Today marks twelve years since I started this blog. Twelve years. Let me say that one more time, since it sounds so strange: TWELVE YEARS! How grateful I am to have just a tiny corner of the blogosphere in which to engage you lovely co-sojourner pilgrims. You’ve faithfully followed and read, subscribed, liked, commented, and shared posts. It has meant the world to me. A little community, a global one, intent on learning more about the movements of the human soul under the watchful eye of a loving God (no, this is not Handmaid’s Tale “under his eye” material!).
To honour twelve years I am posting a hard-hitting piece by someone else I admire and follow, Dr. Kevin Young. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
First, as an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church serving as a global worker with our missions arm, Serve Globally, in Edinburgh, Scotland, this piece really stuck with me.
Second, since my job puts me in direct contact with people of all races and colours all wanting space at God’s banquet table, this piece really stuck with me.
Third, as one deeply entrenched in the world of scripture: lectio divina, exegesis, homiletics and more, this piece really stuck with me.
I hope you will log onto Dr. Kevin’s blog, support as you’re able, and interact with his excellent material. It is well worth your time. It certainly has been for me.
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The Uneasy Business of Being Viral
How one viral post changed the trajectory of my life
It was June 2020, and I was pastoring an overwhelmingly white, justice-minded congregation with a lot of money and snowbirds to match in South Florida.
I was comfortable, and so were they…. until George Floyd.
“Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
— John Lewis
Watching the callous murder of George Floyd wrecked me.
I was angry—so very angry—but pastors have limited options for managing volatile emotions. People tend to want a pastor who will work through words at the pulpit rather than throw a punch.
But I wanted to punch something, hard. And transparently, I was most angry with myself. I had ignored decades of cries from people of color in my life. They were right, and I had been ignoring the deep racism around me.
My eyes were open, but filled with tears.
With blurred vision, I turned to social media and channeled my emotions into words and pictures, and one of those went viral.
I’ve made literally thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of social media posts over the years on Twitter, Instagram, websites, blogs, myspace, and many others… but none of them had ever gone viral… until this post on Facebook on a Monday evening.
I had run across a set of photographs from James C. Lewis, a photographer in Atlanta who had released a series of Bible character portraits a few years earlier. His goal was to depict the heroes and heroines of the Bible as people of African and Middle Eastern origins, and it featured models who identify as Asian, Native American, Hispanic, African, Middle Eastern, Black American. and West Indian.
At the time, he said: “I think it is very important to see one’s self in the scripture so that it may become real in our eyes. The whitewashing of the Bible has always bothered me.”
I stumbled across the photos quite by accident, but they moved me in ways I couldn’t fully form words around. So I selected several of my favorites from the series and posted them on my wall with this question: “Take a moment to picture the Bible characters you have heard and seen over the years. What race are they?”
Despite the fact that these characters are predominately of Semitic and African origin (i.e. people of color), since the Renaissance they have been mostly depicted as white. Just like the photographer, I grew up with a Bible that was “whitewashed.” All of the characters were white, all of the nativities were white, and all of the pictures of Jesus in our homes and surrounding churches were white.
So when I saw these images, something inside of me broke open. I couldn’t stop staring at them. They were somehow, real, in a way I couldn’t explain. They were beautiful, haunting, and somehow holy.
And, if I am honest, they were convicting.
When we become convicted by something, one of two things happens: Either we change as a result of the conviction, or we seek to mitigate the conviction by pushing hard against it and seeking instead to change the thing that is causing the discomfort.
So I assuaged my discomfort by pushing Post and going to bed.
It would be the last decent night of sleep I’d get for the rest of the week.
I woke up to almost 100 shares, and by dinner the next day it was up 300 shares… and climbing, quickly. I slept about two hours that night because the West Coast was liking, commenting, and sharing like crazy, trading off with the East Coast early to keep the snowball rolling. It’s popularity kept growing, and it was picking up speed.
I’d never had a post grow after 24 hours. I had no idea what to do or what I was in for.
My Facebook notifications were literally scrolling on my phone day and night. Every second, dozens more would show up. Great Britain, Ireland, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Turkey, Jordan, South Africa, Russia, India, and Japan.
The diversity of comments felt a bit like the Revelation image of the Throne Room of God where John saw “a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb.” [REV. 7:9]
It was beautiful. And I had never experienced anything like it.
94,000 people shared it. 38,000 like it. Millions of people saw it.
It was incredible. People from around the world were conversing in real-time, on my wall, about the Bible, culture, and race.
They were talking… Together!!
People were laughing about some of the outfits that had creases, “Weren’t there irons back then?” Others pointed out that there wasn’t an ugly person among the bunch (these were some of the most beautiful people I had ever seen). Many said they had never considered “color” beautiful, but these photos had changed their minds… and more importantly, their hearts.
Many were talking about the issue of race and how they had grown up never realizing the biblical characters were people of color. They couldn’t believe that they had never thought about it. Some expressed gratitude that they, for the first time, realized that they had been a bit of a racist.
For a moment people came together to share love and deep regrets.
But then, things began to take a dire turn, and they turned quickly!
What had once been hopeful and uniting quickly devolved into an online version of the Lord of the Flies. I half expected to see a pig’s head scroll up in the comments.
“This biblical character’s skin tone is too light,” one said. For another, “Far too dark.” This one’s hair was too short, another’s too long. Too young; too old. Too pretty; too ugly. Too tall; too short.
Gripe, gripe, gripe.
But the complaints I could have handled. I’m a Pastor, you know.
It was what came next that blew my mind.
People began to inject hate into the comments. It caught me off guard. I thought it was a joke at first. But then I started looking at the walls of those who were posting the hate, and, “Nope… This is who they are IRL.” Unhinged, hateful people who were saying horrific things. I simply couldn’t believe it.
I wanted to grab them by the shoulders, shake them, and shout:
“Your Momma didn’t raise you to be like this! Your dad didn’t teach you to act this way!
“Knock it off, already! Your family would be embarrassed (your family IS embarrassed) by this.”
“Grow up. LOL. Wow!”
A post that was designed to help us understand the beautiful rainbow of colors in the Bible was being hijacked by hate… by people filled with hate.
So I said something to myself that I’ve said many times over the years…
Not. On. My. Watch.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
— Ephesians 4:29
WORDS CREATE WORLDS.
So many of our families, our homes, our workplaces have been decimated by our mouths. Our words have created war zones in our worlds.
As I scrolled through this terrible content and hate that was multiplying across my page, I knew that there was no way that I could be a part of creating the situation where a person of color had to see those kinds of words written about them, ever.
I could pull the post, or I could scrub the comments.
I feverishly started deleting comments, hiding posts, and blocking individuals who crossed the line. I stayed up late into the night and was back up early in the morning managing the hate. I don’t think my phone left my hand for days. I spent about 20 hours each day actively managing the comments.
But I just couldn’t keep up with the hate.
The post log shows 9,700 comments, but the reality is a total number about 2 to 3 times that.
I was amazed at the things that people were willing to say and post.
And many of these individuals self-identified as Christians!
I mean, come on. Really?!
I learned a long time ago as a Pastor: HURTING PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE.
How many times had I seen this play out in relationships, in workplaces, in congregations, but especially in families!? Fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who were struggling with one thing or another would use words to harm those they love. Instead of dealing with the root of their problem, they chose instead to project their pain on others. It’s a recipe for disaster.
It is easy for all of us, I suppose, to take the pain and evil that we have experienced, internalize it, and then return that pain to someone else. That was certainly happening in my comment section.
The Bible flat-out calls that evil.
“Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do.”
— 1 Peter 3:9
For what it’s worth, that’s pretty good advice.
Don’t argue with people on social media (unless they are dreadfully wrong about something really important), and for the love of God: Don’t attack people.
Give people blessings instead of insults.
That’s not easy to do.
I began to wonder how I might live this out online in the midst of so much drama and trauma. I decided I couldn’t help everyone, but maybe I could do something for a few.
Maybe I could bless some of those who had been cursed by far too many white people.
For instance, one of the bigots had been particularly brutal to a black lady who had lamented the whitewashing of the Bible. She expressed that she’d like to have a color-correct Bible for her son. So I bought her one.
I worked to help others find local congregations that were more diverse than the ones they currently attended.
I listened and apologized A LOT.
I did what I could, but eventually the fatigue caught up with me. Sometime on Friday, five days later, I threw my hands up in the air and said:
“I give up!”
I was done. I was physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and couldn’t deal with the stress of other people’s opinions anymore.
I prayed a short prayer thanking God for allowing my words and James’ pictures to travel the world, creating a dialogue about faith and race.
I closed the prayer by telling God that I hoped it never happened again.
I wasn’t cut out for this.
I don’t have the time for this.
I don’t have the mental health for this.
I knew I needed to BE FULLY PRESENT in the place where I could effect the most change: my family.
“Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.”
At that moment, it dawned on me that a large number of those comments likely came from adults whose parents had failed them.
As people commented—some with beautiful and healing words, others with hateful and abusive words—I wondered how much of that was planted in them in their early years.
I know that I said that “their momma didn’t raise them to be that way” and “their father didn’t teach them to act like that”… but now I wasn’t quite so certain. I’ve known many people who weaponized their kids, passing along their partisanship, anger, racism, and hostility. You know, that whole Hebrew Scripture idea that “The sins of the fathers and mothers shall be passed down through the generations.”
Not everyone repeats the sins of their parents’ prejudices, but many do.
I needed to ensure that my four children didn’t grow up to be the type of people who needed to have their comments deleted or hidden by a pastor to protect others.
That simple Facebook post that crisscrossed the globe made me a better dad in the end, but it also was the beginning of the end of my role as pastor in that congregation.
My newfound passion for the oppressed, for justice, and for Micah 6:8 mercy for the marginalized was too difficult for them to stomach.
It would be years before I would have another viral post or platform with any influence beyond a local congregation, but the commitment to be a prophetic voice of uncomfortable honesty was born during that warm week in June 2020.
I had spent too many years being silent and enabling an Evangelicalism that sought to silence dissenting voices.
On things that mattered to God—and now to me—I would speak up.
Even should I lose my pulpit, I had found my voice.
For such a time as this.
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Don’t forget to head over to Dr. Young’s page. Join the conversations. Support his ministry. Invite others.