The practice of drawing lines in the sand is a very personal one, I believe.
If you find sand, likely you’re either on a beach or in a desert. On a beach, the tides are going to come in, and the line that you’ve drawn will erode. In a desert, the winds will come and blow the sand to erase it. It’s up to your memory, to your sense of place to remember where exactly that line you drew was.
But just because the practice is personal makes it no less important. There is a place where it’s safe to be. There is a place where there is real danger. It’s worth the work to keep the safe places front and center in our mind.
So I’m working on the practice of placing lines in the sand this week. The events of January 6 demand it; plenty of events leading up to January 6 begged for it.
And it’s worth reiterating what danger looks like.
There are words that center my worldview, that make me remember what I believe about my place in this world and in this country in particular.
Rich Mullins wrote them many years ago. Given that there’s no mention of the United States of America in Scripture, I find myself leaning on them a lot.
Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you’ll come to love it and how you’ll never belong here
So I’ll call you my country, but I’ll be lonely for my home
And I’ll wish that I could take you there with me
To make plain the point that song implies: my home is not Greeneville, Tennessee, or Bristol, Virginia, or Columbus, Ohio, or even Hilliard, Florida. All of these are places in this country that I love and that I do not belong in.
And when Rich Mullins is wishing that he could take you there with him, he’s wishing for you to find a home in a place that is literally not of this world.
If you really need texts in the Bible that point to this, spend some time in John 14, and then read Matthew 28:16-20 to have the point driven home.
The word “evangelical” has been terribly, terribly corrupted in the politics of the last couple of decades. But that text of Matthew 28:16-20 is what makes me, literally, an evangelical Christian – I believe the evangelism of the Great Commission is a core commandment of my faith, and is a commission I’m expected to carry out in my day-to-day living.
And that commandment isn’t one that shows preference to any one nation above any other. The commandment is to make disciples of all nations. The practice of the disciples in the days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was to start proclaiming the news of Jesus Christ to the Jewish people they were among, and then to find the direction of God was to expand that proclamation beyond the nation of people they thought were most favored.
We may have fondness or a natural fit among one group of people. We may even love being among them. But Acts 10 and 11 demonstrates very clearly that no matter our level of comfort, God finds ways to show us the need of people who don’t look like or act like us, and to demand that we reach out to them.
When God says to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean,” God is demanding that we open ourselves to the needs of people who we have been told our entire lives are somehow inferior to us.
It took a good bit of my life, and a good bit of saying one thing and doing another, for the analogy to America in the late 20th and early 21st century to take. But when it took, it took hard.
The issue at hand is obviously the violence at the United States Capitol. It is easy and casual to look at armed people attempting to storm the seat of American government and find leaders to (in the most generous edit) badger, berate and intimidate, and to say that such behavior is utterly unacceptable. It is easy and casual to demand that the people in charge of such behavior be held to account.
There’s the obvious danger in letting those people off the hook.
But it strikes me as I step back to look at what I believe, and to look at the foundation in my holy book for that belief, that the message of God turns me so rapidly back to the phrase all nations, and the lessons of Scripture point so clearly to the Jew sharing the news of Jesus Christ with someone he wasn’t supposed to, and God showing up so vividly in the aftermath.
And it strikes me that the day before the events of January 6, the culmination of the American election season saw a movement led by an African-American voting rights activist turn out historic vote for a Jewish journalist and an African-American pastor, leading those two to win seats in the United States Senate in the historically-conservative state of Georgia and complete the transition of the legislative branch to Democratic power – not two months after Georgia defied the rest of the Deep South in giving its presidential electoral votes to the Democrat.
It strikes me that separating a toxic uprising in Washington, D.C. from the success of the non-Protestant, non-white in Georgia is, at the very least, problematic.
If we are seeking a response to the events of January 6 that falls in line with what Scripture teaches us, I have a hard time believing that the response doesn’t require us to seek out voices that aren’t like our own, from faces that don’t look like our own, and let those voices be heard first and loudest.
Many of those voices have been speaking consistently since the first moment that this president descended the escalator and declared his candidacy. Those voices predicted this outcome and other outcomes that are beyond the perception of white folks. They were ignored for far too long, and they were ignored even within the church.
I was never under personal threat from the rise of Trumpism. I live in East Tennessee, in a space that is overwhelmingly white. I have a ridiculous amount of privilege in my racial identity. Even a step in the shoes of an African-American, an Indigenous person, or any other person of color in this part of the world would be too much to bear.
We live in a place and time that is not given over to empathy for that very plight. We live in a place and time where people don’t find it in themselves to sit down and intentionally listen to somebody who has a different experience. That has to change.
The reporting on the January 6 uprising makes it very plain that white supremacist groups from across the country were collaborating to plan their attack on the Capitol.
Polling on the uprising also makes very clear that there is a substantial minority of Americans who approved of this act, and who don’t see the storming of the Capitol as an attack on democracy at all.
It’s these two realities together that shine light on the places of danger.
Anti-racism was always something I was pleased to see in the life and teaching of a church. The willingness of a pastor to call out white supremacy was an extra, a bonus that I couldn’t count upon in the monocultural places where I lived, but a bonus I always welcomed.
That attitude has to end. Active and vocal opposition to white supremacy is a requirement of any body of believers I engage with from now on. Making such statements, at this point of our history, is not only an act in keeping with the scriptures, but in keeping with American patriotism.
The core of our response to January 6 has to be an increase in the spaces available for people of all cultures and races – indeed, of all nations – to speak and to be heard, so that the threats of a hostile takeover of one of our political parties by the acts of racism and insurrection can be heard more clearly and so our responses can be better informed.
What makes the current reality we find ourselves in all the more difficult is the virulent belief that so many in the country hold in conspiracy theories, epitomized by the QAnon phenomenon. Long before the realities of January 6 took hold, churches across the country were struggling with the weight of parishoners who had been captured by what can only be classified as delusions of apocalyptic fantasy. Churches aren’t naturally in the business of information literacy and disinformation awareness. They have to be now. It’s critically important to not allow delusions and lies go forward unchecked.
There are plenty of voices who want to tell people in our midst, both those who claim Christ and those who are seeking, exactly what they want to hear so that they can remain comfortable while surrounded by people exactly like them. Like Peter so many years ago, we weren’t called to remain comfortable. God has taken a whole world around us, a world we’ve been convinced was impure, and rendered it clean – and perhaps, just perhaps, it never really was impure to begin with.
Ultimately, my lines in the sand should mark out a place of safety for all who would come and join me, regardless of creed, culture, or credential. Keeping such a place, I believe, is nothing less than God expects of me.
Cover photo of Doty Chapel United Methodist Church of Afton, TN by the author.