I once went on a twitter rant about what I described as spiritual cop-outs. I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit the topic. This time a little more in-depth. The problem I found was our tendency as Christians to create scapegoats and deflect blame when we reflect on our spirituality, whether it be sin in our life or our inability to live out the biblical call in a way that is pleasing to God.

This is not an opportunity to point fingers, rather a chance to be honest and faithful in our commitment to being obedient in our walk with God.

First, what is a cop-out? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as:

I took that understanding of the word cop-out and applied it to the experience of Christians in American society. Therefore, a spiritual cop-out is something we say or an attitude we reflect in situations where we believe that it is in our best interest to save face by avoiding responsibility and accountability for our shortcomings. These cop-outs usually come in the form of folk theology, defined by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen as "a kind of theology that rejects critical reflection and enthusiastically embraces simplistic acceptance of an informal tradition of beliefs and practices composed mainly of clichés and legends.

Christians have been heralded as some of the biggest purveyors of hypocrisy in the world today. A simple Google search of the phrase, "Christian hypocrite" will give you a good précis of  how many non-Christians and some Christians feel about this problem. We Christians are often known for our judgment and condemnation of sinners in the world as if we are the shining example of true morality. Not only do we have a tendency to cast these judgments and condemnations onto non-Christians, but we also cast them onto those who share in the experience of being part of the Body of Christ. This is perhaps the reason that these cop-outs have become so common among Christians.

This list is in no particular order:

1.  The devil made me do it.
This is undoubtedly the oldest cop-out of the group, first appearing in the Book of Genesis when God asks Eve, "What is this you have done?" She replies, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." This cop-out didn't work for Eve back then and it surely doesn't work for us today. The devil can't actually make us do anything (unless of course one is demonically possessed). What the devil can do and will do is tempt us and influence us, but we still make the choice to sin and commit actions that are less than favorable in the eyes of God.

When we use this spiritual cop-out we are attempting to excuse ourselves from owning up to our sins. We are also denying various truths we find in the Bible. We read in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that God will never allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to withstand. In that passage, we also see that God is gracious enough to provide an escape from temptation. Another truth is that the Holy Spirit who dwells within us is stronger than the devil (1 John 4:4). By making the devil a scapegoat we are only hurting ourselves because the fact still remains that the devil cannot make us sin. Thus, we are still going to be held accountable for the sins we have committed. Before we can correct sin we must at least admit to it.

2.  God knows my heart.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot who lived about 1000 years ago once said, "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs," meaning hell is full of good wishes and desires. It is true that God knows whats in our hearts, but do we really know? Jeremiah 17:9 states, "The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure. Who can understand it?"

We commonly use this spiritual cop-out to make up for our lack of good works. As Christians we are called to servitude. In fact, in Ephesians we read that good works are actually a result of our salvation. Our words and actions come from the heart so if our hearts are as pure and our intentions are as good as we think they are, then our lives should reflect that. God does not look past our shortcomings to our good intentions.

3.  Only God can judge me.

If not for Tupac this spiritual cop-out might not be as popular with my generation as it presently is. It is also the most difficult one to confront because it is true that God is the ultimate judge of all of us. Matthew 7:1 declares explicitly, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged." This verse is the reference point for the theological understanding behind this popular idiom. We use this spiritual cop-out most often when we are living in a way that is unpleasing to God, but do not wish to hear that be identified by others. We bear the judgment of people who we feel are in no moral position to do so because of the immense planks that skew their spiritual vision.

If we examine the entire Bible and even the text within Matthew we will see that God enables man to judge. Jesus was not condemning judgment itself but hypocritical and self-righteous judgment. In John 7:24 Jesus says, "judge with right judgment." We are to judge righteously, that is not of our own understandings or opinions, but judge according to the truth that God has given us. We should keep in mind our limited ability and low discernment when our vision is impaired by our own imperfections. 

We are our brother's and sister's keepers. We are to care about one another. There is a way to be confront another's sin without being "judgmental." In 2 Timothy we are directed to, "reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching."

Avoidance of accountability leads to mediocrity in most areas of life. When we add this trait to our individual walks with Christ what we are left with is dormancy and a strong leaning toward complacency. We are stunting our spiritual growth by not properly dealing with our spiritual faults and missteps.

1.   White Men, Black Female Bodies, and Renisha McBride
Some might be scratching their heads, finding it difficult to understand why — in 2013, the same year that we commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings (in which four little black girls were killed by white Klansmen who were never arrested) and celebrated “how far we’ve come” as a society — we also witnessed the similarly unjust execution of Renisha McBride...continue reading
 2.   Do You See This Woman?: Renisha McBride and the Imago Dei
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is invited over to a pharisee’s house for a dinner party. He has a place and space reserved at the table. His presence is welcomed. However, a woman realizes that Jesus will be at this home and decides to come by unannounced. However, the pharisee hosting the party only saw a “sinner”, rather than this woman who was made in the image of God...continue reading
3.   Only 19 Percent Are Women
Journalist Jonathan Merritt did a quick informal study and discovered that out of 34 prominent evangelical conferences, only 19 percent of speakers at plenary sessions were women...continue reading
4.   Answer the Call: Lifting Up Women & Girls
Over the past year, more and more Christian women have spoken out about what it means to be a woman in the public square. From the debate over Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood and whether the Bible prescribes specific roles for women to the fascinating discussions about spirituality and sexuality in Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, women of faith are wrestling with how to transcend sexism and patriarchy to cultivate their God-given gifts in the pulpit, at home, and in their daily lives...continue reading
5.   It’s Time for a Schism Regarding Women in the Church
I don’t take this lightly. I very much take Jesus’ prayer for unity in the Fourth Gospel seriously. Our eschatological hope is that the church will be one, and that we will all be united in belief, practice, and love...continue reading

Following the success of the History Channel's mini-series, The Bible, which appeared weekly last March, Hollywood seems to have renewed an avenue in which Biblical adaptations are allowed to enjoy a significant amount of limelight. Two blockbuster titles are to set to be released in 2014; Paramount Picture's Noah and 21st Century Fox's Exodus. These two films both boast a star-studded cast as directors Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott hope to astonish audiences by combining stunning visualizations with two of the most popular accounts from the Old Testament, the Great Flood and the Exodus out of Egypt.

As a Christian and an avid movie goer I was thrilled to read that these two films were in production. However, once I saw the actors cast to play the leading roles in these two films my excitement quickly turned to disdain. Not a single one of the leading roles in either movie was given to a person of middle eastern descent.

Some things never change. In Hollywood, whitewashing, also known as racebending, is one of many longstanding traditions (here is a brief definition and 25 examples).  Historically, this practice was used to discriminate against actors, both male and female, of color. The most common examples of this in the past were white actors dressing up in what is known as blackface, redface, and yellowface. While maybe not as controversial or blatant today, the practice of whitewashing still continues in Hollywood.

Roles from scripts that clearly call for a person of color are given to white actors. Most recently we saw this in Disney's The Lone Ranger, where Johnny Depp was cast to play the role of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick. This relegates people of color to playing roles that support a white lead and/or roles that are usually based in stereotypes. Not only is this practice offensive and hurtful to the careers of actors of color, but the imagery and message it sends out and the false reality it creates can be very damaging to the psyche of people of color.

When retelling a Biblical story the effects of whitewashing are amplified. In the case of the movies Noah and Exodus, whitewashing continues a well-established practice of white sacralization through religious indoctrination. Throughout the history of European imperialism and colonialism this type of indoctrination was present. Depictions of white only Biblical figures (including prophets, angels, Jesus, etc.) were intentionally used to subconsciously indoctrinate the false belief of white divinity (and therefore superiority) upon the minds of the oppressed and conquered.

By allowing Hollywood to hijack Biblical stories and display them however they please, we as Christians have also allowed them to be cheapened. We often miss out on cultural aesthetics, language, motifs, and overall richness  when stories are told through the lens of European ideals and thought patterns. The cultural wisdom absent from these films is essential to the contextual understanding of the stories in which they represent.

The film industry is one of America's largest exports. It is the biggest purveyor of persuasive imagery. It is the dominant strategy for communicating culture, even more so than books and television. If culture and history are not done right at the box office, they are rarely done right anywhere else, at least not where people are paying that much attention.

Hollywood operates under the assumption that white films are for everybody while films featuring actors of color are for niche audiences. This belief causes those particular films featuring actors of color to be "marginalized and ignored by broader audiences," according to Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Associate Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

While I affirm that the Biblical message transcends race I would contend that we as a society have not yet learned how to. Therefore, race matters. When we entrust our religious narratives to Hollywood, the deep messages they contain are paired with pictures. And when those pictures never represent people of color, the message that is then conveyed is that people of color exist outside of God's spiritual imagination, that God is not available to them, that they are not seen as loved or cherished by God.

1.   To Redeem the Soul of the Black Church
Fifty years ago a preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. came with others to our nation's capitol, challenging America to "live out the true meaning of its creed." The son and grandson of activist preachers, King was a child of the black church, a church born fighting for freedom. Accordingly, he and others organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 not simply to dismantle segregation but with this motto: "To Redeem The Soul of America...continue reading
To Miss Marissa Alexander of Florida,
First of all, I would like to say thank you, Ms. Alexander for sharing your story with the world. No matter how much the white supremacist system we call “The Prison-Industrial-Complex” may try to suppress the truth, I am grateful that you are working to expose it by contending your innocence as well as your basic right as a human being to defend yourself from life-threatening abuse...continue reading
For the past few days many have caught wind of the lack of diversity at UCLA by way of a YouTube video that has been making the rounds on social media and news outlets. Sy Stokes, the lead in the video, is a spoken-word artist in his junior at the university. Stokes is backed by a phalanx of silent black male UCLA students as he drops statistics about UCLA’s black male student population as of the 2012-2013 school year...continue reading
I grew up as a Latina in the Assemblies of God and I distinctly remember promising to wait to have sex until marriage with the song “Promise” by Jaci Velasquez playing in the background, I was 13. I remember this so clearly because the following the year a friend of mine from that church was brutally gang raped; she was a year younger than me...continue reading
When I was a Ph.D. candidate in Yale University's New Testament program, I had the honor of preaching at an ordination service for a classmate who was being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Following the service, a number of my classmates asked me why I wanted to spend four-seven years working on a Ph.D. in New Testament when I clearly had a "gift" for preaching. I responded that it was actually my academic study of the Bible coupled with my life experiences that illumined and enlivened my preaching...continue reading
Recently I was blessed to be in the presence of someone who I love dearly. This individual and I have not had the opportunity to hang out in quite some time. Naturally, I was delighted to finally get the chance to sit down and catch up, although, because of social media there was not much that we did not already know about, as far as what was happening in each other's lives. In fact, I was fully aware of the trajectory this person's life had begun to follow over the past few years.

While I was overjoyed to spend quality time with this person, my heart was quickly shattered and my spirit was filled with despair as they began to rattle off the details of the unfortunate events that had occurred in their life. I kept a smile on my face to mirror their playful mood, but underneath I was incredibly saddened by what I was hearing. The trouble this person was in was described as merely being a part of life and part of a lifestyle they enjoyed. But I knew that there were only two outcomes of such a lifestyle, prison or death.

My loved one was morally and spiritually lost.

For some time now I have struggled in figuring out how I was to help this person. In my contemplation I was led to the 15th chapter of Luke in which Jesus tells three parables that focus on the lost. The beautiful thing about these passages is the environment Jesus creates. He attracts a crowd where everyone is lost and He creates a space where no judgment is passed (at least not from His end). The crowd consists of tax collectors and sinners who are without religion and spiritually lost, and Pharisees and scribes who are lost in their own self-righteousness.

Parable of the Lost Sheep
Parable of the Lost Coin
Parable of the Prodigal Son

After reading these passages I then had the task of discerning which parable best suited the situation at hand. I first had to come to grips with the fact that I was in some way amongst the lost and that I was not in any position to save anyone. Only God can save someone who is lost. But as a person who has been deemed by his peers to have some kind of pastoral responsibility and as a person who loves this individual, I felt a very strong urge to intervene in their life.

1 Peter 5: 2-3 states, "Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."

In this case I wanted to play the role of the shepherd. I was more than willing to go and find this person and hopefully lead them back to Christ. However, the more I reflected on the conversation we had the more I realized that this could never happen because this person was fully aware of all the decisions they were making. They were not crying out to be saved. They had heard a million times that the path they were on was not a good one and that they needed to change their ways. Nothing I could say would be new to them. It was with that realization that I determined they would need to return home on their own will and in their own time.

As painful as it was, the best thing I could do in that situation was to continue to pray for that person and to create a loving environment similar to the one Jesus created in which that person was always welcome to return.

Throughout the Bible humans are likened to sheep. As fallen creation we have the tendency to wander from God and become lost. Fortunately, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, continuously searching for the lost. As disciples of Christ we must also involve ourselves in this form of ministry. We are reminded in 1 Peter 5:8b that we live in a world where danger looms: "Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."

We are instructed to watch over God's flock. But, to fully understand the lostness of people we must involve ourselves not only in the search but also in the celebration of repentance and salvation as God has done and illustrated to us through these parables.

1.  The Jesus Legend: What Did Early Christians Really Believe?
I think it is fair to say that there are aspects of the Christian faith that rail against modern sensibilities. The miracle stories, the virgin birth, the resurrection and ascension… these all operate outside the framework of contemporary science. One of the common accusations leveled against Christianity is that these stories were developed over a period of time, adopting surrounding philosophies and mythologies, and sculpting a legend of Jesus that eventually gave birth to Christian theology generations after the life of Jesus...continue reading
2.  Has Drone Firepower Conquered Christ's Love?
For centuries, followers of Jesus have wondered how they should relate to states and governments. Recent documents from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations bring such concerns to the fore, highlighting the cruel collateral damage of many of President Barack Obama’s personally ordered drone strikes — strikes that according to the president, are legal and in accord with international law, use technology that is precise and limit unnecessary casualties, eliminate people that are real threats, and prevent greater violence...continue reading
3. Thinking About The Future of the Church
Tonight I got the opportunity to attend "Innovating Tradition: A Conversation with Two Urban Pastors on the Future of the Church." The event was held at Calvary Baptist Church in the heart of Washington, DC, and it featured pastor Amy Butler (AB) and special guest Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW). While the context of the assembly was NBW's book tour, the real centerpiece of the conversation was how church in America must evolve to be a true source of relevant spiritual nourishment in the contemporary world. At the risk of oversimplifying, I want to remark quickly on three major themes I heard...continue reading
4.  The Nightmares
I have nightmares. I can gauge the rawness of the dream by how long it takes to feel like my normal self again. A garish nightmare will take days, maybe even a week to work through. A bad nightmare may take half a day at least. A bad dream, maybe 2-4 hours. Something someone else may articulate as merely a “weird” dream takes 15-20 minutes post waking time to come down from...continue reading
5.  Pope Francis Kisses Man With Rare Disorder Showing The Healing Power Of Compassion
Pope Francis' compassionate nature was poignantly captured in this image of him tenderly comforting a sick man by kissing him on the head...watch here
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