"MLK and Hard-Won Wisdom with Dr. Mika Edmondson" Transcript
Season 2, Episode 2
[A guitar softly plays six notes, the first three ascending and the last three descending — F#, B, F#, E, D#, B — with a keyboard pad playing the note B in the background. Both fade out as Jonathan Walton says “This is a KTF Press podcast.”]
Mika Edmondson: I think that's one of the great gifts of the scriptures and of the prophets. With the prophets, they don't just bring just a new idea, they bring a new vision. They're saying, behold this vision of community, of peace and shalom. Everything in your lived reality would say that this wasn't even possible, but look, look at God's intention. And when people see that as a possibility and not just a possibility, but a guarantee for our future, man, it changes everything.
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Sy Hoekstra: Welcome to Shake the Dust: Leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God. My name is Sy Hoekstra. I'm here with Jonathan Walton and Suzie Lahoud.
Jonathan Walton: Today, we have an interview with Dr. Mika Edmondson, the lead pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Koinonia, in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Edmondson earned his doctorate at Calvin Theological Seminary, and he published his dissertation as the book, The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theodicy. He was the first African American to receive a PhD from Calvin, where he also contributed as an adjunct professor. He earned an MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a bachelor of science and applied physics from Hampton University. We talk with Dr. Edmondson about how he sees and resists colonized church practices in his context, his theological library of marginalized voices, how to stay uncompromising and hopeful while working in white church spaces, and a whole lot more. This conversation is packed with some hard-won wisdom, and we know you're going to love it.
Suzie Lahoud: As a reminder, if you like this show, the best way to support us is to go to ktfpress.com and subscribe. That gets you our weekly newsletter, where the three of us recommend resources to help you in discipleship and political education as you seek to leave colonized faith for the kingdom of God, as well as bonus episodes of this show. You can get a free month of the subscription by going to ktfpress.com/freemonth. Again, that's ktfpress.com/freemonth. Also, please remember to hit the subscribe and follow button on your podcast player and leave a rating and review. Follow us @KTFPress on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and tell your friends about us.
Sy Hoekstra: And now, here's the interview.
[Instrumental music from “Citizens” by Jon Guerra plays briefly and then fades out]
Sy Hoekstra: Dr. Mika Edmondson, thank you so much for joining us on Shake the Dust today.
Mika Edmondson: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Sy Hoekstra: We really appreciate you being here, and we just wanted to get started with a bit of a, kind of a broad question. The tagline for this show is leaving colonized faith for the kingdom of God. We just wanted to hear how you see colonized faith showing up in your context in Nashville and how you think about trying to lead people out of it.
Mika Edmondson: Wow, that's a great, great question. So I actually think that the very shape of the church itself in terms of its demographics… yeah, I'll just start with demographics. I think the demographics of the church itself reflects a history of colonization, because essentially people, they are able to sort of imagine themselves being a part of certain communities or not being a part of certain communities based on their history. Based on the history of whether or not people were able to integrate or whether they were segregated. So for so many years, the church roles themselves were segregated. So because of that, people, traditions have developed, basically reflecting the cultures of those who could see themselves within that community or were allowed to be in that community.
So there's so many ways in which the way the church functions sort of culturally, the folks who show up on Sunday morning or can see themselves as a part of certain traditions, all those things really reflect that history. So we have got to be very much attentive to that. We've got to, actually, we can't just go with the flow and just think that this is the way things always have been, or that this is the way God wants them to be. We've got to be very deliberate about taking what it is that Jesus calls us to be and who he has shown us that we will be in the eschaton, and we got to show how that makes a claim on today.
Sy Hoekstra: So how does that show up specifically in your context in Nashville?
Mika Edmondson: Yeah. So a few different things. I'm a part of, I'm a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America, so the PCA. It is a denomination that is a little over 40 years old, and we're in a city, Nashville is a city that is almost one-third African American. So African Americans make up about 28 percent of the residents of Nashville, Tennessee. This denomination has been in this city for nearly 40 years, and I am the first teaching elder to be in the PCA in the Nashville presbytery. The first Black teaching elder, okay? What that lets you know is that something has gone wrong, for it to have taken that long to bring your first Black pastor in a city that is a third Black.
This is not me pointing fingers at the PCA. This is me simply saying that the PCA and many of our denominations have inherited a set of ecclesial circumstances that we have not interrogated, that we have not questioned. So we have kind of gone with the flow, and that is why the demographics look the way they look. So the form of ministry that I am doing is gospel ministry that lays hold of the catholicity of the church, the fact that the church is of people who come from every tribe, nation and tongue. So looking at a sort of circumstances where our denomination, our presbytery has not had African American pastors in a city that is a third Black, that lets me know that we've got some work to do. So yeah, so that's how it shows up. It shows up just in our demographics.
Our church, the local church that I pastor, which is called Koinonia, is a church that has been very intentional in pushing back against that history. It also shows up in what we are willing or not willing to address ecclesially. So I think many of us have inherited a faith that says that the gospel makes a claim on my personal relationship with God through Jesus. And it's very much a matter of me being personally reconciled to God, so that I can go to heaven one day. And some people, for many people, that is kind of the extent of the gospel. That's what the gospel is.
But if we take what the Bible describes as the good news of Christ coming to destroy the works of the devil, to establish justice, to bring life and wholeness to a ruined world, then we actually recognize that the gospel makes a claim on not just my personal individual relationship with God, but it actually makes a claim everywhere that the curse of sin and death and pain and suffering is found. So our inability to actually say the gospel makes a claim on mass incarceration. The gospel makes a claim on police brutality. The gospel makes a claim on healthcare disparities and education disparities. The gospel makes a claim on domestic violence. The gospel makes a claim on all of these areas in which people are suffering. Our inability to actually articulate that claim is a function of a colonized faith. It's a function of a faith that says, we are… it says the role of the church is to make sure people go to heaven, rather than the role of the church is to articulate the claim that heaven makes on earth.
You can see how people who don't make the claim about how heaven comes to earth, about how heaven challenges unjust systems, what they're doing is they're really complicit in allowing those systems to continue to flourish and to continue to exploit people. So I can go on and on. I mean, the way we read the Bible, the way we… I can go on and on with that, but that's where I would kind of begin.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, I very much appreciate that. Jonathan, I think you were about to bust in with something [laughs].
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, man. I was muted, but amen. All the amens [laughter]. So I met you virtually on Twitter. That was how I met you. I was like, oh, because you tweeted, “You can have a great theological library without a single slave holder on your shelf.” And I was like, retweet, background photo, keep that there.
So who's on your shelf, your theological library? Like what theologians, what commentaries, what commentators? Because we know as a publishing company, publishing is not, it's full of some slaveholders.
So like, you know it’s not necessarily a decolonized space.
Mika Edmondson: Absolutely, yeah. Okay, great question. So I think that what we've got to do, is we have to really reimagine what we believe theology to be, and who we believe does theology. So a lot of times when we think about theology, we think about, I think we think about academic… I think we think about professors who are in the business of teaching religion to students who will either serve in the academy or in the church. I think oftentimes we think about theology as that. And I think we've got to sort of reimagine what we think theology or who's doing theological discourse actually is.
So the folks, and when we begin to reimagine that, it will actually expand our theological repertoire. It’ll allow us to see theological resources where otherwise we would not have recognized them. So some of the theologians that I have on my shelf are folks like Maria Stewart. So Maria Stewart, so she was the first woman to give a public speech on these shores, in America, and she was a Black woman. She gave public speeches around politics, around women's rights, certainly around anti-racism and emancipation and she was an abolitionist. She was giving these speeches when she was in her early thirties. She had come to faith in the wake of the death of her husband, and she immediately recognized that this Christianity, this faith makes a claim on my social situation and a claim on the situation of those around me.
So she began to actually articulate that through these speeches, through pamphlets, through prayers. So she's a theologian. She's actually a theologian. I think that there are people that will look at Maria Stewart and they would see her as maybe like a social kind of, sort of social activist, but they wouldn't look at her speech as sort of theological. I would say folks like certainly the example of Harriet Tubman, folks like Ida B. Wells, folks like Phillis Wheatley, these are examples and folks that I've got on my shelf.
Martin Luther King Jr., I'll give you an example. So I'm sort of just moving through. He's somebody that features prominently on my shelves. He's someone that actually got a degree in systematic theology from Boston University. Most people don't know that he got his PhD in systematics. So everything that he did was intentionally and deliberately and deeply theological. So, but I think a lot of people listen to his speeches and they read his writings and they think, oh this is social discourse, this is sociological discourse, but they don't think of it as theological discourse. But it is. It’s very much theological discourse. So, yeah. So MLK, his father, Daddy King is another one that I have on my shelf. You can't go wrong with Augustine and Cyprian and some kind of some early North African theologians.
Jonathan Walton: Thanks. That's super helpful, because I do think that expanding the… it's intentionally narrow, when, on purpose that we think of theology as this. So when we begin to widen the scope it’s super helpful.
Mika Edmondson: Absolutely. Again, I would say this. For everybody who's listening, I would say listen to marginalized people. Find their theological discourses. Find where they are talking about what God has to say about suffering in their social situation and freedom. Find those things and make sure that you really dive deep into those things. That's really, really important because God has, he has uniquely revealed himself and his agenda to people who are on the social margins. For instance, so Hagar. Hagar is an enslaved person. She is a victim of sex trafficking. She is a person who has been abused and she has been discarded.
And it's within the context of that pain and suffering that God, that the angel of the Lord appears to her and begins to show her that God sees her. Where no one else had seen her. No one else had really seen her humanity, her dignity, her worth, God had seen her. This is interesting because this is the very first place in the entire scripture, entire Hebrew Bible where the angel of the Lord appears. And it is to a person that is an enslaved person on the bottom of the caste system that's been discarded in the midst of her distress, and God, the angel of the Lord, the message of the Lord, the good news of the Lord appears to her. So God has really… the major salvific event in the old Testament is the Exodus. So in that God is revealing himself to a bunch of enslaved people.
So God really specializes in speaking to people on the bottom in some unique ways. They have a certain set of existential, certain set of circumstances that allows them to long for God that is sovereign, and a God that reaches to their place. It doesn't mean that God doesn't speak to people who are in different, other places in the social system. It just means that God reaches especially down to the bottom to let everybody know that he's there for them as well. So I would say listen to people on the bottom. Listen to people that are marginalized. That's who taught Jesus the Bible, was his mother especially. We know that Joseph was there somewhere [laughter], but the gospels are especially… as the gospel writers under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit compiled these memoir, recollections about the life of Jesus, people were very much careful to talk about his mother and the influence his mother had in his life.
And you see that through his ministry. So Mary's Magnificat, some of the great things of Mary's Magnificat about God doing this divine reversal, where the folks who are on thrones are brought down and the lowly, the humble are exalted, these great kind of, these reversals. You see that in the Sermon on the Mount. So we see Mary's kind of theological influence on Jesus's own ministry. So God intentionally chose a person, a poor woman that was a marginalized, a part of a marginalized group in Roman occupied Palestine, who was on the bottom. She was the one that taught the Messiah the scriptures. And I just think that's intentional, and I think God is showing us something. So I just say pay attention to women, pay attention to the women of color, pay attention to poor people, pay attention to marginalized folks, listen to what they have to say.
Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. Well, and thank you for sharing that Dr. Edmondson. I have to say when you were sharing that, just now, I feel like it's so empowering that piece of the story. I'd actually never heard it preached that way, the role that Mary played in Christ's life. So thank you for continuing to bring truth like that to the surface and demonstrating how we bring those marginalized pieces to the fore.
So your ministry has included working in a lot of predominantly white organizations. And you know, we were just talking about decolonization earlier and the legacies of colonization on our religious institutions and our churches and our ministries. And I'm sure that you've experienced that a lot of times, these predominantly white organizations and Christian ministries are resistant and can even be hostile toward real thoroughgoing racial justice.
So one of the things that we wanted to ask you today on the show is, how do you stay uncompromising in spaces like that? Then also, how do you deal with the pressure and strain that that must put on you and your family? Because you're also a person and you have to carry the weight of these discussions and struggles back home with you as well. So how do you deal with that on both sides, both in terms of being a presence and pushing back, and then also how you deal with that as a father and a husband and a human being?
Mika Edmondson: Yeah. Thank you so much for asking. Great, great, great questions. So three things: humility, intentionality, and measure. I think, so humility. Humility. So I recognize that I am called to be a witness in these settings and wherever the Lord sends me. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the responsibility is on my shoulders to make these people change their minds and to make these institutions change. What I'm called to do is to be a witness. And I'll tell you, that really frees you up, when you know that what Jesus is holding me responsible for is to tell the truth and to be a witness, but Jesus is not holding me responsible for changing these people's minds. He is the one that does that. He's the one that transforms, he's the one that redeems, saves. The spirit sanctifies, and it's his responsibility to do all the saving. So humility.
Intentionality. To make sure that I am being a faithful witness and being intentional and not thinking that these organizations or these settings are going to kind of get it, unless someone says to them, “Hey, did you see this blind spot?” Or, “Did you see this thing?” So we've got to be intentional about that.
And I'll tell you, measure. So it's interesting, I think that that's something that we often struggle with, is measure. So what I mean by measure is self-control in speech. Loving self-control in speech. I love that self-control is part of the fruit of the Spirit. It's, you know the Spirit is at work when someone is very lovingly thoughtful and careful about what they say. That they are speaking in such a way that blesses and meets the hearer where they are and can love them well. Measure means that you don't say all the things all the time. And measure, and you have to be measured whenever you're doing discipleship, because measure means that you, again, you meet people where they are and you walk them to another place.
Think about this. So God is measured in how he deals with his people. So God comes to people and God knows the whole ugly truth about everything that they've ever done, everything that they are currently doing and everything that they ever will do. And God does not lay all that on you at once, right? God will reveal some things, but God is measured because God loves us. Even when God is offering a rebuke, he's doing it in such a way that you can receive it and grow from it, rather than being overwhelmed by it. And I think he calls us to deal with each other the same way. To deal with each other with love and kindness and measure.
So when I'm in these spaces, I speak up where I feel that I can do the most good. I try to be a witness. I try to speak truth. I try to be honest and frank. So I'm not quote-unquote, “pulling my punches” in that sense, but I'm not saying all the things at every meeting, and I'm not saying the same thing every single time. Because I think, I just think wisdom calls us to be more varied in our responses with people, and to let them know that they're more than just, that they're more than just their worst opinion about something. That they're more than just their worst mistake. They're more than just their sin. I try to deal with people more holistically. To let them know, “hey look, I'm for you, and the whole reason that I would even be calling out sin is because I'm for you. Because I want to see you succeed. Because I want to see you grow, because I want to see you thrive, and I want to see God honored in this space.”
Sy Hoekstra: Before we get to the second half of that question, I can see a way that everything that you just said gets twisted into tone policing. Because I don't think that that's what you mean by it, but I do think that’s what some people could conceivably hear from it. I would just like to hear your thoughts on the interaction on how the notions of humility or being measured in self-control can be weaponized to silence people.
Mika Edmondson: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that is something that the person, that the speaker themselves has as a value. It's not something that the institution can force upon you. So humility, intentionality, and measure is something that I myself know. That as I am seeking to be a witness and witness to Christ’s truth and grace, that I am actually embodying. But it's not for the institution to look at me and say, “you're not being humble, you're not being measured and you're not being intentional.” [laughs] So I would say that's one way I would sort of qualify that.
Another thing is, so we've got to keep in mind that Christ calls us to grace and truth. That's what he came in. He came full of grace and truth, and sometimes we can choose one at the expense of the other. We can say, “I'm telling truth and I really don't care how it comes off. I'm telling truth and I don't care. I'll say it in a way that sounds mean or sounds unkind because I'm telling the truth.” And there are others that are like, “Well, I'm being gracious, but I'm never going to actually be truthful.”
Sy Hoekstra: Or being truthful is ungracious.
Mika Edmondson: Right, or something like that. But we have to hold those things together. We have to hold those things together. We have to recognize that being truthful is a form of grace, but it has to come out that way. Being gracious actually carries with it the call to also be honest and be truthful with people. It carries both of those. So we have to have both of those things working.
Sy Hoekstra: I think what I hear you saying then, is that the institution has to care as much about, or more about even, truth as it does about the graciousness of the people who are involved in the institution.
Mika Edmondson: Yeah, it has to hold both of those things together. That's exactly right. So tone policing is when, in order to get out from under the truth that someone has to share, that we point to the way they shared it. To say that because you shared it this way, I don't have to now reckon with the truth that you're sharing. And that's really what tone policing is saying, “Let's pay more attention to how you said what you said than what you said.” An institution that is doing the oppressing has no business saying to that person, “We will not hear you unless you come to us on our terms and in our way and in our tone.” That's another form of oppression. So we definitely don't want to suggest that in the least.
That's another way in which they use that kind of power dynamic. What I'm doing is I'm counseling folks who are on the bottom, or folks who are in systems around how can we be more faithful witnesses of Christ's truth in terms of not just the propositions that we speak, but also Christ's heart for humanity.
Sy Hoekstra: That makes total sense, and I appreciate that, but I also just took us on a tangent, because I had those thoughts and I would still like to hear [laughs] the second half of Suzie's question, which I think is really important for people to understand where you're coming from and to humanize people who are talking about this stuff. You know, the strain and everything that it puts on you and your family. How do you deal with that?
Mika Edmondson: I would say prayer, a lot of prayer. A lot of laughter, and recognizing my priority. So here's what I mean by that. I mean, so we have to recognize our deep dependence on the Lord and be going to the Lord regularly to call on the Lord on behalf of our families and ourselves for help as we… and to be honest, to lay out our lament before the Lord. I think, so honest prayer before the Lord and laying out your lament and your frustrations and your complaint before the Lord is a form of care. It’s God allowing us the space to be able to bear the load of that space. He's saying, “Bring this to me. There's some dysfunction. There's some poison. There's some toxicity. There's some pain that this certain circumstance or situation or system will try to thrust upon you. And you take all of that, and you bring it here. You cast it to, you give it to me.”
You're not going to be able to withstand those spaces if you aren't giving it to the Lord. If you aren't going through the actual, the sort of routine, the ritual of actually taking it and laying those burdens before the Lord. Casting your cares before the Lord. So that's one thing. Another thing I mentioned was laughter. It's really important that not only do we weep and lament, but we also find spaces to laugh and actually lay hold of joy. I think joy can be a… I've heard people say joy is a revolutionary act, because what joy does, is joy makes an eschatological claim. What joy says is that trouble is here, but trouble won't last always.
Suzie Lahoud: Love that.
Mika Edmondson: Joy says, yeah, there's an end date to this suffering and so I can laugh even in the midst of my suffering. Yeah, it was interesting. It's one of the kind of great seeming contradictions of the Black experience in America. You could read testimonies of slave holders who were struck and confused by how much enslaved people would sing and laugh. And they're not singing and laughing because their situation is not painful and dire and heartbreaking and heart wrenching, but they are laughing because they know that this situation does not have the final say.
Jonathan Walton: Amen.
Mika Edmondson: So laughter, I just think that there's a, that's a form of self-care. I mean, I love stand-up comedy. I watch a lot of stand-up comedy.
Sy Hoekstra: You and Jonathan have that in common.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah!
Suzie Lahoud: I was just thinking of you guys when you said that.
Mika Edmondson: Yeah. I watch Marvel things, I watch Star Wars things.
Sy Hoekstra: And now you're talking my language [laughs].
Mika Edmondson: Oh, my goodness, yeah. I mean, Boba Fett, Mandalorian, all the things. If it's happening on Star Wars, I'm watching it. I don't think that's escapism actually. I don't think that's saying I'm not paying attention to the realities of this world, but I think it's saying I am paying attention to the realities of this world in a different way. And I think it's saying, because that's the one, one of the wonderful things about like sci-fi and fantasy, is that you can still engage the real dynamics of this world, but you can do it in a different way and you can imagine…
Sy Hoekstra: Different worlds.
Mika Edmondson: You can imagine greater possibilities. You can imagine something different. I think that's one of the great gifts of the scriptures and of the prophets. With the prophets, what they bring is they bring, they don't bring just a new idea. They bring a new vision. They're saying, behold this vision of community, of peace and shalom. Like everything in your lived reality would say that this wasn't even possible, but look. Look at God's intention. And when people see that as a possibility, and not just a possibility, but a guarantee for our future, man, it changes everything. It changes everything. It's like, oh my goodness.
So I would say laughter, again fantasy, sci-fi, go somewhere where your imagination can be expanded. Where you can question things that you thought could never be questioned. Where you can begin to imagine something new for yourself and something new for this world and something new for the future. Yeah, so laugh a lot [laughs].
Suzie Lahoud: I love how you just brought us full circle from where we started, where you're talking about expanding our theological imagination, and then you brought it down into self-care. And just a side note on what you were saying about laughter. So in my sort of previous life in Lebanon, we were working with teams that were implementing spaces for children in Syria to kind of deal with some of the trauma that they were facing and provide sort of psychosocial support. And we would do deep breathing exercises with these kids because that's one of the things that helps relieve that kind of stress and helps you physiologically deal with that kind of trauma. It turns out, one of the things I learned, is that laughter and singing both create that same deep breathing mechanism.
And I just thought, how wise of God that he has us gather together and sing together. And that not only are we in the presence of God worshiping him, but physiologically, that helps take the burden off. And of course you talked about prayer and I actually was listening to a sermon of yours where you talk about prayer as a form of catharsis, and then now you sharing about laughter. Just again, the wisdom of God in knowing we need these things. These are good things. These are holy things, even though we're not sort of conditioned to usually view them in that way.
Mika Edmondson: Yes, that's exactly right. You know, so I would say thinking about the way in which God has crafted, carefully crafted worship. So in the old Testament, the Lord calls his people to rejoice before him. And it's not to say that whenever we get together, all we can do is laugh, but that's part of what we're supposed to do as well. We're actually called to actually rejoice. To have genuine joy before the Lord, because the Lord knows that we need that. Because, as I said, trouble won't last always.
And the Lord brings us to this wonderful table that says to us that trouble won't last always. It's a table that simultaneously signifies the brokenness of this world, but also the healing of this world. Also the fact that, I love it that it looks back and forward. It's not just a table where we remember the brokenness and remember the pain, but it's also a table that says, that participates in the feast of the coming of the lamb. That participates in the new creation, the not yet coming into the already. And God's saying, “Hey, we are going to a place in which you will laugh, and I want you to begin to lay hold of that today.” Our household has a lot of laughter. Our church has a lot of laughter. Laughter is life giving.
Sy Hoekstra: You know how I know that you're serious when you say your household has that, is just from listening to your wife on Truth's Table. Because that podcast, they just never stop laughing [laughs]. Even when they’re talking about like deadly serious things.
Mika Edmondson: Yeah. It's a response to theodicy. So theodicy is the problem of evil and suffering. It's that kind of tension between the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God. The goodness and the power of God over against the idea that, over against the suffering that we see in his world. So we say, man, God is good. God wouldn't will my suffering. God is powerful. God can prevent my suffering. So why am I suffering? Well, people have wrestled with that tension since suffering has been in this world.
And laughter is one way that people can address that. One way in which people can look pain and suffering in the face, and again say that it won't last always. That it does not have a claim over all of what I, and who I am. Even though it impacts me, there's still a greater reality that makes a claim on me. It cannot rob me of my humanity. It cannot rob me ultimately of my dignity. So we can, in the worst of circumstances, God gives us sometimes the ability to even laugh.
Sy Hoekstra: Can I, I have another question kind of along those lines, although it's on a bit of a different subject, which is that you did your PhD, I believe, on the life and theology of Martin Luther King Jr.
Mika Edmondson: I did.
Sy Hoekstra: And you wrote a book about it too. What specifically from his work do you get, do you bring with you that aids you in helping people in your church on a day-to-day basis, walk through suffering? Particularly racial injustice-related suffering that you have to face?
Mika Edmondson: Oh yeah. Yeah, a number of things. One thing is, now the thing I focused on directly through my particular research was something called redemptive suffering. Redemptive suffering doesn't necessarily mean what it sounds like. When people hear redemptive suffering, what they think it means, is they think it means that somehow suffering is good. Or somehow suffering is noble in and of itself. But what it actually is, is saying that given the reality of suffering in this world, God does not leave us without a witness. God gives us the opportunity to engage even the worst of life circumstances in a way that witnesses to Jesus. What that lets us know is that Jesus is always with us. Jesus is always sanctifying. Jesus is always blessing.
Jesus said, “I will never leave you and I will never forsake you.” So Jesus is with us, even in the face of life's worst circumstances. What King was able to do, was he looked at the Black social situation in America, and he was able to make the connection between that social situation and the cross to say, Jesus is one who understands what it's like to suffer. And although the tension between, the tension of theodicy between, again, God's omnipotence and omnibenevolence and the suffering we see in this world, it will never be fully resolved rationally in our minds, but we know God is with us in it and through it.
And why do we know that? Because of Jesus Christ. Because God himself has taken upon himself the suffering of this world. He has willingly stepped into it and shown solidarity with us. That's actually a more powerful response than a philosophical answer. I'll give you an example. So I think it is fascinating that the oldest book in the Bible…
Sy Hoekstra: Is Job.
Mika Edmondson: Right, the book of Job. The book that is all about theodicy. It's all about suffering. It's amazing that in that book God doesn't give an answer. God is not like, “Now, the answer is X, Y, and Z [laughs]. You’re wondering why this happened, the answer is X, Y, and Z.”
Sy Hoekstra: Right.
Mika Edmondson: That's not how the book resolves.
Sy Hoekstra: Nope.
Mika Edmondson: That's not what happens. What we are assured of is we are assured that suffering is not the fault of the victim. That suffering does not have easy answers, but we are also assured of this, that God knows about it. This courtroom scene at the beginning shows the Lord God knowing all about Job. Knowing more about Job than Job probably ever imagined God knew about him. God was deeply aware of Job’s situation, and aware of the suffering that would come his way.
God was sovereign over those things. God had the whole situation, as it were, under control, to the degree that the devil himself has to sort of ask God's permission because Job is God's servant. That's why God says, “Have you considered my servant Job?” So God is aware. God is sovereign over. That's so important for people who are suffering and on the bottom, because they need to know that God is bigger than the forces that are over them. People who are on the bottom need to know God is bigger than the forces that are over them.
That just brings me back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Because Dr. King went to, he went to what we might call liberal seminaries, engaged Protestant liberalism, but he was an African American that grew up in the segregated south. So he knew suffering firsthand, and he knew he needed a God that could make a way out of no way and intervene. So when Protestant liberalism said, “Well, God might not be all powerful,” Dr. King said, “No, no, no, you don't understand. We need a God, that's all powerful. We need a God that can make a way out of no way. We need a God that can intervene because we got the kind of suffering that needs intervention. So we don't have the existential privilege to not believe in a God that's sovereign.” So that's why King held on to those things.
He has his famous kitchen vision in 1956. This was a few months after the Montgomery bus boycott had begun. He was getting death threats every day. King got upwards of 40 death threats every single day. He had his own ways of coping with that, but in January of 1956, he got a call in the middle of the night. They had threatened his family. They threatened to bomb his home and he could not shake it. This threat got next to him and he could not get over it. He said he poured over a cup of coffee and just prayed and struggled. And he said he began to draw back on the concepts that he had learned at Crozer Seminary and Boston University. And this is what he says. He says, and the answers didn't come there. He said the answers did not come there. He said, but then I thought about the God that my father taught me at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The God that makes a way out of no way. Then he said he kind of heard a voice that told him to stand up for justice and to stand up for righteousness and, “Lo, I will always be with you.”
And it was on the strength of that kind of vision early in the civil rights movement. You got to keep in mind that this is just a few months into it, and King is already contemplating getting out. He's trying to bail out. Yet he reflects on the sovereign, powerful, loving God that the Black church tradition had taught him about. It was that vision of God that kept him going. It was that vision of God that allowed him to know that he could continue to go forward and no matter what happened, he would be kept by God. So those are the kinds of sensibilities that allow me to tell people within our context, that God is a great God that’s bigger, that has a stronger claim on you than the things of this world.
Yes, suffering, injustice, oppression, pain, they make a claim on us. They make a real claim on our bodies and our situations, but God's claim is greater. God's claim on us, God's care for us is greater than that. So the sovereignty of God, that's something that I bring from King’s theology. Also the presence of God in the midst of suffering. The presence of God. Again, that's something that kind of that kitchen vision told King that, I will be with you always. This kitchen vision is something that King repeated throughout his ministry. It wasn't just like something that sort of happened and he went on with his life. This was kind of something for him that he felt was almost like a kind of conversion experience for him in a certain kind of way. It was the thing that when he was at his wit's end and he was ready to give up and ready to quit, it was the thing that reoriented everything for him and sort of gave him the kind of perseverance that you saw.
And at the center of that was not only God's sovereignty, but also God's presence. It's the cross that lets us know that God is present with us through our suffering, because it is at the cross and through the cross that we see most clearly God's solidarity with us in suffering. God saying, I will not just tell you how to get through this, but I will come alongside you in this, and I will take it upon myself in all of its brutality. If you've undergone injustice, so have I. If you've undergone abuse, so have I. If you've undergone abandonment, so have I. If you've undergone all of these things, I have done it as well, and I've done it to show you the extent of my love for you.
Jonathan Walton: That was a lot, I'm taking all that in. I would love to ask you about his phone call to Mahalia Jackson at another point.
Mika Edmondson: Oh yeah.
Jonathan Walton: There's some stuff there for me. But you're the lead pastor of a church in Nashville and something that has stood out to me going to a multi-ethnic church in New York City, is that often we are a multiracial community that functions as a white church. So how do you go about trying to lead people into a truly multiethnic, multiracial community, as opposed to leading a church that's culturally white with Black folks in it?
Mika Edmondson: Absolutely. So we have got to deal with the issue of power because race is a reality of a power disparity. That's what race is. So we have to recognize that we're not just in multicultural or multiethnic spaces. We are in multiracial spaces, and so we come to these spaces reckoning with power disparities and injustice and oppression, the misuse of power. So we have got to be deliberate about addressing that within the life of the church in institutional ways. Not just symbolic ways, but institutional ways and practical ways.
So this is what I would suggest for anybody. First of all, you have to have a commitment to recognize, first of all you got to recognize that the church is the venue of redemption, flourishing, and freedom. The Lord rescues his people out of Egypt. He brings them to Sinai and God rehearses the emancipatory act that he's done. God says, “I'm the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Now, God is… so God could have just said, I'm the Lord your God, do this, do this, do this, do this, but he doesn't. He says, I brought you out of Egypt, and he wants to remind them what the situation was in Egypt, out of the house of bondage. So what God is saying is he’s saying, I'm going to give you, through these laws, an emancipatory culture. I've just rescued you, and I don't want you to turn into Pharaoh to each other. I don't want you to turn this covenant community back into Egypt because that's what you'll do if I leave you to your own devices. So I'm going to give you an emancipatory culture. I'm going to give you a way of being and flourishing in community that is meant to protect and promote freedom and flourishing.
And that's what the church is. It's supposed to be not just a covenant community, but an emancipated community. An emancipatory community in which we have a culture of freedom and flourishing. So we've got to actually understand that that's what's supposed to be happening in the church. So that's one thing. So let's talk about the church as this emancipatory community. When we do that, then we'll be able to understand why it's so important that we use our organization and our followers to actually address the areas of oppression and injustice and inequity in people's lives.
So what we want to do is first of all, we want to think about, we want to, I would say for anybody who's in a multiracial church, I would say think about first of all your hiring practices. Who's in leadership and what does that say about your commitments there, about who can carry authority within the church? And it's not just that the hired folks who are your leadership team or leadership staff are the only people that carry authority. They aren't, but they are strategically placed people that can be cheerleaders and representations about who we're willing to invest in in our church that might carry some kind of authority. And people look for that. People look for that.
I think I'll put it this way. I think our churches have to be intentional about finding biblically qualified, competent Black women to carry authority within the church. I'm going to say that again. I think our churches, within our context in the United States, have to be very intentional about finding biblically qualified, competent Black women to carry authority in the church. Why do I say that? Because Black women are the group in our society that is most likely to have authority taken or denied, or most likely to be in many ways diminished and dehumanized and put on the bottom of the caste system. So in the church, we've got to be super careful about showing that they are not at the bottom. That they carry, that they can be, that they can carry authority. That they have wisdom that we need. That they have dignity, that they have worth. That they can lead and that we can follow, because there's so many contexts in which we will never get to follow a Black woman's lead or submit to a Black woman's authority. So we've got to be out in front with that.
The early church was known for that. The early church, it was a shocking community because it was a community in which someone who had been enslaved could actually be an elder or a deacon. It was someone that, and the person that was the owner would have to submit to their authority. Now that was a shock. This is the whole, if y’all familiar at all with the book of Philemon, this is really at the heart of the book of Philemon. The ways in which what the Lord has done actually challenges the social cast systems of our world by flipping them on their head.
Another thing, make sure that you read, as I've mentioned before, that you read the Bible with marginalized voices, hear the wisdom that the Lord has given them about how to know God. So a lot of times, our congregations are listening to us about who we are quoting. And if your only quotes are from rich white men [laughs], or dead, prominent white men, then you’re saying something about who you believe has wisdom. But we need to diversify those sources. Think about this. I love Proverbs 31, but not for the reason that some people love it [laughter]. I love Proverbs 31 because in Proverbs 31, Proverbs by the way, is a collection of wisdom around justice and equity that was actually intended to equip the leaders, the governmental leaders of Israel to function well within the society. So King Solomon pulled together all of this wisdom.
And here's this Proverbs 31, which is actually the recorded wisdom of this woman. It's this king's mother, that’s basically saying, this is what my mom taught me about how to be a just official. This is what my mom taught me. And he begins to lay it all out, and it's not, it doesn't begin with how to find a wife. It begins with like how to rule justly. How to listen to people who are on the bottom. How to advocate for people who don't have rights. If you look at the way Solomon actually dealt with his own mother. How he listened to his own mother and had actually a throne built beside his throne where his mother sat as a co-regent. So we just got to, we got to be careful about who we listen to and we got to cite these sources. And we got to let people know, hey, I'm listening to lots of different voices here, and you ought to listen to them too. When we do that, so, and I'm very careful about that.
So our sermon illustrations is another thing. So who you cite. Make sure you're citing, again, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, Maria Stewart, Mary McLeod Bethune. All these folks that have wisdom from God. Also make sure that you use sermon examples that not only illustrate the point, but illustrate the point in ways that challenge oppressive norms. Then also talk about all of what the Bible talks about. There are some great commentaries. I'm thinking of, for instance I'm preaching through the book of Acts right now, and Dr. Willie James Jennings is an amazing resource on the book of Acts. Another one is Craig Keener, amazing resource. Old Testament, man, Walter Brueggemann is an amazing resource around the weightier matters of the law, around how justice makes a claim.
Read those commentaries and talk about what the Bible talks about. Talk about the justice things, don't spiritualize it away. That will tell the congregants under your preaching that this is a community that cares about justice. Also, pray about those things. Do it deliberately. We pray about all the things. I pastor in the community, Bordeaux Nashville in Northwest Nashville has higher rates of incarceration than any place else in the nation. I would be a bad pastor if I didn't… you know, and so our mission as a church is to love diverse people, places, and things to life. What kind of pastor would I be if I claim to love this neighborhood, but I did not talk about the scourge that this neighborhood is facing? And I didn't pray about that, and I didn't ask God to please heal that, and please address that and please restore that.
Another major issue that this neighborhood is facing is gentrification. It’s a community whose culture is being erased through gentrification. In some ways through a kind of colonization, frankly. Those are the things we pray about, those are things we talk about. So being in a multiracial community means you have to, you talk about those things. What you do is you summon the community together, not just the minorities in the community, but you summon majority folks. You summon white folks to say, “Hey, I'm going to weep with those who weep. Your burden is my burden.” That's a beautiful thing.
And I think, and here's the last thing about multiracial churches, and I'll just, I'll shut it down with this. We need that kind of witness, because the world doesn't care really, if Black people talk about this amongst Black people only, because they expect that, to be honest with you. They expect that. The world cares when you have a multi-racial community of people who are challenging the boundaries and the cultural expectations that society sets, and says, “I know that my society says I'm not supposed to care about this, but I do. I know that this is suffering that I'm not supposed to see, but I do see it, and I'm going to address it for Jesus's sake.”
Jonathan Walton: I'm just going to let all that soak in. So, yes.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. I think that's as good a place as any to end it. We also, I know you have to go now Dr. Edmondson, but this has been really great. Thank you so much for being with us today. Before you go though, I just wanted to give you a chance to let people, listeners know where they can follow you or anything, any work you're doing that you might want to have them take a look at.
Mika Edmondson: Yeah. Thanks for asking that. So yeah, I would say I'm grateful for the opportunity to be out on platforms. My main bread and butter is in the life of the local church. So, but if you really want to sort of know where my heart for ministry is, you'd have to go to cpckoinonia.org. That's our church's website, cpckoinonia.org, and get a look at our worship services. And you'll really know… and not just the sermon, but actually all the entirety of the worship service. Then you'll get a sense of the rhythms of our, a little bit of the sense of the rhythms of our community. The things that our community is passionate about, the justice work that we're doing in the community and within the life of the church. And if anybody will kind of, sort of wants to follow my work, that's where you follow it. You follow it by getting connected to our local church and its life and its mission.
Sy Hoekstra: Especially if you're in Nashville, go check out Koinonia. I have watched a couple of those services, I could vouch for it [laughs]. Thank you so much, Dr. Edmondson for being here with us today. We really, really appreciate it.
Mika Edmondson: Thank you so much for having me, I really enjoyed it.
[Instrumental music from “Citizens” by Jon Guerra plays briefly and then fades out]
Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for listening today. Just as a quick reminder, go to ktfpress.com/freemonth to get a free month of our subscription and check out our newsletter and the bonus episodes of this show. Leave us a rating and review on your podcast player. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at KTF Press, and don't forget, you can always write in to firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you have about anything you hear on our show, and we might answer your question on a future show.
Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you all in two weeks.
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Sy Hoekstra: Okay. [in a truly bad Italian accent] Here we go. As Super Mario would say, here we go.
Jonathan Walton: He talks?
Sy Hoekstra: What?
Jonathan Walton: He talks?
Sy Hoekstra: You didn’t know that Mario talks?
Jonathan Walton: No. What does he say?
Sy Hoekstra: He says, “Here we go.”
Jonathan Walton: Where, when, in what venue or context?
Sy Hoekstra: Oh my gosh, Jonathan. You haven't played a Mario game since like Super Nintendo, have you?
Jonathan Walton: [long pause] Yes.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah...
Jonathan Walton: That is correct.
Sy Hoekstra: That’s the issue.