Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Hope of Lent: We Can Change


The hope of Lent is that we will come out of it a bit different than when we entered, having changed in some way for the better.  When I think of people changing, I think of the pastor of a church I once attended.
First Baptist Church, with its tall white columns and pipe organ and church suppers with real plates, sat just off the town square and was an institution of influence in that southern county-seat town. I joined the Second Baptist Church, with is low slung one-story red brick building and wood paneled sanctuary; it sat on the edge of town and was not a place of power.

I was serving as an intern campus minister at the nearby university.  People assumed I would join First Baptist.  I don’t clearly remember why I joined the other church.  Maybe I wanted to enter fully into the cross-cultural experience of living in a small southern town; I was from the urban north.  Perhaps it was an amateurish attempt at ethnography.  In any case, I joined Second Baptist and parked among Chevrolet pickups instead of Buick sedans.

I began taking several of my male African-American students with me to church on Sunday; they could not afford to go home on the weekend.  The young men were treated politely. They were most likely the first people of color to worship in that church.
One day the pastor took me aside and shared that it was OK for these young men to worship at Second; they were students and would be gone at the end of the year, as would I. He went on to say, however, there would be a problem if one them ever tried to join. So I needed to share that with them or stop bringing them. I told the pastor that I would do neither of those things.  In response he shared that if one of these young men were to present himself for membership, well that would “not be good for me or for you.”

I had moved south with a robust sense of self-satisfied superiority when it came to issues of race.  I believed the south was way behind the north in this arena. My first pastorate in Philadelphia years later disabused me of any naiveté I might have had about the north as the land of enlightenment and justice when it came to racism; but back then in that small town, I was still clothed in my arrogance-producing naiveté.  I went home from that conversation feeling pretty good about myself.
Several months later I was daydreaming my way through one of the pastor’s sermons.  He always ended up preaching about the same three things: gambling; the liquor dealers; and “liberal” politicians.  I already knew he was against all three.  Besides, the closest place to gamble legally was a 150 miles away; it was dry for 80 miles in every direction; and I was not registered to vote in that State. 

I came awake when in the middle of a sermon one Sunday this pastor said the words  “racial prejudice.” He said it was wrong.  He went on to say, and I will never forget the words:  “Don’t look at me like that.  I come from the same place you all come from, but something happened to me.”  He went on to say that the love of God in Jesus changed him; he wasn’t like that anymore.  I was stunned at the risk he was taking in that moment.

As I reflected upon his words later in the day, I engaged in what ethnographers call “reflexivity.”  That is where ethnographers, while studying another group of people, also study themselves.  We grow in self-understanding as we grow in our understanding of others.  I realized I carried a pack of stereotypes and prejudices in my own soul.  I also wondered, “How much was I willing to risk to do the right thing?”

Not long after that, two of these students joined the church.  I am sure there were some in the church who did not like it; but that day as the two young men stood at the front of the sanctuary, they were swamped by people welcoming them.  Change was gaining the upper hand.

Lent is about change, about coming out of it a bit different than we went into it.
People can change.  I saw it in a pastor, while sitting six rows back, center pew, during a sermon to which I was not really listening.  I saw it among pick-up driving folks at a red brick church at the edge of a southern county seat town.  I experienced it as I saw some things about myself through the lens of another’s courage.

We really can change.  That is the hope of Lent.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, February 1, 2019

Loving Our Neighbor and Neuroscience

Our neurology predisposes us to love our neighbor. When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he is challenging us to nurture our innate, neurological capacity for empathy.

Our brains are wired for empathy argues David Eagleman in his book The Brain-The Story of You.  Our neural circuitry connects with that of others and monitors their pain, judges their intentions, and reads their emotions (p. 151).  An experiment showed that babies less than a year old intuitively show empathy and prefer a kind puppet over a mean puppet, in this case a helpful bear and an unhelpful bear of a different color.

Empathy is the capacity to have your brain stimulated by the experiences of others.  Another person’s pain or grief or fear matrix activates a parallel matrix in your brain. Jeremy Rifkin describes empathy in this way:

To empathize is to cross over and experience, in the most profound way, the very being of another—especially the other’s struggle to endure and prevail in his or her own life journey…Empathy is the ultimate expression of communication between beings (Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream—How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, p. 271).

Empathy is a survival instinct.  Although natural selection or “survival of the fittest” plays a role in our survival, there is more to the story.  Without an intuitive empathic connection with others, humans would not have been able to live together in peace, cooperate, and flourish—given that we are slow and weak compared to other creatures closest to us in the food chain.  We help one another be safe, productive, and overcome challenges (Eagleman, pp. 163-164).

Additional research shows, however, that we are prone--unconsciously and unintentionally--to experience greater empathy toward people who are like us and less empathy toward people who are different (Eagleman, pp. 169-170).  It is not a choice we make. Herein lies our struggle: our brain chemistry does not recognize all of those around us as equal.  As one of the pigs says in George Orwell’s Animal Farm:  all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Human empathy is an imperfect survival mechanism.  It helps us to survive, but gives preference to people of our own tribe.

This defect operates most clearly through the process of dehumanization.  If we can shut down the empathic link between us and the homeless person, for example, we avoid feeling bad about not being charitable (Eagleman, p. 171). We experience them as less human than we are.

Language is a common stratagem humans employ to dehumanize others and dull our intuitive sense of connection.  By weaponizing language through derisive and demeaning terms, we can dehumanize others and give free reign to egocentricity.  Insult is the refuge of those who cannot tolerate the common humanity of others.

So when Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he is challenging us to nurture our innate, neurological capacity for empathy (Matt. 22:37-40).  More stunningly, he commands us to love our enemies as well (Matt. 5:43-44).  There is a part of us that battles against this innate capacity for loving connection, particularly with those who are not like us, those who are not members of our political, social, ethnic, religious, national, or cultural tribe.

We live in a balkanized country, where demeaning and dismissing those who are not a member of our “tribe” has become almost a patriotic duty.  This is a denial of who God created us to be.  This is not an option for followers of Jesus; it just isn’t. 

God instilled within us an instinct for empathy.  Somehow—ask Augustine I guess—that got perverted into a preference for our “own people.”  Jesus challenges us to nurture a purer, Godlier, form of empathy: the capacity to love our neighbor and our enemy simply because they, like us, are made in the image of God.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

History--A Sometimes Difficult Conversation

We were naming a room in our church building.  We already had a room named after the long-term
pastor of the church who led the congregation during what was seen by the long-tenured members as the heyday of the church.

Our choosing of a name had come to the point where we were divided into three groups.  One group wanted to name the room “Founders Hall.” We had a plaque at the back of the sanctuary memorializing the two wealthy men who gave the land and the money to build the church in 1866; forty thousand dollars was a lot of money then.  A second group wanted to name it the “Community Room.” And a third group, of which I was a part, did not understand why it was so important what we named it or even why it had to have a name at all; I was in this third group.  People were civil and respectful as they spoke, but there was great emotional energy in the room.  I sensed something deeper than a name was at stake here.

For most of the church's first century, the congregation had been all white.  As civil rights legislation began to pass and African Americans began to have access to jobs for which they were qualified but had been denied, they started moving into northwest Philadelphia.  As the composition of the community changed, so did the church.  The first person of color joined in 1964.  When I arrived in the early 90’s, the church was overwhelmingly African American.

As the discussion went on in that business meeting, it dawned on me what was at stake.  The church was struggling with its past.  When the church was founded and those generous men gave that land and money, the majority of the people in the room that day would not have been welcome in the pews.

As a young inexperienced pastor still learning my church and ministry, I did not that day share my insight.  I was unsure whether the people in the room could endure intact such a candid conversation that would feel like an indictment of our storied founders.  Looking back now with more history among them, I suspect we would have been alright.  It would have been a difficult but good conversation for us to have.  History is like that; it can be a difficult but cleansing conversation.

 To have judged those founders by our practices and sensibilities would have been unfair and would have bred a sense of self satisfaction in us that would have stymied our further spiritual growth.  We are all a product of our times.  Our mental and moral horizons are limited, for most of us, by the breadth of vision of our contemporaries.  It is humbling to think about how those who follow us in a century will evaluate our choices and norms.
Recently, Southern Seminary confessed the school’s role in propagating and seeking to preserve slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and white supremacy.  Communities are struggling with how they should memorialize and interpret the War Between the States, a war in defense of human slavery.  Some have catalogued how housing discrimination shaped the present day character of the city of Chicago (Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Sons—The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration) and other northern cities.  Others have catalogued the role of slavery and racism in building the industrial base of the entire country (Edward E. Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told—Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism).  These are difficult but healthy conversations.  Sometimes to enter well into the future we need to own our past. 

The Hebrews are cautioned before entering into the promise land:

Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.  Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place (Deut. 9:6-7).
We are stronger communities when we speak honestly and clearly and, yes with humility, about how we have arrived where we are, both the commendable and the regrettable legs of our journey.  To have difficult conversations about our shared past is an act of confidence in the strength of our present communities, conversations that can open to us a better future.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State