Lisa Sharon Harper’s Thick Faith

By Caleb Paxton

We live in an age when politics and faith traditions alienate us from each other instead of unite us. Having lived and worked within political movements, I know from experience that life on the inside of politics is as dark as it looks from the outside. But when we are led to the same conclusions about how we can live together in the world, we know the Divine Presence is among us. When we receive the mind of Christ, the mystery of “God with us” transforms our desires from power, influence, and comfort to a bond of unity that reflects the nature of God.

In response to the dissonance within politics and churches, peacemakers and prophets call us to remember our fundamental unity as God’s children and to fall into this Divine Presence. There we can see how all things can be made new, and how me might remake what’s broken in our culture as image-bearers of our Creator.

Lisa Sharon Harper is one of these prophetic voices. The conclusions she found in her journey to freedom mirror my own over my past decade of professional work in American politics. In the United States we typically think of freedom as political or economic, but true freedom—the freedom of the children of God—is relational. Harper’s work is rooted in the same relational, trinitarian path that I discovered after searching for a way to bring wholeness into politics.

When our prayers for politics or the church become aligned with Christ’s, we will advocate for inclusive communities, we will prize wisdom above all else, and in whatever ways we participate in our culture, we will reflect back to God his artistic goodness. Harper’s work reflects this Divine Participation. As the founder of Freedom Road, she organizes pilgrimages to immerse people in places of power with marginalized communities, she hosts forums to enable participants to listen to each other in their pursuit of wisdom, and she leads them to adopt shared commitments about how to create a just world together.

In sum, she works to shrink the narrative gap in our country, as she calls it—to shrink the gap between the stories we tell ourselves and the truth. Her vocation, she says, “is to be a bridge and help each side understand the other.” While the chasm dividing both the American church and American politics seems to grow larger by the news cycle, we can shrink it, she says, by showing up to “present another way of living in the world”—whether the setting is Ferguson, Charlottesville, or our own church body.

It is of course safer and easier to stay home, to watch political fights or riots as reality TV rather than discover new ways that the peace of Christ can overwhelm root causes of dysfunction and division. But instead of apathy or silence, this is what Harper advocates: a faith-rooted approach to advocacy; an active faith that does not stay in the sanctuary but informs every sphere of public and private life. So how does one go about a Gospel-centered approach to advocacy, and how do you sustain it?

It begins with thick faith. It begins, in the beginning—with the story of God overcoming darkness with light; it continues with a Savior who set captives free, and it continues even further when we take that first step toward the ends of the earth—even if the ends of the earth is simply listening to those who in this moment are across the aisle, next door, or down the street.

 

“For more than a century now, thinned out faith has left the divided American church struggling to grasp the significance of the prophetic voices among us. It also has left us without the biblical foundations needed to comprehend Kingdom theology. What we need is a thicker approach to the central question of our faith: what is the good news of the gospel?”


– Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel

 

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Nations: What is the danger of a thin reading of the Gospel, and where do you see those side effects in the church today?

 

Harper: That understanding of a thick and thin reading of the Gospel I received when reading a book called A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf.

He talks about this concept of thick faith and thin faith. And the way that I’ve come to understand it is that thin faith is the faith that allowed the Holocaust. It’s the faith that upheld slavery, and the faith that was the foundation of Jim Crow and segregation. It’s the faith that to this day excludes women from preaching in many pulpits in America and across the evangelical church. It’s the faith that skims the surface of the Scripture, reading it for surface value without digging into it, plumbing the depths of what that text actually meant at the time—how the original readers would have heard the text when it was spoken to them in the synagogue or in the first century church. How would they have understood it? What was going on at the time when the writer wrote it? Because writers write in a context, always. So if you don’t understand the historical, cultural, or political context of the time, then you will not understand the text.

What we often do in thin faith is open the Bible and take encouraging verses thinking that the Lord has wonderful plan for you to prosper you, not to harm you—but not knowing that text was written to oppressed people who were literally enslaved in a foreign land because their own nation was taken over by colonization. So it would be much more akin to God speaking to African Americans in the United States at the time of antebellum slavery, from 1690 to 1830. If they heard God say, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, to give you hope and a future”—how they would have taken that is much more akin to how the people who were the original hearers of that word in Jeremiah would have taken it, because their situations were similar.

What we do with a thin read is we just look at the words and say “God wants to prosper me,” even if I have five houses and a retirement plan. No—it could be God wants you to see that God wants to prosper oppressed people. Then what’s the implication? Then how do you look at your finances? The implications of our reads, of a thin read and a thick read, are vastly different. They lead to different action in the world.

 

How might understanding the cultural context in which Jesus lived change our reading of the text?

When Jesus says in Matthew 25, “I was hungry,” he’s not kidding! He’s not just saying a nice saying. The people were starving. You know what Caesar used to do in order to placate the masses? He would have his centurions go through the streets and toss loaves of bread to them.

That’s why Jesus says pray like this, “Our Father in heaven.” Caesar used to say, “Call me Abba, call me Father.” And Jesus said, no, pray like this: “Our Father in heaven”—not Caesar. “Thy will be done, your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread.” That is a direct affront to Caesar. Because we read this text as if it was written at Starbucks, we miss the reality of the context that the writers were writing within. And I believe that’s what allows us to take that text and personalize it and make it be about me and God, me and Jesus, and therefore it has nothing to say when you wash it of its context. You don’t see the two thousand scriptures about poverty and justice. You don’t see the reality that the entire text is about public ethics, about how we should be living together.

“It is not enough to believe a particular set of principles or doctrines. Rather, principles and doctrines must transform the way we live. Our faith is kinetic, lived out in the world through our hands and feet.”
– The Very Good Gospel

 

What do you think is the foundational message of the Gospel regarding how we should live together?

In Genesis, there’s a proclamation that all humanity is made in the image of God—and that was a revolutionary proclamation at that time, because no civilization up to that point had placed the image of God in all people. It was only in kings and queens. [That proclamation] was a revolutionary moment.

I think that the most redemptive moments in the history of the church have come from the underside of power. It’s funny because the church actually strives for the kind of greatness that builds empire: megachurches, TV shows—that’s all about making a name for yourself and building empire, but the people who wrote the text were oppressed by empire. They believed in Jesus and the good news that the King of the kingdom of God has broken through time and space in order to confront the kingdoms of men that are hellbent on crushing the image of God on earth.

 

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Is there an element of the gospel that you feel like the American church or American Christians as a whole have overlooked, that people are largely missing?

Yes. We have forfeited the story of God in creation. We have forfeited the actual good news that Jesus proclaimed, which is said in the context of that story. You don’t understand that the news is good unless you are reading it in the context of its story. And one of the pieces of that story that is central to understand is that every book in the Bible was written by someone who was colonized or under threat of colonization. The context of the writing of the Bible was colonization.

I think we got it wrong. I think for centuries, since the Bible got into the hand of empire, and has been interpreted from the social location of empire, we have distorted the meaning of Scripture, and as a result we have lost the heart of the good news itself. What I would say the good news actually is, that we have lost, is that Jesus—a brown, indigenous, colonized man who was also God—proclaimed good news to captives and the oppressed and the imprisoned in a colonized land.

 

You occupy a radical middle space between political parties and between church traditions, which seems both incredibly rare and increasingly valuable. How does positioning yourself there allow you to pursue reformation in a way you couldn’t from one end of the spectrum or another?

Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve placed myself there as much as I’ve been placed there. I stand in that gap not by myself but with a generation of faith leaders. Today I’m really deeply inspired by the cloud of witnesses that are my colleagues and my co-laborers in the field, people like Rev. William Barber, Rev. Traci Blackmon, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Brenda Salter McNeil, Shane Claiborne, Sandra Van Opstal, Alexia Salvatierra.

I stay there because there is no other way for us to find peace in the United States than to shrink that narrative gap. If we give up—if we walk way from that middle ground and join either screaming side, all we really do is contribute to our own destruction.

The rejection of political monikers keeps me grounded in the biblical vision and call. Regardless of the policy’s position on a fabricated political spectrum, Jesus followers are called to judge all public policy by how it will impact the well-being of the marginalized, vulnerable and oppressed. Particularly in the context of democracies, followers of Jesus are are called to position their politics around the axis of kingdom ethics. All decisions must filter through the question: Will this bless or curse the image of God among us?

“The Scriptures are not silent on structural and systemic sin. The Bible overflows with God’s responses to poverty, oppression, and governance.”
– The Very Good Gospel

 

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When you look at the present divisions within the American political landscape and the American church, what gives you hope?

Honestly, I’m in a moment where I’m not sure I have that much hope. But when I go deep, when I access that thick faith, there are two things that give me hope.

One, the first page of the Bible gives me hope. That first line reads, “In the beginning when God—.” [It continues,] “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

You can read that on a surface level and think that we’re just talking about wind and water and darkness and the beginning of a seven-day creation period, but if you read it through the lens of thick faith, then you have to understand the context. And the context, I believe, was the priests coming out of the Babylonian exile. This is poetry; it’s epic Hebrew poetry. In poetry, images and position mean everything. Nothing is to be left uninterpreted. Writers write to be understood and poets write with real meaning behind their words. Darkness, when you translate it, literally means destruction, desolation. And I think, “Is this how it felt for them when they were exiting their own oppression? Did Babylon feel like darkness and destruction to them?”

So the supreme God [of the Bible] is hovering—[it literally means to brood, to birth something]—over the place where the gods of their [Babylonian] oppressors lived [and fought for supremacy] and in the darkness, God cuts the darkness by saying, “Let there be light!” That gives me hope! Because these people who had experienced seventy years of enslavement and desolation and destruction saw God cut their darkness—that’s just what God does. So they tell us on the first page of the Bible.

God separates light from darkness—limits the darkness with light. And then God limits the sea, which is the place where the gods of their oppressors lived, limits the sea with land. And then he even looks at the sea monsters and says, “I made those!” The Babylonian story says their god made the sea monsters in order to fight. But according to this text, the writers are saying, “No, our God made those and even said ‘It is good!’” In other words, we don’t have to be afraid of them because God is with us.

For me, the sea monsters in our current context are all of those who fight against the freedom of all people, who fight against the image of God: the vulnerable, the weak, those who are marginalized for various reasons—every one of these groups is still human. The sea monsters are those who war through public policy against the well-being of the image of God. And I’m told on the first page of the Bible that God wins. So that gives me hope.

 

And the second thing that gives you hope?

The second thing that gives me hope is that when I look back in history, I see the reality that in the darkest of times, when my own ancestors were enslaved and raped, that there is still God because God cut that darkness. The abolition movement came. The suffrage movement came. The civil rights movement came. God rose up God’s church and changed the world, brought light and cut the darkness.

I have hope because God is.

 

Portraits by Brianna Rapp.

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