Michelle Higgins and The Pharisee in Us

I love February. It’s a great month. First off, I get paid sooner—it has less days. It is also Black History Month for many people and many of the days ahead will center on remembering the past and celebrating progress of African Americans. For me, February isn’t just culturally affirming but it also marks the month when I return to the gym. I take January off from 24 Hour Fitness because I know it will be filled with people who are committed to getting in shape this year. The place is always packed in January, filled with people living out their New Year’s resolutions. However, I know from experience by the time the Super Bowl is over—the first week in February—the gym will be spacious again. The fire, energy, and commitments held at the beginning of January are more often than not gone one month later.

black-lives-matter-going-deeperIt’s been a little over one month since Michelle Higgins pulled “a Dr. Brenda” [Salter-McNeil]—walking on stage at Urbana singing an old Negro Spiritual. One month since she [and other platform speakers] spoke daring, bold, and prophetic words that we will be talking about for years to come…but where are we one month after this prophet of the Lord—who did not come in peace—stepped up to the microphone in the evangelical world and rattled our comfortable and complacent cages? I want to share a few thoughts on her message and what it means as we move forward into 2016 as evangelical communities of faith.

What We Saw This Past Month

We saw this past month as Michelle Higgins’ character was called into question by Christians and non-Christians, where her message was reduced to ad hominem, attacking the person rather than hearing what she had to say. Her message was largely dismissed for a couple of reasons: 1) It was political and not biblical because she didn’t start with a passage; (Whatever passage she would have chosen, I submit would not have been enough to calm the responses from her message…more on that in a moment.) 2) As educated theologians, we have an ability to affirm truth without applying it. Too many evangelical organizations spent the past month affirming themselves as though they have solved systemic issues around race and the promotion and retention of staff of color rather than repenting of broken methods of leadership and organizational structure. We watched as her illustrations on adoption, LGBTQ community, and #BlackLivesMatter were misinterpreted and magnified into affirmations of violence against police, abortion, and promoting division. We even watched as her life was threatened on Social Media platforms.

We also saw parts of the broader evangelical world publicly thank InterVarsity for having the courage to say and do something most seminaries and churches are not: preach from an open bible and an open newspaper—something the theological and secular world both need to see. We also saw those same organizations who affirmed a hermeneutic that speaks to the reality of the #BlackLivesMatter movement also—to my personal pain and shame—still misinterpret the movement and communicate their allergy to anything that dehumanizes police—which is not a goal, value, or communicated ideal anywhere in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. I’d also add it’s been very painful watching the evangelical world attack the movement because of a hypothesis #BlackLivesMatter is against the police.

It is not.

635773394288048502-1020733044_politics-protest-black-lives-matter2It is against the killing of unarmed Black men and women. Have one or two people in moments of passion said derogatory things against police? Yes. Do they represent the broader movement? No. However, if there is a standard that one person on the margins speaks for the whole group, then it also means Donald Trump speaks for all of America, Stacey Dash speaks for all Black people, and Ted Cruz represents the broad concerns of the Hispanic community. If there are exceptions for comments made by public figures, why not for people crying out for justice?

Our struggle to understand Michelle Higgins’ message, whether we agree with it or not, speaks of a broader problem in the evangelical world: a consistent inability to hear and respond to the cries of the marginalized.

What Story Will You Tell Begs the Question, “What Story Have You Heard?”

The theme for Urbana 15 was, “What Story Will You Tell.” As I wrote in another blog post, “Why Michelle Higgins Matters,” telling a story means you’ve heard a story. It is not just, “what story will you tell,” but “what story have you heard?” Specifically, we want to tell THE STORY—the good news of Jesus to this broken and hurting world. That implies we have seen and heard the pain that exists in this world and we, therefore, know how the Good News is actually good news to people. Even more as Christians, we believe the Scriptures are our lamp and our light. Scripture should affirm and afflict us. It should comfort us and convict us.

My evangelical brothers and sisters, when is the last time you heard the truth from the Scriptures that hurt? That you flat out disagreed with? That hit us at our places of comfort and convenience? I cannot remember a time I have ever enjoyed hearing the truth that hurts! One of my mentors in the faith often says, “People need to walk out of our churches mad at us sometimes. They need to walk out almost enraged. ‘How can they say that to me?!’ That’s what we see in the Scriptures. It happened often when Jesus preached. It never happens in our churches.” People loved Jesus’ healings but his words were sometimes harsh. He was not concerned with our happiness but our holiness. Last time I checked, we were all sinful, so at some point, Jesus ought to say something we don’t like. If he hasn’t in a while, I’d question if we have been listening to him.

The truth is not meant to always feel good and encourage. Scripture teaches us, corrects us. If Patrick Fung and Francis Chan taught the Scripture, Christena Cleveland brought the statistics, should not Michelle Higgins give the testimony of the reality of marginalized black people in America? I know some donors across evangelical organizations have pulled their support because of Michelle’s message. I also know, as an evangelical black missionary, there are donors who will not support me solely because of my ethnicity and my commitment to address these issues. I have witnessed it personally, first hand, and so have my friends. I am saddened our community has lost financial support because of a message that addressed #BlackLivesMatter. I am even more grateful that for a brief time the broader evangelical world got to experience what it is like to be a person of color where your funding is impacted by issues associated with your ethnicity—or your stance in the conversation.

The Pharisee in Us Will Pick What We Protest

Throughout the gospels, the Pharisees clearly have a problem with Jesus and his ministry. One of their biggest issues him is his view of the Sabbath. Jesus is always doing something on the Sabbath. In Mark 2, the Pharisees protested because the disciples were picking grain on the Sabbath. “This is unlawful,” they said. So, Jesus got up, went in the synagogue, and asked if it was lawful to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Their response? Silence. So Jesus heals the man. What do the Pharisees do? They leave the synagogue and plot how to kill Jesus…on the Sabbath.

Recap: Pharisees said it’s unlawful to pick grain on the Sabbath. They are silent when asked about healing a man on the Sabbath. They go out and plot to kill Jesus on the Sabbath.

Too many times in the Evangelical world, we pick what we protest. We are up in arms about grain being picked, and we are silent about withered hands. The responses were wide and varied to Michelle Higgins’ message. For all of the feedback that was against her message, her delivery, her style of preaching, we have yet to say anything/do anything/deal with the issues of injustice she raised. We have critiqued and debriefed her message. We have yet to address the issues she raised.

When the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite emerged because of the lack of diversity in Oscar nominees for the second year in a row, there was a swift apology from the president and a few days later they produced practical steps to increase diversity, both in ethnicity and gender, among future voters. This will no doubt also impact selection of actors for films.

When will that happen in the evangelical world? How many more messages will we need to hear that tell us our funding models our broken, we are struggling to recruit and retain staff and students of color—especially from the Black and Latino communities as well as First Nations people. How many more times will some of our white brothers and sisters say, “Yes, I agree! I want to learn, grow,” but we don’t create, offer, and evaluate job performance on cross-cultural competency? The evangelical world has been in a holding pattern since the 50s and 60s. So much effort is spent on idols of intellectualism and idealism, but despite all the books written and degrees conferred we are still fighting the same Goliaths of funding, supremacy, and privilege. In Scripture and in life, the principle remains that God does not release us to move forward until we learn how to respond when he is speaking. He has been speaking for decades about racism in the country and in the church, but we continue to negate the messenger right along with the message.

The Pharisee in Us Will Point Out the Sin of Others and Omit the Sin in Ourselves

The Pharisees were livid at Jesus his disciples picking grain and Jesus healing on the Sabbath. It was a violation of their most sacred law. How did they respond? They violated that same law by plotting his death that same day. We are quick to point out the flaws, points of tension, and theological differences we have with #BlackLivesMatter. We aren’t so quick to point out the sin in ourselves around race and ethnicity.

Michelle Higgins was right when she said racism is “the side-piece or part-time love” of America and Western Evangelicalism. Look at the lack of diversity in leadership, funding, promotions, materials/resources, how cross-cultural competency is not an evaluative mechanism for effective ministry. Our evangelical seminaries still teach patterns of thought from prominent racist philosophers and theologians of centuries past (Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and Jonathan Edwards come to mind immediately.) I am not saying we re-write them out of history but if we have to take into account if we are going to study ethics and theology written during racist time periods, we must acknowledge they will reproduce that same method of thinking in us if we don’t evaluate them correctly.

If we are going to be allergic to abortion, disagree with the #BlackLivesMatter movement because we can’t see a biblical basis, we have to also be allergic to racial injustice that is happening on a national scale here in America and in the evangelical world. Our tolerance for injustice is what produced the movement to begin with. As Christians, we are the light of the world. We are not called to criticize the darkness, but shine out light and eradicate the darkness in the name of Jesus.

What Will They Say About Us 40 Years From Now?

Tom Skinner. If you haven’t heard the name, please google him. He was a prophetic voice in the 70s and 80s as he called the North American Christian community to consider the application of the gospel through the African-American experience. His messages from Atlanta and Urbana 70 are still referenced today.

Many people are saying the same about Michelle Higgins. Both Tom and Michelle were not received well when they spoke their prophetic words. What’s interesting is how similar there messages are: hear the cries of injustice from the margins and do the work of justice. Like it or not, Michelle said some things that go unaddressed in the evangelical world—well, the mainstream evangelical world. Now what? There is a window when our response is relevant, timely, prophetic, and potent. When we miss that window, we lose momentum. Similar to the weeks after all conferences, we need follow-up to ensure we live out the gospel we confessed a few weeks ago.

What will they say about us 40 years from now? When delegates arrive for Urbana 55, will we still being asking the same questions? Will we still be asking the evangelical world to pay attention to race relations in the country as they affect our churches, our donors, our students, and our campuses? Or will we invite another speaker into our space who says what it is common on the margins but a complete surprise to the center?

Making It Practical

Awareness. Listen to Michelle’s Message again. Who is speaking (where is she coming from), what is she saying, and to whom is she speaking? Are there other Christian communicators of color you can listen to? Are they saying similar things? Check out the Black Lives Matter website. Like Nehemiah, don’t rely on second-hand information. Learn how and why the movement exists. Discover for yourself what it stands for, what you agree with and disagree with apart from news soundbites taken out of context

Action. Everyone dreams of changing the world, but no one dreams of changing themselves. Before Nehemiah set out to build Jerusalem, he didn’t just lament, he repented his sins, his family’s, and the sins of his people. What are the ways in which you have been apathetic, silent, or absent around injustices happening here in the United States?

Advocacy. I don’t agree with everything in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but I do agree with their core message: my life matters. We as Black people don’t need to tell each other that. We need non-Black people to tell other non-Black people. You may now that, but I ask, have you told anyone? If you don’t believe it’s necessary, turn on the news. There will be another shooting of an unarmed person of color in the United States in the next 26 hours. They need your voice before they lose their lives.


Sean Watkins


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