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.

Turning the Head of Christ


A feature story in last Sunday’s Dallas Morning News brought back a flood of nostalgic memories. The article was about the famous painting of Jesus by a graphic designer named Warner Sallman in 1940.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. It was ubiquitous in the second half of the twentieth century; I remember it hanging a number of places in family members’ homes, as well as a few churches I visited. It’s a … shall we say, “pretty picture” of Jesus.

Jesus has flowing brown hair, a full beard, and blue eyes gazing off into the distance. His lips are slightly pursed, as if he’s about to say something calm and soothing.

The article speaks of the picture’s enormous popularity and quotes Billy Graham as saying about the work that it was “probably more satisfying to Americans than the more ancient conceptions which portrayed Christ as weak and emaciated.”

If by “weak and emaciated” Graham meant non-white, then he would have been spot on. Because this famous painting is nothing like the historical Jesus, of that we can be sure. The real Jesus was born in Palestine and was certainly darker than the famous picture, no matter that Sallman claims that he was inspired by a dream in which he saw Jesus.

Since we don’t have a clue as to what Jesus really looked like, the truth is that any drawing, painting, or sketch of Jesus tells us more about the artist and the person viewing the art than it does about Jesus.

Thus, this artwork and its subsequent popularity tells us a great deal about 20th-century American Protestant Christianity and all that was right — and wrong — about it. Sallman’s Jesus is a docile, submissive, and entirely-too-nice Savior of the World. He would have likely made a very good church member in 1950s Methodist churches. He might have even been a very good Methodist pastor, except for that long hair. The long hair is Sallman’s only acquiescence to Jesus’ essential strangeness. But the rest of this Jesus is entirely domesticated. This Jesus would never have turned over the tables of moneychangers, or challenged the High Priest, or told Peter to “Get behind me, Satan!”

It’s hard to imagine Sallman’s Jesus making too much of a fuss. Instead, he appears as a very loving, personable figure. And that is entirely in keeping with the Christianity of the time; Jesus was consistently preached as a sentimental figure who loved children and animals and would ultimately lay down his life so that those who believe in him would have their sins forgiven and live in heaven with him. This was the version of Christianity that was especially popular in white America at the time.

This was the Jesus that Americans wanted to believe in, and the fact that this Jesus was a Scandanavian-looking white dude made the whole idea palatable to the white church.

However, Sallman’s picture overlooks a vital aspect of the historical Jesus. The man from Nazareth spoke and acted in the tradition of the great Hebrew prophets, the rough-edged proclaimers of justice in the face of the world’s illegitimate powers.

In the midst of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and the subsequent anti-war drift, Protestant Christianity began to fracture between those who continued to think of Jesus in terms of Sallman’s vision and those who … didn’t.

I would argue that Sallman’s picture is sadly dated and largely irrelevant to our world. Not because Jesus’ hair is out of style, or that he is simply too white. But because what the world needs now is not a sanitized, BFF Jesus and pie-in-the-sky Christianity.

What the world needs now is more of the prophet Jesus who would be angry that children are being torn from their parents after fleeing from war-torn homes, who would be incredulous that children don’t have enough to eat in our cities, who would be outraged that we spend so much money on frivolous leisures, dangerous habits, and military hardware.

Now I’m not saying that Jesus wasn’t a loving figure, nor am I saying that we don’t find forgiveness of sins in him. I believe in life after death, too. These are all part of the Christian faith. However, they aren’t the total picture of the faith.

If we are to have a balanced faith, then we have to come to terms with Jesus the prophet, Jesus the troublemaker, Jesus the justice-seeker.

And a picture like that might not be very pretty.