Rev. John Stott (1921-2011)
Have you ever participated in one of those get to know you games at the beginning of a gathering of people who barely know each other? You know, “ice breakers.” In today’s world, some people have built a career around this type of activity. One ice-breaker game I dread is when you are asked to describe yourself in three words or less. Each time I’ve participated, I have been amazed at how creative folks can be. I also have been amazed at how self aware people are. You can always tell when you hear sighs or the word “yeah” spoken softly. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about using this exercise to describe John Stott, the humble gospel preacher and theologian who passed away last week at age 90. I thought of two words that best sum up his more than 50 years of faithful Christian service: Devotion and Discipleship.
I met John Stott on a couple of occasions in person, and he once replied to a letter that I wrote him regarding a tough decision I faced regarding my education. I was wrestling with a choice between seminary or graduate school. Rev. Stott thanked me for engaging him but said he was not familiar enough with me to lead me in either direction. He encouraged me to struggle further and discuss it with someone close to me whom I trusted. I don’t think I actually expected a reply from a man as busy as he was, so to receive his thoughtful response in the mail was a pleasant surprise. And from what I came to understand, that kind of personal outreach and encouragement was not unusual with Stott.
Let me share some of the reasons why I join others in celebrating his life, and mourning his loss.
Devotion and Discipleship
John Stott was renowned for his devotion to Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. It is commonly known that he chose to not marry and remain celibate so that he would not be distracted from focusing his full attention to the Scriptures and sharing his love for Jesus. His passion for and fascination with Jesus is clearly seen in his books, including Basic Christianity, The Cross of Christ, The Contemporary Christian. Recently, I’ve been absorbed in his last published book, The Radical Disciple, in which he shares his critique of the 21st century church and reflects on his life and ministry. In each of his works, he reveals an uncompromising love for Jesus and His church.
Stott’s devotion informed his discipleship to Christ and inspired his love for God’s people. He was known for his commitment to the training and nurturing of pastors and Christian ministers throughout the world. My friend Richard Allen Farmer, another leader who was deeply influenced by Stott’s example, says this:
John Stott was that rare mixture of statesman, scholar, pastor and careful Bible expositor. He had such high regard for Scripture that it made those of us who preach take it more seriously. His book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, forced me to renew my personal commitment to expository preaching. In addition to being a proud Brit, he was a global lover of Jesus who was as effective as he was infectious.
Stott was a “world Christian.” He learned from history and was always mindful not to replicate the poor behaviors of past missionaries. Regardless of a person’s background, he sought to honor and respect their cultural perspective. As his ministry progressed, it was apparent that his understanding of the gospel began to include social justice concerns and issues related to overcoming political oppression and fighting for the dignity of people as well as for their souls.
Many have mentioned his pivotal role in the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, as a key moment in his growth as a Christian leader with cross-cultural sensitivity. But I wonder if an earlier event was even more instrumental in this regard.
A Liberating Voice
During the many times Stott was the expositor at the mission conferences sponsored by InterVarsity, there was one occasion in particular that some think made a great impact on him. Many of those in attendance at the Urbana 70 conference say that Stott was deeply moved by evangelist Tom Skinner’s plenary address, which was titled the “U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelization.” Stott reportedly listened to this historic speech intently and then looked into the eyes of the black students that filled the seats on the floor. He probably was able to see their spiritual passion and longing for justice in a new way. That experience, I believe, helped expand his worldview to see how our faith needs to be present and engaged in the issues that confront our world.
I am certain Stott could’ve spoken at any black conference or church and, through his humility and love for the Scriptures, communicated a gospel that would liberate the souls of those who struggled to find their voice and shalom in the world. He would’ve applied the message he shared in his book The Contemporary Christian, that a follower of Christ should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Without both, he is unarmed. With the newspaper only, you have the calamity and depravity in the world with no hope to offer. With only the Scripture, you have hope but no sense of where to apply it.
At Urbana 70, Tom Skinner remarked that “all truth is God’s truth.” I think John Stott understood this. He did not express an Anglican truth, a European truth, a white man’s truth; he was filled with the truth of Jesus Christ. And he sought to study and pursue that truth so single-mindedly that his life became a testimony to what true Christian devotion and discipleship should look like.
Remakes, remixes, and reruns seem very commonplace in today’s entertainment culture. Every other film today seems to be a remake of some classic movie or TV show from earlier days. Today’s music offerings are filled with remakes and “remixes” of older songs. Many television channels find it more profitable to rebroadcast syndicated reruns than to air brand-new shows that are unproven. As Solomon opined, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
Recently, my wife and I went to see Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. It was surprisingly good. Both of us felt Travolta’s character stole the show. I am more of a movie connoisseur than my wife, but normally even I don’t expect much from remakes. Sometimes you’re just unable to shake the original from your head. Whenever I hear Mariah Carey’s remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” I can still hear Michael Jackson vividly in my mind, even though I think Mariah has an extraordinary voice.
You know, sometimes things never get old. I can watch a good movie over and over again. I can listen to an amazing song repeatedly without tiring of it. Yet some things, when they are repeated, can become quite irritating.
We recently witnessed another irritating repeat of an old storyline when Cambridge Police officers took Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. away from his home in handcuffs. It was a surreal moment. I usually see Professor Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E. B Du Bois Institute, on PBS documentaries and the covers of magazines and books. I also had the privilege of visiting the Du Bois Institute on Harvard’s campus to witness the scholarly environment of some of our great Black minds, people like Dr. Gates, Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. William Julius Wilson. Seeing Gates escorted by the police from his home is something I never imagined could happen.
The surreal moment is the simple shock and disappointment that it has happened again. It doesn’t take much imagination for Black people in general to believe the incident really happened to another prominent Black figure. Just read Ellis Cose’s seminal Rage of a Privileged Class or countless other books and articles, it likes a bad script played over and over again.
I remember in the early 1990s when I saw the Rodney King incident on video of police beating him over and over again. The relief I felt then was that it was finally captured on film. Sadly, I think many of us in the Black community rejoiced. We were now vindicated by this incident, forever caught of film, confirming our claims of mistreatment. Certainly, we would have a public outcry for justice, and citizens from around the country would demand accountability from the police for their discriminatory actions. It didn’t happen as the police were found not guilty and the country not just L.A. was outraged to acts of violence in the spring of 1992 with riots spreading all over the country from Los Angeles to Ames, Iowa, to Atlanta.
Nowadays, when a prominent Black figure like Gates is arrested, Black people from around the nation say, “We have seen this movie before. It is a bad remake.” In less than 24 hours the police drop the charges, and the city of Cambridge describe the incident as “regrettable and unfortunate.” You betcha it’s regrettable and unfortunate.
Should we look at the calendar? It is 2009. We have a Black man as President of these United States of America. Yet, the image of a Black man as criminal is still the first image that so many have when they see us. Yep, I am one of them, too. I happen to be a Black man with three Black sons.
Months ago after Barack Obama was elected president and later sworn into the highest position in the land, the media ran with the notion that we are now living in a post-racial world. Race no longer has the firm grip it had for years in our country.
Who believed that? Oh, you can find some conservatives like Shelby Steele, or James Harris, the conservative radio host notorious for begging Senator McCain to aggressively go after Obama during the election. In general, most Black people don’t believe this. The statistics don’t support it. As bad as 10 percent unemployment is for our nation, the Black community would welcome 10 percent unemployment. Most of us, believe there is much work yet ahead of us before we arrive to a post racial era. A lot of the work lies within the Black community as much as externally.
Oh, I can hear the debate going back and forth about Prof. Gates’s interaction with the policeman allegedly escalating the incident to his own shame. Another critique will be that Gates wanted this outcome to draw attention to his books and documentaries on race in America. I wonder if anyone will ask why the police did not recognize who Prof. Gates is? Why do we have countless incidents of prominent Black men who have attained great success and position being perceived by the public as aberrant or exceptions to the rule, specifically by our police? This perception follows Black males from the fourth grade to the grave. I say fourth grade because that’s around the time when we are no longer cute and cuddly, we begin to display the resemblance of the adult version of ourselves. It doesn’t matter if they come from a two-parent home, teach at Harvard, or own a basketball team. This country, no matter what the ethnicity or race, continues to perceive Black men first as potential criminals. Unfortunately, many Black people hold this same perception.
I believe a more important critique about the incident is how Prof. Gates responded to the police. Evident at least to me is that his current status and notoriety has allowed him to begin to believe he is exceptional. The truth is, no Black man I know would risk engaging the police, in their home or anyplace else, to the level Prof. Gates did for fear of the possible outcome. I have taught my sons, and they have seen, how a Black man should relate to the police nonverbally and verbally, so as to avoid the results Prof. Gates got or an even worse consequence.
Isn’t it interesting that the incident of Oklahoma troopers going scuffling with a Black paramedic after stopping an ambulance en route to take a patient to the hospital did not get the national attention as Prof. Gates? This incident happened in late May. Wouldn’t it be interesting to document the number of times the police have stopped African American men who have attained middle-class status from those in graduate school to professionals? This data will be more enlightening than the current misdirected conversation about Prof. Gates and the Cambridge police versus the broader issue of how Black and Latino men are treated by the police.
If Henry Louis Gates does pursue a documentary on racial profiling, I hope he presents the historical data that displays this awful stereotype as an age-old dilemma that has evolved through the generations in our country, influencing the images Black people have themselves. It doesn’t seem to get old as fodder for our media. It’s just a new remix, with simple tweaks and nuances that make it current. But in the end, it’s an old song, old episode, and old movie. Many of us can write the script ourselves. But it continues to be produced. Sadly, we have to keep watching.
Now that the election is over, and Barack Obama is set to become our first African American president, it may be instructive for the nation to revisit the explosive controversy that almost took down Obama in his quest for this country’s highest office.