Favorite Books I Read in 2019

Practicing the King's Economy by Rhodes and Holt

1. Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give by Michael Rhodes, Brian Fikkert, and Robby Holt (2018). A sort of natural sequel to When Helping Hurts, this book explores multiple dimensions of how to use our resources on this earth for God’s kingdom, focusing equally on theology and practical application. From replacing a “soup kitchen” mindset with a community-building “potluck” mindset, to exploring the principle of gleaning in creating opportunities for work, to the importance of both partaking in Sabbath rest and making sure others have opportunities to partake in it, it’s an easy and enthusiastic read that both uncovers interesting Scriptural insights and shares inspiring examples of Christians applying these ideas all over the world.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

2. A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans (2012). It wasn’t my first choice for reading something by Evans after her untimely death earlier last year, but it was the first one I found, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. The gimmicky premise is really just an excuse to explore the tensions, contradictions, pains, hopes, and glories of the relationship between the Bible and modern evangelical culture’s paradigms about women. With wit, humility, and a dash of good storytelling, Evans is insightful and thought-provoking (the Jewish understanding of Proverbs 31 alone was worth the time I spent here).

Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roger

3. Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roger (2019). With understandable anguish and yet also remarkable love, Megan shares her story of growing up in the most-hated church in America and finally leaving it. The page-turner humanizes her family members while also not flinching from the harm they’ve caused, and it’s full of surprising twists and turns, from the complicated ways no one is as simple as their stereotype, to the friendship – and not the reciprocrated hatred – that ultimately helped pull her away, to the unexpected similarities she found with those who used to be her enemies. Extremely interesting and thought-provoking on multiple theological and cultural levels, it’s an important and relevant read in our days of increasing polarization and political extremism.

The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter

4. The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (2011). Pushing back on hubristic modern criticisms of the Bible as primitive in form and substance, Robert Alter describes the beautiful and innovative artistry found in the Biblical narratives, detailing the ironies and plot twists and reversals found in the deliberate carrying of certain phrases between apparently unrelated stories, or the thematic developments brought forth via subtle but crucial variations in repeated motifs. While Alter’s highly respectful yet still human-focused view of the Bible would be considered academically liberal by most evangelicals, his textual insights are just as valuable to the fully orthodox. Warning: it’s a pretty dry read.

Santa Biblia by Justo L. Gonzalez

5. Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes by Justo L. Gonzalez (1996). A wonderful example of how listening to different perspectives can provide a fuller and more beautiful understanding than we can achieve by ourselves, Justo Gonzalez describes how various aspects of Hispanic experience – and in particular Hispanic experience in and with the United States – illuminates aspects of the Bible I had never really noticed before, like the power struggle between the center and the margins of the early church, or the “code-switching” dual-culture existence of Saul/Paul and how his background specifically influenced and enhanced his ministry. A short and recommended read for the multicultural body of Christ striving to be united as one.

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

6. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker (2018). With clear prose and stunning charts, Pinker describes the most incredible and under-appreciated paradigm-shifting reality of the modern world – the absolute poverty rate of humanity plummeted from 90% to 10% in little over a century, and despite the doom and gloom and bad news, human existence today is the safest, healthiest, and most prosperous it’s ever been. While I heartily disagree with Pinker’s atheistic prognoses (and would give more credit to religious influences of Judeo-Christian civilization), we can find a lot of common ground in the “love your neighbor” aspects of humanism as well as the importance and usefulness of reason and critical thinking to keep us all from sliding back into the Dark Ages.

G-Dog and the Homeboys by Celeste Fremon

7. G-Dog and the Homeboys: Father Greg Boyle and the Gangs of East Los Angeles by Celeste Fremon (2008). “If you can’t imagine a future, then you’re not going to care a lot about the present.” A fascinating journalistic story of an endearing priest who becomes an unlikely father figure and mentor to a group of mostly Hispanic gang members in Los Angeles. The love and shame, the tragedies and triumphs… an intense mixture of heartbreak and hope.

Improbable Planet by Hugh Ross

8. Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home by Hugh Ross (2016). Leading old-earth creationist Hugh Ross uses the latest advances in scientific knowledge to detail the “fine-tuning” of parameters that make the Earth a habitable place, with his argument that the added dimension of deep time makes the case for divine purpose more likely, not less, due to the remarkable interlocking events that had to continually occur in just the right order at just the right points over billions of years to make our world capable of supporting conscious beings. While he may oversell some of the most extraneous and more speculative aspects of tuning, the overall journey through cosmology and geology is probably a much more wondrous and intentional telling of the story then you’re used to hearing.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

9. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017). My only fiction for the year – an engaging story of a Korean family’s struggles living in twentieth-century Japan set against a true historical backdrop of war and discrimination. A few strong characters help anchor a story that could have easily lost me in its generational breadth. Despite the massive cultural and situational differences, I was struck by the incredible similarities of the “second-class” Korean experience in Japan to the African-American experience in the United States, revealing universal realities of human nature. Warning: to each their own, but I almost put it down once or twice due to the amount of sexual content.

Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianoff and Haidt

10. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018). Describing recent conflicts on college campuses and trends in parenting and the emergence of Gen-Z, Haidt and Lukianoff argue that good intentions and overreactions have influenced an indulgence of logical fallacies that are leaving people ill-equipped to handle the challenges of real life and increasingly susceptible to the dangers of polarization. While some of the connections they draw may not be entirely supported, and while some of their arguments are sure to enrage adherents of various political persuasions (in ironic proof of the various trends they describe), I found their charitable and sympathetic treatment of such highly-charged topics an important contribution to some of the most vexing cultural issues we face today.

My 2018 list

My 2017 list


My Most Impactful Albums of the 2010’s

1. Love and War and the Sea In Between by Josh Garrels (2011)


Indie folk singer/songwriter Josh Garrels expounds upon oceanic themes to sing (and occasionally speak) about the richness of God’s creation and the joys and pains of life, weaving literary and Scriptural references into narratives of betrayal, commitment, encouragement, determination, and more, all led by Garrels’ powerful, multi-faceted voice and carried by everything from electronic sequencing to a simple ukulele. Garrels had been honing his talent over several prior albums, but this one really ascended to a new level – the sonic production, the songwriting, the varied instrumentation – all of it came together to create a true masterpiece.

2. Blurryface by Twenty One Pilots (2015)

Twenty One Pilots - blurryface

In a stark display of how out of touch with music I became this decade, I thought Twenty One Pilots was just a little band with some catchy tracks playing on Boost 101.9, having no idea they had literally become one of the most popular acts in the world, breaking records with their Billboard singles. But I didn’t mind being late to the party. Sliding right through my typical cynicism, this was the first trifecta of catchy music, meaningful lyrics, and clever creativity I found topping the popular music since Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. (I mean, they switch up time signatures and sing about doing it!) It was also the first album experience I shared alongside our children via copious car rides, which guarantees permanent nostalgia. Finally, unlike a lot of catchy/popular music, I’ve literally not been able to wear this album out. Whether it’s road trips in the car, walks to the grocery store, or workouts, I’m still tapping the rhythms and trying to sing the fast parts every single listen. It’s just that good.

3. Time Is A Machine by Listener (2013)

Listener - Time Is A Machine

Dan Smith’s “talk music” poem-songs resonate so much wisdom, resilience, and hope in the face of life – simple yet never sappy or trite, just honesty and perspective doused in a gritty realism carried perfectly by the backing music. “Even in our houses / We are homeless / There are no guarantees” “Losing makes you grow / Do you want to lose with me? / Growing helps you win / Do you want to lose with me?”  Almost every song has lines that still just jump out and grab me with power and adrenaline. Additionally, this album will always make me think fondly of the last years of Cornerstone when Listener was exploding in popularity and previewing most of these tracks.

4. Safekeeper by Comrades (2014)

Comrades - Safekeeper

I had never heard of this band before Nate Allen brought them to our basement for a house show, but they were probably the most talented we ever had play there. Mostly-instrumental driving post-rock hardcore (or whatever you call it), with bassist Laura’s soft vocals lightly sprinkled on top for flavor. Her husband Joe’s guitar work is simply phenomenal – most bands these days would take three guitarists (and a track!) to produce the sounds he makes with his bare hands and a loop pedal, intentionally crafted so they can play them straight live. (As a bonus, the couple is as delightfully down-to-earth as they are talented.) This album will always make me think fondly of both the house show era of our lives and the first years of Audiofeed.

5. Little Flowers by Timbre (2010)

Timbre - Little Flowers

I wrote a whole review for this somewhere on the Internet a long time ago but tonight all I will say is this:

This album is so pretty and brilliant.

6. Mini World by Indila (2014)

Indila - Mini World

It’s a few years old now, but it’s the only album I really discovered this year as an aid to learning French. Mature and yet wholesome for pop music, I’ve also been unable to wear this one out.

7. Vice Verses by Switchfoot (2011)

Switchfoot - Vice Verses Cover

A surprisingly solid album from the back half of Switchfoot’s career. Jon Foreman’s longings are still mine, too.

8. Crimson Cord by Propaganda (2014)

Propaganda - Crimson Cord

Through humility and honesty, Jason Petty, a.k.a. Propaganda, has a brilliantly disarming way of communicating his passions for truth and justice, calling out issues not only in opposing groups or perspectives but in groups of which he is a part and even in himself. Prop doesn’t fit into normal boxes, and I’ve learned a lot about race and justice from his work.

Honorable Mentions

Ghosts Upon The Earth by Gungor (2011)
The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (2010)
Air For Free by Relient K (2016)
Sunlight & Shadows / Darkness & Dawn by Jon Foreman (2015)

See my Songs of the 2010’s here


My Most Impactful Songs Of The 2010’s

A lot can change in a decade. Finish school. Start career. Marriage. House. Kid. Job.House.Church.Kid. Changing from a 21-year-old kid who lived and breathed multiple corners of the music industry to a 31-year-old whose energy has filled with family and whose free time has shifted more to reading, growing (hopefully) in understanding theology and the world around me. In fact, it’s almost unfair to do another round of musical end-of-decade lists – themselves containing the record of my shifting priorities in the very proportion of years represented – but maybe that is itself the point. Up first: Songs.

1. All The Poor and Powerless by The Digital Age (2012)

After David Crowder and his Band split to pursue different musical paths, the “Band” side jumped out of the gate as The Digital Age with this gorgeous worship cover that holistically encircles both the first and second halves of the decade for our personal journey from a more ‘internal’ to a more ‘external’ understanding of theology and worship and church. GO ON AND SCREAM IT FROM THE MOUNTAINS! This song is peak electric-reverb worship-feels, adding some poignant shouts that were missing from the All Sons and Daughters original, and despite my general reservedness I still can’t listen to this song without being overcome by joy and feeling an urge to get up and, well, dance before the Lord, as they might say.

2. Called Me Higher by All Sons and Daughters (2012)

Speaking of All Sons and Daughters… if “All The Poor and Powerless” encapsulates both sides of this decade for us, “Called Me Higher” exquisitely captures the pivot in the center.

I could just stay, I could just stay right where I am, and hope to feel you..
I could be safe here in your arms and never leave home, never let these walls down,
But you have called me higher, you have called me deeper,
And I’ll go where you will lead me, Lord

3. The Wind May Be Beautiful (2010)

​Harp. Cello. Choir. Toy Piano. Beautifully swelling music that carries masterful lyrics of deep wisdom about the value of stillness in a world beset by wild winds.

But pain can be beautiful, my dear
Roots that are deep do not fear winter
And spring has more joy when you’ve felt
The remnants of cold sorrows melt

4. We Used To Wait by Arcade Fire (2010)

I suppose it’s somewhat open to interpretation, but to me this song is a mournful recognition that our fast-paced, digitized, instant-gratification modern society is losing valuable understandings of virtues like patience and restraint. The repeated piano chords are a bold risk that perfectly set the tone from the start, capturing the increasingly frenetic pace of modern life, and I forever associate the sounds with the scenes from the iconic “interactive google maps” video (if it can be called that). While the song was meaningful when it appeared at the beginning of this decade, here at the other side it seems almost prophetic, and more relevant than ever.

It seems strange how we used to wait for letters to arrive….

5. There Are Wrecking Balls Inside Of Us by Listener (2013)

Dan Smith’s “talk music” – energetic free-form poetry that exudes encouragement and determination in life

It’s OK to be scared sometimes, and brave sometimes, and fail sometimes
And it’s not possible to lose every time
We have the time, we have the time
What we build could be anything…. we just have to build it

6. You Deserve It by JJ Hairston (2016)

Prefer this one live to any particular recording, but despite relatively simple structure and lyrics, I just love how this song builds and climaxes.

All of the glory belongs to You

7. It Will All Happen The Way It Should by Listener (2013)

A song of hope for the hopeless.

Just hold on,
there is a way out,
there is a plan,
all that will pass

8. Way Maker by Sinach (2015)

When our Congolese singers introduced this song to our congregation, I had no idea it was from Nigeria’s biggest worship artist, nor that it was spreading like wildfire across the American church at large – my first awareness of a modern worship song that exported from Africa to the Western church rather than the other way around. While the musical style and lyrical theology still have obvious Western influences, this song may be a forerunner of what to expect in the next decade, given the trends of the geographical center of the global church shifting toward Africa and South America…

9. I Will Go Plant Little Flowers by Timbre (2010)

If the pure essence of Joy manifested itself in the form of music that could be distilled into a single recording, it would be this song.


10. Possessions by Kevin Schlereth (2012)

What a nice little jam.

Wake up, put my sneakers on
And walk through the house, dodging all this stuff I spent my life accumulating…
All these possessions they are not sufficient for a good life

11. If The House Burns Down Tonight by Switchfoot (2016)

If the house burns down tonight
I got everything I need if I got you by my side
Let the rest burn


And there you have it… Looks like I didn’t really explore any new genres this decade, pretty much just holding on to some incredible tracks from the end of the Cornerstone era that had staying power, while stumbling on a few solid new worship songs.

I’ll be back in a few days with the Albums, where there will be just a couple of surprises.


Review: Santa Biblia by Justo Gonzalez

Santa Biblia by Justo GonzalezIn a small but illuminating book, Justo Gonzalez describes how aspects of the Latin American experience shape a perspective on the Bible (while carefully acknowledging nuance within and without) that has much to offer to the rest of the Church.

Chapter one discusses the Marginality that many Hispanics feel as Americans and how this reveals elements of marginality in Biblical stories that Christians at cultural “centers” more easily miss. Gonzalez focuses especially on the progressively inclusive expansion of the Church in the book of Acts, including hidden ironies in the elections of Matthias and Stephen, the surprising insider/outsider dynamics in the story of Peter and Cornelius, and how the support of “the people” turns to opposition “once the church begins to give positions of leadership to those who are even more marginal” than they. Gonzalez chides “enlightened, liberal people at the center” who welcome the marginalized “so long as there are not too many of them and they do not threaten the privileges of the center,” and gives examples “throughout the history of the church” of “some of the most exciting things” that have happened “at the edges.” He challenges a view of mission that “flows only in direction” where “the center can affect the periphery, but not vice versa,” stressing that Hispanic and other minority communities have much to offer to the rest of the Church and that “bringing the marginalized to the very center of God’s love and community is an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Chapter Two discusses the role of Poverty. “It is no longer simply, what does the Bible say about the poor” but “what do the poor find in the Bible that is an important message to the entire church?” Gonzalez shows how the fourth commandment and the parable of the hired workers in the vineyard have expectations around work that are overlooked by more affluent communities (who focus more on the command to rest) but appreciated differently by poorer people who want to find work but are not able or allowed to. Gonzalez also provides additional perspective on the miracle of manna, the parable of the man asking a friend for food at night, and the sharing of the early church (noting there that it was not a “modern commune” as “ideological principle” “more typical of the middle and high classes where need is generally an abstraction,” but a practice more familiar to “many poor communities among Latinos” where goods are shared “because without it the community could not survive.”

Chapter Three discusses the status of Mestizaje (“mixing,” in terms of culture and/or ethnicity) that affects Hispanics in general and especially Hispanic Americans, and how this reveals elements of mixed heritage and culture in the Bible. Gonzalez discusses how Saul/Paul’s very name reflected a mixed identity familiar to many minorities, how the Greek-speaking Jew was such a powerful figure precisely “because he is a cultural mestizo,” and how the entire progression of the church in Acts and beyond directly involves such progressive, multi-directional “mixing.” Contrasting the Gospel with Manifest Destiny, Gonzalez discusses the difference between a “frontier” that implies mere “expansion” and a “border” that implies “interaction,” “in which advance also implies learning from the new context.”

Chapter Four discusses the identities of “Exiles and Aliens” in the Americas and in the Bible. We learn how the “ger” (stranger) in Israelite society was “protected by Yahweh” in a way “clearly different from the xenophobic attitudes that were prevalent in antiquity – how “the ger even serves a specific religious function in Israel, reminding the people that Israel too was alien in the land of Egypt.” Quoting Jeremiah’s “seek the welfare of the city,” Gonzalez encourages North Americans to view immigrants in terms of the blessings they can bring, while simultaneously encouraging immigrants to “think differently about themselves,” to see themselves as “givers” who are “active participants in future building.” We get another novel Biblical perspective via the story of Joseph, noting how Pharaoh had to be “willing to accept and to use the gifts of an alien slave.” In this view the story is not so much “about how good Christians” should “influence the powerful” but rather “how the powerful – particularly if they seek to do the will of God – must seek the alien, discover their gifts, and seek whatever wisdom and guidance those gifts might offer” in ways that might save both the native and the immigrant together!

Chapter Five discusses the role of Solidarity. Gonzalez notes how Latin Americans often feel the loss of extended family in Westernized culture (where the idealized and quickly dissolving “nuclear family” was possibly already part of a larger cultural decline), but how in the gospel there is a “spiritual house” for the homeless and a “holy nation” for those with no country (1 Peter 2), and a community where one body suffers and rejoice together.

Santa Biblia is an easy read that is full of fresh insight, both inspirational and challenging, and it’s a beautiful example of what American evangelical culture has to learn from other Christians whose different backgrounds can provide different perspectives on the same Bible that “has been so good” to all of us.


Favorite Books I Read in 2018

1. The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (2017). Thorpe reveals the experiences of refugee teenagers from all over the world as they endeavor to learn English and build new lives in America. From a Denver classroom to a Congo village, she doesn’t oversimplify the challenges or complexities, but invites us to ponder the juxtapositions of heart-breaking evil and beautiful, resilient goodness. To flee tragedy, overcome trauma, embrace opportunity,  doggedly succeed, and then look back and consider the obligation that success gives to the rest of the world – these refugees have much to teach and remind us what it truly means to be “American.” (My full review)

2. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014). Every chapter in this book wrecked me – and inspired me. With cinematic twists and turns, the true story follows a successful black man wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in the late 1980’s, offering a fascinating window into the depths of the American criminal justice system that have as much to do with class as race. Stevenson gives us a painfully close look at prejudice and injustice, but through the lens of the long-suffering commitment and neighborly, Christ-like love that leads to progress, redemption, and hope. (My full review)

3. Our 50-State Border Crisis by Howard G. Buffet (2018). The son of Warren Buffet draws on experience in philanthropy and law enforcement to present personal stories and explain everything from the political collapses of Central American countries to why desperate people flee for the United States to the ways coyotes and cartels take advantage of them along the way. With a palpably deep concern for all involved, Buffet significantly challenged my political views with a nuanced defense of both compassion and the rule of law, arguing that they must go together in a way that affirms some conservative ideas while also rejecting some of their current policies. (My full review)

4. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2017). From the trailer park to the inner city, walk a mile in the shoes of poor American renters and see how spiraling crises lead to getting evicted and struggling to find new places to live at the bottom of the moldy, cracked-window, broken-appliance rental market. This engaging narrative will help you understand the mindsets behind harmful short-term decisions and  long-term policy consequences, but also simply feel a little bit of what it’s like to be poor, whether you’re a conservative or liberal, Christian or secular humanist, who wants to love their neighbors and find positive, empowering ways to truly help those in need. (My full review)

5. Red Rising series by Pierce Brown (2014-2016). Fast-paced sci-fi thrillers with epic adventuring across the solar system. I almost quit early in the second book due to the gratuitous violence and the main character’s uncanny ability to always perfectly recover from said violence, but the astonishingly clever plot twists kept me going, and the subtle character developments and nuanced sociological world-building made me glad I finished the trilogy (although I just realized that apparently the author has kept going).

6. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson (2018). If you push past the politicized reputations and read Peterson for yourself, you’ll find a cautious thinker ultimately concerned with how to respond to the tragedies of life and alleviate unnecessary suffering instead of buckling under the weight of it. Weaving metaphors and archetypes from history and religion, Peterson offers useful and thought-provoking wisdom about truth, listening, endurance, and more.


7. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe by Simon Conway Morris (2004). A rare prominent evolutionary scientist who is also a committed Christian, Morris argues that the wonders of life and the universe are less random and more purposeful than most secular folks are willing to allow. Amidst a deep dive into convergent evolution, Morris also marvels at the “eerie perfection” of the genetic code, pokes fun at the irrational exuberance of abiogenesis researchers, elaborates on our finely-tuned placement in the galaxy, and more. (My full review)

8. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (2013). With a nail-biting true story of a missile accident in Arkansas interspersed with a general history of nuclear weapons (full of under-appreciated close calls), Schlosser unsettlingly suggests that nuclear weapons have historically posed greater threats to the fallible humans trying to handle them than their enemies. I couldn’t put it down and learned a lot. (My full review)

9. The Hole in our Gospel by Richard Stearns (2009). Through a series of remarkable “coincidences,” Stearns left his role as CEO of a multi-million dollar fine china company to become the next president of World Vision. Stearns’ personal story adds a fresh touch to the well-worn but important genre of books challenging comfortable American Christians not to limit our faith to personal salvation and avoid a scary world in cocoons of luxury, but to sacrificially transform it by participating in Jesus’ building of the kingdom of God and establishing justice and righteousness on the earth. (My full review)

10. Big Dog, Little Dog by P. D. Eastman – An insightful metaphor on positive inter-class relationships and conflict resolution. So I good I read it over thirty times.




Honorable Mentions:

And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeleine L’Engle – I’d never heard of this non-fiction L’Engle work before I found it in a thrift store, but I enjoyed her thought-provoking unorthodox theological musings – from the communal dimension of what it means to be made in God’s image to her argument for using non-gendered pronouns for God.

Why I Left / Why I Stayed by Tony & Bart Campolo – A prominent evangelical and his son discuss why the one has stayed a Christian and why the other has left. (My full review)

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter – A looooong amusing and intellectually stimulating tome that uses computer concepts to explore patterns in music, art, and science.

The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright – A necessary addition to the conversation of how a lot of well-intentioned missionary work has gone terribly wrong and how it can become a little bit better.

Previous Installments:

2017 (#1: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes)
2016 (#1: Homage To A Broken Man)
2015 (#1: Ghettoside)


The Rich Man And Social Righteousness

I came across the story of the “rich young man” the other day (Mark 10:17-31). Sermons and commentaries on the story tend to focus on reassuring modern readers that Jesus’ command to “sell all” need not necessarily apply to them. But I wonder if this specific focus on the degree of generosity misses something about the overall picture. Now that I’ve learned to distinguish evangelicalism’s cultural focus on personal righteousness from the Bible’s integrated holistic view of both “personal” and “social” righteousness, I can’t help but view this story through that lens.

The “commandments” that Jesus rattled off – commandments he surely knew the rich man thought he had upheld – are all pretty much limited to personal righteousness. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal… As long as the rich man wasn’t personally hurting any of the less fortunate people around him, he considered his obligations to them – and to the Lord – fulfilled. His view of righteousness stopped short of any social concern for his neighbors.

But, of course, the law of Moses made no such distinction. The judgments and hopes of the prophets made no such distinction. The teaching and ministry of Jesus made no such distinction. The practice of the early church made no such distinction. So maybe it was almost like Jesus was saying, “Oh, you think you’ve been so perfect in personal righteousness, eh? Well, here’s what it would take for you to be perfect in social righteousness!”

When Jesus amazes the disciples by telling them “how difficult it will be” for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (v.23-24), my Bible has a cross-reference to Job 31:24.

If I have made gold my trust
Or called fine gold my confidence,
If I have rejoiced because my wealth was abundant,
Or because my hand had found much…
This also would be an iniquity…

But in fact the entire chapter of Job 31 is a beautiful example of the Bible’s holistic view of righteousness!

It starts off on a personal note – Job’s declaration of his lust-prevention “covenant with my eyes” (which formed the basis of many youth-group sermons from my upbringing). He decries “falsehood” and “deceit” (v.5). He rejects adultery (v.9). Ah, but what’s this? He cares for the poor and the widow (v.16). He is a father to the fatherless (v.18). He clothes the naked and the needy (v.19). Or rather, in majestic and poetic violence, he declares with conviction that if he has not done any of those things, “then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket.” (I don’t remember as many sermons about that section!)

Job gives us an archetypal picture of a righteous wealthy man – not one who literally sold 100% of his possessions – but one who was deeply concerned about the well-being of the needy and the inherent responsibility of his resources toward them. And what’s so beautiful about Jesus is that he is ever inviting the wealthy into his kingdom to do the same. It’s difficult, oh yes, but all things are possible with God! (Mark 10:27)

And there’s something else sadly ironic about that rich man… He seemed to be afraid of losing all his stuff, but if he had actually listened to Jesus, I’m not sure he could have ever run out of stuff to give! Another cross-reference from the passage takes me to Proverbs 11:28: Whoever trusts in his riches will fail, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf. Yes, yes, we get it – but look a few verses earlier: One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Jesus seems to echo the same promise when he assures the disciples that all who have “left” things for the gospel will “receive a hundredfold now in this time… and in the age to come…” of brothers and sisters and mothers and houses and lands (ok, and persecutions, too – in case you were mistaking this for personal prosperity gospel) (Mark 10:29-30)

If the rich man had truly understood – not just the personal commandments, but the full picture of the Law and the Prophets – of God’s heart for humanity and the commands and the promises about generosity – he might not have been so sorrowful. If he had started to rid himself of his possessions, perhaps like the proverb said he would have somehow found a bountiful supply coming back to him faster than he could give it away. Or perhaps like Jesus said he would simply have found himself – in a paradigm often known by the desperate poor better than the lonely rich – within a deep community of Christ-followers all joyfully sharing what they had with one another, in which none have many of their own possessions and yet at the same time none are ever truly left without anything at all.

informal essays

Reflections on 30

One of the weird things about getting older is feeling nostalgic about stuff that’s really not that old. Like, remember back in the good old days, when people didn’t just use their phones to play music off some streaming service they had to pay for or listen to ads, but they actually had a device dedicated to music, filled with songs that you actually owned and could just keep on there, and it couldn’t be interrupted by an onslaught of notifications and it had tons of space and a battery that lasted for days… ah, yes, the golden age of… 2008?

Ok, so that’s nostalgia about a golden possession. What about nostalgia for golden experiences? Not the one-time highlights of life, but those special combinations of people, places and times where something so unique and powerful and formative happened again and again and again… until one day it stopped, and maybe I finally appreciated that I never really appreciated how special that circumstance was until it was over. Remember Cornerstone? Remember house church in Chuck’s basement? Remember those years of leading worship at a small church with my brothers? Remember when Relient K used to play “Which to Bury, Us Or the Hatchet” straight into “Let It All Out” with the extended outro that sounded so sweet at every one of their shows for years until it got retired out of the lineup forever??

I used to wish those old golden experiences could come back, or mourn the fact that they couldn’t. I used to worry about the new golden experiences that replaced them, wanting to hold onto them so they don’t disappear too. Look how special Audiofeed is! It better not go the way of Cornerstone!

But I’m starting to see all these things in a new way. Time passes. Things change. Maybe, like everything else in this life, golden experiences aren’t supposed to last forever. Maybe my brothers and I weren’t all meant to live in the same city forever. Maybe Audiofeed’s not meant to last forever, either. And maybe that’s OK. I’m trying to learn to rest in my present experiences, fully embracing them for what they are now – not out of the fear that they might one day fade away, but out of the acceptance that they will, and out of the comfort that I will always be able to look back on them with joy, holding on to what those experiences taught me, and with the hope that new golden experiences will continue to replace them.

We still got that iPod Classic, by the way. It only comes out every now and then, but it still plays those golden tunes like the good old days, occasionally raising our children on mewithoutYou and the Welcome Wagon. There will come a day when the inexorable laws of physics will have their way with its hard drive, and it will come to an end, while the laws of physics carry on. And it will be OK. But that is not this day. So rock on, 30-year-old Josh. Rock on.

All flesh is like grass
    and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
    and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.
(1 Peter 1:24-25)

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?…

For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!…

I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever.

informal essays

A Conversation On Immigrant Family Separation

“Man, I am really upset about this family separation thing. Every time I think about a four year old being ripped out of their mother’s arms, taken somewhere they don’t know anybody and have no idea when they’ll see them again, it just breaks my heart. It makes me angry that our government would do this. It makes me really upset that Republicans are supposed to be the party of ‘family values’ and they’re defending this, and Trump has the gall to say, oh it’s so horrible but it’s a Democrat law, when it’s totally Jeff Session’s new zero-tolerance policy!”

“Ok, it’s really sad that these families have to be separated, but… it’s more complicated than that. Look at that policy – there’s nothing in there about family separation. They’re just trying to enforce the law – it’s illegal to cross our borders without permission.”

“Oh, they knew exactly what they were doing. They said family separation was intentionally done as a deterrence! I’m sure there’s plenty of other cruel things we could do as a ‘deterrence’ – but the ends don’t justify the means! Besides, you’re allowed to claim asylum – that’s legal – and there’s no law that you have to separate families while they’re processing those claims – that’s a choice!”

“They’re not allowed to detain kids with parents more than 20 days, thanks to this consent decree from 1997, when Clinton was president… Maybe that’s what Trump meant – give him a break – this stuff is complicated. And you’re supposed to claim asylum at official locations… What happens is people just cross and get caught and go, oh, asylum, asylum, and then Obama would just release families and say, come back for your court date, and they’d just disappear. That’s foolish.”

“Well, maybe so, but it’s not like the government makes it easy. Do you know how many official locations there are, or where they are? The President gets a pass on not understanding the complexity of the system but immigrants fleeing for their lives are supposed to navigate it all perfectly? Do you even know anyone who’s actually come across to claim asylum?”

“No… Do you?”

“Well, no, but I read this article about a Honduran mother who crossed with her kids… It said she was being targeted by hit men in Honduras who had killed several of her family… She crossed and purposefully flagged down the Border Patrol to claim asylum and they were like, actually, we’re prosecuting you criminally and separating you from your kids! I mean, sure, people may take advantage of the system, but there are also lots of people whose lives are seriously in danger… and now we’re like, hey, let’s add this super cruel trauma on top of all the cruel dangers you’ve already been facing. Did you listen to the audio of the little kids crying for Mama and Papa… How can it not break your heart that we’re doing this?”

“Look, I know it sounds cruel. It’s really tragic. I wish we didn’t have to do stuff like this. But we separate children from parents all the time in this country when their parents break the law. These immigrants are breaking the law by entering illegally – it’s not really any different.”

“I think it’s way different! When American citizens go to jail, their children aren’t usually being detained somewhere else – at least they’re with other family members they know and trust. And the parents and children know where each other are, and how to visit and communicate, and when they’ll be back together again. These immigrants are just being torn apart with no contact or knowledge of anything… that’s gotta be complete terror for these children!”

“You know, if they choose to be deported, they won’t be separated – that’s a choice, too! So is coming here in the first place – choosing to bring their children through all these risks and then breaking the law and entering illegally. I can’t imagine doing that and getting upset at the consequences. If they want to come, they should come here legally.”

“Yeah, but… it’s more complicated than that. Have you ever driven past the speed limit because of an emergency? Did you need to be separated from your children for breaking that law? These people are fleeing for their lives, it’s not as simple as just ‘choosing’ to stay in their dangerous places, or go back to them.. Do you think people travel hundreds of dangerous miles with their children for fun? I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to be in such a terrible situation where you feel like trying to get to the United States is the best and safest option you have for your children… Besides, who says the consequences have to be so cruel? Asylum is a legal part of our process! And if you want people to come legally, shouldn’t you advocate for making the legal immigration system easier?”

“Ok, it’s all a very sad situation, but come on, it’s not like we have room for everybody in the world here. Those bleeding heart liberals hate to admit reality, but we just can’t help everybody. Why is the burden always on us, anyway? A lot of these immigrants are traveling from Central America all the way through Mexico to get here. Why isn’t anyone talking about why Mexico won’t take them?”

“That’s a good point, I wish there wasn’t so much burden on us, but I don’t see how that excuses our own mistreatment… I know with that Honduran mother, she said the hit men followed her into Mexico, so she didn’t feel safe there, either. Besides, don’t you think this is the greatest country in the world? The land of unparalleled opportunity? Shouldn’t we be proud of the fact that people want to come here for a shot at that?”

“If we didn’t have laws, this country wouldn’t be the great country that everybody wants to move to in the first place. At the end of the day, we have these laws. We have to enforce them.”

“But what if the laws are unjust? If enforcing your law means you take super oppressed people and oppress them further by ripping their families apart – and creating this big government bureaucracy of a day care – which sounds like the kind of thing conservatives are always saying government is terrible at, by the way – don’t you think maybe that’s a clue that there’s a problem in your laws somewhere? I’m not talking about letting anybody and everybody in. I’m just talking about not being oppressive and cruel about it.”

“Well, why are you so worked up about Trump on this? If you look at everything Obama did on immigration, he did some pretty cruel stuff too. But the media is so biased, they gave him a pass, and then they crucify Trump for just trying to enforce the laws… Besides, I don’t think they really care about these immigrants, they just want to turn them into Democratic voters.”

“I don’t really care which side is the most biased or hypocritical about treating immigrants like human beings… as much as I care about treating immigrants like human beings! If the media is finally exposing inhumane stuff, maybe that’s a good thing! Besides, Trump’s definitely taking all of this to waaaay higher levels… And there’s plenty of bias to go around, anyway. You want to enforce the law? Why I don’t ever hear anyone upset at businesses that hire illegal immigrants? They’re breaking the law, too, aren’t they? Where’s the outrage and ‘zero-tolerance’ policies for them?”

“Well, they are cracking down some on that too. I can’t help what everybody focuses on.”

“Ok, well it just seems like I always here people being way more upset at the immigrants. If anything, people should be more upset at the businesses… Immigrants are breaking the law to save their lives… The businesses are breaking the law to save some money… and hire people that won’t be able to use the legal system if they get hurt or mistreated. To these immigrants, it must feel like, ok, so you’ll let people hire us to take these hard jobs that Americans apparently don’t want to do anyway, but now when we come to take those jobs just to try to achieve a better life you’re mad at us? Is just easier to get upset at people breaking the law when they’re not Americans… or maybe when they’re not white?”

“Oh, look, I was wondering when you were gonna play the race card…”

“No, no, I’m just saying, we all have a natural tendency to care more about our own groups than other groups… It goes back to the Jews and Samaritans… and Jesus’ radical parable of loving your neighbor as yourself.”

“Well, if you’re gonna go there, Jesus was all about individual compassion, not about what governments should do. Like Sessions said, Romans 13 says to obey the government.”

“Well, if you want to go there, Romans 13 also says ‘Love does no harm to a neighbor.’ God definitely told governments what not to do – like oppressing the vulnerable – look at Daniel 4, or Jeremiah 22. And for what it’s worth, the major place in the Bible where God gave instructions to a ‘government’ about what to do, he told them to go out of their way to look after foreigners, because he knew they were vulnerable to being mistreated. And speaking of protecting foreigners… why does it seem like Republicans only want to ‘enforce the law’ when it’s against immigrants, but they ignore it when it’s the other way around, like when Sheriff Arpaio broke the law to mistreat immigrants, where ‘enforcing the law’ would have meant protecting them? And then they look the other way again when Trump pardons the guy for his wrongdoing!”

“Well, I’m not saying the Republicans are perfect, either. Besides, Trump just signed an executive order to stop the family separations… are you happy now?”

“I mean, that’s better than nothing… It still seems all wrong, though… It doesn’t cancel out the zero-tolerance policy, it adds another layer on top of it… And I’m still reading articles that the government has no real plan to get all the separated families back together… we’re still getting reports about toddlers standing trial on their own… Toddlers, man! That’s crazy! It’s not like our only choices here are ‘enforce no laws’ or ‘put toddlers in jail-day-care’… There are lots of ways to improve things without being oppressive and cruel… We don’t have to choose between foolish policy and wicked policy… That’s what I just can’t get over… I know that it’s all complicated and there’s blame and bias to go around and all that… but I just can’t get over all this cruel treatment that just seems so unnecessary… That seems to go against that higher, ultimate law of Justice… What if this is our Auschwitz? Our Japanese internment camps? I’m sure people were sitting around back then, too, having polite conversations about the pros and cons of the government forcing masses of people out of their own homes for the sake of national security – people who conveniently somehow never look quite like us… What if our grandkids will look back and wonder why we didn’t take to the streets and demand an end to this injustice? What if this is that?”

“And what if it’s not? What if it’s just a complicated mess and you just want to get worked up and feel like a savior while serving the interests of some other agenda? What are you gonna do, anyway? Go heckle a cabinet member?”

“No, I don’t agree with that… I do think the right often misses Jesus’ radical concern for the oppressed and vulnerable, but I think the left often misses Jesus’ radical response to the oppressor. ‘Defend the rights of the poor and needy‘, yes, but also ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you‘…. Instead of the heckling, what if it had been a group of Christians praying out and calling for repentance? Instead of ‘O Nebuchadnezzar,’ how about ‘O Huckabeesander, break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.’ I don’t know… Call my senators about bills to change things? Donate to that organization in El Paso or one of the other organizations trying to help separated families? Post this imaginary conversation to social media? It is a complicated mess. Love is a complicated mess. There’s always risk of error, no matter the issue. But I guess I’d rather err on the side of love. Love for my neighbor. Love for human beings in need.”


Review: Why I Left / Why I Stayed

Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son

Well-known evangelical author Tony Campolo, and his ex-evangelical humanist son Bart, trade chapters in a book that’s meant to be representative of the conversations they had after Bart left the faith. It’s not so much an apologetic debate (though there is certainly some of that), but more about relating their personal narratives and exploring what they each see as the philosophical implications of their beliefs. They discuss believing (or doubting) the basic tenets of Christianity, the pursuit of moral goodness in communities with or without God, the significance of death, and more.

Most of the people I know in this situation are evangelical Baby Boomer parents with ex-evangelical children. From the little I knew of both men prior to reading this book, I had assumed the Campolos more or less fit that scenario. But the Campolos are a generation removed from the audience they hope to encourage; Tony is north of eighty, and Bart north of fifty, the latter de-converting after decades of youth-rousing ministry following his father’s footsteps. Another interesting difference is that while most of the ex-evangelical Millennials I know have embraced a social-justice ethic in stark contrasts with their conservative forebears, the Campolos had both embraced that concern for the poor and marginalized from within Christianity, as part of their holistic understanding of the gospel. Of course, every individual and family narrative is unique, and readers will no doubt find fascinating and thought-provoking comparisons and contrasts. Despite the short book’s abundant weaknesses, it may serve a useful starting point for some families in similar situations.

Bart’s chapters are more articulate, as Tony himself admits (unfortunately, and perhaps a reflection of generational distance, I thought many of Tony’s arguments would seem trite and stale to my secular friends). I found myself in agreement with a lot of Bart’s remarks. I enjoyed his thoughts about death as a motivator to make the most of our limited time, the perspective of appreciating the very fact that we are alive at all, and the value of vicariously enjoying the joys and successes of others over resentment and bitterness – though I see all of that as perfectly fitting with a Christian worldview. Even beyond that, though, my overall outlook on the world is more “humanistic” than it used to be, but I find none of that at odds with my Christianity – in fact, I see it as the fundamental driver of that outlook (more on that below), and I would agree with Tony in affirming those things as evidence of the work of God within humanists like Bart, despite their firm denials.

I identified with the youthful radical passion of Christian Bart and his closest friends, and that attraction to Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace,” whatever the rest of the church seemed to be doing. But Bart saw a lot of suffering through his inner-city ministry, and he cited some of these up-close-and-personal encounters with the problem of evil as a major factor in his de-conversion. (While I haven’t been affected in the same way, I can relate in a parallel way; the greater my awareness of the poverty and persecution of deeply faithful Christians outside the United States, the greater my inoculation against the many flavors of prosperity gospel within this country.)

Many Christians can’t fathom alternative bases of morality without the Bible. Bart argues that even Bible-based moral systems are more subjective than Christians think, and he does a fair job defending his basic interest in human flourishing. But I’ve already trod that ground (a la Sam Harris), and I want to move beyond the binary question of whether secular people can be “evil” or “good” (from a humanistic standpoint, that is – from a Calvinistic standpoint we’re all totally depraved), and ask the more interesting question of how good people can be.

Considering the widening circles of concern that Bart alludes to – i.e. self, family, nation, species – I acknowledge that secular morality can rationally extend concern to all of those circles, yet I also assert that the level of concern naturally drops off with each level. The question of how good people can be could also be thought of as a question of how steeply a person’s concern for others drops off once they get past their immediate family. A “weak goodness” doesn’t want to hurt people, and hopes all people will prosper, but isn’t going to sacrifice too many personal conveniences to make that happen. In other words, it’s a goodness with steep slopes. By contrast, a “strong goodness” is what I see in the Christian ideal, which radically flattens those slopes. Jesus redefines the “neighbor” that you love to include foreigners and enemies. Every service for the “least” of humans is equivalent to serving Jesus himself. It all hearkens back to the original declaration that all human beings – male and female – are created in the “image of God.” Unfortunately, the lives of many Christians only reflect a “weak goodness,” but it is only the growing conviction of the true message of Christianity that has led me to pursue a stronger, flatter goodness.

Bart clearly still desires a radical love-your-neighbor-as-yourself “strong goodness,” but (in my view) he no longer has a compelling foundation to logically defend much more than a “weak goodness.” Bart agrees with Tony that humans “are hard-wired for heroism and can feel truly happy and fulfilled only when called upon to sacrificially use their gifts and energies in the service of a noble cause much bigger than themselves,” and Bart seems to think this truth justifies a global concern for the preservation of the human species. Clearly it does for some – look no further than the budding Effective Altruist movement. But while it’s all well and good to describe happy conversations with college students who already want to be “good without god,” I wondered what he would say to those whose concern for others drops off a steep slope once they get past their own selves and families.

The universal image of God is implicit in creationist theology, and it can be harmonized (with some challenges) into evolutionary theology, but the atheist’s evolution, with none of that divine intervention, seems to me to have plenty of justifications for steeper slopes. Is it necessarily best for the human species as a whole for all of its individuals to flourish, when that’s not true for any other evolved species under the sun? Without the image of God uniting us, without Jesus teaching that to serve the least is to serve Himself… shouldn’t different groups eventually diverge into separate species with separate outcomes?

Surely I’m not the only one who would at least entertain such thoughts apart from Christian doctrine. I view the post-Christian culture wars between social-justice humanists and alt-right nationalists through this paradigm, and I’m not convinced the humanists have much that’s compelling to persuade the nationalists to flatten their slopes; after all, they think they’re heroically saving civilization, too! The best at that flattening game right now, by far, is Jordan Peterson – and it’s no surprise to me that he’s doing it by digging into the astonishingly deep wells of the Bible, and cautiously leaving the door open to the truths of its fundamental metaphysical propositions!

Unlike many who have suffered more traumatic and tragic exits, Bart still has a largely positive view of the church, describing it as “one of the greatest community-building forces in history.” He now wants to recreate that community with his secular students, and he thinks it’s easier to build his secular community because he doesn’t have to drag along the supernatural propositions he always struggled to believe. But I’m not sure how interested I would be without the supernatural.

It’s not merely that I’m a selfish being who needs the threat of divine retribution to be good; I suspect I would maintain some form of self-interested “weak goodness,” and probably even pursue some level of life-fulfilling heroism. But at some point the principles of diminishing returns and the unavoidable uncertainty of outcomes would join forces with my selfish justifications. At least for me personally, to radically flatten the slope of my concern for all human beings, I don’t just need divine motivation. I need divine grace for my struggles and failures to live up to those ideals. I need divine power to guide me in specific directions toward fruitful opportunities. And most of all, I need the divine hope of ultimate victory to sustain me in spite of all the evil and suffering that remains.

I was surprised to read Bart claim that he’s still “very much attracted to the idea of a good and loving God who understands all that we don’t” and “utterly triumphs over both sin and death in the end,” and that he would “gladly swallow” a magic pill that would enable him to “truly believe all that again.” I found this statement hard to reconcile with his later arguments for some of the superiorities of his new worldview, and wondered how much of that was motivated reasoning. Perhaps he’s missing that divine hope more than he knows.

But I suppose Bart might say God didn’t give him enough of that divine hope and power, and without it his faith was unsustainable. What’s fascinating to me is that he hasn’t lost his desire for “strong goodness” which was always a part of his Christianity. I think I would be the opposite – without divine hope and power, I think my more recent desire for “strong goodness” would be unsustainable, and I would at least retreat at some level towards the weaker goodness of more nominal Christianity. But it’s also hard for me to guess because I think of my faith itself as having other independent supports. (Speaking of that, while both Campolos touched on the role of personal emotional experiences, with Tony seeing them as evidence of supernatural connection and Bart seeing them has nothing more than brain chemistry, I was surprised to see neither take a position on claims of personal miracles or other signs of external interventions, which have always played a strong role in my own apologetic.)

Of course, for all my armchair psychoanalytic attempts to rationally compare and contrast my worldview with Bart’s, I thought Tony made a good point about the “plausibility structures” of the people and influences with which we surround ourselves and which inform all of our beliefs more than we like to admit. Yet the way Tony described himself as “choosing” to believe felt a little wishy-washy and unsatisfying to me. By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure how much I agreed or disagreed with either man, but they did give me things to think about, and I applaud their efforts at modeling healthy relationships and conversations around disagreements about the most important things in the universe.


Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Every chapter in this book wrecked me – and inspired me.

If historical films Selma and Loving forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present in the United States when my father was a child, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present when I was a child. The book is a memoir of sorts, describing Stevenson’s work leading the Equal Justice Initiative, representing death row inmates and other disfavored people, especially the wrongfully convicted and disproportionately sentenced, particularly in Alabama and nearby Deep South states.

The book’s primary narrative follows a successful black man wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in the late 1980’s, spending several debilitating years on death row. The twists and turns of the story are worthy of a movie, from the shocking actions of local officials to EJI’s dogged efforts to uncover the truth and extract justice for Walter McMillian. (I’ve always been skeptical of the populist liberal narrative that elite whites exploit divisions between poor whites and poor blacks for their own benefit, but the role of the delinquent Ralph Meyers makes for a fascinating parable of that very theme.)

While Walter’s experience is manifestly an outlier for 1980’s Alabama, it is painfully obvious that it would not have been possible without the bigotry of local officials or even of the general white population in the county. Nor is the suffering limited to Walter as an individual. If Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of gang violence in the inner city on whole black communities, Just Mercy starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of injustice at the hands of the government through the criminal justice system. A community full of people who were at the barbecue that solidified Walter’s alibi was crushed with a heavy hopelessness that such a blatant miscarriage of justice was allowed to happen, compounding upon their shared historical pain even in spite of the progress of the civil rights movement.

And yet I still believe in that continuing stream of progress, much of which Stevenson has had a direct hand in bringing about. I was inspired by his work as well as encouraged by my (perhaps but hopefully not naive) confidence that most of the local officials’ disgraces toward Walter would not be tolerated today. From Supreme Court decisions to the continually evolving attitudes of the American public, our nation is both progressing and full of opportunities for us to play a part in the progress that still desperately needs to be manifested. Stevenson’s impacts on individual lives, and the radiating influence of those impacts, gave me much to ponder about the tension between pursuing small things and big things in the name of truth and justice.

Stevenson’s tellings of recent history have plenty of relevance for today. The national media’s outside attention to Walter’s case reinforced local opinions against him, reflecting defensive attitudes that could still be felt during last year’s special senate election in Alabama. Yet this bitter divisiveness was contrasted with a beautiful account of a proud Confederate correctional officer who was completely transformed from his hateful attitude toward Stevenson and one of his clients after hearing the client’s backstory, unleashing a powerful empathy from their shared hurtful experiences in the foster system. Time and again, telling people they’re evil racists is far less effective than telling the stories that unlock the irresistible compassion of our shared humanity. (As Stevenson’s grandmother always said, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close.”)

Much of the book is more about class than race. The stories offer a fascinating window into the depths of the American criminal justice system, and all the complications that go behind and beyond a simple “innocent” or “guilty” verdict, and the huge disparities in outcomes that often hinge on whether or not you have a good lawyer. Upon finishing Stevenson’s book, it is hard not to agree with his conclusion that “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

While I acknowledge difficult questions around the nature of justice for victims of violence, the book deepened my personal opposition to the death penalty. “Abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different.” There are probably few examples of the sad incongruence of the evangelical “Bible Belt” and the land of “Jim Crow” that are more searing than the image of a young black teenager climbing into the electric chair and made to sit atop a Bible for his execution since he was too short for the restraints. “Let he who is without sin,” indeed. Yet I also smiled to read of the old Methodist couple who took in a released youngster, determined to redeem him from all the horrors he had lived. That is the sort of neighborly, Christ-like love that is truly our only hope.

The true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. – Bryan Stevenson