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Re-post: What?!? You Don’t Want To Take Responsibility for Centuries of Christian Oppression, Pogroms, and Genocide? I Can’t Imagine Why Not!

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 24, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Jarrett McLaughlin

The church where I serve is currently reading Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road together in small groups. After getting about two weeks in, our Director of Spiritual Growth met with the group facilitators to get some feedback – the leaders reported a discomfort among several participants that echoed what I heard around my table at McLaren’s lecture at George Mason University earlier this month.

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

In Chapter 9 – “How a Liberal Arts Education Ruined My Opinion of Christopher Columbus” – McLaren relates the experiences of going to college where his course work invited him to swap out the childhood tale of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two for first-hand accounts of the enslavement, rape, and torture of the local Taino population. The point is that the way we remember and tell and shape young minds in the patterns of our history…all of that matters. If history is truly prologue to the present, then we need to tell the truth about our prologue – and the Christian Church needs this as much as any one else if we are to cultivate a “strong-benevolent” Christian identity.

It seems, however, that more than a few people experience some discomfort with this idea – and perhaps I have a simplistic view of the objections, but I believe it mostly boils down to a sense that “that was then and this is now – why should I take responsibility for the crimes committed by people who lived hundreds of years ago?” Some responses to that question:

  • “Because Jesus Does It All The Time” – A Doctrinal Response From Scripture

In 2 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about the ministry of reconciliation and penned some incredible words (pardon my selective editing, I have a word limit) – “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously huge this is. God made Jesus to take on sin that was not his own and only by doing so was there ever going to be a chance at reconciliation. Without getting into the mechanics of exactly how this all works, the general sense is that Jesus is sinless and yet Jesus takes on the sins of others in order to create an environment where peace might be possible and where reconciliation becomes a reality. If we are following Jesus to the other side of the road, then surely we must follow in these footsteps as well.

  • “What Does it Hurt?” – A Practical Response From Scripture

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is filled with many beautiful and memorable passages – about the body and its members, about the greatest of these being love; but the part that gets very little air time is chapter 8 in which Paul addresses the seemingly anachronistic topic of whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. At the end of the day, Paul says idols are not real gods and so, of course, eating that meat doesn’t hurt you in the least.

If, however, somebody else who is less certain in their faith sees you eating that meat, will it cause that person to stumble and give up the Gospel because of your example? If the answer to that is yes – as it must have been in the Corinthian community – then maybe one small sacrifice you can make for the greater good would be to give up eating meat offered to an idol. It will not hurt YOU, but it might hurt somebody else – and that is reason enough to temper that particular liberty.

In the same way I would ask what it really hurts to acknowledge to somebody of another faith – “You know, the Church has not always been the most faithful in its witness to the Gospel…I wish it had been in that time and place and I hope that it will be different in this time and in this place.” I can’t help but wonder how a confessional posture might open the conversation in a way that a defensive or even a distancing posture might now allow.

  • “Because Christians Do This All The Time” – A Liturgical Response

The posture of confession may be a practical way to engage in more healthy and productive interfaith engagement, and the good news is that it’s not really as difficult as it might seem – Christian worship has given us great practice at assuming the sins of another. Every week, many churches offer a prayer of confession – and the common critique is not so different from the discomfort here – “I don’t do those things, why should I have to read this prayer that indicts me for things I did not do?”

When we confess our sin together in corporate prayer, we’re not necessarily confessing our individual sins but rather the sinfulness that is always a part of us. One way or another, we take responsibility for the actions of others all the time. It’s in our worship; it’s in our theology; and thanks to Jesus Christ, it’s in our genes, too…thanks be to God.


Jarrett McLaughlin Jarrett McLaughlin and wife Meg Peery McLaughlin are co-Pastors at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA.  

The Privilege of the Magi

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: J.C. is leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “The Color of Whiteness: Engaging White Privilege In and Through the Church .” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by J.C. Austin

One of my favorite poems that is related to Advent and Christmas is “Journey of the Magi,” by T.S. Eliot; one of my personal Christmas traditions is to read it every year about this time. I’ve always loved how, from the very beginning, Eliot relentlessly strips away the layers of sentimentality and idealization that have accrued to both this particular part of the story and, by extension, to the larger Christmas story and certainly the ways we remember and celebrate it ourselves. In the voice of one of the Magi, Eliot describes how long the journey is, how bad the weather is, how the camels were ornery and sore-footed, how the men who handled them weren’t any better, how the towns they passed through were dirty and hostile. He describes how the Magi dreamt of the privileged life they had left behind to make this journey: “There were times we regretted / the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces / and the silken girls bringing sherbet.” When they finally stagger into Bethlehem and make their way to the inn, their entire experience of the Epiphany of the Christ Child is summed up in one gloriously underwhelming line: “Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”

The Adoration by the Magi – an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The remainder of the poem is one of the Magi reflecting on the meaning of what they saw in the Christ Child. It concludes this way:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
we had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
but had thought they were different; this Birth was
hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
with an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I’ve always read that passage in relatively removed terms: the Magus realizes first that, with the birth of God Incarnate, all other kings, all other purveyors of wisdom, have been effectively cast down from their lofty places. And second, having had his epiphany, he himself no longer fits in where he once thrived; knowing the truth of God taking human form in Jesus Christ in order to save the world, he can’t return to a place that doesn’t (or perhaps just refuses to) know that truth, that clings to its idols and acts like nothing has happened, that simply rings a bell for another silken servant to bring more sherbet. The Magus knows that the days of palaces and sherbet is numbered, and yet still identifies solidly with “the old dispensation,” so that, in the end, he can only hope for the relief of death to deliver him from this limbo of unbelonging.

This year, though, it strikes me that the Magus’ response to the Epiphany of Christ is similar to the way in which most people of privilege respond to the recognition that their privilege will not or even cannot continue: with grief. When one is accustomed to a life of privilege, they inevitably grieve the loss of that privilege in some form or fashion. We are all familiar with the five stages of grief; using that framework, the Magus appears to be somewhere in a dialectic of depression and acceptance.

When it comes to us here in the time of Advent/Christmas 2017, though, the most obvious people of privilege who are in grief are those with white privilege. There are some who, like the Magus, are no longer at ease in the old dispensation, who have accepted the reality and injustice of white privilege and who are working to disrupt and dismantle it. But many, many more white people (both within the church and the larger society) are in other stages of grief: the “All Lives Matter” crowd is rooted firmly in denial; those who “agree with the cause but not the methods” of those protesting racial injustice in our society find themselves in the stage of bargaining; and the white supremacists in Charlottesville and elsewhere are clearly absorbed with the stage of anger.

And then there are those who are trapped in the stage of depression, who have realized that they no longer belong in the old dispensation, but cannot see possibilities for our church or our society beyond discord, division, and even death, just as the Magus concludes. In this season of anticipating and celebrating the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, though, it is my prayer that more and more of us will be able to push beyond depression and death not simply to acceptance, but to confidence that the birth of Christ really is an announcement of “peace among those whom God favors,” which is not white people or any other people of privilege, but rather all those who bear God’s image and follow God’s will. It is a message of life, not death, for all those with ears to hear and the wisdom to see. Losing white privilege is hardly the same thing as losing life; it is gaining life, embracing life, aligning ourselves and our society with the abundant life that Jesus can for all of us, all of us, to have. And that, truly, is an extraordinary gift of Christmas.


J.C. Austin is Designated Pastor/Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Bethlehem, PA. He received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1998. After spending a year as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he was ordained to serve as Associate Pastor for Evangelism and Stewardship at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he helped lead a historic but declining congregation into its first experience of significant growth in vitality, resources, and size in several decades. Following that experience, he went to Auburn Theological Seminary (also in New York City). There, he built a national reputation as an expert on innovative congregational leadership for the 21st century, conceiving and establishing a range of new initiatives to build personal resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, and practical wisdom in pastoral leaders. As a teacher and public theologian, he also developed a particular focus equipping faith leaders to disrupt racial injustice and white privilege in both church and society.

Change is Constant, Growth is Optional

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Merrill Neel

One of my colleagues on the church staff loves to remind all of us that “change is constant, growth is optional.” My experience at this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering confirmed the first part of that statement, and has challenged me with regards to the second.

This was my third National Gathering. I find these events a helpful and invigorating use of my time and a great way to reconnect with old friends and colleagues. This year was no different, but as I left Kansas City I realized that I left feeling old and very white – but in a growth-producing way.

It was clear to me that the leadership of NEXT Church is getting younger, and that is good. While my friend Lee Hinson-Hasty has looked at the numbers and has warned us that there will be a pastor shortage down the line, the pastors and leaders who are young now are faithful, and creative, and talented. That is great news for the PCUSA and for the world. But as a 50-something pastor, I felt a little put out to pasture. Why weren’t we singing more hymns? Don’t my 20+ years of experience count for something? Does anyone else here remember when we used to mimeograph the Sunday bulletin?

Change is constant and often hard. My growth into old age is constant. I am challenged to consider how I might give up positions and opportunities that come my way so that someone younger might have the chance to do something. I am also challenged to think about how I might mentor a younger pastor or leader, and how I will continue to learn from a younger pastor or leader.

Harder, and more serious, is my coming to terms with my own racism and the ways the NEXT Church National Gathering challenged me to continue to do that. I’m a quarter Swiss. I serve a congregation in Portland, Oregon, the whitest city in America. I have privileges out the wazoo because of the color of my skin. NEXT Church is helping me identify that privilege, helping me understand what happens to those who do not have the privilege of pale skin color (or education, or a decent pay with benefits, or a particular sexual orientation or gender identity, or so many other things), and helping me confront my own fears and insecurities about speaking out against racism in its many forms.

In particular, I continue to think about Paul Roberts’ workshop and how I can work on reflecting and building up the Beloved Community in my own context. His sermon, along with Alonzo Johnson’s sermon, was stirring and truth-telling – how can my preaching be the same, given that we come from such different places? Soong-Chan Rah’s presentation continues to encourage me to think about how I can lead the congregation in the present to be prepared for a church that will look very different, because of changing demographics, in the future.

I have come to terms with the fact that I am getting older, and I continue to need to confront my own racism and the racism around me, especially in the church. I am grateful to NEXT Church, and its leaders who give so much of their time and energy, to the endeavor: you encourage me to grow amid so much change.


Beth Merrill Neel serves as Co-Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon.  She blogs at www.holdfasttowhatisgood.com, and she is excited about turning 53 in July.  When not at church she enjoys baking with her 11-year-old daughter and coloring as meditation.

Stewardship of Incarnation

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Margaret Aymer reflects on stewardship and privilege. How can we empty ourselves of the notion we should have privilege based on aspects of our being that society values? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.