Ungrateful? No, Inappropriate.


A friend on Facebook posted the meme above today. It shows a child bending down to drink from a muddy and murky river. The caption reads, “Lord, if I’m ever ungrateful, forgive me.”

But something bothers me about the photo and caption.

I get why he posted it. He’s attempting to make a point about gratitude on this Thanksgiving week.

In one sense, I agree with the sentiment. Those of us who have plenty ought to be fully aware of the fact that there are millions of people in the world who are deprived of basic needs, including clean water. And we ought to be thankful that we don’t struggle to make ends meet.

Gratitude is about appreciating what one has, rather than lamenting what one doesn’t have. We are especially called to give thanks when we gather to celebrate with our families and friends this week.

Yet there is something fundamentally twisted and corrupt about this picture.

First of all, I am uncomfortable with the fact that there is a real human child in this photo. There is no way to know anything about where the picture was taken, who took it, and who the child is. If it’s a staged picture, then I am disturbed that somebody has faked the shot in order to make a point.

But if it’s a real-life situation, I’m bothered that a photographer took a picture of what is a truly desperate and dangerous moment. I want to know if the photographer approached the child after taking the picture and offered him or her a drink of clean water. I want to know if the photographer asked his or her permission to share the image with others. I want to know if the photographer profited in any way from the picture. If so, did the photographer share the profits with the child?

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I have to refer to the child as only that — a child. I don’t know his or her name. The photo completely objectifies a precious human being, for the sake of making a point.

And what is the point being made?

That we should be grateful that we’re NOT LIKE THAT CHILD.

That’s what bothers me most. The caption tells us to give thanks to God that we have it better than others. And it attempts to shame us into this position of thankfulness by pointing out that there are people worse off than us.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard lots of people come back from mission trips and say things like, “I’m so glad I went to Far-Away-Third-World-Country because I realized how good I have it here at home, and I recognize that I need to be thankful for what I have and where I live.”

This line of talk has always bothered me. Because it makes mission about us, about “me.” I want to say in reply, “But what about them? In what way did you give hope to someone in despair? How did you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, comfort the hurting? Did you give anyone a reason to be thankful for YOU?”

Another thing that bothers me about the picture is the fact that it’s a black child. I recognize that the fact that the child is black doesn’t necessarily mean the picture was taken on the continent of Africa, but it seems clear that this is what is implied. The image plays on a stereotyped idea of Africa as a continent of great poverty, need, and deprivation — and ends up confirming the stereotype.

However, we should never forget that the problem of clean drinking water is NOT merely a Third World problem; look at Flint, Michigan, where water supplies only became safe a few months ago, after several years of dangerous lead levels.

The worst thing about this picture? I can’t imagine Jesus would have responded with platitudes about being thankful.

No, if Jesus saw a picture like this, I believe his response would be something closer to this:

“What’s wrong with you people? Why don’t you make sure every child of mine has clean water to drink? How can you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal when kids are drinking disease?”

I know that’s not what any of us want to hear on Thanksgiving, but it’s the truth of the world we live in.

And the only way to live faithfully in this world is to maintain an attitude of gratitude while, at the same time, working to relieve the suffering of the world’s poor.

But let’s not attempt to make ourselves feel better by saying, “There’s always someone worse off than me — thank you, God!”

The Caravan's A-Comin'


The caravan’s a-comin’

The images are stunning. A stream of humanity stretched across a bridge, down a dusty road, marching.

What do you see when you look at the photos and footage?

The caravan’s a-comin’

What do you see? Do you see the families torn apart by the violence in Honduras?

To the journalists embedded among them, making the journey alongside them, they tell stories of horror, violence, and threats.

They move forward because they have to. They move because that which is human within them compels them. You would be moving, too. You would be marching if you were in their shoes.

The caravan’s a-comin’

What do you see?

I’m reminded of the Zimbabwean song which has become such an important tune in American churches, called Siyahamba.

We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God; we are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God.

We are marching, we are marching, ooohhh,we are marching in the light of God;

We are marching, we are marching, ooohhh,we are marching in the light of God.

The caravan’s a-comin’

What do you see? Here’s what President Donald J. Trump sees:

“Let me just tell you something. I spoke with Border Patrol this morning. And I spoke to them last evening, and I spoke to them the day before. I speak to them all the time.

“And they say -- and you know this as well as anybody -- over the course of the year, over the course of a number of years, they've intercepted many people from the Middle East. They've intercepted ISIS, they've intercepted all sorts of people.

“And they said it happens all the time, from the Middle East. There's no proof of anything. There's no proof of anything. But they could very well be.

“But certainly you have people coming up through the southern border from the Middle East and other places that are not appropriate for our country. And I'm not letting them in. They're not coming in.”

The caravan’s a-comin’

What do you see?

It’s a question of perspective.

Politicians see terrorists, ne’er-do-wells, criminals, rapists, security threats, interlopers, and illegal aliens. They see brown skin, poor health, and hungry, thirsty bodies.

Disciples of Jesus see people in need; families with little hope, mothers with children, laborers with nothing to do, girls who want a chance. In other words, they see Jesus himself. “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me,” said the king in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 25:45).

The caravan’s a-comin’

What do you see? Can you see yourself in that great march? Can you see us in that mass migration?

I’m reminded of another song that we sing at church, a hymn called “A Wilderness Wandering People”:

We are a wilderness wandering people on a journey of the soul. 

May we find our destination in our longing to be whole. 

Our Holy God is calling to us. 
With Jesus by our side may compassion be our compass; 

may the Spirit be our guide.

May we cherish all our children, let us heal our family’s pain.

Help us cure our city’s madness, let love and justice reign.

Reconciled with one another in prayer and praise and song, 

we’re the body of Christ together and we know that we belong.

The caravan’s a-comin’

What do you see?

My Useless Protest


Some of you might have caught a glimpse of me on the ten o’clock news on Sunday night. I took part in a demonstration outside of Cowboys Stadium with conducted a mock funeral in honor of two men recently killed by police officers — Botham Jean and O’shea Terry.

We wheeled two caskets up to the stadium. I was one of the pallbearers, dressed in my clergy robe and stole, along with a number of other pastors. A crowd of laypeople followed as mourners.

My friend, Rev. Dr. Michael Waters of Joy Tabernacle AME opened the service and gave several pastors an opportunity to pray, including Imam Omar Suleiman, another friend. Rev. Freddy Haynes of Friendship West Baptist Church gave the eulogy. Then we knelt in defiance of Jerry Jones’ insistence that his players always stand during the singing of the National Anthem. And then we left, as quietly as we arrived.

While at the stadium, I texted a longtime friend of mine. He’s always amused at my rabble-rousing. Here’s how part of our brief exchange went on Sunday evening:

Me: I might get arrested tonight.

Him: Why this time?

Me: (sent two photos of our procession)

Him: Useless protest

Useless protest?

I understand his complaint. If we measured street protests by the visible and discernible effects of such displays, then we might conclude that most protests are useless. And our little march on Sunday night was useless, in the sense that I doubt Jerry Jones was even aware of our presence. I am quite sure that neither Mayor Mike Rawlings nor Police Chief Renee Hall will make any decisions as a direct result of that event. I am not convinced that it will have any impact on the rapidly unfolding events in the Botham Jean investigation.

I can look back on a lifetime of showing up for protests and seeing very little results. After all, I remember marching against the very first Iraq war, back in 1990 in downtown Los Angeles. We went to war anyway.

Then again I marched in the gigantic downtown Dallas protest against President George W. Bush’s Iraq war many years later. That time, I was convinced that we could actually prevent the coming invasion. We went to war anyway.

I have appeared at various immigration rallies, against the Muslim ban and against family separation. Nothing has changed. I marched in the recent student march against gun violence, and even led a prayer vigil outside of the NRA convention this past summer. Nothing has changed.

So yes, protests and marches are “useless” if you’re looking for a quick result. They are a waste of a perfectly good evening if you want an immediate change.

I had to think seriously about whether I wanted to spend my Sunday evening outside of the stadium, or on my couch watching the game.

Yet showing up in the streets is not simply about forcing results. Protest is a complex animal. There are many good reasons to march in the streets. One reason I attended the Botham Jean protest was to show solidarity with African-American clergy. Police brutality affects their constituents much more directly than mine; when the shooting of an unarmed black man occurs, it is an existential crisis in their communities, not mine.

I am also acutely aware that, when a police officer shoots and kills an innocent victim, white folks are far more likely to trust the criminal justice process. African Americans and Hispanics feel quite differently. Their history has taught them to be wary of the process. I don’t understand this suspicion, so I try to put myself into situations where I can feel it for myself.

After spending time talking to the attorney for Jean’s family, and some of the clergy at the march, there are significant questions about the police department’s handling of the case. It’s clear that some media outlets in town were complicit with the police in releasing information about Botham Jean that would tarnish his reputation on the same day that his life was being mourned by hundreds of friends and family. My black colleagues taught me that this is common in these situations: “First, they kill the body. Then they kill the name.”

After the march, we all went home. Nothing changed.

Yet everything changed. I came home different. I came home with a new empathy and sensitivity for the situation of the African-American community in today’s America.

Let’s also recognize that thousands of people witnessed the weird sight of pastors pushing two caskets through the parking lot outside Cowboys Stadium. I anticipated that we might receive some hateful stares, rude gestures, or even some shouted curses.

Instead, people seemed to stop and stare reverently. Lots of people pulled out their phones to record the event. Some raised their fists in solidarity. Others said, “Thank you!” and “Amen!” They seemed to understand, if only momentarily, that there are some things going on in Dallas that are more important than a football game.

The action was seen by a larger group than even the fans who were present; video of the march was shared on social media, most of the local news stations covered it, and I can’t help but think that some people were talking about it around the water cooler this morning.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t really matter if it was “useful” or not. There is something valuable simply in the fact that it happened. A good protest is like a ritual; the value of it lies largely in doing it. It is a performed action, and it doesn’t depend on how many people participate in it.

A good protest is like Holy Communion, which is one of the most “useless” things we do. Think about it — we take a little crumb of bread, which doesn’t actually satisfy any part of our appetite, and we drink a few drops of grape juice, which is hardly enough to wet our throats. We’re supposed to believe that Christ is present, but there’s never any visible evidence that he actually shows up. And nothing changes because we’ve taken Communion; the world is still evil and broken. If an outsider were observing a Communion service, she might say, “Well, that was pointless.”

But you and I wouldn’t say that, would we? Because we participate in it. We eat the bread and drink the cup. We act in faith. We know in that holy moment that nothing changes … and yet everything changes.

That’s how I feel about Sunday night. It was glorious.