The Banner of Christ Alone

Part 3 of 3

The vision of the New Humanity voiced in the New Covenant does indeed express a vision that includes people from every tribe and nation. Praise God for that!  It also is a call to be willing to die to those cultural and genetic identities along with all of their badges and symbols. This is precisely what Paul is getting at in the verse from Philippians that I quoted here. We all have reasons in the flesh for which to be proud and for which to be ashamed. (Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

agnus dei banner

Paul was saying that as far as his essential Jewishness, he had much to be confidentPaul didn’t get any more Jewish both genetically, religiously, culturally and practically:

  • circumcised on the eighth day,
  • a member of the people of Israel,
  • of the tribe of Benjamin,
  • a Hebrew born of Hebrews;
  • as to the law, a Pharisee;
  • as to zeal, a persecutor of the church;
  • as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

This is a description of the “banner and mantle of Jewish identity.” He could just as well be raising the flag in pride of his Southern credentials. Notice that some of these things on Paul’s list, he could never actually change about himself; he could not change his Jewish DNA any more than any one of us could change the color of our skin.

Yet Paul regarded even this badge of birthright (ie. his skin) as “rubbish” (Phil. 3:8) because of Christ. Moreover, he counted that entire list of confidences in the flesh as loss for the sake of knowing Christ. He was not going to let his Jewish nature and identity get in the way of knowing and pursuing Christ. He certainly was not going to allow his tribal roots and identity as a Jew compromise and affect his fellowship with non-Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ.

What lessons can we learn as white and black Southerners who are also followers of Christ?

Circumcision is a badge, like a flag. It is a symbol of identity—Jewish identity. It says, this is who I am—and this is who you are not. For Paul, neither circumcision nor circumcision matters in light of the coming of the Messiah.  Paul pleaded with the Jewish Christians to let the badge of their genetic, cultural and religious identity go for the sake of unity in Jesus Christ with the Gentile believers. And he pleaded with Gentile believers to do the same.

We are in another one of those times as the nations, ethnicities, races, tribes are culturally colliding. We all need to be willing to “put no confidence in the flesh” and regard our genetic heritage as “rubbish” for the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of God. Genetically, religiously, culturally and practically—will we lower the banners and badges of our tribal “rubbish” in exchange for the glory of being considered a Child of God and co-heir with Christ?

You ask me to set aside my white Southern family heritage for your sake and for the sake of Christ. I tell you that I am willing to do it and that I have done it with loss. And on the other-side of that loss, new creation and new life in Jesus Christ springs forth in me.

If there is anything offensive in me that would cause a brother or sister in Christ to stumble, I want to see it and have it removed from my life. To all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I give you my permission to point it out. I want to be a person who is known not for my tribal family or racial heritage, for good or for bad. I want to be known as one who bears Jesus Christ alone.

There are so many banners and credentials of fleshly authenticity under which I could so easily fly. Many of them I have used to my advantage and found privilege and favor in this world. And sometimes it is not wrong to do that, just as the apostle Paul used his credentials as a Roman citizen or a Hebrew of Hebrews. (See Acts 22:25-26.) Yet in the end, there is only one banner and one identity that truly matters to me: the cross of Jesus Christ. I am called to be in this world, but not of it.

The racial divisions find their end in Jesus Christ alone. We are all equally in our need of salvation at the foot of the cross; there are no other flags flying there. At what point do we release ourselves and each other from pride, honor and shame? For Paul, the Resurrected Life in Christ far surpasses any momentary glory or shame that we may derive from our distant history or recent past. So we press on toward that prize, leaving all else behind.

Have you given your life to Jesus and surrendered all things including your family heritage, your racial identity, your flags, badges, banners and certificates of authenticity and privilege? He would replace them all with the cross, and give you a new family and a new life in him. Pick up your cross and follow the one who gave up everything that rightfully belonged to him—for your sake and for mine.

I am faithfully yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Charlie Holt+

What “badges” of this world do you find yourself taking confidence in? What would it mean to you to declare them of no value compared to Christ? What practical steps can you take to show to others that Christ is the only thing about yourself that is of ultimate worth? Are there others in your life that will be offended if you do so? How can you talk to them about it?

The Banner of Christ Alone

Part 2 of 3

As I have worked on racial reconciliation here in the community of Sanford following Trayvon Martin’s shooting and the trial of George Zimmerman, I have seen a lot of bad and good in national discussion on race. I want to be reconciled with all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. To me, the main thing that prevents us from being united is the fact that we find our identity in the things of the flesh. (Read Part 1 here.)

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There is an African-American Ministerial Association in Sanford. Following the Trayvon Martin shooting, we all expressed a desire of working together for peace. While the larger integrated group meetings were happening, it came to our attention that the African-American Ministerial Association was also meeting apart from our larger meetings to strategize and talk. (BTW, there is not a White Ministerial Association.)  I, along with others, asked to be able to attend. We were told that we were not welcome because we are not African-American.

I pleaded with them that my congregation is integrated. The shooting happened 1 mile away from St. Peter’s—we are one of the closest churches to the shooting. I have black members who live in the apartment complex where Trayvon was shot. Who would represent their voice in that discussion? Yet after explaining all of that, I still was unwelcome at the meeting because I am not black.

In these types of discussions, I have felt like people were behaving like the dwarves in CS Lewis’ book in the Chronicles of Narnia series: The Last Battle who said, “We haven’t let anyone take us in.  The dwarves are for the dwarves!” (Lewis 185) The dwarves cannot see that they are surrounded by freedom and a new world that leads to heaven with God. They so badly do not want to be controlled and used that they remain in their safe huddle, not seeing the reality of the glory around them.  So Aslan says, “They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” (Lewis 155-156) With some, the discussions retreat to issues of hurt, fear and mistrust, even as others call to them with a desire and open heart to move forward together in truth and love.

Two of the other ministers who had requested an invitation with me to the African-American Ministerial Association forced their presence into the meeting anyway. I did not feel that was an appropriate action, and I did not join them. However, I have continued to been outspoken in my objection to the dividing of the Church by race and will continue to do so. I recognize that hurt, anger and mistrust run deep, but we have to get past this somehow as a unified people under the banner of the cross if we are to realize the Kingdom of God in our midst.

The deep mistrust and suspicion is a major part of the problem on all sides. We will forever be locked in our safe huddles if we are not willing to leave them and view others and reality in the light of God’s reality. We cannot continue to run others through racially-biased grids of hurt and betrayal; otherwise every slight or disagreement can and will be perceived as racist and prejudiced, as evidenced by the way the discussions on race so often devolve. On the other side is a perpetual walking on eggshells so as to never offend the aggrieved. And so the conversation stays on the surface, shuts down and comes to a halt. What a shame!

While I think it is healthy to vocalize that mistrust, I personally am asking for it to be surrendered at the cross as well, especially among us who wear the yoke of Christ as pastors and church leaders. It does not further the Kingdom of God for us to take offense at one another.

The defensiveness I am hearing from some Southerners about the Confederate flag has that same sound of the refrain of the dwarves to me, whether it is dwarves are for the dwarves, or Southerners are for the Southerners! We must not be so afraid of being taken in that we cannot be taken out of our protective tribal huddles. All of these identities in the flesh, including our Southern heritage are to be counted as rubbish in order that we might gain Christ and be found in him.

How have you seen communication breakdown as people retreat to safe huddles of worldly identity? Would you say Christian reconciliation is the way forward? How so or why not? Some would say the banner of Christ is the only true unifying banner for every tribe, race and nation; do you agree? (Read Part 3 HERE)

The Banner of Christ Alone

Part 1 of 3

Some of the national debate which has ensued following the shooting of nine Christians in Charleston revolves around whether to furl the Confederate flag, as it is now being used as a banner under which many of the white supremacist groups fly.

agnus dei banner

I want to add to some of the thoughts on heritage and the banners under which we fly, but from a different angle.  I believe that flags, badges and symbols of our heritage matter, but they should not be our primary and defining identity any longer as Christians. And neither should the color of our skin for that matter.

Paul writes to the Philippians:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4-11

There are a lot of reasons for me to take pride in my heritage in the flesh. Like Paul, I can make great boasts of my heritage as an American, as a Southerner, as a descendant of pioneer Floridians. There are amazing things about my heritage in the flesh. The Holt family was in Virginia before the Mayflower landed. Yet as I have learned more about my family line, there were some real victims and scoundrels too!  The first Holt in America was an indentured slave to the first doctor of Jamestown, and his great-great-grandson left slaves to his heirs in his will.

We were personally responsible for killing many Native American Indians following the Indian massacre of 1621. The Holts helped burn Jamestown to the ground during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. I had great-great-grandparents on both sides of the North-South war—which ones should I identify with? I have family that emigrated from Germany, my grandfather flew 30 bombing missions over Germany killing at least hundreds, if not thousands, of Germans. Another grandfather, a ship captain in the Navy, hated the Japanese for their atrocities in the Great War. Two generations later, I drive a Japanese-made car. My ancestors were instrumental in founding Princeton University, Washington and Lee University, and Union Theological Seminary. At least one of my ancestors was a member of the KKK. Articles about his death and funeral describe how white-robed hooded men burned a cross on his grave in his honor.

In my ancestry, there are war heroes, victims of injustice, victims of abuse and violence, pioneers, racists, slaves, doctors, pastors, college deans and presidents, missionaries, and the like. I personally was trained by the best seminary professors and am the third generation to graduate from the University of Florida! (Go Gators!) How am I to define myself, and how are you going to define me?

If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, certainly I do. If anyone has reason to be ashamed of the flesh, I do too. We learn our history in order to learn from it.  But as followers in Christ, it must not be what defines us. Can I, with Paul, sacrifice my confidence in the flesh?

When I was at the University of Florida, I joined the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity. Our symbol was the rebel flag. On Old South days, we would all dress in Confederate uniforms, we would build a fort in front of the fraternity house and fly the Confederate flags proudly. I learned the principles of being a Southern gentleman. I had a picture of Robert E. Lee over my bed.  My Junior year of college, I gave my life to Christ. The Lord set me free and changed my perspective about a lot of things. I gained a new identity in him. One of the things that I did was move out of the fraternity house to go live with Christian brothers. I learned the true meaning of brotherhood, and it wasn’t what I had been experiencing in the fraternity house. Now that I have greater understanding of all that the flag represents, I would never want to fly under the banner of the Confederate flag, and I have not done so since giving my life to the Lord. The things I once took great pride in, these things no longer define me.

Does that mean, that I have denied my southern heritage, yes and no. I know my personal history and my family heritage, I can evaluate it and myself. I see how I have been shaped in my attitudes and heart dispositions in both positive and negative ways by my inheritance in the flesh. But however I am identified by my inheritance in the flesh, it must now be redeemed and subsumed in the Lord. I am a new person in Jesus Christ. As a follower of Christ, I want to be known by Jesus Christ. May others see Him lifted high in my life! So if you want to know my identity, I would display my banner of Christ alone. All other loyalties are submissive to that one allegiance. With Paul, I would become all things to all people that I may win some for the cause of Christ. I would gladly furl any flag that is a barrier to Christ being glorified in me. 25 years ago, I furled the Confederate flag for that very reason.

What about you? How has your heritage in the flesh shaped your own understanding of yourself and your own identity? Can you with Paul count all confidences in the flesh (race, historic heritage, nationalism or tribal identity) as a loss for the sake of knowing Christ? What makes it so hard to let go of worldly pride of heritage? (Read Part 2 HERE)

George Zimmerman Trial: Nobody Wins?

George Zimmerman Trial: Nobody Wins?

One of the potential jurors for the George Zimmerman trial was asked to summarize this case in three points: She replied, “One man lost his life, one man is fighting for his life, and nobody wins”.   As the trial has unfolded, many people have privately expressed their concerns with the exact same sentiment, “nobody wins”.

Sanford Pastors Connecting

At face value, I understand the thought.  Even in the best legal outcome for George Zimmerman, he will always carry the burden of that night and this trial.  In a recent interview with CNN, defense attorney Mark O’Mara stated:

“My client will never be safe.  There are a percentage of the population who are angry, they are upset, they may well take it out on him.  So he’ll never be safe”.

Screen shot of Local 6 News VIDEO of George Zimmerman Trail Courtroom Scene

Tracy Martin testifies concerning his grief over the loss of his son in the George Zimmerman murder trial

The loss is greater for the Martin family. Even if George Zimmerman is found guilty of murder, no measure of human justice will ever be adequate to bring back their son. Nobody wins.

A concern being voiced throughout our community is that there will be negative public reactions to the outcome of the trial. There are fears that violent forces and outside groups might use the occasion of this trial to bring trouble to the Sanford community. Nobody wins.

But, there are some good things that can come from this bad situation. Romans 8:28 promises   “God works all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” All things?  Even this tragic encounter?   Even this community disruption?  Do we have the eyes to see the good that is being brought forth by the Lord even now?

I want to name some “wins” for the kingdom of God from this trial.  Sanford Pastors Connecting is a good thing which has come as a direct result of this trial. There is now a denominationally diverse, multi-racial group of clergy, representing rich and poor who are having regular conversations and prayer with one another.  Sadly such communications have been far too long in coming. But now, there have been frank exchanges, offers of repentance and forgiveness. We have swapped pulpits, and we served the community together. While we may have different perspectives on the issues related to the trial, we share a common posture of prayer. We are united under one Lord, reconciled in Jesus Christ.

Sanford Pastors Connecting

Sanford Pastors Connecting meeting with law enforcement officials.

Another great development coming from this trial is a new level of community conversation and engagement between law enforcement and the community. Mistrust in this particular relationship is one of the main challenges this trial has highlighted. The good news is that Sanford and Seminole County law enforcement officials and the community, represented by the pastors, are now sitting at the table together developing a relationship and sharing hopes, concerns and fears with one another. This is an unprecedented opportunity for mutual understanding and trust to develop within our community.

Finally, we have been given an incredible opportunity as a community to learn from others about our own mistakes, prejudices and reactions. Human anxiety can see and assume the worst in each other.  One of the main lessons we can learn from this experience is the need to speak words of grace and to be charitable in our assumptions about those whom we do not yet know.

Only the Lord sees the motivations of the heart.  He perceives the thoughts of our minds. Indeed, all of us have a sin nature capable of accomplishing great evil and harm. However, every person is also made in the image of God and capable of great good.  Rather than assuming and calling forth the worst in one another, we can seek and summon the better virtues.

Here are some questions for discussion: What good do you see coming from the challenges of this trial? What lessons can we learn as a people from this experience?

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Jury Selection in the George Zimmerman Trial: Sanford Pastors Connecting

These past two days, I have sat in on the afternoon sessions of the George Zimmerman trial. This week the focus in the court room is on jury selection.

Pastor Joel Hunter at George Zimmerman Trial

My involvement as a pastoral observer is by invitation of Mr. Thomas Battles from the United States Justice Department, Reconciliation Division. Prior to this case, I actually was unaware that the Justice Department had such a division. My understanding is that the agents in this division are not so much involved in law enforcement and investigations, but in drawing along side a community where there is a high potential for, or occasion of, social unrest.  They are seeking public peace and resolution of division, in other words, peacemaking.

Personally speaking, I am a little wary of government involvement in church opinions and activities. However, to this point I have never been asked to say or do anything which would violate my Christian call. On the contrary, we are being invited by the governing officials, both local and national, to do the very thing we are eager to do, and that is being servants of the ministry of reconciliation in our community. Pastors along with all Christians are called to a ministry of reconciliation through the Gospel. As Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

The agents from the Justice Department have facilitated several informational meetings providing the pastors of the Sanford/Seminole County community with direct information from the law enforcement officials of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Department, the Sanford Police Department, the Sanford City Staff and the Mayor. The meetings have been helpful to the clergy by clarifying the legal process related to this case.

In these meetings, there has also been the desire to facilitate a healthy dialogue with the clergy of Sanford and the city officials in order to constructively address community concerns even beyond the particulars of this case. The clergy represent diverse perspectives and backgrounds, large and small congregations, differing denominational and non-denominational affiliations. The clergy in the group are diverse racially and ethnically. Perhaps more than any other group in the community, we have the ability to bridge socio-economic, racial and political divides and seek true unity. As a group, we are calling ourselves Sanford Pastors Connecting.

Many of these clergy including myself have also been meeting and working together outside the official Justice Department group purposefully seeking spiritual renewal and reconciliation in our community. Our common desire is to continue to build a stronger Christian community and witness in Seminole County long after this trial has faded from public attention.

The George Zimmerman trial is obviously under intense scrutiny both within and outside the Sanford/Seminole County community. The hope for the clergy participation is to provide a prayerful presence for all who are involved in the case and to be an encouragement and source of support for the larger community.  Many of the employees of the court have already personally expressed gratitude for our presence and support.

In the courtroom, there is substantial reserved seating for the media. In fact, five of the seven rows on the defense side of the court room are reserved seating for the media–the first two rows being reserved for the Zimmerman family and their legal representation. On the prosecution side, the first row is reserved for the prosecuting attorneys and the second for the Martin family. The public is provided seats in the remaining rows behind the Martin family. This public section is where you will see the clergy sitting as the case unfolds.

Pastor Joel Hunter at George Zimmerman Trial

Pastor Joel Hunter at George Zimmerman Trial. The Sanford Pastors Connecting will be sitting in the Public seating located on the prosecutors side. There are four or five rows of seating reserved for the public directly behind the two rows reserved for the Prosecution legal team and the Martin Family.

As pastors, we have consistently offered prayer with one another, for George Zimmerman, for the Martin family and for the Zimmerman family. We have prayed for the law enforcement, for the court officials and for the attorneys. We have prayed for those working in the media. And we have been especially concerned in our prayers for the well-being, peace and support of our community as it comes under national attention. We must continue to live together long after the outside spotlight leaves our community.

As I have sat through two days of the jury selection, I am very mindful of the individuals who have been asked to serve as jurors. The attorneys from both sides are indicating that the trial could take up to one month. This is a tremendous sacrifice for anyone, but for some it would represent a major financial challenge and sacrifice. When a potential juror or group of jurors enters and leaves the courtroom, etiquette calls for all to stand out of respect for them. They do deserve the community’s respect.

I heard many perspectives and concerns of the community by listening to the juror’s answers. Some were clearly concerned about the mass demonstrations in Sanford; one young man called them “rants and riots”, another called it a “circus”, others were not so concerned and saw it as an expression of free speech. More than one expressed sadness at the events of the case itself. One juror, when asked to sum up the case in three points said, “A young man lost his life; another man is fighting for his life; and no one is a winner.”

Often, it seemed to me that both the jurors and the attorneys were putting the media on trial today. There were many questions related to media bias and misinformation in the media, such as their publishing earlier photos of Trayvon Martin as a younger boy compared to his current age.  The media initially stated that George Zimmerman had no injuries, and later reported that he did. One juror indicated that such misreporting led to wrong opinions at first. Some were asked whether it seemed that the media was “taking sides”.

Media Side of the Gallery at Zimmerman Trial

The defense side of the gallery at the George Zimmerman Trial. There is no public seating on this side as the rows are entirely reserved for members of the press save two rows for the Zimmerman family and the defendant’s legal team.

More than one juror indicated that they “tuned out” the media coverage or treated the news with certain skepticism, with “a grain of salt”. Many expressed frustration with excessive media coverage of this case, and their promotion of negativity.  One juror questioned, “How long is the media going to avalanche us with this?”

I have been impressed by the expressions of commitment on the part of potential jurors for their willingness to serve, regarding it as a civic responsibility in spite of the challenges. There is a motion being considered by the judge to conceal the juror’s identities for an extended period a time. They will have an important job and they deserve our prayers for protection, provision and wisdom. They are worthy of appreciation for serving the system of human justice in our community.

Many of the potential jurors have appeared nervous as they were asked a multitude of questions. Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, asked one juror if she understood what we were doing in the jury selection process. She replied, “Working to give Mr. Zimmerman a fair trial.”

I was impressed by how this is accomplished in our system. Both the prosecutors and defense (including Mr. Zimmerman) have the opportunity to veto a limited number of prospective jurors without cause. Personally, I had not realized that Mr. Zimmerman has the civil right to object to any juror. At the end of each day of jury selection, Mr. Zimmerman was asked directly by the judge whether he approved of his lawyer’s questions and selections from the jury pool. He replied, “Yes, your honor.”

The jurors being interviewed have been pre-screened by a questionnaire as to whether they have formed an opinion regarding the outcome of the case. The pool of jurors being interviewed has indicated that they have not formed an opinion.

I was struck by the fact that it was these individual jurors unwillingness to draw conclusions, make assumptions and pre-judge the facts and parties involved in this case which makes them uniquely qualified to become the ones who will ultimately determine this trial’s verdict. How many of us can say that we have reserved judgment, that we have not assumed? How many of us have spoken words without full knowledge or judged the parties involved without all the facts?

Indeed, the dangers and pitfalls of making “assumptions” and “pre-judgments” reside at the very heart of all that is involved in this case both inside and outside the courtroom. Humanly speaking it is very difficult to give the benefit of the doubt, particularly when our past experiences and personal histories include hurts and violations. There are important lessons to learn in all of this, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear.

The pastors who have committed to attending the trial have a united commitment to seek the well-being and peace for our community and the unity of the Church under one Lord Jesus Christ; please join us in praying to this end.