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  • Helms Jarrell

Here's what I can't get off my mind...

With a sparkle in his eye and a giddy grin, my friend exclaimed, “At the conference next year, we’re tackling the atonement!” Gushing with excitement, he shared his plans. I so hoped he couldn’t see the big question mark in my head or the dull “ho hum” I heard whispering in my ears. Tim Moore is a passionate theologian who thinks deeply. Plainly, Tim’s really smart. I didn’t want him to see the confusion or questioning in my mind. While Tim was speaking, here’s the story I was telling myself: “Of all the issues and topics you could choose, why this? Who gets fired up about the pros and cons of an ancient doctrine anymore? Aren’t yall tired of talking about stuff like this? Let’s get to work! There’s got to be something more interesting we can do with our time.” Joke’s on me. I saw Tim six days ago. I cannot get substitutionary atonement off of my mind.

The staff were updating one another at QC Family Tree the other day. Resident Story Teller, Hannah Hasan, was telling about a recent coffee meeting with a colleague- a white middle class young man who we run into at a lot of community meetings and events. This is a guy who has a 9-5 job and yet is still able to be present and supportive in activist and organizing circles. He’s generous with his time and money and uses his social capital to uplift other people. In their meeting the other day, Hannah asked him what was his motivation. He explained, this was his way of practicing atonement.

I get it. I’ve told myself the very same thing. The world is broken and hurting. I and the people who have gone before me have caused harm. I must do my part to repair the wrong doing. The tools I have within my reach to repair the damage are my home, my earnings, my lifestyle, even my body. I must follow in the way of Jesus and practice reparation- incarnational atonement.

However, when Hannah described the man’s reasoning and said the word “atonement,” she paused. The look on her face seemed pensive, wondering. “Why the look?”, I asked her, “What do you think about what he said?” She, a black Muslim woman, explained her compassion for white folks who are working by trial and error to do the work of liberation and reparation; releasing white privilege and letting go of long held, if malformed, values and status. Then she explained, this man viewing himself this way could potentially perpetuate a story that puts the white man in the center again. It would be easy for this narrative of practicing atonement to become just another story all about him. Hannah is very wise. She was talking about the fella with whom she had coffee. She probably also knew she was also talking about me.


I might have thought that the subject was ho hum when Tim brought it up. But now, thanks to Hannah, I'm thinking about it a lot. On May 19th, I'll be preaching at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church at the 7:30am service in Charlotte. If you'd like to join me in wrestling with atonement as reparation on that morning, I'd love it. I'll post the sermon on the blog once the wrestling works its way to words on paper.

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