Pastors and other church leaders see, to varying degrees, racially rooted injustice in their communities. Most of them understand an imperative, as part of their calling from God, to lead their congregations to address and reverse this injustice. For instance, preachers want to be preaching prophetically on this topic. But the problems seem irreversible, intractable, overwhelming, and pastors often feel their individual efforts will be futile. Additionally, they realize that there is a lot of risk involved, including the possibility that their actions may offend and even push some members away from the church. They do not know what to do or how to begin. And so, even during times of crisis, pastors and other church leaders typically do less than they know they could and should.
This book provides practical, foundational guidance, showing pastors how to live into their calling to address injustice, and how to lead others to do the same. Holding Up Your Corner prompts readers to observe, identify and name the complex causes of violence and hatred in the reader’s particular community, including racial prejudice, entrenched poverty and exploitation, segregation, the loss of local education and employment, the ravages of addiction, and so on.
The book walks the church leader through a self-directed process of determining what role to play in the leader’s particular location. Readers will learn to use testimony and other narrative devices, proclamation, guided group conversations, and other tactics in order to achieve the following:
- Open eyes to the realities in the reader’s community—where God’s reign/kingdom is not yet overcoming selfishness, injustice, inequality, or the forces of evil.
- Own the calling and responsibility we have as Christians, and learn how to advocate hope for God’s kingdom in the reader’s community.
- Organize interventions and activate mission teams to address the specific injustices in the reader’s community.
What Does ‘Holding Up Your Corner’ Mean?
The phrase ‘holding up your corner’ is derived from a biblical story (Mark 2: 1 – 5) about four people who take action in order to help another person—literally delivering that person to Christ. For us, ‘holding up your corner’ has meaning in two aspects of our lives today:
First, it refers to our physical and social locations, the places where we live and work, and the communities of which we’re a part. These are the places where our assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs have influence on the people around us. When we feel empowered to speak out about the injustice or inequity in our community, we are holding up our corner.
Second, the phrase refers to our actions, the ways we step up to meet a particular problem of injustice or inequity, and proactively do something about it. When we put ourselves—literally—next to persons who are suffering, and enter into their situation in order to bring hope and healing to the person and the situation, we are holding up our corner, just like the four people who held up the corner of the hurting man’s mat.
Holding Up Your Corner is a passionate, fast-paced, wonderfully practical book. F. Willis Johnson has a gift for Christian communication and he pours all of his gifts and rich pastoral experience into a book that encourages his fellow Christians to acknowledge, affirm, and act in the face of the racism that grips many of us. He displays deliberative theology in the service of instigating talk and action on behalf of racial justice, all in the service of a God who graciously enlists us to work with God to defeat evil. I guarantee that after reading Willis Johnson you will want to work from your corner to become part of God’s work in the world.” Will Willimon, UM Bishop, retired, Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry, Duke Divinity School
About the Author
Johnson holds fellowships at Bridge Alliance and Walker Leadership Institute-Eden Seminary. He is a former Vosburgh Visiting Professor of Ministry and Social Engagement at Drew University’s Theological School.
Currently, he is the leadership pastors Living Tree Church and adjunct faculty at Methodist Theological School of Ohio (MTSO).
Read an Excerpt
Holding Up Your Corner
Talking about Race in your Community
By F. Willis Johnson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The preacher's task is to describe the world from the Christian point of view, a point of view rooted in biblical narrative and Christian doctrine. The theologian's job, on the other hand, is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.
Serving in an urban context requires addressing issues and conditions brought on by economic disparity such as racism, educational dysfunction, cyclical unemployment, incarceration, and genocide. These contexts are often more diverse in terms of race, spiritual and religious practice, and personal orientation. The lived realities of our time demand theological language of practice that wrestles with the complexities of our social lives and systems for the purposes of responding to the reality of intergenerational community. Such language must both attract and attach itself to a new generation committed to sacrificing in order to address and perpetuate faith. We need language and biblically informed theology that meets people where they are, even in the experience of oppression and marginalization.
In these times of polls, squawk boxes, and unsolicited nonqualified sociopolitical commentary, the assumed value of public opinion, groupthink, and consensus is at a premium. Never have we been so technologically advanced, globally connected, and resource rich; yet seemingly so intellectually stagnant and socially repressed. Not since the days of chattel slavery and Jim Crow has this country been so socially nonaccepting of persons exercising intellectually inspired, economically empowered, and culturally conscious awareness. Democratic values and practices no longer encourage individual thinkers, courageous and prophetic leadership, or equitable and sociopolitical exchange. Our judicial system benefits those who have power while steamrolling over the rights of people of color.
Our current late-capitalist economy was predicated on slavery. It continues to require low-wage or free labor, breeding inequality. Its ideals promote a self-made or "bootstrap" mentality that doesn't reflect the lived experiences of many Americans. This system fundamentally takes, rapes, and pimps to ensure security for the rich. The United States of America, a democratic society, was founded on an understanding of government for the people by the people. A system of rules where people are to be duly elected. However, as it exists currently, our political and economic systems are compromised by misrepresentation fueled by political pandering and the influence of special-interest groups and other controlling forces.
The United States possesses an extraordinarily diverse portfolio of natural resources. Our educators and scholars have access to the highest levels of education, technology, and research. Our nation wields tremendous military might. And our cities and towns are vibrant and rich with ethnic and cultural plurality. Yet our nation remains inequitable, oppressive, abusive, and intolerant toward its citizens who put forth independent thought or take righteous action to confront injustice. There exists within our society an issue of both democratic and theocratic rule. The democratic responsibility is to "lift every voice" and the "uplift of every block, barrio, and hood." Our democratic responsibility requires us to reexamine misguided, oppressive, and abusive social constructs. Theocratic rule, on the other hand, demands more. It demands that we not only address oppressive systems, but that we work to heal the hurt in our world.
Slavery, segregation, and oppression are undeniably a part of our history. Racial injustice is one of the root causes of economic disparity and social disenfranchisement, as well as political and judicial manipulation and dehumanization. Simply put, black and brown folks are struggling to be free. Talking about God in the face of so much turmoil can be quite the challenge. How do you share the good with someone when they are experiencing so much that is bad? How do you present the light of hope in the darkness of hopelessness? Where is the joy in the midst of sorrow? These are the cries that are heard in the streets, alleyways, churches, schools, homes, and slums of communities all over the world. These are the cries to which we must respond with ethical prophetic witness.
Responding to injustice with ethical prophetic witness requires us to be intentional about our theology, or God-talk. Theology is defined as the reflection and dialogue on the interrelatedness of the Christian deity to humanity and creation. Theology is all about figuring out relationships: between God and humanity, God and creation, humanity and creation, and our relationship to the rest of humanity. Our respective God-talk is more than mere explanation of what individuals think and feel toward our deity. It classifies and clarifies the struggle to live out belief as a community. Ultimately, theology is a function of the church. The church's God-talk gives shape and definition to both its constituency and the institution's most fundamental claims and practices.
In this book I will generally avoid dense theological analysis in favor of the practical implications of our theological underpinnings, but it is helpful to examine the difference between embedded and deliberative theology. Embedded theology is the theology that we absorb from our families, church experiences, and world. While we are influenced constantly by the world around us, those of us who were raised in church environments likely received our embedded theology through explicit religious education. Embedded theology can be what we believed as children, or it may be the beliefs we currently hold that have been crafted through a lifetime of experiences that have impressed themselves upon our unconscious mind without disciplined reflection. If we imagine the theology that guides us throughout our lives as a growing tree, the embedded theology begins as a seed. It is the beliefs and assumptions that were passed on to us by our parents, planted in the fertile ground of our childhood or foundational church homes. In this environment, the seeds of our theology grow into roots. These roots ground us, but a tree cannot flourish if it doesn't grow past its roots. If we leave our embedded theology unexamined, our support system of theological roots can become theological baggage that weighs us down with its lack of intentional development. If we allow this to happen, the theologies that sprouted our faith can end up chocking it into rigid and shallow understandings.
Deliberative theology, on the other hand, is theology that we intentionally craft as we grow and mature spiritually. We create our deliberative theology through the active reflection on our embedded beliefs, along with continued study and learning. In forming our own deliberative theology, we take our embedded theologies to task based on our own lived experiences, understandings, and environments. This forces us to examine our assumptions, the things that we have taken for granted. We ask ourselves, "Do the things that I have been taught about God and about my faith align with what I see and hear and feel?" As we begin to explore our faith, learning to worship God through our questions, the deliberative practice creates the trunk of our theological tree. This intentional exercise allows us to move past the shallow foundation of our roots and allows us to flourish.
By intentionally developing our own theological perspective, we are forced to grapple with the complexities and messiness that embedded theology too often ignores. The deliberative process forces us to live our faith, to listen for the voices and experiences of the unheard. With time, dedication, and an open heart, we can grow a rich theological perspective that branches out, producing fruits of right and righteous belief and action.
Ethical prophecy is the telling of divine truth — that which discloses God's self — by means of unmasking the reality of the world's condition of suffering to the promised hope of God. This cry is a proclamation of truth. It is determining and then living out just and ethical ways. Pastors and other leaders often experience a sense of being called by God to this task of prophetic proclamation. On matters of justice, we feel the weight of the task and its burden of responsibility.
Prophetic responsibility mandates that Christian faith should dialogue and participate ethically within the public square. Prophetic responsibility embodies a radical love ethic. Thus, ethical prophecy is a pattern for reshaping authentic communities rooted in faith, particularly Christian faith traditions.
Ultimately, individuals and communities are responsible for participating in the ongoing struggle for their liberation as well as the liberation and freeing of others.
As leaders in ministry, we have the power to create change, but we must be willing to use our power and privilege to do so. We must acknowledge that even though it isn't our fault, it is still our fight. And as leaders, we must compel others to acknowledge this truth too.
In general, ministry is an ongoing struggle of the church to define and redefine its roles, theological positions, and practices. A prophetic understanding of ministry commits itself to fostering community. It empowers a community and its constituency to overcome their respective social, economic, political, and spiritual challenges. More importantly, it invites exploration and experimentation toward the development of new missional communities and leaders.
Ethical prophecy requires not only a sense of urgency but also sensitivity to the following considerations:
1. Oppressive conditions exist worldwide and demand an immediate response.
2. Concerns of God are matters of life and death.
3. Solidarity is critical in the formation of the "new" humanity.
In that process of developing new missional communities and leaders, we ought to find ourselves asking questions such as the following: What is the will, the ways, and the word of God for such a time as this? How do we align ourselves with that? What does ethical prophetic witness look like in our own communities and congregations? Who has the "power"? What structures and systems do we need to address ... and to what aim?
The Hard Truth
Often people ask, why do churches not participate in social justice? Why do persons not engage in service to others? In his book Doing What's Right, Tavis Smiley postulates the following as reasons why people do not engage in service: they don't know how; they're just too busy; they are disconnected; they fear the consequences of action; or they don't believe anything they do will result in change.
The difficult truth is, we're not all that interested in being prophetic — because prophets have to figure out how to be present with people who don't want to hear their message. Jeremiah and Moses dealt with that reality constantly. "They won't listen!" they complained oft times to God. Walter Fluker reminds us, "When you stand at the centermost place of your convictions and dare to speak and act in public, expect to get creamed! The intersection is a dangerous territory."
Regardless of the people's willingness to engage our messages, faith practitioners and change agents have to discern how best to lead and be present with their respective communities. We have to concern ourselves with people who are well intentioned or perfectly capable of helping — but who do not know how or, more likely, are not seriously committed to doing so. Even when folks say they are "on board," leaders still have to stand in the face of the system and keep face with everyone — on all sides of the community crisis.
In addition to my other responsibilities in Ferguson, I also instruct seminary students. The spring after Michael Brown's shooting, the grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer involved, and the ensuing unrest, I opened my class by asking my students to define ethical prophetic witness. Without exception, they responded, "Speaking truth to power." That's a fine answer, but it's incomplete.
"When do you get to do that?" I asked. The truth is, few, if any, of those students will get an interview on National Public Radio. Many were not serious about getting arrested, putting their bodies in physical danger, and risking their livelihood. It's not likely they'll see one hundred days of protest just outside their front door. And this is the real sticking point: most of these seminary students are probably going to serve as pastors in churches that are small and struggling, where the congregation is focused on a myriad of other concerns, and where race and injustice are nowhere near the top of the church's priority list. Their parishioners will probably, for the most part, be unconcerned about these issues and unlikely to actively support this work in any significant way. Perhaps this describes the scenario where you are serving now. It's a bleak picture, but we can lead it to change.
When we think of prophetic voice as only speaking truth to power, we ignore all of the other ways that we as believers and faith leaders can be prophetic. We can all be prophetic in our own contexts. It only takes a shift of focus, a willingness to learn and listen, and a certain level of comfort in being discomforted. The crises of the day are so great that complacency is no longer an option. The circumstances and conditions for which we live have reached a critical mass, and a radical response of love and change is required. I've included in this book contributions from friends and colleagues from a variety of professional backgrounds who provide prophetic voices in their own way and in their own contexts. These testimonies are meant to be examples to prompt your reflection about your particular place and space, where your voice is needed to pursue justice and bring God's kingdom into your community's lived reality.
Our Communities Are Trauma Patients
We need to begin to see our communities right now as trauma patients, as a hurt one lying on the mat. We are in a critical state. We must understand that the initial effort in trauma and in critical care situations is to bring some stability. Protests and street rallies express frustration, grief, a sense of insecurity and fear in the face of recurring practices and systems in which people feel susceptible to victimization.
A just society is to be judged by how well it treats the weakest, poorest, and most pained of its members. The church specifically must remain answerable to a similar critique. Our current systems are malignant and myopic, able only to label or categorize, not grant genuine autonomy. They allow us, and sometimes even encourage us, to make caricatures of individuals based on assumptions, biases, and stereotypes, rather than celebrating our divinely given personhood.
Our God is the God of shalom — the Hebrew word for peace. God is wholly concerned about humanity and all of creation. We faith leaders, too, should be concerned about humanity and creation's material and relational well-being. We should be concerned that all persons experience loving and just relationships. We should be concerned about and involved in ethical and moral considerations.
The very problem of antiquity is the same problem for the contemporary church. There is too much protecting of individual territory and structures of power. There is an excessive amount of interest in protecting a singular narrative or portion of history. There is too much emphasis placed on protection of one's piece of a pew, role in worship, and share of money. Unfortunately, there is not enough earnest practicing of peace, righteous action, or just relationship.
Jesus's life was purposed so that the perfect will of God would be achieved. Such is the design and disposition of our lives. That's why the mantra "It's not about me ... it's not about we ... It's about Thee" is powerful and prophetic. Christian leaders, we must strive to have our homes, workplaces, friendship circles, and communities of faith become caring places driven by God's purpose!
Excerpted from Holding Up Your Corner by F. Willis Johnson. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface: What Happened in My Corner xv
Our Challenge as Church Leaders xxv
What This Book Will (and Will Not) Do xxvi
The Structure of the Book xxvii
What Does "Holding Up Your Corner" Mean? xxix
Part 1 Unmasking Reality
Chapter 1 Real Talk 3
Our God-Talk 5
Being Prophetic 7
The Hard Truth 9
Our Communities Are Trauma Patients 11
Chapter 2 Empathic Models of Transformation 13
The Story of the Paralytic 14
The Role and Responsibility of the Church 15
The Empathic Model of Transformation: Acknowledge, Affirm, Act 18
From One Corner: St. Stephens and The Vine, Ferguson, Missouri, by Rev. Steve Lawler 20
Part 2 Being EMTs
Chapter 3 Acknowledge 27
How We Got Here 28
Inter sectionality 29
Injustice and Inequity Are Sin 30
The Problem with Privilege 32
Savior Mentality 34
Your Story, Your Biases 35
The Others Story, Their Language 38
From One Corner: Authentic Engagement from the Inside Out (Heidi J. Kim) 43
Chapter 4 Affirm 47
The Beautiful Church 48
Right Relationship: Unity amid Difference 50
Hearing and Hollering 52
How the Church Can Improve Its Hearing 57
The Picture 60
Affirmation as a Manifestation of Grace 61
From One Corner: Centers of Trust James E. Page Jr. 62
Chapter 5 Act 67
How to ACT as a Preacher 69
How to ACT as a Leader 70
Six Values for Action 71
The Action Framework 72
Using the Framework: An Example 73
Dare to Care 75
From One Corner: Creating Gravity for Christ Rich Daniels 75
Part 3 Practical Helps
Suggested Next Steps 85
Suggested Next Step #1: Holding Up Your Corner: Guided Conversations about Race 85
Leading the Guided Conversation about Race 86
Suggested Next Step #2: Create an EMT Map of Your Community 92
A Guide to Language and Terminology about Race 96
Privilege Quiz (from Holding Up Your Corner: Guided Conversations about Race) 103
How to Get (and Stay) Connected 106
Recommended Resources for Reading, Watching, and Listening 108
About the Author 112
Editorial Acknowledgments 113