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Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Sophia's World

Race and the church

How much do our enduring divisions grieve God?

My younger brother and I grew up very close playmates. He’s about two years younger than me—the perfect age gap for me to boss him around while still sharing similar maturity levels and interests. I remember him following me around everywhere, and together we played Power Rangers, jumped rope, performed mock criminal trials (my brother was always the criminal, I the prosecutor), and when we got into trouble, we hugged each other piteously and cried. 

That kind of camaraderie eroded over the years. We hung out less and less, and part of that was natural—he had his friends, I had mine, and we were two drastically different personalities. But then when we were both young adults, a conflict arose, and it lingered until soon we barely had any genuine relationship beyond sharing the same blood. It wasn’t that we were hostile to one another; we just grew apart, and made very little attempt to preserve our sibling bond.

At the time, I felt like I was fine with it—but it broke my parents’ hearts. When I admitted to them that my brother and I hadn’t called or texted each other in a while, my parents would look despondent and shake their heads. “Remember those days when you guys were joined at the hip?” my mother would sigh. And my father would say, “Nothing pains us more than to see our own kids not in harmony.”

I thought of my parents’ broken hearts when I read the controversial Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel and observed the responses among my evangelical brethren to it. The statement, released in early September, warns Christians about “an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” As I write this, more than 8,500 individuals have signed the statement, including individuals I respect. And it seems to have lit a fuse within our evangelical circles.

Keeping the church rooted and centered on the gospel is an imperative goal. Unfortunately, the statement seems to be criticizing an idea so broad and ambiguous, using terms so imprecise and contentious, that it probably has further blurred the evangelical stance rather than clarifying it. Though the statement also condemns cultural narratives about sexuality and gender roles, the conversation it has sparked among evangelicals predominantly centers on race.

That’s because when it comes to “social justice” issues, most conservative evangelicals agree on what the Bible says about abortion, sexuality, gender roles, and caring for the widows and orphans. But when it comes to the matter of race, it sometimes feels like we’re not reading the same Bible. The statement—and the reactions to it—exposes just how far away we in the church are from true racial reconciliation.

Though I am neither black nor white, nor even a natural-born American, seeing the pervasive racial division within my brothers and sisters in Christ grieves me. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America, and even in racially diverse churches such as mine, segregation persists in subtle yet powerful ways. I remember my parents’ own grief over the emotional distance between my brother and me, and I think, “How much more does God grieve to see His children harboring so much misunderstanding and apathy and bitterness against one another?” 

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel comes in the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Black Lives Matter, the 2016 election, and Charlottesville. It also comes in the wake of various churches and leaders attempting to address racial reconciliation, such as publicly confessing sins of racism, preaching about racial reconciliation from the pulpit, and holding an MLK50 conference to discuss the state of racial unity in the church.

For some people, this statement is a rightful censure against the encroaching leftist identity politics that crowns victimhood and idolizes skin color. They see how quickly such a mentality has invaded college campuses and mainstream media, recoil at the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore and Charlotte, and worry when they hear fellow Christians mix similar political buzzwords with Scripture.

But to other communities, this statement reeks of past rhetoric that condoned racism—back to the 1800s when some churches claimed addressing slavery would distract people from the gospel, back to the civil rights era when certain groups labeled civil rights leaders as “Communists,” accusing them of trying to undermine American democracy and incite havoc through interracial marriages.

A day after I read the statement, I had lunch with a reporter from a major newspaper in his 50s and a comic book writer in his 30s. The reporter is black, the comic book writer is white, I’m Asian, and we’re all professing Christians. We got together over burgers and iced tea because we wanted to seek community as believers in a lonely writing field. And somehow, we got to the topic of race.

In addition to his journalistic career, the reporter runs a ministry with his wife that allows him to engage with hundreds of churches and church leaders, and he says those interactions have left him tired, frustrated, and discouraged as an African-American man. So he had a lot to say about this subject and I had a lot of questions, while the comic book writer mainly listened. For the next three hours, the reporter aired out his grievances about living in a society where the police pull him over and the store manager tails him simply for his skin color. But his greater grievance comes from the church’s response.

When he tried to talk about racial injustice—such as racial profiling—with the pastor’s wife at a predominantly white suburban church, she said, “Well, that’s not a racial issue, that’s a safety issue.” Another time, he had to listen to some folks talk tactlessly about how many of the social ills come from fatherless black families, when he was standing right there with his black wife and two black sons. 

It’s not that these people are overtly racist, but they seem tone-deaf and dismissive to the pressing concerns of other communities—concerns not just pertaining to extreme cases such as White Supremacist rallies and police shootings, but also to everyday injustices that others might not notice and to unequal socioeconomic status. Some laws have to change, he said, because “the law has everything to do with how I treat my fellow human beings—loving our neighbor as ourselves.” Then he said, “My question is: What are Christians who refuse to deal with social justice issues really afraid of?”

In 2016, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for a shoot-from-the-mouth, sexually immoral president to right the social wrong of abortion. So why are many in this same group so unwilling to right the other social wrongs that daily affect people of color? The reporter has his answer: “It’s all about power and money.” Church leaders are unwilling to take on controversial stances and lose tithe-giving members, he said.

Hearing the finality in his voice disheartened me. I told the reporter that I couldn’t share his cynicism. It was hard for me to conclude so quickly that the main intention behind many so-called “white” churches is to hold onto their cultural dominance. “I’ve still got to have hope,” I said. The reporter chuckled and sighed: “Well, this is me speaking at 55 years old. When you get to my age….”

That conversation and the statement have left me semi-obsessed about the race issue. I don’t want to be 55 years old and jaded. I have little faith in the state of mankind without Christ. They fight for principles that they don’t even realize derive from the gospel, and they usually find ways to pervert them. We legally ended slavery, which gave way to sharecropping, then to Jim Crow laws and lynching, then to racial zoning and mass incarceration. Somehow, racism and oppression stayed, shedding one skin for another. Today, I see fresh wounds continue bleeding as each group tries to silence and guilt and delegitimize the other.

But regarding the future of the church, I’m confused: Isn’t the gospel enough? Shouldn’t the natural process of salvation and sanctification uproot the sins of racism and arrogance and unforgiveness, and heal all wounds and animosity, which would lead towards racial harmony? Why then, with all our Bible studies and theological podcasts and revival conferences, do we seem to be more divided than ever? Why is it that historically, many of the so-called theologically sound churches chose to stay silent while the progressive mainline Protestant churches chose to stand up for justice? Is that what we’re doing now? What are we missing?

Last year, I made a resolution to be consistent about reaching out to my brother. We live in opposite coasts, so it’s easy to be out of sight, out of mind. I decided to text him at least once a week. It felt unnatural and awkward at first, and sometimes I wasn’t sure what to say to him, given that our lives are so different now—he a married man driving a Porsche SUV in suburban Virginia, I a single woman pumping a second-hand bike (now stolen) in Los Angeles. But I realized we weren’t going to magically reconcile without at least one side intentionally doing something about it.

Then this July, my niece was born. Her name is Praise. She entered life as a pink alien-looking thing, and now her delicate features are molding every day into a cute smiling, squealing, snuggling human bean. I save all her photos on my iPhone and smile whenever I see that little face—which is a miracle, since I am not a lover of babies. But what can I say? She’s family. My blood pumps in her veins, my DNA frames the eyebrows on her forehead, and I pray to God she doesn’t inherit my temper. I didn’t choose to love her, but I do, and I will make efforts to love her, because we’re family.

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Sophia's World

Glad to be a woman

God made the sexes inherently different, and that’s a good thing

I was 9 years old when I declared myself a feminist. Who knows what provoked me to take up the feminist cause—it might have been the progressive books I was reading, rebellion against the traditional family dynamics under which I grew up, or just extreme irritation that I had to wash the dishes every night because it was a “female chore” while my brother watched TV. Whatever it was, I decided at a very early age that I wanted to smash the patriarchy. 

Of course, I was only 9. My elementary understanding of being a feminist meant bucking against traditional “feminine” and “masculine” stereotypes. Men and women are equal, I would cry, but to me that meant equal nature and equal outcome—a view that blurred the distinctions between what made a man manly and what made a woman womanly. 

My childhood beliefs led to some far-reaching behaviors and long-term lifestyle choices: I tried climbing trees like a tomboy, though the brutal ant bites made the whole experience very uncomfortable. I loved playing with dolls, but all my dolls died horrible deaths from torture and murder. I picked fights in playgrounds and refused to cry when a chunky boy punched me in the stomach with all his might. I developed a Power Rangers obsession, which led to an interest in martial arts and to beating up on my little brother. As a teenager I openly scorned romantic comedies, although sometimes I secretly admired the dashing male lead characters. Over the years I stopped wearing dresses, skirts, and anything frilly, instead preferring jeans, sneakers, and sweatshirts.

When I grew older and began noticing boys, things got pretty confusing. Body features change, voices change, interests change—everything seems to change, drawing clearer lines around the differences between male and female. I didn’t quite know how to deal with the strange feelings fluttering in my stomach regarding the male species in my classroom and gym. After all, I prided myself as a strong, independent young woman, and I was aghast that a male creature could render me tongue-tied, weak-kneed, and insecure.

So I chose my seemingly only option for preserving my feminist pride: I suppressed my crushes. And if any boy dared showed interest in me, I slammed that window down on his fingers. Today, as a 30-year-old woman, I look back and chuckle. But even now, I spot certain patterns of thoughts and behaviors that linger from those days. 

I remembered all this while working on my recent story about professional matchmaking services. I talked to professional matchmakers, matchmaking clients, and online daters—and every interview highlighted the fact that men and women are rather different creatures. Matchmakers told me men typically want women with softer qualities such as warmth and nurture, while women want men who can provide and protect them. Men want to pursue and women want to be pursued, but when women do the chasing, it can turn men off, and such rejections usually hurt women much more than they do men.

“The women’s liberation movement was good for us women in terms of getting equal opportunities, but in terms of relationships, it’s made things more complicated,” said Julie Ferman, a matchmaker who works with clients in Los Angeles, Calif., and Santa Fe, N.M. Ferman, who’s 58, says mothers aren’t teaching their daughters to cultivate their femininity anymore. As a result, modern women have become more domineering, equating the stereotypical masculine traits with strength, yet the kind of men they desire seem to prefer women who “will let him finish his sentence.”

So part of Ferman’s job involves encouraging women to embrace their natural femininity. You can be a strong career woman and still “let the man be the man,” she tells her female clients: “Men get weaker if we get stronger the wrong way. There’s a time to speak and a time to listen, and a truly strong woman will learn when to exert her strength and when to be vulnerable.” 

I wonder how controversial Ferman’s statement is in an age when people claim to be “gender fluid,” blame social constructionism for “gender-conforming” children’s toys, and endorse “theybies.” Just look at how people have sputtered over psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s suggestion that the gender pay gap may partly be due to a natural reflection of gender differences rather than outright prejudice. Or look at how Google fired software engineer James Damore for penning a memo about how biological and psychological differences between men and women may explain why the majority of workers in the tech industry are men. 

I’m sure Peterson’s and Damore’s arguments have flaws and holes in them that are susceptible to a robust debate. Like many men and women, I believe in gender equality when it comes to legal rights and access to opportunities. I believe women should be treated fairly, that there should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment or sexual assault in public and private spheres. And I know Peterson and Damore believe that too, because they’ve publicly said so.

Yet people are labeling them “misogynist,” “regressive,” and even “dangerous” for merely stating that men and women are inherently different. That reaction seems awfully close to the mindset of 9-year-old Sophia Lee ... and well, she didn’t bring me much except ant bites and a gut-punch. 

Over the years, I’ve met many strong women in leadership positions who are also wonderfully feminine. For example, one 66-year-old who’s a businesswoman, a Bible teacher, and a church board member once told me she always remembers to reapply her lipstick before meeting men. “Never forget to accentuate your womanly attributes,” she said with a wink, and I felt such freedom knowing that I can be strong and powerful in my God-given womanhood. 

This woman is bold in her preaching, unafraid to speak up for what’s right among a group of men, and whip-smart in her finances. But somehow she does that all with a quiet, confident, beautiful femininity that is refreshing and liberating to watch. Well, fancy that—I guess I love being a woman after all. 

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Sophia's World

Reporting on suffering

Writing regularly about pain and tragedy has shown me how God’s children walk by faith through valleys

A couple of weeks ago I was at a dinner meeting with a group of businessmen and their wives. We asked each other what we do for a living, and I told them I’m a journalist. 

“So what are you working on these days?” they asked. I answered that I was working on a story about sexual abuse. 

Eyes widened: “Wow. What other stories have you worked on?” 

“Well,” I said, “a while ago I wrote an article on spousal abuse, and soon I’ll be writing a story about suicide and another story on male victims of domestic abuse.” 

The eyebrows lifted higher: “Wow, OK. ... And what has been the favorite story you’ve written so far?”

“Well, I do like the stories I wrote on mental illness and the series I’m doing on homelessness …”

I told the group that after all the stories I’ve reported on so far, I might actually be an expert in human suffering. They laughed, and I did too. But friends have asked me more seriously, “Girl, how can you be OK writing all this depressing stuff? Doesn’t it affect you?” My parents remind me to pray and guard myself, because I’m immersing myself in spiritual warfare. And my boyfriend tells me, “We can’t seem to have a conversation in which you’re not mentioning abuse or suicide. We need to find you some fun topics to write about.” 

But I’m OK, really. “Fun” is not the appropriate word here, but I genuinely enjoy what I do, the topics I research, the interviews I have. Yes, subjects such as homelessness, abuse, and mental illness are serious and heartbreaking, because they’re so real and prevalent and close to the heart, but here’s what sets WORLD Magazine reporters apart from most other journalists: We report things from a Biblical perspective. That means we look for hope in our stories—and we always find hope, even in the deepest, most gut-wrenching stories of pain and injustice. 

My work is also humbling. I remember meeting a mother whose adult son suffers from schizophrenia, and she worries he’ll never lead a “normal” life. Once, she began crying in front of me, momentarily seized with terror of the unknown future. She began questioning: “Do I really believe in the gospel? Do I really trust God?” Then she remembered all the times when God clearly demonstrated His love and faithfulness to her and her family during the chaos of crisis after crisis, and she exclaimed, “God orchestrated that. Isn’t it miraculous how He did that?” After wiping her tears, she concluded firmly, “There has to be hope. I know there’s hope to see God taking care of my son.” 

That was the Holy Spirit at work, reminding that mother of God’s consistent presence and love, slowly replacing her instinctual fears with trust and even joy—and I got to witness that in real time. 

Not all the people I interview have the benefit of time and healing to help them articulate how they process suffering and grief. Recently I was on the phone catching up with a pastor I had interviewed in Dallas. Six years ago he lost his wife of 44 years to suicide. He told me that for the first four years he couldn’t think about her without his heart throbbing as though its muscles were bruised black and blue. 

This is an older pastor who has a degree in theology, who is trained in Biblical counseling, and who has counseled scores of people dealing with all sorts of pain. Yet when tragedy struck him, he realized he often did not know how to verbally express to God the depths of his anguish and confusion. That’s when he experienced Romans 8:26 in a new, intimate way: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” 

During those initial months of suffering, the pastor said, he saw more prayers answered than ever before in his life: “So God really feels our pain with us. He helps me through the Holy Spirit when I’m praying to give me perspective that helps me. … God doesn’t leave us alone in our pain.” 

It takes courage to reject cynicism, self-pity, despair, and apathy

I also remember talking to a woman who told me her husband had been abusive and neglectful toward her and her children for many years. She said she went to her church leaders for help, but things got worse: Her husband became more aggressive, while the church leaders told her to forgive and reconcile. Now that she and her husband are divorced, she’s financially struggling to provide for her three kids, and said she hasn’t received any support from the church. 

This woman lost friends and family from the ordeal, but said she still finds safety and comfort in God. She looks at the injustice in her life and declares, “God, that’s not who You are. I know You’re just and good.” She clings on to stories in the Bible of people who also endured great suffering—Joseph, King David, Job—and observes how consistent God is in love and faithfulness throughout history: “So I give up my right for retribution and revenge, because God is bigger than all that. … I still believe that God has a plan for me, that He has a purpose.”

The world says we Christians are naïve and weak to believe in a sovereign and good God when the world is frothing with unspeakable evil, random tragedies, and inexplicable suffering. The winds of our culture seem to cry, “Where is your God now? There is no God!”

And that’s why even though some of the stories I hear make me sad, they also touch and refresh my soul. I sense that many of the people I listen to are still bleeding from sensitive wounds, but somehow they still make the conscious, moment-by-moment choice to view God through His Word, not through their difficult circumstances. They choose to root their perspective in the unchanging characteristics of God and His promises. That is not weakness or naiveté. 

It takes courage to reject cynicism, self-pity, despair, and apathy, and to instead recognize that though we often don’t have a choice in how we suffer, we still have the freedom to decide how we respond to our suffering. We are weak, but we can choose to walk through the pain leaning on God and clutching Him, letting the experience transform us as we transcend the tragedy.

As a Christian journalist, I don’t write about mere suffering. I write about the paradox in which both deep pain and profound joy can exist at the same time, like that beautiful paradox in which suffering and victory coincided on the cross.

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