The Code of the Righteous Warrior
I SAW THE movement out of the corner of my eye. A guy getting out of a car that I hadn’t noticed. What is a car doing in the desert? And who is that? Suddenly, not just one, but two, three, four, five men were running toward me through the darkness, shouting. I stopped jogging, my vision tightly tunneling around them.
What the . . . ?
“You probably thought that you’d made it, didn’t you?” one of them yelled. “Well, it ain’t over yet!”
I may be a pastor but I wasn’t thinking about pacifism as I fought off my attackers—experts in Krav Maga, the martial art practiced by the Israeli Defense Forces—in the darkness of the Negev Desert. I was taking my test to become a Level 8 Instructor, the level that tests your ability to endure extreme exhaustion and pain. The test required me to stay awake for sixty hours straight, braving all sorts of endurance tests—endless push-ups under the one-hundred-degree sun, running up and down dunes carrying thirty-pound sandbags, doing countless sit-ups along the shore of the Mediterranean with the surf crashing over my face. I was participating along with five other Kravists, as we are called. (Krav maga means “contact combat.”) Now I was being jumped at three a.m. at the end of a seven-kilometer run.
The first attacker tried to punch me in the gut. My arms flew up and blocked him. I pummeled his torso, then I pushed him around to shield myself from the other attackers as he rained blows into my rib cage.
I ducked an elbow but took a kick to my thigh as one tried to take my legs out from under me.
“We’re taking you down!”
Over two and a half days of excruciating pain, I’d been deprived of sleep and permitted to eat only one orange, three dates, two almonds, and a couple of figs. It would have been easy to allow the expletives and racial slurs they threw at me along the way to bait me into losing my composure. But I knew not to think about them or the misery; I could not quit. So I called on one of my favorite passages of scripture: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
More than an hour earlier, Moni Aziks—a former commando with the Israeli Special Forces who had later founded the self-defense system Commando Krav Maga—had started a group of us on our run, ten to fifteen minutes apart. Back home and under normal conditions, I ran a nine-minute mile. This wasn’t normal. I could barely lift my legs and my lungs were on fire. My chest, my arms, my quads, my calves, the soles of my feet—everything burned.
Every hundred meters or so I’d reach one of the glow sticks Moni had placed along the trail, and each time I dragged myself to the top of yet another sand dune, I could see another glow stick glimmering.
Do not quit.
That was about the only thought I’d allowed myself.
I’d known from enduring previous CKM tests that any thought of my wife, Ellyn; daughters, Morgan or Eryka; food; or any other creature comfort might make my mind wander. Give the Devil a foothold. Make me return to Philadelphia short of the goal it had taken almost ten years of training to achieve. Something important about my manhood depended
upon my ability to complete this test. I was a successful pastor, but had also made some big mistakes during my life. Some that still haunt me. I needed this.
I slogged up yet another sand dune, then I saw Moni standing with his arms folded over his chest.
Hallelujah! You’re almost there!
I was on the verge of meeting a goal I’d set for myself when I was forty years old and overweight and had vowed to get my body back.
I was only about fifty yards from Moni when the car had come into view and the guys had jumped out.
Unexpectedly engaged in the fight of my life, I had no time to think “He’s swinging, let me put up my hand”; I relied on my body to do instinctively what I’d trained it to do. My hands went up in time to block the blows without my thinking or directing them to do so. I’d reached the point Bruce Lee once described as “I don’t hit; it hits itself.”
As another attacker came at me, I used the first guy as my shield and kicked my assailant’s legs out from under him.
Suddenly, my pants were down around my ankles and I couldn’t move my feet!
Then someone threw sand in my face. As I blinked and tried to spit it out of my mouth, a freight train slammed into my gut.
My hand reached for my belt buckle and I pulled my belt free and began to swing it like Okinawan nunchucks. I heard the leather whistle through the air, and saw it slice one attacker’s face.
I swung the lash again, this time backing two of them up.
A thought arose: This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m doing it—I can do this!
But there was no time to dwell on it. Fingers closed around my neck from behind.
Don’t let him choke you out!
I clenched my teeth into his arm as hard as I could.
“AAAARGH!” he yelled as my bite penetrated his protective arm pads.
His hands loosened around my neck.
Then Moni’s voice: “Okay, stop. That’s enough!”
I’d done it!
No Longer Running
I have been in ministry for more than thirty years. I hold both a master’s degree and a doctorate. But I also like to fight. The truth be told, I love to fight. I really, really love to fight! In fact, I have been engaging in fights of one form or another since my mother signed me up for judo when I was eight years old and got me a G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip. I know, this may not make sense to you. If you’re like most people, you have been raised to see ministers as mild-mannered, even weak—the kind of guys who turn the other cheek. So it’s probably hard to imagine a man of the cloth who also likes to throw and take blows. But I do and I stand unabashedly in that truth about myself. Perhaps knowing a little bit about my background will help you understand.
I grew up outside of Cleveland, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the son of a prominent minister. From my earliest recollections, when I was three or four until I was in the fifth grade, I was always the shortest boy in the class, and thin. You could have called me shy, timid, or something politically incorrect, but the truth of the matter is, despite my father’s position, there were ways in which my life was rough. Among them, Derrick, Michael, Mark, and Jeff bullied me, and when people pick on you, you don’t
soon forget. I was afraid of them, and I was scared a lot. Until I started fifth grade, that is.
You may have seen the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring Will Smith, which was popular back in the early nineties. That was my life in a nutshell, and I would have been Carlton, not the Fresh Prince. But in the fifth grade, my cousin Lonnie relocated to Cleveland from Philadelphia. Lonnie was “West Philadelphia born and raised,” just like the Fresh Prince. He, too, had gotten in trouble, and Aunt Willa Mae wanted him out of their neighborhood.
But as soon as Cousin Lonnie showed up in the CLE, my life got a whole lot better. Lonnie was five years older than me and he promised that he would have my back. Then he “handled” Derrick, Michael, Mark, and Jeff; they didn’t bother me anymore. Lonnie taught me how to protect myself: He took me into the garage and taught me how to fight. To my surprise, I kind of liked fighting. Before long, I was able to hold my own and dish out “a two-piece and a biscuit” whenever the situation required it. Knowing how to protect myself changed something inside of me. I was no longer scared, no longer always running. A few years after that I discovered wrestling, and I was good at it; and over time I became very accomplished. Finally, I could “handle myself” when it came to the aggression I experienced from other males.
Then one day Lonnie handed down to me an Army shirt with cut-off sleeves and Bruce Lee spray-painted on the back that one of his uncles who had served in Vietnam had brought back and given to him. He might as well have awarded me a black belt; when I wore it you couldn’t tell me anything. The movie Enter the Dragon had just come out and Bruce Lee was its star. After that came David Carradine and Kung Fu. Everyone was into karate. Martial arts became my world.
Fast forward to my freshman year in college. I got distracted by parties and booze and quit the wrestling team. I didn’t know it then, but I was born with a gene that predisposes me to alcoholism, a battle I’d fight for
the rest of my life. To help pay for school I enlisted in the National Guard, and for six years served as a weekend warrior as a 19 Delta Calvary Scout, part of the Emergency Response Team. It was there that I learned military values, as well as how to box and handle a weapon. I received my call into the ministry while I was in the Guard. During my final year, I became a chaplain’s assistant. In 1994, several years after graduating from seminary and after pastoring the First Baptist Church in Donora, Pennsylvania, God presented me with the opportunity to become the senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Unbeknownst to me, I was arriving during what would become known as the mega-church movement. Our congregation grew from several hundred to more than fifteen thousand members.
It was a tremendously fun and exciting time; the work was also extremely demanding. I struggled to balance my family life and our rapidly growing ministry with self-care. My blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight began to creep up; I started to feel weird. After being so physically active and fit during my youth, I became the classic middle-aged man struggling with his weight. During my late thirties, I finally started going to the gym, where I faced the sobering reality that, in addition to gaining around thirty pounds, I’d lost a tremendous amount of strength, flexibility, and fitness. Working out was a struggle. Not only that, the more I fought to regain what I’d lost, the more I felt haunted by what I’d left on the table. I’d departed for college with the intention of wrestling and excelling academically. Truth be told, I had done neither. I was a fair student at best until I attended seminary. What would my life have been like if I had been a scholar during my undergraduate years? What would my life have been like if I hadn’t thrown in the towel on the wrestling team? How good could I have become? Could I have made it to the Pan-Am Games or the Olympics? Regrets started eating away at me.
During this time, I learned that an older member of our church, Hamilton Robinson, was an expert in Naphtali, a martial art with a Christian
overlay that had originated among the Berber people of North Africa. I knew that I needed to work toward a goal. I also wanted to be held accountable. Fortunately, Master Robinson was at a point in his life where he was looking to share what he knew with younger men. A small group of guys who attended the church and loved fitness and martial arts started training intensively under him several times a week. Everyone’s health improved as we took better care of ourselves. Along the way, our band of brothers, as we’d begun to call ourselves—Leroy, Jerry, Jerome, Mark, Rich, and Vernell—promised each other that we would stay fit and practice martial arts for the rest of our lives. We joked that we would become like SEAL Team Six, forty-year-old style. I started telling the guys that when I turned fifty, I wanted to be like Jason Bourne, the CIA assassin in the Bourne spy-thriller movie series. I was laughing as I said it, but from a self-defense standpoint, I really wasn’t kidding. I reimmersed myself in the martial arts, earning an advanced ranking in four: CKM, American Kenpo karate, Muay Thai, and Naphtali. I’ve also picked wrestling back up. Individually, we began to set goals to really challenge ourselves, then we held each other to them. We have trained together to run in the Penn Relays, the world’s largest track-and-field competition, as well as participated in endurance events like the Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and GORUCK Challenge. We’ve also engaged in extreme adventures—from a Navy SEALs BUD/S experience in North Carolina, to Muay Thai training in Thailand, to Greg Jackson’s MMA training in New Mexico, to a survivalist adventure in the Amazon. I do something extreme at least once a year.
I realize that these are not activities you’d normally associate with a minister; however, they help me to remove myself from the strange world of ministry, where people often defer to me to an extent that makes me extremely uncomfortable. Instead, experiences like these allow me to connect with my inner “man’s man” and experience a lot of variety and adventure. They equip me with skills I need in other areas of life: in my marriage and in my relationships with my adult daughters; during daily
life as an African-American man, as I minister to people on the best and worst days of their lives; and as I serve God in various ways in Philadelphia, around the nation, and, increasingly, as I travel the world. They also push me past my limitations and give me the chance to live the scripture: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
As I engaged in these activities and martial arts practices, I found myself becoming fascinated by the lives of warriors in different cultures, and began to study them. This caused me to think seriously about manhood—particularly in the years around the recession, as I spoke with so many men who had been shaken to their core and challenged to call upon every weapon they possessed to protect themselves and their loved ones—and not always successfully. The experiences have also allowed me to talk about difficult topics with a wide variety of men, often because these contexts allow men to put their guard down. For example, in my martial arts life, during extreme adventures, and in my work as a chaplain for the police and FBI, I have spoken with many White men about their lives and concerns—from fears of job loss and the demographic change taking place in the United States, to a perceived loss of status as men, to the typical family struggles, to the opioid crisis, to school shootings, and so on. Of course, I was already well aware of the trials that many Black males experience, as they have experienced both economic challenges and society’s racism, being “last hired and first fired,” as well as daily struggles to participate in the American Dream, the police brutality being caught on cell phone videos, and in inner-city contexts, underfunded schools and gun violence. I interact frequently with Philadelphia’s Islamic community as well as with rabbis and religious leaders of other faiths and have learned a bit about their concerns. Over the past several years, I have also traveled the world. I was once invited to preach in Korea, where I learned more about that nation as well as a bit about the struggles that Korean Americans and other Asian Americans face. Our own church missionary activities and my leadership of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society helped me to
connect the dots between men’s experiences in the United States and all over the world, as I’ve traveled to places as varied as Mexico, Italy, Israel and Palestine, South Africa, Kenya, India, and beyond.
Along the way, life happened to the brothers and me as we trained and got to know each other. God blessed us with children and our families grew together. The church snowballed in size and began to impact both the city and the world. We bought houses, got new jobs, and won promotions. Somehow our children grew up. Some have gone off to college and others have even graduated. But tragedy struck, as well. Between all of us we have lost parents, children, siblings, and other people we loved. Some of us enjoyed the golden years with our parents; others nursed elders through sickness and watched them pass away. Some of us excelled professionally; others have struggled. Some of us have wives who have surpassed us professionally and financially. Our daughters started facing sexism, sexual harassment, and other struggles we didn’t want them to face. Some of us had sons who were not only experiencing the difficulties inherent to life as a Black male, but also competition and new rules and expectations from girls and women that we knew we hadn’t prepared them for.
As we engaged in these issues, we realized that society didn’t have much to offer us in terms of guidance. There was little that we’d learned about manhood that could help us navigate this brave new world, which was so different from that of our parents. So we learned to trust and share with and lean on each other, each of us finding in the other something that we didn’t know we were missing. We read and studied together—the Bible, Christian literature, leadership, money and finance, self-help, martial arts philosophy. As we experienced skirmishes in the world, we had each other’s back. In time, we recognized that each of us needed to dial back in order to reconcile the parts of ourselves that had been hurt or we’d left behind or overlooked, so we could move forward as more fully developed men. Together, we learned more what it means to be a middle-aged man, as we absorbed lessons around teamwork, taking care of ourselves,
dealing with adversity, and how we could grow in our fellowship and, as Christians, in our witness for Christ.
A Man’s Fight
Even though I try to prepare myself to fight any battle, as I write this book at age fifty-four, I don’t ever want to have a physical fight. In fact, you can fight me if you want, but even though I know how to drop you, I’ll be calling the police and pressing charges. That said, I believe that every man should know how to defend himself and his loved ones. The martial arts and extreme experiences have given me many contexts in which to grow and develop that most other guys don’t have. Indeed, I wish every man had the ability to undergo some sort of ritualistic manhood training, as I have, to prepare him to respond to the demands of life as instinctively and effectively as a fighter responds to an incoming punch. Because the fact of the matter is, every guy will have to fight. He will have to fight for his job, fight for his marriage, fight for his children, and at some point, each of us will probably have to fight for our life. We also have to persevere when we’re hurt and afraid and the demands of life push us past our current capabilities.
Whether in my church, on a martial arts mat, or as I travel the country and world engaged in various forms of pastoral leadership, many men I talk to are feeling uncomfortable and insecure, even as the economy has strengthened. As the rich get richer and increasingly wall themselves off from the rest of society, many of the jobs and career paths that traditionally allowed working-and middle-class guys to make a good living are either going up in smoke or have already vanished. Many Millennials struggle to get a foothold in a workforce full of adults doing jobs—working at Starbucks, delivering advertising circulars, selling at stadium concessions, and the like—that once were held by young people. Even some careers populated by professional men—think accounting, finance, law, and medicine—are being partially outsourced and automated. Experts
project that in the coming years, many jobs and even entire career paths will be taken over by robots.
So it’s no wonder that an increasing numbers of guys have been telling me that, even though they were raised to believe that they should protect and provide, they find themselves at least somewhat reliant upon women. Men talk about how the women in their lives are not only becoming more powerful, they’re also excelling in areas where they didn’t expect to compete with them. Most of the guys I know want their wives and sisters and daughters to do well. They also admit that it’s hard to know what the women need from them and where they stand in their relationships with women. (Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.) Many guys are struggling with the belief that the gains women and people of color have experienced are coming at their expense—a perception that’s particularly challenging in an era during which men’s roles in society and family life have become so unclear. And let’s not forget about the #MeToo movement. Lots of guys are struggling to understand the new rules; some even feel as though they are under attack. Untold numbers of men have revised their expectations downward. Then they worry because they don’t know how low the bottom is. That’s really scary! Even among very successful men, you’d be surprised how many guys feel isolated, inadequate, vulnerable, anxious, and depressed. Unfortunately, many of them think they’re the only ones having those feelings.
The Way of the Warrior
I don’t know about you, but I’m a movie guy. The Brad Pitt movie Fight Club is one of my favorites, and I believe that Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, expresses the way a lot of men feel: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
I get it. Many of us have reason to feel betrayed and afraid.
But I have to admit that a lot of guys don’t handle change particularly well, either.
Many of the men I talk to don’t know how to channel fear, frustration, anger, and grief into positive emotions and action. If I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’ve been that dude—and still am sometimes. The truth of the matter is, there’s no place for a man to talk about what’s going on with him. So instead, we do things like grab a cigarette, a brew, a blunt, an Oxy, or a Xanax; retreat to our man cave; watch porn and/or have sex; put our head under the hood of our car; or head to the electronics store for our fix—not realizing that by not sharing we’re not only isolating ourselves further, we’re undermining our health. More often than many of us might like to admit, in ways large and small, men are throwing in the towel and giving up the fight. Many of us are falling short of our goals and waving the white flag—whether at work, in relationships, family life, finances, health, spiritually, or other areas where succeeding would require us to dig deeper than we ever have and actually show up as our best selves. Some of us are becoming abusive, violent, and destructive, whether toward ourselves, our loved ones, or other human beings. Sadly, many of us are failing to demonstrate the type of fortitude that was common among men of previous generations.
Yet, while unacceptable, some of what we’re witnessing actually makes sense. Because aside from being initiated into sports, drinking, street fighting, and sex, only a handful of American men have ever engaged in any formal manhood ritual to prepare us for the challenges of modern life—least of all, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy approaches. The one exception I’d make is among men who’ve joined the military, who learn a set of values around manhood, order, valor, and fighting that prepare them to excel, though active duty leaves many men mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually debilitated.
With this as the backdrop, it’s no wonder that many of us flail, fail, or
even implode when we encounter demands that could equally have strengthened, transformed, or even propelled us to the next level had someone merely prepared us to handle them. It’s no surprise that so few of us demonstrate a mind-set that would prepare us to thrive, rather than just survive, amidst difficulty, if we only knew it. Absent these skills, perhaps it shouldn’t even surprise us that we are witnessing so many men taking on life’s challenges in morally questionable—or, worse, cynical, corrupt, or even depraved—ways.
Unlike those of us who live in the industrialized world, many young men in more traditional cultures engage in ritualistic manhood training that prepares them to take on life’s trials and tribulations. Indeed, in every traditional society that I’m aware of, the fighting class of men—from British knights, to the Maasai morans, to Maori warriors—once lived or currently lives according to a Bushido, the Japanese word for the code of conduct that governed ancient samurai fighters. In English, “bushido” means “way of the warrior.” A bushido not only trains a man how to fight, it teaches him leadership, spiritual development, fiscal responsibility, a positive mental attitude, as well as other productive masculine values. Importantly, it provides guidelines for engaging in fruitful relationships—with God, himself, the woman in his life, children, extended family, other men, or the entire nation.
Warriors who adhere to a bushido abide by a different set of rules than other males in that same society. They value morality, truth, honor, integrity, and justice above all else, as members of our modern military are trained to do. They pursue excellence throughout their lives and perfect their character in order to achieve it. And as they challenge themselves to live by these rigorous virtues they find tremendous power. I believe that modern-day men could learn a lot about life’s fight from the values of warriors in other cultures.
Christianity offers its own bushido and, as a minister who is also a martial artist, I believe that Jesus role-modeled it during his life. I believe
that understanding these principles can help Christian men, men who practice other faiths, men who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, as well as men who are agnostic and atheist learn skills to help them live into their manly promise and potential. Far too many of us have been socialized to equate Christianity with peace. I believe that peace is important, but the Bible also includes plenty of imagery of battle and war, particularly in the Old Testament.
Indeed, I believe that Jesus Christ was a warrior.
Of course, this bumps up against the Church’s historical portrayal of Jesus as a namby-pamby type of guy. I think this weak representation of Jesus is one of the reasons you find more women in church than men no matter what denomination or where in the nation you go. Most of the men I know don’t relate to this milquetoast version of Christ, nor should they. As I will explain, the way I interpret the Bible, that story is fundamentally inaccurate. As a minister who is also a martial artist, it is evident to me that as Jesus was aggressed against on the way to Calvary, where he was crucified, his approach to defending himself was consistent with the tenets of a warrior’s code. As Jesus lived a warrior’s life, Jesus not only fulfilled his destiny but also transcended the limitations society had placed on him and overcame the world’s way of thinking.
Cracking the Code
In The Code of the Righteous Warrior, I share the blueprint that Jesus provided and propose a bushido that Christian and other religious, spiritual, and moral men can live by in order to access their best selves. When I use the term “righteous,” I am not referring to a man who is sinless, beyond fault, or perfect. I mean a man who strives to do the next right thing and in the process to sin less. For the record, when I use the word “sin,” I refer to the term originally derived from archery that means “off the mark.” In other words, off the spiritual path God intended you to follow through life.
The appropriate response to sin is to acknowledge your mistake, make any reparations that may be necessary to the offended party (if there is one), make an adjustment, and ask God to help you get back on track.
In Part One of this book, I describe the bushido that Christ set forth and discuss how following it can help any man begin to live into his destiny. In Part Two, I set forth what I call “The Code of the Righteous Warrior,” a bushido consisting of ten laws based on Judeo-Christian principles that I’ve developed for men who desire to understand and fulfill the journey through their destiny. The Code explores what it might look like for a spiritual, moral, and masculine man to embrace the rules of martial arts conduct in the six areas of fitness I believe modern-day men must master to thrive: spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, relational, and financial. I believe every man should know how to defend himself and his loved ones. Not only is every principle consistent with Christianity—as well as with the other Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam—every principle also reflects a tenet of Naphtali, the only martial art completely consistent with Jesus’s teachings on self-defense. We teach Naphtali at our church.
Each tenet of the Code is accompanied by real men’s stories. In the interest of transparency, I include a few of the lessons I’ve learned during my own manhood journey, including my personal, professional, martial arts, and extreme experiences. Several of the fellas who engage in extreme adventures with me—Revs. Jerome Glover and Leroy Miles, who are both now pastors at Enon, as well as three members of our church: Vernell Bailey III, Jerry Pendergrass, and Richard Walls—have shared their stories in the hope that by being transparent about their lives and making themselves vulnerable, they might touch and help change another man’s trajectory.
As you consider these stories I invite you to locate yourself within them and think: “He is talking to me.” I also encourage you to get a notebook or create a journal to take notes and capture your thoughts as you
consider how these ideas relate to your own life. As you read, I invite you to imagine how your life could look under ideal circumstances, no matter how things look today. Ask yourself questions like:
What makes me tick?
What do I really like?
What does it take for me to feel happy?
What works well in my life right now?
What isn’t working well that I’d like to change?
Who and what are inspiring me?
How might I need to change in order to live a more inspired life?
Pay attention to the answers and record them. As you read the stories of our adventures, also imagine some manhood rituals you could engage in to help you live into this higher vision of yourself.
I See You
As I write this book during the first eighteen months of the Trump administration, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that we are facing challenging racial times.
I approach this book about manhood as an African-American man. Men of different races, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and cultural backgrounds tend to experience some aspects of manhood differently. I believe that my life experience and perspectives will not only bless men of African descent, but also White men and men of other races and ethnicities—whether Asian, Latino, mixed-race, or Native American—who share the challenges that people of color face in their effort to be seen as fully human. I also believe this book will provide all men with the opportunity to consider life and manhood through a different lens, and, in
the process, access some new and different tools and approaches to life that might help them to create new possibilities and options.
While I do not take up the issue of race specifically, I do not run from it, either. Our oppressive society has stripped some of the warrior from African-American men, and those of us who identify as such need to think about what we need to do to get it back. Some White men knowingly or unknowingly oppress Black and other men of color, stripping us of our manhood. The dynamic of stripping and being stripped deprives all men, indeed all of humankind, of our full humanity and promise. So when I address race, I make an effort to show how much all men have in common, even in our diverse ways of understanding and experiencing manhood.
I also want to call out the fact that I tend to look at the world from an Afro-sensitive perspective. In other words, not only am I Christ-centered, I am also sensitive to the African experience of Jesus and understand my relationship with God through God’s revelation through African people. I look at Africa as a place of rich history, culture, and humanity, not as a “dark continent” devoid of humanity and culture—a position that has been strengthened by my travels and work with our sister church, partners, and fellow ministers in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and beyond. I do not view people of African descent as minorities, outsiders, or “others,” as we are typically viewed within the United States and throughout Western culture. Instead, I place people of African descent as a significant source of the conversation. Importantly, African thought tends to rest in the belief that a person’s humanity comes first—before their race, ethnicity, class, or other dimensions of who they are. This often runs counter to the typical Western approach, where a person’s value is often determined by what they have or what they do. African values tend to be very human-centered. From an Afrocentric perspective, one of the greatest things I can do is see you—see you, acknowledge you, and respect you. In South Africa—a nation where our church engages in a lot of ministry work—one of the words for hello, sawubona, a Zulu word, carries the connotation “I see you.”
In general, people of African descent do not look at or value people according to either their accomplishments or sins; they tend not to be overly impressed with or disgusted by anyone—no matter what they’ve done. From this perspective, “I see you” has a human-first approach, whether you do things that are great or have done things that are terrible. I bring that worldview to this book. I believe that if diverse humans can see each other, we can learn to love each other. A person who truly sees you cannot nullify or ignore you. A police officer who sees your humanity will not be quick to kill you. A young man on the street who sees your humanity will not shoot you. Learning to see each other opens the door to loving each other. You will see this belief system reflected throughout the book.
Another significant way African thought tends to differ from Western thought is that, in the African worldview, difficulty is expected in life and the presence of evil is certain. As a result, people who interpret life through an Afrocentric lens learn to be comfortable with life however it comes and to let it roll off of them. This differs from traditional Eurocentric thought, where difficulty and evil are viewed as aberrant. When things don’t go well, a person interpreting a difficult or evil event through an African-centered framework might ask “What is to come of this?,” where someone approaching the same happening through a more Eurocentric framework might ask “Why did this happen to me?” One is not better or worse than the other; they’re just different and create different outcomes. There are many ways of thinking that we all should explore. I believe we can all learn from one another.
In addition to being African American, I am also a conservative Christian. That means that I believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God and accept him as my personal Savior. I also accept the Bible as the word of God. I believe it means what it says, but also that it must be interpreted in order to carry the principles, rather than the literal meaning, across the ages. The Black conservative Christian tradition means I am theologically conservative but socially liberal. I believe in the Bible as it is; however, I struggle to
understand the socio-grammatical questions of the text. By that I mean that I wrestle to understand: What does it say? What did it mean to the original hearers? What has the church said? What does it mean to me? How does that apply to today? Whenever there’s a question between the truth in the Bible and other truths, for me the Bible wins out. However, though I believe the Bible, I do not have what we might consider to be right-wing beliefs.
One of Christianity’s many wonderful teachings is that it tells us that God loves everyone. That means Christians ought to love and honor all of humankind. A well-developed Christian respects people whether or not they believe they are behaving honorably. They also love other people whether or not those persons love them back. What’s more, a Christian who is also mature ought to demonstrate a sense of self that extends beyond his family, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political party, geography, or any of the ways that people think of themselves as different. They also ought to be content with the fact that many Christian beliefs run counter to popular culture and consumer capitalism. Consequently, Christians tend to sit angularly to the world. But I believe we ought to accept that “angledness” without becoming closed off or narrow-minded.
Having said that, all of the world’s major religions teach good information and I respect them. In fact, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all contain some form of the Golden Rule and have a code of ethics that monitors marriage and families; describes who you can and cannot have sex with; identifies what you can and cannot eat; distinguishes between good and bad behavior; and provides some sort of reckoning day when God makes everything make sense. Indeed, they’re very similar except in what can help us wrestle with our brokenness and wash away our sin. That’s where Jesus becomes important to the Christian. As you read, you will see these values among those reflected in my approach. You will also note that as often as possible I refer to God as God and Jesus as Jesus
rather than He or Him. I do this because trapping God in a masculine pronoun limits our understanding and appreciation for the masculinity and femininity of God. Many of us know God as Our Father, but we may not be aware that God is also El Shaddai, the many-breasted one. In other words, God is a motherly father.
But rather than approach you merely from my position as minister, I come before you as both a man who has developed himself spiritually in order to lead and as an imperfect one who has struggled—and continues to struggle—to get it right and become the best man I can. For example, among the stories I share is the fact that I am an alcoholic, and like many recovering alcoholics I wrestle with that weakness. It was not God’s creational intentionality for me to be an alcoholic, but in his permissive will, I was born that way. That said, God allows me to live, love, and function although I am one. The degree to which I wrestle with and overcome my addiction is the degree to which God opens up more opportunities in my life; whereas, the degree to which I have succumbed to it has just led to frustration. Early in my ministry I’d imagined myself leading a neighborhood church of just a few hundred people; however, God had something different in mind. Despite alcoholism and other weaknesses, I lead and teach thousands of people. Often, the fact that I stand in front of so many makes me even more aware of my faults and areas where I fall short and feel unworthy. In my struggle to be my best self, I am aware that my loved ones, my staff, my congregation, and the larger world meet me at the intersection between my ugliness and my awesomeness. Now you will as well.
So in the pages of this book, I share what I know with tremendous humility. I have intentionally stepped away from some of the traditional Christian language I use in the pulpit to adopt a brotherly tone that reflects my personal struggles and hope that these ideas will reach men of all religious backgrounds, as well as guys who define themselves a spiritual, atheist, agnostic, or nothing at all. I respect different religious traditions and we all wrestle with very similar issues in life no matter what god we call on.
If you are a man, we have some things in common despite any other differences between us. That’s why I hope that men of all races, ethnicities, and spiritual and religious beliefs (or no spiritual beliefs) will consider how the ideas I share might help you navigate the tumultuousness and uncertainty of modern life and help you experience possibilities that few men are able to access by adhering to the norms of modern society and popular culture.
Indeed, life is not a dress rehearsal. Most of us don’t get a lot of do-overs and second chances. I know that I am not trying to leave life with too many “I wish I hads” remaining on my bucket list; I hope you don’t, either. And why should you? God wants you to experience your full potential and fulfill the reasons that you were placed on this planet. Indeed, you were born both with a destiny and the ability to achieve it. When I use the term “destiny,” I mean a hidden power and a spiritual assignment to accomplish specific things in the world that no one who ever has lived or is ever to come will be able to accomplish. This destiny was assigned to you before you were born and is connected to every other person’s destiny. The decision of whether to fulfill it or how much of it you fulfill is in your hands; it is up to you.
Our planet is facing many serious challenges and you have been wired with the ability to help the world overcome at least one of them. This mission, if you choose to accept it, will challenge you, provide the sense of adventure that many men complain is missing from their lives, and fill your existence with great meaning and joy; even a sense of victory. Though we may hold different spiritual or religious perspectives, I believe that at least some of the Code of the Righteous Warrior will not only resonate with you but also help you become the man you long to be, just as it is helping me. Because the time has come for men to overcome our differences so we can participate in our lives and the world in a much greater way.
Alyn E. Waller