. So in a democracy, which is what we have, in a democracy, the vote is the most fundamental way that we have to exercise dominion, to exercise stewardship of our nation, of our communities. If we fail to vote, we fail to live into our humanity. If we fail to vote, we fail to fully bear the image of God. Or if we are blocked from voting through voter suppression measures and other things like that, or if our brothers and sisters are blocked from voting, as people are being blocked in 23 states right now, then we ourselves are literally, literally declaring war on God in the borders of the United States. Because we are declaring war, we are coming up against God’s purposes within the United States, which is for all humanity to flourish and exercise stewardship of this land. So voting and helping our friends and elders and everybody to get out and vote is actually a spiritual act of worship, of God.
Nate: I love that. I was hit by what Tim was saying. It made me think of, it feels like the Franklin Graham Christians, they were celebrating yesterday. And then the other end of the spectrum is grieving, and then there’s that, like Tim was saying, there’s that middle ground that I found largely silent. And it’s a large, large, large middle ground, I find. It’s easy to group that whole silent group in with the whole Franklin Graham group and say it’s all the same, but I feel like the silent group is like the—I don’t want to call out motives or anything like that, but it feels like the Gospel Coalition, kind of reformed group that doesn’t want to get political, doesn’t want to talk about, this is not the space that they go into. I’m not saying everyone needs to be blowing up twitter or something, but this wasn’t coming into sermons, it wasn’t coming into newsletters, it wasn’t coming into anything, people weren’t talking about it. It feels like it’s largely silent. I just wonder what you make of it. And they just go on. And they want to just go on, “We’re going to preach the gospel. We’re going to remain level and just kind of keep preaching the gospel, preaching the gospel.” I wonder, what do you make of, you’ve talked about these two different gospels, but what do you make of that whole group? What’s the challenge to that group, or to those of us who have friends that are in that group? What do we do?
Lisa: The challenge is this. I think honestly, I think that the challenge is best illustrated in the people of Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Tim Scott, and Joe Manchin. I think that when you look at the way that those senators responded to the question of how the polis should live together, how the people should live together. Because that’s all politics actually is. Politics is actually not supposed to be just about partisanship. Partisanship does not, it should not determine how we live together. But politics fundamentally is only really, the conversation we have together and the decisions that we make about how we will live together as a people. And within our structure of how we’ve decided to live together, the Supreme Court is one of the governing bodies. And it’s the governing body that is in many ways the most powerful, because that body shapes the very Constitution that guides our legal, our policies and our daily life, that tells us at the very baseline what we as a nation have declared is right and wrong, just and unjust. And so within our polity, within our polis, these five senators all positioned themselves as moderate. They all position themselves as in the middle. All right-of-center, but towards the center. And so they all position themselves in a way that when moments like these happen, when clear decisions have to be made about how the polis lives together, they end up being the most powerful votes, the most powerful people. Now ironically Tim Scott really got lost in this mix. He’s the only African American senator in the conservative part of the Senate, only conservative, Republican African American. But he got lost in this, he really shouldn’t have been lost in this. But the reality is is that, when you look at how they voted, how each of them voted, how they positioned themselves, I just kept remembering, the whole time I kept remembering revelation. This was a revelation moment. This was a revelatory moment where we saw for the first time where their hearts actually were. They made a decision. And the decision revealed their heart. It revealed how they think the polis should live together. So I think that all our politics really is is our hearts laid to bear in public. You know? The decisions that we make about how the polis should live together. So what they decided, what Lisa Murkowski decided yesterday was that her heart would be the same on the inside as it is on the outside, and that she would vote and her heart was revealed to be on the side of the weak. She was not going to allow someone who could have attempted to remove the clothing of a fifteen year old and covered her mouth. She was not going to allow someone who lied multiple times, not only in the hearing about Christine Blasey Ford, but also in his previous hearing when questioned about his role in torture with the Bush White House, Bush 43 White House. So he lied! Emails now show, they demonstrate clearly: he lied! And she was not going to let someone who lied be among the people who determine the boundaries of justice. So her own ethics were revealed in her vote. And so were the ethics of Susan Collins and Jeff Flake and Joe Manchin and Tim Scott and Ben Sasse. Their ethics were revealed. What they actually, how they actually believe we should be treating each other and how our society should be shaped, because they placed somebody in our highest court in the position to determine the boundaries of justice who lied and who likely tried to rip the clothing of a fifteen year old girl and exposed himself to a freshman woman at college. So the middle... I understand when God says, “Be hot or cold, but lukewarm and I will spit you out of my mouth.” Because when you’re lukewarm, when you stand in that position and you fail to actually heed the cries of the oppressed ones, then you are making a choice. You’re not avoiding a choice by going to Starbucks. You know, getting you’re latte, coming home, and watching The Voice, that’s not avoiding a choice. You’re making a choice, because you’re choice to do that allows the cries of the oppressed to continue, and might even increase them.
Tim: So for you, I guess in the last few years and then right now in this moment, what are the steps that you are most committed to taking for yourself, for the church, for America? To make the world a better place, what are the avenues, practices, or the points of productivity that you’ve found are worth committing to, mustering hope each day and saying, “If I engage in these actions, in these sorts of conversations, or these motions, I can at least make a difference and push this thing in a better direction.”
Lisa: I think… wow, honestly I’m a little challenged by that question, because honestly I think on one level, I’m still in shock from yesterday, so I’m still trying to figure out. How do we, how do we live in this new America? Because we are now in an America we have not seen since 1896, since Plessy v. Ferguson. And I’m not saying it’s now Plessy v. Ferguson. But what I am saying is that you mark my words. Forty years from now going forward, we will not have, we won’t have a strong Brown v. Board of Education, which is the foundation of all civil rights legislation that we’ve seen since Brown v. Board of Education. So if that is whittled back, then we really do go back to the days of my third-great grandmother, my second-great grandmother, my great grandmother who fled Jim Crow in South Carolina, the very state that Lindsey Graham and Strom Thurmond came from. I don’t know. Honestly, I’m literally, I’m thinking I really do need to go back and study the spirituality of my great grandparents who lived under that kind of regime, because we’re headed there. We are headed there. That’s where we’re headed.
Nate: What do you think it will look like if Brown v. Board of Education gets—you said it’s going to start getting rolled back—what’s that actually going to look like practically, do you feel like?
Lisa: Well, it means that there will be no recourse when black men are shot on the street or women, not only by police, but by vigilantes. It means that when cases are taken to the Supreme Court, let’s say stand-your-ground legislation, which is now the majority rule across the land. People have the ability to shoot to kill if they can say that they were afraid of somebody. And we know because of implicit bias, that white people are just simply afraid of black folk. That’s just real, that’s their implicit bias against blackness. So any white person, or anybody could actually go ahead and shoot a black person, claim fear, and we will not be able to get, constitutionally, within forty years I project, we will not be able to get recourse on that because the Constitution will have been changed to be interpreted in a way that says what Plessy v. Ferguson said, which is what the law of the land was before Brown v. Board of Education. It said that black folks were not due equal protection under the law. Remember Plessy v. Ferguson came at the exact same time at the height of the lynching movement, where there were thousands of black folks being lynched every year. And it was in that context that that Supreme Court ruled that separate is equal and fine, and that we’re not really due equal protection under the law. And so up until 1950, when people were lynched, there was no court, they never had a court! Never had a trial. It was actually only after Brown v. Board of Education that even Emmett Till’s killers had to be taken to court. They were taken to court, and then the court exonerated them because of other loopholes in the law, but at least they were taken to court. Well, equal protection under the law makes that possible. You whittle that back, and you may not even have to go to court! Immigration, the whole thing with babies in cages right now, with kids in cages. And Tornillo, which is a concentration camp right now that has exploded under the Trump watch in the desert along the border, and ordered by the court to be shut down months ago, and yet has exploded. It’s over capacity now, thousands are there. When the court made its order, only hundreds were there. Now, literally more than 2,000 young people are in the Tornillo concentration camp, internment camp. And do you know, you take to the Supreme Court, and if you don’t have equal protection under the law, if that’s been whittled back, or if you don’t understand that that equal protection applies to non-citizens, then they have no recourse. I hate to be the downer, but this is literally, this is what is at stake! I don’t think that any one of the judges, any one of the judges is one that would in and of themselves say, “Yes, babies should be in cages,” or “Black people should be able to be shot on demand.” None of them, I don’t think any of them would say that. But I think that the way that they interpret the Constitution is such a way that gives privilege to the powerful and does not protect the weak. And that has borne out over 228 years of rulings, and I think past is prologue. I think because you cannot name one, not even—I have gone to legal scholars, and I’ve asked this question, “Can you name one legal ruling, one Supreme Court ruling, where the majority was conservative and what they did was protect the rights of people of color or minorities?” And in every case, the scholar or the lawyer has come back and said, “No. There is no ruling like that.” So if there is no ruling like that, and we now have a majority conservative court, and not just conservative, these are... a good number of them are far right, and Kavanaugh is beyond the pale. He literally is off the charts. And they’re all lifetime appointees, and they all have at least 20 more years on the court, and Kavanaugh has a good 30-40. And the next ones who are going to cycle off, two out of the three are going to be the liberal side. I mean we really are facing a not-really good time, and I hate the be the downer. So that’s why it’s so important right now to vote. That’s why I go to the vote, because only the vote can actually change the House and change the Senate. The Senate is the place where Supreme Court confirmations happen. If the Senate is no longer in the hands of conservatives, the Supreme Court can no longer be levied as a weapon, can no longer be weaponized as a tool, a weapon in the hands of the conservative movement. If the House is turned, then you can actually get just hearings and really, some actual investigations that help us to understand how this happened and stop it from ever happening again. And there’s a possibility then of restoring the checks and balances that our founding fathers and mothers imagined when they created our Constitution in the first place. Right now we have no checks and balances. All three branches of our government—which are created to be checks and balances to each other—all three have been weaponized for the conservative movement.
Tim: Yeah, so if we think maybe, about that group then, those—I don’t know, what do we call them—moderates in the church specifically. It’s funny how, in all these conversations, we can go back and forth between talking about the Senate and the church, because they seem like kind of mirror pictures of each other.
Lisa: That’s kind of true.
Tim: Kinda makes me feel crazy. But if we think about that middle group, that like Nate was saying, just doesn’t want to get involved, plays the nonpartisan card, and now here you are picturing how bad American politics, American judicial system might get over the next couple decades, specifically for marginalized people, specifically for people of color, for women, who have been historically, already with our Constitution and our Supreme Court, been marginalized. With your gospel, which I think is the gospel of Jesus, your version of what is actually good news, like we said, Mary’s Magnificat, that God has and will flip the power structures of the world as an act of justice, I guess, what would you say to that middle ground people in terms of how to reorient themselves, reorient their faith, reorient their understanding of what gospel is to parse from this passive position. And to add in there, if we can’t be lukewarm, if you end up at the end of the day, you’re on a side whether you like to think it or not, is that middle ground gospel even a gospel? Or is essentially some sort of affiliate or offshoot of this empire religion that basically needs to be rejected overtly in order to not perpetuate the problems?
Lisa: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think that the question always has to be, would their lives be good news to the least of these? Because ultimately, ultimately what Jesus said before Jesus went to the cross, the last sermon He gave was there’s going to be sheep and there’s going to be goats. You know, he didn’t mention any cows. There’s nobody in the middle there! There’s sheep and goats, man! And the question will be, “How did you treat the least of these?” That’s the question. And also what Jesus said in Matthew 28 was, “Go and make disciples, teaching them all that I’ve taught you. Be witnesses.” In Acts 1, we’re called to be witnesses. Well, being a witness, what is a witness? A witness actually functions as evidence in the court of law. That’s part of the reason why everybody was so angry that Trump limited the number of witnesses that the FBI were able to—and not just number, but who!—the FBI was able to go and talk to, because witnesses function as evidence. And so you can rig the evidence by taking out some witnesses and by limiting them. So the question isn’t, “Are you witnessing, are you out there sharing the four spiritual laws?” The question is, “Are you, in your being, a witness, a piece of evidence of the presence of the rule of God in the world? Are you, is your life, evidence of the presence of the kingdom of God in your city, in our nation?” And I don’t mean this in terms of triumphalistic, “We’re going to take over our city,” “God in the city,”—no! What I mean is, are you with the least of these? Do the least of these, does the poor, do black people, do Latino people, do immigrants, do people who are transgender, do people who are blind, do people who find a hard time walking, do the aged, do those who are disadvantaged in the current system of our governance, do they count your presence as good news? Because we are the hands and feet of Jesus. We are the body of Christ. Literally, we are the body of Christ today! And if they don’t count the presence of the body of Christ as good news, then Jesus is not good news to them, then! But the thing is, I think Jesus actually is, and I just think we have been a witness to a different Jesus. We’ve been a witness, we’ve been evidence. I actually, quite honestly, I really do think—and I’ve written this too, so this is not the first place I’m saying this, I think I tweeted it at some point—but I think that the evangelical church, by and large, has actually become a witness, evidence, of the presence of Satan in the world, of the presence of forces that are hellbent on crushing the image of God in the world. And now am I saying that the evangelical church is from Satan? No. I still count myself, God love me, as an evangelical. Why? Because I trace my—I’m going to be honest, the heritage of my faith goes back to those, to Charles Finney and Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer and those people who were on that circuit, the very circuit that traveled throughout the northern South and the North proclaiming freedom for the captives and abolition for the slaves, and caused half of the enslaved people in Kentucky to be set free between 1850 and 1860. And my own ancestors, I believe, were among them. They were enslaved on the census in 1850, and they were not enslaved on the census in 1860. Something happened there. And we know that what happened in Kentucky were the revivals, Charles Finney’s revivals, and that’s where they were. So yes, I count myself as an evangelical in that lineage. But I think that the witness, the evidence, of the modern day evangelical church has actually literally created more and more evidence, mounting evidence of the presence of forces in this world that are hellbent on crushing the image of God on earth. So we go back to this question of the lukewarm, the middle, and you asked the question, “What is their life bearing evidence of? What is it evidence of?” I think that it’s certainly not evidence of the presence of the kingdom of God. God is not lukewarm when it comes to the least of these.
Nate: Wow. Yeah, that feels like such a huge wake-up call, I feel like, to a lot of people. The fact that some people just want to go on preaching the gospel, preaching the gospel. But as we’ve talked about, it’s almost a different gospel if it doesn’t have words, it doesn’t have good news for the marginalized, the oppressed, the people at the bottom of the system. So I just love that challenge and encouragement. I wonder, I just felt like it could be cool to have you pray for this, whatever this is, this church, these churches, this divide, whatever it is. I feel like it could be cool to close with a prayer. Would you mind doing that?
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely, thank you.
Holy, holy, holy, holy God. One who has been from the beginning and will be forever. The same one who led the priests who were exiting seventy years of oppression in Babylon to write down the truth of our relationship to You, the reality that we are all made in Your image, and the truth of who You are, that You cut darkness. That’s what You do. Holy God, we ask You to come and move Your church to surrender. Move Your people to surrender to You. We have been at war against You, against Your image, both through sins of commission and sins of omission. Forgive us please. Move us to repentance, to walk and live in a different way. To turn from our apathy and from our self-protection, from our building kingdoms that compete with You for supremacy and crush Your image in the process to a people who is jealous for the flourishing of Your image in every corner of our nation and our world. Lord, help us to see ourselves clearly now. Help us to face ourselves clearly now. Help us to take this reckoning, this revelatory moment, and not run and hide from shame, but rather, God, to be transformed and redeemed. Use this moment, God. Use this moment to bring Your shalom back to our families, ourselves, our communities, our states and our nation, and to our international neighbors, friend and enemy. Your kingdom come, Lord. Your will be done on earth as it is Heaven. Amen.
Nate: Thanks, Lisa.
Lisa: Thank you, guys. Thanks so much for inviting me to hang with you this afternoon. It’s been good.
Tim: Yeah. Yeah, thank you, and thanks for being really truthful and witnessing both to the messiness and the not having it figured out, and the fact that there are feelings of despair and bleakness, and for even in this conversation also testifying to perseverance and hope moving forward. So I hope for you, in this coming week and the coming months and years, that you can keep your head up and keep witnessing and find moments of hope amidst all the darkness, that the light would break in more often than not.
Lisa: I appreciate that. God bless you!
Tim: You too.
Nate: Thanks Lisa.
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