Author Archives: Ryan Paige

#EmptyThePews

If you’re not on Twitter (and, very possibly, even if you are), you might not have heard of a recent hashtag circulating the Twitterverse. The hashtag is #EmptyThePews – a call for people to leave the Evangelical church.

It originated about a month ago, on the heels of the white nationalist tragedy in Charlottesville, when President Trump refused to distance himself from—and even supported—racist hate groups. When that happened, most of the country distanced themselves from the president: Democrat and even Republican leaders, both of the presidential business advisory councils, and millions of individual Americans. Everyone was jumping ship.

Except for one group. The President’s Evangelical Advisory Board.

Every member of that group—save one: A.R. Bernard, an African American pastor of a megachurch in Brooklyn for whom Charlottesville was just the last straw—stayed with the President. And they stayed silent. The highest profile Christian leaders in the country refused to dissociate with over or even rebuke Trump for…anything.

When that happened, the Evangelical church became solidified, in the eyes of so many people, as the Church of Donald Trump.

And that was the last straw for at least one Twitter user.

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The hashtag #EmptyThePews was released on Twitter, and it had immediate traction.

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Left and Right, people threw in their support over leaving a church that had made its bed with Trump and his administration.

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And the conversation of #EmptyThePews expanded beyond just the Evangelical church’s affiliation with Trump and Republicanism and racism. People began to cite Christians for silence or ignorance of social and moral issues. (Issues that they are 100% right for calling the Church out on; issues that are central to the mission that Jesus gave to the Church.)

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EmptyThePews17That’s the conversation that was (or should have been) expected from a hashtag called #EmptyThePews.

 

But an interesting thing happened.

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#EmptyThePews started becoming attached to things that had nothing to do with politics.

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People started using #EmptyThePews to talk about their STORIES.

 

Stories of how they had been hurt and abused by the people of the church.

Stories of how the church that says with its lips ‘God is love’ has treated people—individual, actual human lives—with disdain and cruelty.

Stories of harm, and fear, and hatred from people who claim the name of Christ.

This isn’t just the typical condemnation of the church’s hypocrisy, this is far more acute and personal.

 

Stories of being fired by a church…

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…or being pressured to resign…

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…because of speaking out against sin.

 

Stories of church leaders covering up and even justifying rape and sexual abuse.

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And spiritual abuse.

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And child abuse.

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Stories of churches putting the needs of their own building or staff ahead of the needs of the people in the congregation.

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Stories of how mental health issues are denied, that it’s really a lack of faith and it’s the fault of the sufferer.

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Lots of stories of homophobia and hate for LGBT+ people.

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And a disproportionate number of the people telling their stories are women. Women are oppressed and silenced in many churches, and this hashtag has empowered them to use their voices.

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(Sidenote: if you don’t believe that misogyny in the church is an issue, you may want to also look up the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear.)

 

This is the beautiful, terrible, loving, grieving, story-validating place #EmptyThePews has become.

And it’s heartbreaking.

WE did this.

We, the followers of Jesus, did this.

We, the ones who have been awakened to the most profound love the world has ever known, did this.

We, the Church, the Body of Christ, who preach the good news that One who is love and acceptance and forgiveness is King…we did all of this.

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These people have something to say. And we need to hear it.

 

Church, we have to face this. We have done real wrong to so. many. people. We should be in lament over this. And we need to own it…

Our pursuit of moral perfection and our rejection of those who did not meet our standards has driven them from Jesus, who would seek to love them and heal their wounds.

We have participated in, supported, and encouraged real evil. And worse, we have shamed and blamed our victims.

We have threatened people with Hell and eternal conscious torment if they didn’t conform to our beliefs and behaviors.

We have justified and protected abusers and rapists because we are so afraid of divorce.

We have sought our own promotion, our own good, our own success at the expense of the basic well-being of others.

We have told millions of people that they are they are less worthy because of the condition in which they were born.

We have justified war, pillage, racial supremacy, murder, and the rape of the natural world with words from the Bible.

Jesus made us His ambassadors, and we have wielded His name and authority to judge and oppress the people He died for.

 

We need to hear what we’ve done wrong if we ever expect to change.

 

#EmptyThePews is exposing the Evangelical church as morally bankrupt. I know and love many evangelical people who are quite the opposite. I know and love evangelical churches that are quite the opposite. I believe that many in the Evangelical church would be devastated over the hurt their churches have caused, directly or indirectly. But just because what #EmptyThePews says is not true of all Evangelicals doesn’t give us the right to dismiss the voices and stories calling us out. We are all culpable. If not by commission, then by omission.

Regardless of its original intention, #EmptyThePews is not about the President or the members of his evangelical advisory board; it’s not just a slam on Christians by a society that is growing increasingly secular.

#EmptyThePews is a vent for a swelling infection that has been growing for decades; it is lancing the boil. It’s unpleasant to see because it makes our sickness plain; but if we let it, it can bring us healing.

 

And it’s not all bad news. The creator of the hashtag specifically intended it to be a call to leave the Evangelical church, not the Church as a whole; and its users are, by and large, using it exactly in this manner.

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Many of the people participating in the #EmptyThePews conversation have found and are finding love, acceptance, welcome, and healing in other churches. Many of the people hurt by the Evangelical church are not leaving Jesus.

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But some are.

Because of the Evangelical church and because of Christians who misrepresent Jesus (at times in horrific ways) some people are leaving the Church of Jesus; leaving Christianity entirely.

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And if anything matters to Evangelicalism—where evangelism is built right into the name—at the very least, that should.

But it should matter to us not because we’re ultimately concerned about Heaven’s seat count, but because these are living, breathing, actual human lives that are being affected.

And I believe that’s the lesson we have to learn.

People are more important than doctrine.

Being loved is more important than being morally acceptable.

Dignity is a more powerful life-changer than quoting Scripture.

This life matters just as much as the after-life.

Every human is made in the image of God and has unsurpassable worth to Him. And it’s our responsibility to treat them as such.

 

Something the Evangelical church is really good at is avoidance. We ignore criticism by laser-focusing on “the Gospel.” We justify our ignorance believing that we’re giving our full attention to what “really matters.” #EmptyThePews is teaching us that our focus on the narrow way has been too narrow.

And if we continue to avoid and ignore the voices speaking to us now, we do so at the expense of the very life of the Evangelical church.

We either wake up to this reality, face what we’ve done, and repent, or we become an irrelevant afterthought and die.

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White Submission

Charlottesville has awakened, in a big way, the collective moral conscience of white Americans. Myself included. The events and aftermath of Charlottesville have brought to us, in High Definition, the ugliness of the racial tension that has long-existed in this country. And we want to respond. And we should. We must.

But before we do, I want to put this stake in the ground for white people (myself included):

 

On the issue of racial tension in America, you and I do not have the ethos to lead.

It’s time that we submit ourselves to the leadership of our brothers and sisters of color.

 

We have not been the ones in this fight day-in and day-out. For over a century. Or Three centuries.

We are not the ones who heard stories from our parents and grandparents about when they were oppressed by the country they pledged allegiance to.

It is not us who suffer from gerrymandering, profiling, and an upside down criminal justice system.

We are not the targets of white supremacy and nazism; they aren’t trying to cleanse America from us.

Our reality is literally different from that of our non-white counterparts:

  • We have lived in an America that is primarily lawful and orderly: bad people get punished, good people are rewarded.
  • Issues of race have not likely been a “thing” in our lives. (Case in point, most of us don’t consider “whiteness” to be a primary marker of our identities.)
  • Racial tension bothers us because we’re not racist. In fact, most of us don’t even really see color: people are just people, and we, deep down, believe that if everybody ‘got’ that then racial tension would ease, if not disappear entirely.
  • Ideas, theories, and issues—not race—are the determining factors when considering our political alignment and voting decisions.

And most whites don’t understand why those are problems for non-white Americans.

We are not qualified to lead this revolution.

 

We are outraged by the events of this week, and rightfully so! We SHOULD be outraged. But our offense doesn’t give us the authority to call the shots. We don’t get to cherry pick this now and call it “ours.” Taking this from the hands of those who have been suffering and fighting is not helpful – it is belittling and dishonoring.

We have only just awoken to a battle our black, brown, and indigenous brothers and sisters have been fighting for generations; it would be harmful and arrogant of us to assume that we know how to best approach it.

We SUBMIT.

 

Yes, we should stand in solidarity with those who suffer and be willing to suffer with them for their sake.

Yes, we must support the cause and be willing to fly the banner of anti-racism over our heads and hearts.

Yes, we can be allies and advocates for marginalized groups and help to bring awareness to injustice.

 

But it is the height of hubris and a disgusting disgrace to people of color if we take the megaphone from their hands and pretend that we’re going fix the problem, after decades and decades of BEING the problem.

 

Our privilege comes with a serious blindspot. Not recognizing this will cause us to misstep and even do harm. We don’t even know what we don’t know.

So we have to submit to the ones who DO know.

 

The apostle Paul called us all to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) The call to submit here accomplishes two things:

  1. It puts in check our sinful desire to rule and dominate those we are in relationship with.
  2. It is an imitation of Christ, who left His throne in Heaven and submitted to flesh, and pain, and death. Submission is the Jesus way.

White folks, this is our chance to submit to the voice and actions of our marginalized family, and, by doing so, turn the racial stronghold in our world on its head.

We have tried to mitigate and legislate racial tension in our country from a position of power. That’s what got us here. So now, like Jesus, we need to humble ourselves and submit.

 

We need to submit to Lisa Sharon Harper, and Dr. Cornel West, and Pastor Traci Blackmon who were there on the FRONT LINES of the Charlottesville counter-protest, risking their safety and their very lives standing up for the inalienable rights of humanity, the threatening of which we, safe in our privileged ivory towers, condemn from afar as vile.

We need to submit to the teaching of Professor Carol Anderson and Michelle Alexander before we dare open our mouths to speak about racial divide and systemic, institutional injustice that people are suffering from in our country.

We need to submit Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Al Sharpton, who have been in this fight for decades and have led thousands of protests in the streets, and not become proud of ourselves for launching into our very first protest on our smartphones.

We need to submit to the leadership and respect the political voice of Michael Eric Dyson, Marc Lamont Hill, Charles M. Blow, and Van Jones and not feel the need to qualify or add to their words when it comes to issues of racial climate and political implications.

We need to submit to our friends of color: the men and women with whom we live, work, learn, and play, and believe them (and support them) when they say they feel hurt, or scared, or betrayed, even if we don’t understand.

We need to submit to them when they describe a society that we don’t quite recognize because the system treats them differently than it treats us.

We need to submit to them when they talk about laws and policies that are critical to human rights and not think we know better or suspect that they have an ulterior agenda.

We need to submit, and not dismiss. Submit, and not correct. Submit, and not invalidate.

 

Submit by listening. LISTEN to the people of color in your life. Just stop and really, truly, listen. It’s sometimes hard for us because, let’s face it, we are very used to being listened to. Listening costs you self-discipline but builds in you empathy—a far more valuable currency.

Submit by learning. Let the people of color in your circle of friends teach you and help you; give them a blank check to call you out, if need be. Put the messages and voices of ethnic and racial leaders in your Twitter feed and on your Facebook news; put their books on your shelves and their words in your ears. If you’re not sure where to start, you can start by following the people mentioned above.

Lisa Harper @lisasharper

Dr. Cornel West @cornelwest

Rev. Dr. William Barber @RevDrBarber

Michael Eric Dyson @MichaelEDyson

Van Jones @VanJones68

Charles M. Blow @CharlesMBlow

Marc Lamont Hill @marclamonthill

Pastor Traci Blackmon @pastortraci

Professor Carol Anderson @ProfCAnderson

Michelle Alexander @thenewjimcrow

Rev. Al Sharpton @TheRevAl

Submit by amplifying their voice. People of color don’t need us to speak for them; we would probably do harm if we tried. So let’s not insult them by shouting over them. Instead, use your platform and voice—which carries weight, mind you—to point others to their voices. Maybe others will begin listening too.

Submit by challenging others. “White people…get your people,” was a quote from @TyreeBP on August 12th. Calling out, standing against, and ending every form of white supremacy IS on us; WE have to be the ones to end this, first in our own hearts and then in every other white person you know. If you see it, stop it. If you smell it, dig it out and get rid of it. If you even think you heard it from someone, get immediate clarity and condemn it.

Submit by stepping up. Go to discussions and talks about race and America. Join gatherings and movements that seek to bring racial justice and equity. Get side-by-side with people of color so they can see you, and feel you, and know that you have their back. And don’t punk out—keep stepping up. This is not going away anytime soon.

 

Lastly, don’t you dare buy into the lie that submission is lessening your worth, your value, or your rights in any way. That is the welcome sign on the gate to the hell of white supremacy. It is false.

White folks, I’m calling us on this. It’s time to submit.

I Repent


I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.

Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.

Amen.

Martin Luther. Germany. 1521


 

A Psalm.

 

I repent of my bigotry, which is not just “out there” but has lived in my heart.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of my hate for any human being who is an image-bearer of the God I claim to worship.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of my silence, which has allowed evil to wreak havoc around me, and for believing that it absolved me of responsibility.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of my fear—so much fear—that held me back from speaking out and taking a stand when I knew that I should.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of focusing on my ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ at the expense of and as justification for my non-action.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of violence in all its forms. Violence is antichrist, it has no place in my thoughts, actions, or words.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of speaking but not acting. That makes me a fraud. Words are empty without action. Jesus and his brother even said so.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of being self-absorbed, and not absorbing in my body and soul with empathy the pain and struggle of others.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of the sin of omission and for not seeing it as a horrible violation of my duty as an ambassador of Christ.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of allowing my privilege to blind me.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of my ignorance to the problems and issues of others, and ever making it “somebody else’s problem.”

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of preaching the “good news” through a white, male, heterosexual megaphone. I realize much of that news is not actually good.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of white/male messiah complex. I am not Jesus. I can save literally no one.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of preaching “forgiveness of sins” without calling for justice, mercy, and freedom for all people and nations. That’s not the gospel.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of misrepresenting Jesus in my cowardice and apathy in the face of evil; for ever sweeping something under a rug.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of idolatry, for letting anything other than Jesus be the ruler of my thoughts, emotions, and actions.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of keeping people at arm’s length for fear of association with their side or their sin. Jesus would do better.

May God have mercy on me.

I repent of judging anyone for sins that were nailed to the cross 2,000 years ago.

May God have mercy on me.

For all this, I am sorry. I mourn, I grieve, and I confess my sin.

But that’s not what I mean.

 

I have turned.

 

I am changed. A new creation. Different today than I was yesterday.

 

No more silence.

No more fear.

No more half-gospel preaching.

No more quiet obedience to being a good Christian and doing all the right things while my brothers and sisters suffer.

 

I am responsible. It is my problem.

We are all God’s Creation. We are the body of Christ. We are in this together. I am with you.

From this day forward, by the grace of God and with the help of my brothers and sisters, I will walk a new path.

 

This is my line in the sand. I can do no other.

May God have mercy on me.