On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Jun 21, 2024

This past week, I was deeply honored to be included on a short list of Anglicans and/or Episcopalians interviewed for a series on “Politics, Faith, and Mission” for Baptist News Global. The others included were former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Bishop of Washington D.C. Mariann Budde, Dean Randy Hollerith of the National Cathedral, and Winnie Varghese, formerly of Trinity Wall Street here in our own Diocese.

The series also includes some best-selling authors like Brian McLarenRussell Moore, David Dark (“We Become What We Normalize“) and Jemar Tisby (“The Color of Compromise“). Grace Ji-Sun Kim (“Healing Our Broken Humanity“) will be the next interview coming out this week.

Click here to link to my interview. I’d be humbled if you found it worth your time. (Teaser: Our parish–and one parishioner in particular–get a mention).

As you can imagine, there were some other questions asked during the interview that didn’t make it into publication. I thought I’d share just one. As fair warning, I imagine this particular answer got cut because it’s (among) the most controversial thing(s) I said. But the broader point of what I say here is simply this–though Christ alone is Lord, we Christians are experts on making idols out of cultural objects of worship (as the Protestant Reformer John Calvin once put it, our hearts are “idol factories”). And, in our culture, the one idol that tends most to garner or attention is money.

So, it is essentially a call for the church to embrace deeper faithfulness of the Gospel, and a deeper witness for the Kingdom of God. And I hope, and I pray, that the Church of the Incarnation will be a place that might offer that kind of witness.

Nate+

Greg Garrett: You serve in a historic church on Madison Avenue that is in the middle of American life—the Empire State Building is a block away, as is the Morgan Library. I know that Incarnation is deeply involved in the work of social justice, but I wonder: What challenges do you face being part of a national Church that has historically represented the white, wealthy, and powerful? Are there lessons you could pass on to the larger American Church?

Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee: Here’s where I’ll probably get myself in trouble (if I haven’t already). I find doing social justice work in the Episcopal Church extraordinarily challenging. More simply, I think that the white and especially the wealthy identity of the Episcopal Church still determines (i.e. controls, limits, etc.) our involvement in projects of social justice. We are white and wealthy first. We care about social justice to the extent that it doesn’t fundamentally challenge that white and wealthy identity.

As I suggested above, I find myself somewhat aligned with Black Marxist critiques of “racial capitalism” at this point. With reference to racial capitalism, a simple way to put what I’m saying here is that we care about social justice as it relates to advocating for (i.e. affirming, liberating, protecting, etc.) people of marginalized identities. That is the sense in which we see ourselves as “progressive.” We are “progressive” on questions of identity. However, we fail even to really advocate for these identities precisely to the extent that we fail to challenge the economic systems and structures that brought these identities into being, and which still require their existence today.

To be clear, I’m not just referring to systemic forms of racism like income disparity or redlining or unjust lending policies. I mean, more broadly, that we’re unwilling to seriously question how our communities and our societies are fundamentally beholden to and organized by the market. The result is that we’re not fundamentally progressive in the way that term was originally used—in terms of being economically (and therefore socially) revolutionary.

In fact, I think I would go further than this (and God help me, because I’m just going to say it). I think many progressive mainline churches (that have traditionally been white and wealthy) are in the business of sustaining their own existence through the exploitation of these marginalized identities. It’s of course a different kind of exploitation than (e.g.) exhausting the bodies of people of color for labor. But I still think at least one reason the Episcopal Church advocates for these identities is because it helps us “keep the lights on,” for example, because it attracts marginalized people who either bring with them or themselves become resources for our organizations, or because it attracts the financial (social, political, etc.) capital of those who also want to advocate for people of marginalized identities. In that sense, we are still being bought and sold.

That may seem harsh, but you see where the “buck stops” when advocating for marginalized peoples comes into conflict with the economic realities of our churches. When standing up for social justice involves significant economic consequences—say, the loss of some major income stream or the reprobation of some major financial donor—most of our churches (and their leaders) will quickly lose their convictions about social justice. And pretty much all of them have some threshold where the choice will turn in favor of economic realities. This is in part because very few churches or church leaders who make the opposite choice—to be on the side of justice no matter what—survive. So, at the end of the day, the bottom line becomes our bottom line.

Now think how different that is then Jesus and the movement he started. Can you think of a time when Jesus checked a budget sheet before he decided whether or not to side with the oppressed? Or worse, where he instrumentalized his care for the oppressed in order to build his own movement? Can you imagine our churches ever performing extraordinary acts of care for those on the margins and then doing what Jesus constantly does in, for example, the Gospel or Mark (i.e. warning them not to tell anyone about it)? Of course not. We’re much more likely to turn it into a pre-planned photo op.

Money was the moral evil Jesus warned his disciples about most often. If there’s a lesson I would want to pass on to the larger church, it’s about how incredibly difficult it is to stand up for social justice in market societies, and how badly we need leaders and communities with the sort or courage and moral clarity that Jesus had, who will stand up for social justice no matter what—even if it gets them killed.