All posts by Cliff Wall

About Cliff Wall

Married, father of five, and pastor and preacher.

Ideas that Blind; The Restorer of Sight

The ninth chapter of the Gospel of John tells the story of when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind. The miraculous healing was one of the significant signs in John’s Gospel, pointing to the identity of Jesus as Israel’s messiah, the divine Son of God, and Savior of the world. The physical healing also pointed to the need for spiritual healing. The religious leaders who were so upset with Jesus for healing the man on the Sabbath, among other things, were also blind. They were blinded by unbelief. Their rejection of Jesus as their messiah was the end result of holding wrong ideas and expectations for the messiah inspired by desires corrupted by sin (John 8). They couldn’t see what they weren’t looking for and, therefore, were blind to the truth of who was in their midst. As John put it: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11 ESV)

Ideas and beliefs based on those ideas either help us to see the truth or blind us to it. Ideas have consequences and one of those consequences may be severe spiritual blindness.

At one time I was convinced that Jesus could not be both human and divine. It seemed to me to be unreasonable. The paradoxes seemed to be outright contradictions. I was convinced if Jesus was truly human he could not also be fully divine. By the grace of God, eventually I humbled myself to accept the revelation of Jesus given in Scripture even though it is beyond the full grasp of reason. I submitted my mind to the revelation of God’s word and gained the mind of Christ (Philp 2:1-11). I discovered the difference between truth that is incomprehensible, beyond what our limited minds can fully understand, and beliefs that are merely contradictory. Even the nature of created things is beyond our full comprehension. As St. Anselm, who well knew the limitations of reason to comprehend and language to explain, asked, referring to the Triune God, the Creator: “and what after all, is as incomprehensible, as ineffable, as that which is above everything else?” (Monologion, 64).

Failing to recognize the limits of reason to comprehend is itself a form of blindness. Jesus said, he came into the world “. . . that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39 ESV). The religious leaders thought they could see just fine, but the man-made traditions they had added to the word of God had made them blind guides of the blind (Matt 15:13). Their cherished traditions had blinded them to the revealed word of God in Scripture. They didn’t believe in Jesus because they really didn’t believe the word of God revealed in the writings of Moses and the prophets, even though they claimed otherwise (John 9:28-29; cf. 5:45-47).

When we over estimate the power of reason and ideas derived from our own limited experiences it blinds us to the truth. To the Jewish people in Jesus’ day a messiah who would vanquish their pagan oppressors was reasonable, but one who came to vanquish the forces of sin, hell, and the grave by dying on the cross and rising from the dead was not. Consequently, they were blinded to prophecies like Isaiah 52-53 and Psalm 22.

I was blind to the reality that Jesus was fully divine because I underestimated the limitations of reason and became steeped in pride thinking that I had insight into something that I thought most of the Church had gotten wrong for most of its history. Wrong ideas led me to force fit certain passages like John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:1-11 into a paradigm where Jesus could only be human not also divine. Exalting reason above revelation leads to distortion of revelation and prevents divine revelation from acting as corrective lenses for reason. When we overestimate what we can see, we are blind.

We may also underestimate what we can see and become blind, even willfully so. Sometimes I see the meme below going around, sometimes to suggest that all truth is relative. One person’s 6 is another person’s 9. Neither are really right or wrong. This, however, is misleading. There are some things where differing perspectives may actually be complementary rather than contradictory as they may initially seem. In other cases, it is extremely difficult, to know what is right and what is wrong. This is not always the case though. In this world everything exists within a particular context and when we can adequately discern context it can help us accurately discern meaning.

In the following sentence there is no question that the number that is in question in the other scenario is 9 and not 6.

The Chicago Bears: 1985 Super Bowl Champions!

The surrounding context gives us a high degree of confidence that 1985 not 1685 is the year that the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl. If it read 1685 virtually everyone in America and much of the rest of the world would know that it must be a typo. Who would take anyone seriously for very long who tried to argue that the number could actually be 1685?

Sometimes people see more than they want to admit, and strangely this too is a form of blindness. Ideas are often resistant to adjustment in light of evidence, which sometimes leads us to distort or ignore the evidence that doesn’t fit with the ideas we hold. As Jordan Peterson says, sometimes it’s not that people possess ideas, but ideas possess people. Some ideas seem to take on a life of their own and become associated with ancient cosmic forces. 1 Timothy 4:1-2 warns about “deceitful spirits” and “teachings of demons” that work through liars who have seared consciences.

There are people who couldn’t care less about what is right or true. Some today have been convinced by some relatively recent French neo-Marxist philosophers that all truth is relative and that any claim to truth is merely a claim to power. Ultimately these are incoherent and self-contradictory claims. Is it really “true” that all truth claims are merely a claim to power? Is it absolutely true that all truth is relative?

Nonetheless, those that adhere to such notions are ironically absolutely committed to certain narratives, so much so that they refuse to allow any evidence to the contrary to led them to adjust the narrative. The sad case of Breonna Taylor is a case in point.

Despite the fact a Black attorney general and the former head of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP insist that the police officers were within their legal rights to fire back once they were fired upon by Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend, some refuse to accept it. The grand jury and the attorney general concluded that the evidence didn’t fit the narrative that the police simply murdered a young woman while she lie asleep in bed simply because she was Black. Her death, while tragic, was not a racially motivated murder. The attorney general of Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, and the grand jury concluded based on the contextual evidence that the officers involved did not deserve to be indicted for homicide. Aubrey Williams, former president of the Louisville NAACP agreed.

Yet in spite of this, many who are absolutely committed to a particular narrative of systemic racism refuse to accept any other explanation. Some even accuse Daniel Cameron of blatant corruption and compare him to the notorious white supremacist from Alabama in the 1960’s, Bull Conner. Ideology prevents them from seeing the obvious differences between the two men.

It’s this ideology that drives some to believe they know exactly what happened and why with any incident involving police using force against Black men or women even before any meaningful investigation. It also drives them to refuse to accept any alternative explanation that may exonerate the police or America as a whole. This is the case with Michael Brown who was killed by the officer in Fergusson, Missouri over six years ago. The claim was that the officer shot Brown even though Brown supposedly had surrendered and with his hands raised said, “Don’t shoot!” The FBI, a grand jury, and the Department of Justice led by Eric Holder of the Obama administration all exonerated the officer involved in the case as acting justifiably in self defense. They concluded that rather than surrendering, Brown had attacked the officer and tried to take his gun and was charging at the officer when he was shot. Yet many still to this day cling to the false narrative.

This ideology leads many not only to condemn police agencies, but to condemn the entire American system of government as systemically racist. They insist that racism is pervasive in the system even though it is not explicit. The fact is the legal system in the United States now is explicitly anti-racist by virtue of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Twenty fourth Amendments as well as all the Civil Rights Legislation of 1866, 1871, 1957, 1964, 1968, 1991, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and countless other laws and polices that have been implemented in government, academia, and business to prohibit and punish racial discrimination. All of the above were achieved by champions of equal civil rights for all people regardless of color because they appealed to and called America to live up to its most basic principles of freedom and equality found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Today in many settings, even slight or merely perceived racial insensitivity can result in swift and harsh punishment. An Illinois State college football coach was recently fired for posting the message that “All Lives Matter to the Lord.”

Yet in spite of all this, many still insist that the American system is hopelessly corrupt and systemically racist even though it is explicitly systematically and systemically anti-racist. Bias and unfair application of the law by law enforcement and judges is still possible and still happens, but the ideology of systemic racism conflates prejudice of the heart with the system itself. The former is often explained as an unconscious manifestation of the latter. Racism is assumed to be the only or primary cause for any and all racial disparities regardless of the evidence. Racial disparities in the impact of policies have long been considered. Disparities in themselves are not proof of racism. Discernment requires at least a modicum of consideration of the context and many other factors that may be potential contributors. Unfortunately, some are really not interested in explaining the truth as much as they are in gaining power over those they see as ideological political enemies. This seems to be the case with people like Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, who dismiss appeals to objectivity as a manifestation of white supremacy and leave us at the mercy of the subjective will to power. If we don’t have the ability to appeal to standards outside ourselves, what else is there, but the blind bludgeoning the blind?

Sometimes ideas blind us to the truth, sometimes willfully so. Fear, the fear of being canceled, also blinds us, or at least renders us mute to speak what we know to be true. I’m mindful of the parents of the man born blind. Out of fear of being cast out of the synagogue by the religious leaders who opposed Jesus and called him insane, they refused to acknowledge the plain truth that their son was able to see because of the encounter he had with the Truth in the person of Jesus, the Light of the world.

There are multifarious modes of blindness and more than one way to be rendered mute. Jesus is still able to open blind eyes and set bound tongues free.

July Fourth’s Hope and Promise According to Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818. As a young man around the age of thirteen he was converted to Christianity under the preaching of a white Methodist preacher, named Hanson. Of that preacher Douglass said, “He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that they were, by nature, rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God, through Christ” (My Bondage and My Freedom, p. 68. Kindle Edition). Under conviction of sin, he sought out the counsel of a black Christian, Charles Johnson, who guided him on how to pray. Weeks later he finally trusted in God through Christ for salvation and was born again.

After this, I saw the world in a new light. I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and to be animated by new hopes and desires. I loved all mankind—slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great concern was, now, to have the world converted. The desire for knowledge increased, and especially did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible. (Ibid, p. 68)

Another black Christian named Lawson, became a mentor and a guide for Douglass who helped him increase his faith and knowledge. He also gave Douglass a hope for freedom and a vision for how God would use him in his future beyond slavery.Frederick Douglas Speaking

Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838. He and his wife, Anna, eventually settled in Massachusetts and joined with an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church where he would become a licensed lay preacher. In fulfillment of the incipient vision cast by Rev. Lawson, he would become one of the nations finest orators and activists for abolition.

In 1852, at an antislavery society meeting in Rochester, New York, Mr. Douglass delivered a powerful speech on the hope and promise of the Fourth of July, Independence Day. He found hope in the founding principles of liberty enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The latter he called a “glorious liberty document” when interpreted in a way consistent with the eternal principles that lay at its heart. Mr. Douglass also expressed profound admiration for the country’s founding fathers.

I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. ~ Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

But even more than the founding fathers, he cherished the founding principles of liberty and the self-evident truths upon which the republic stood, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight. ~ Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Although Douglass found great hope in the nation’s founding principles, he found the fulfillment of their promise falling exceedingly and egregiously short of their glory. In that speech about the Fourth of July, he also excoriated the nation for allowing the monstrous inconsistency of the reality of American slavery, and the racism upon which it stood, with those principles of American freedom to continue. His excoriation was also a warning, given less than a decade before the beginning of the Civil War, about the ever-increasing, coiling tension in the nation because of these contradictions. And he stated his case in a blistering, scathing critique of the hypocrisy despite pleas from some quarters for him to be more genteel and “winsome” in his oratory.

Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever! ~ Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Frederick Douglass’s deep desire was that the Fourth of July would eventually be a celebration for everyone in the country including people of color. Despite the tyranny and the villainy of the slavery that still existed when he gave that speech on July 5th, 1852, because of his faith in Jesus Christ and in the principles of liberty upon which the United States was founded, he was confident that it eventually would be.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.                   ~ Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

In his condemnation of the “great sin and shame” of the nation, slavery, including support of it given by too many churches and theologians, Douglass’s words only amplified and magnified the strong condemnation delivered by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley himself (see “Thoughts Upon Slavery” and Wesley’s letter to William Wilberforce). Douglass’s words also magnified and amplified the words of a special anti-slavery statement delivered and published in newspapers around the country from the 1800 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, presided over by Bishop Francis Asbury. Unfortunately, anti-slavery statements and proposals, which was the original and official position of the early Methodist movement, were being met with increasing resistance from culturally accommodated Methodists, especially in the South. Nevertheless, that 1800 General Conference published an anti-slavery statement formulated by a committee, led by Ezekiel Cooper, William McKendree, and Jesse Lee. It attacked slavery as “repugnant to the unalienable rights of mankind, and to the very essence of civil liberty.” They also declared that it was hideously contrary to the “whole spirit of the New Testament.” Moreover, the statement decried the egregious inconsistency of American slavery with the value of American freedom so cherished and enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. It called for the gradual but universal emancipation of all slaves (see American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists by John Wigger, p.293).

The tension of those internal inconsistencies were there at the founding of the United States from the very beginning. The founding fathers knew it in large part because of our forefathers and mothers in the Methodist faith, who refused to compromise with the culture. But as Frederick Douglass pointed out, too many other Christians, Methodists included, were too complacent, lukewarm, or coldly indifferent, if not openly hostile, to fight the good fight against the evils of slavery and racism. Many others, like Orange Scott, one of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843, and William Loyd Garrison, were more than willing. Unfortunately, it would take the bloodiest war in American history for slaves to finally be freed; it would take another hundred years for equal rights under the law to become a reality for people of color. Douglass did live to see emancipation and then some before he died in 1895. Even before emancipation, his faith in the Lord and his great hope in the promising principles of liberty in the founding documents of the United States of America gave him confidence that he would.

Douglass’s ministry and his activism for liberation was one with a Spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that he received in his own new birth. It was also inspired with great hope rooted in the founding principles of the country that he so cherished, even though it did not fully cherish him. Early counter-cultural Methodists, white and black, Frederick Douglass, and many others through the civil rights movement led by the Baptist preacher, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appealed to the principles of 1776 to call America to live up to and consistently with its highest ideals. That and a spirit of reconciliation and hope changed the world for the better.

Today, however, another movement that finds its fuel in what happened in 1619, the year that the first Africans slaves were brought to America, seems to have rejected what happened in 1776 altogether (See “The 1619 Project” and find a critique HERE). They seem to insist that everything and everyone associated with the founding of America in 1776 is hopelessly tainted by slavery and racism. They seem to believe that what some call America’s original sin—what Douglass called America’s “sin and great shame”—is the unforgivable sin. Hence, the move to condemn even the founding fathers like Washington and Jefferson, and hence, the call of some even to condemn the Fourth of July celebration. This is a movement that seems bereft of forgiveness and historical humility that only seeks to highlight America’s low-lights and condemn her completely for what they see as the twin sins of racism and capitalism.

But, as Frederick Douglass knew, America is not just a country of low-lights. He knew that the United States of America was hopefully mendable not hopelessly damnable because of its founding principles. We would do well to remember his exhortation to cling with all our might to the ring-bolt, that is the Declaration of Independence, and to the founding principles of liberty and justice in the midst of the storm in which we currently find ourselves.

Thanks to men like Frederick Douglass, the Fourth of July, with so much more of the promise of America’s founding principles fulfilled, can and should be celebrated by all Americans everywhere, “from sea to shining sea.” Even as we continue to pray for God to mend our every flaw.

Happy Fourth of July!

 

 

 

 

Systemic? In Part or in Whole?

I took some flack for a video in which I expressed appreciation for law enforcement and said it is wrong to demonize all law enforcement for the wrongs done by some law enforcement officers or agencies. I shared my own personal experience of how helpful law enforcement has been when I needed to call them. On two occasions we have had to call them after break-ins, one when I was actually at home. I also shared the story of a former white church member, who was a state trooper, who helped deliver the baby of an African American woman who couldn’t make it to the hospital in time. She affectionately and jokingly referred to him as her “baby’s daddy” thereafter.

I didn’t share my experience to say that because I’ve had or heard about good experiences that there really are no problems as someone accused. The point I was making is that people in minority communities also need and want to be able to call the police for help. They also want a prompt and professional response. While polls on the general perception of confidence in the police is far lower, especially among blacks than whites, a 2011 study by the the Department of Justice revealed that there was no significant difference in satisfaction among whites, blacks, or Hispanics who actually called the police for help. Overall, about 85% said the police were helpful and over 90% believed the police acted properly. Moreover, 90% said they would be likely or more likely to call the police again. This study, done during the Obama administration, is a bit dated and no study reveals the complete picture, but this is part of the picture that needs to be considered and studied more as well.

People in minority communities also need and want good police protection. Demonizing police with sweeping generalizations and pushing for unnecessary scrutiny and drastic changes will lead to higher rates of crime that will disproportionately affect minority communities. As I was saying in the video, this is what the more recent work of Professor Roland Fryer, Jr. of Harvard reveals. It could cost hundreds more lives in some communities, and those black lives matter too, not to mention the black lives lost to murder at the hands of rioters and looters and the black livelihoods destroyed by the same. This is a justice issue too. If trying not to be racist is also racist as someone I once read argued, surely this is a case in point.

I’m not arguing that systemic racism doesn’t exist; I’m arguing that as a construct it can’t explain everything, and not everyone who uses that term means the same thing. More precise parsing is desperately needed. A friend shared a video explaining an example of systemic racism with regards to economic disparities that lead to disparities in educational opportunities, etc. The problem identified is only part of the picture, however; and my guess is many people would find what would likely be my friend’s libertarian solutions unacceptable.

The concept of racism itself also needs to be parsed out more clearly than much of the rhetoric does. Conflating racism in the heart with “systemic” racism such that all, including the racists themselves, are mere manifestations of the “system” is unhelpful. I don’t deny that there are systemic issues. In today’s society it’s not as obvious as it was during the horrific days of slavery and Jim Crow. But we do need to parse out prejudice in the hearts and minds of people from policies, procedures, and laws, especially when the issue is the partial and biased application of impartial laws. This is not to say there are no interactions between the different constructs, but the parsing is required to study the potential interactions carefully.

When people talk of the evils of systemic racism, for transparent and honest debate we need to know exactly what is meant. In a world under the curse of sin, of which racism is a only a subset, that is easier called for than accomplished. When someone is talking about systemic racism, it would be helpful to know if they are talking about part(s) of the system that need to be amended or saying the system as a whole needs to be abolished and replaced.

I just saw a post of a progressive friend who is at a protest in Washington D.C. It read, “Ending racism is not political, there should be no debate. It’s not right or left, it’s life or death.” Seems like a weird thing to say as you are marching on Washington D.C. At any rate, the historical civil rights movement was deeply spiritual and moral, but it was also political; so is this movement today. As clever as the statement above is, it is pure sophistry. We need to parse out the spiritual, moral, and political, but not pretend that politics is not very much in play. As much as we would like to continue to believe the Enlightenment lie that we can can, much less ought to, completely compartmentalize the spiritual from the political, we just can’t.

So when people talk about the system, we need to know exactly what they are talking about. Are they talking about adjustment (major or minor) to imperfect parts of an overall decent and just system as far as can be expected in this fallen and sinful world? Or do they mean the whole system needs to be abolished and replaced?

In my last article I mentioned Harvard professor, Cornel West, a Christian socialist, who believes the whole system needs to be replaced. Professor Willie Jennings of Yale just recently shared some of his views on the current crisis. Professor Jennings was one of my professors at Duke Divinity School. I thoroughly enjoyed his class, not least his passion and his infectious laugh. I also appreciate his honesty regarding his views. He certainly opened our eyes to the horrific and inhumanly brutal realities of the slave trade and slavery itself, from capture to slave ship, to slave auction to slave quarters and life on plantations and beyond. He also opened our eyes to the toll it took on the bodies and psyches of African Americans, as well as the toll it took on the general American psyche in terms of the devastation it brought on the consciences of slaveholders and their proponents. It also warped the Christian imagination in ways that have kept far too many of our churches segregated and prohibited us from bearing full witness to the gospel of reconciliation.

Professor Jennings also clearly and inextricably, however, tied the European/American slave trade and the development of modern racial categories with private ownership of property in general and the development of capitalism in particular. When I with qualms asked how we could understand even the commandment against stealing without some notion of private property, he just laughed it off with his infectious laugh as silly biblicism.

In the recent interview where he expressed his views about the current crisis, Professor Jennings once again traced the problems of what he declares to be our “white supremacist-infested country called the United States” ultimately to private property and capitalism. He decries what he sees as a prioritization of property over people. He seems to pit protection of people’s lives against the protections of property as if it is a zero sum game. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge that destruction of property means the destruction of livelihoods, including those generated by black owned businesses. At a superficial level he says no one should be happy about the burning of businesses and the loss of businesses, but that side note is followed with a huge “BUT.” And that seemingly dismissive “BUT” allows him a segue way into saying “Maybe what the burning of buildings and the destruction of property ought to say to us is that things cannot stay the same.”  He goes on to call for a new order; and  it is clear that he doesn’t see the current system as flawed only in part but amendable. For Jennings there is something which is far worse than murderous rioting and looting in the streets.

Professor Jennings says:

Everything built in this country is built on the sinking sand of race and class and greed, and is now under the control of merciless financial capitalism. No amount of rhetoric around the virtue and glory of small businesses can hide us from the precariousness of economic life or the need to change an entire structure built to enhance profit at the expense of the health of a common life.

So there it is. The fight against systemic racism for Professor Jennings is one and the same as the fight against capitalism, which Professor West condemns as legalized loot. But systems that have abolished private property and capitalism have led to more than their fair share of injustice and horrifying atrocities. And slapping a Christian label on them will likely do little to stop them from happening again, especially in a climate of  strong anti-Christian sentiment.

Clearly for many the fight against systemic racism is largely political because it is simultaneously a fight against capitalism. For some the fight against racism is the fight against capitalism. They seem to be one and the same. For some, like Professor Jennings, the system requires much more than some adjustments. Others, of course, would not see the need for change to be that drastic. Thus we need to be precise—surgically precise— about what kind of systemic change we’re actually talking about.

As I also mentioned in my previous article, there is a great spiritual danger of vengeful rage that looms large. Professor Jennings also speaks of his own anger and compares it to the righteous indignation of God. He rightly cautions against the danger of conflating our own anger with God’s and allowing human anger to be poisoned by hatred. Make no mistake, it is a grave danger. My concern is that some of the anger is drifting in that dangerous direction. Over the last couple of weeks I have been warning about a spirit of rage that could engulf our whole nation. I have seen the rage among some whites bubbling to the surface in memes saying “All Lives Splatter” in regard to running over protesters that block traffic, for example. That kind of thing is actually happening in reality on both sides it seems, as some have plowed through protesters and others into police. This is only the beginning of evil unimaginable that can get far, far worse.

I’ve also heard forgiveness selectively downplayed and even problematized to one degree or another in progressive theological circles for many years now. That forgiveness may be used as an excuse for continued sin and injustice is true and always has been (see Romans 6), for people personally and for the wider community. God forbid that we should continue in sin in the name of grace and forgiveness. But if there is going to be reconciliation and peace, forgiveness is not even optional much less dispensable; it is essential.

But I am hearing the downplay if not rejection of forgiveness even from the more popular cultural centers of the country now too. A basketball player was rebuked sharply for calling for prayer not only for justice for George Floyd but also the police officers involved in his death, that their hearts may be changed. Former football player and sports commentator on the show Undisputed, Shannon Sharpe recently said Drew Brees should not be quickly forgiven for expressing sentiments against players taking a knee during the national anthem even though Brees recanted and apologized. Sharpe said, Brees should be required to earn his forgiveness. Sharpe was criticizing former NFL coach Tony Dungy for being “too forgiving.” Sharpe was clearly wrestling with the relationship between mercy and justice in the case of Brees, not wanting to condemn him completely but not really wanting to forgive him either. Startlingly, Sharpe also asked, “We have taken the highroad for 400 years, what has it got us?”

Well, what did it get Jesus and his followers? What about the countless white and black followers who prayed and worked tirelessly and gave their lives to end the slave trade and slavery in his name? What about those who worked along side Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others for civil rights in that same spirit of peace and reconciliation? Nowhere? Really?

This is dangerous theology that will only add fuel to the fires of human vengeance in which mercy is infinitely less certain and reliable than God’s. This is the reason a contrite King David preferred the wrath of God over the wrath of his human enemies (2 Samuel 24:14). The current generation can’t afford to pay for all the horrific sins of all previous generations for the past 400 years up to and including our own. In God’s eyes we can’t even afford to pay for our own sins as individuals.

Jesus, who was wrongfully accused and unjustly tried and condemned to a torturous death did not come back from the grave with a vengeance; he came back with forgiveness to bring about reconciliation and peace for people of all nations, tribes, and tongues. We are all sinners in need of a forgiveness that we cannot earn. It has to be a gift received from God in Christ and freely given for the sake of Christ to others. Forgiveness is not a payment to be earned; it’s a gift of grace to be received through repentance and faith with thanksgiving; it is also a gift to be shared freely with all. And it is a gift that calls for a changed life. The good news is the gift of God’s forgiveness by the blood of Christ includes the gift of the Spirit who enables and empowers the changed life for which the gift calls.

We need to pray to be delivered from evil, including the evil of racism; we all need to pray always to be forgiven our own trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (See Matthew 6:9-15; 18:21-35). An unwillingness to forgive is a grave danger for all parties involved. It will prove to be especially dangerous among those who view those with whom they disagree politically to be as irredeemable as the system that they so deplore.

Some are already expressing skepticism of white Christians who have recently jumped on the bandwagon in the fight against systemic racism. I’m afraid it’s not going to be acceptable to progressives for conservative white and black Christians only to work to change hearts and to merely amend part of the current system. As Marc Antoine Lavarin put it in his article entitled, “Why I’m Skeptical of New Christian Allies,” “An individual’s need of repentance will never be enough to redeem or rectify an entire system that is in need of salvation” (emphasis mine). Mr. Lavarin seems to indicate that anything less than full acceptance of the progressive vision of justice in its entirety will be unacceptable (Consider BLM statement of beliefs regarding gender, sex, marriage, and family).Vehicle-Systems-diagram

While we are fighting to change the system it would be good to know whether we are fighting to fix broken parts in an otherwise decent vehicle, or whether we’re working to send the vehicle to the junkyard and replace it with an entirely different one to be driven in a completely different direction. Be careful what bandwagon you jump on, it may take you to a place you really don’t want to go.

May God have mercy on us, and in his mercy enable us to be merciful and forgiving of one another until Christ comes with the one and only perfect system, the kingdom of God. Maranatha!

 

The Spirit of Rage or the Spirit of Reconciliation?

Last Sunday was Pentecost, the time when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church shortly after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, makes it clear the Holy Spirit was a Spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. And it’s important to recognize that the Spirit of God was set in stark contrast to the spirit of the age, and every age and generation, in this fallen world, which is often a spirit of rage and vengeance.

Jesus was unjustly condemned through the deceitful testimony of false witnesses. He was wrongfully executed for bearing witness to the truth. He was brutally beaten and savagely tortured. Yet when he was raised from the dead, he did not come back with a vengeance. He did not come back to get even as one might expect from a typical tale in the ancient world or from Hollywood in our modern world. Jesus died and rose again not to get even but to bring forgiveness and reconciliation, even for the very ones who conspired and railed against him and had him murdered.

He commissioned the disciples with the same message of forgiveness and reconciliation for those who would receive it through repentance. He empowered his disciples to carry out that ministry with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And it was an empowered message accompanied by signs and wonders, but not coercion through violence. Christians gained power in the Roman Empire through preaching and teaching and love for each other and outsiders alike, and through their faithful witness in martyrdom.

Right from the start we see the Spirit bringing people of different tongues and places, natural born Jews and Gentile proselytes, together (Acts 2:5-12). The Spirit brought people of different Jewish factions together, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. The Spirit brought together those who had persecuted Jesus and his followers with those who had been persecuted. The Spirit brought together Judeans and Samaritans despite the long hostility between them. The Spirit brought together Jews and Gentiles and the rich and the poor all to be a part of the same family of God. The Spirit of God is a Spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.

The Holy Spirit, then as now, stands as an alternative to the spirit of the age, which often manifests itself as a spirit of rage. Jesus’ followers—much more the many Jews who never accepted the message of Jesus—were hoping for a Messiah who would come immediately in vengeance to destroy their pagan oppressors. There was a spirit of insurrection fueled by hatred and ethnic pride in the air in Jerusalem. This spirit animated people like Barabbas, who had been arrested for riotous and murderous insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). At Jesus’ sentencing this spirit perhaps inspired the people to have Barabbas released instead of Jesus. It was like an invisible combustible gas that would eventually cause Jerusalem to go up in flames in 70 A.D. This was the spirit that Jesus warned about and delivered people from and the flames were a manifestation and symbol of the eternal flames of hell that Jesus also warned about. In large part when Peter called for his hearers to save themselves from that corrupt generation (Acts 2:40) he was pleading with them to allow the Spirit of God to free them from the spirit of rage.

The spirit of rage is the work of the devil, the slanderer, Satan the accuser, who works through wicked people to stir up strife and sow discord and hatred.

A worthless man plots evil,
and his speech is like a scorching fire.
A dishonest man spreads strife,
and a whisperer separates close friends.
A man of violence entices his neighbor
and leads him in a way that is not good.
Whoever winks his eyes plans dishonest things;
he who purses his lips brings evil to pass.
Gray hair is a crown of glory;
it is gained in a righteous life.
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.  

Proverbs 16:27-32 ESV

Today there are those who rightly discuss what they call America’s “original sin” of racism and work for justice, peace, and reconciliation. There are also some who rail against America because of this original sin of racism and act as if it is the unforgivable sin. They seem to demand that the current generation pay in full for the sins and injustices of all previous generations for the past 400 years. They seem to insist that racism has so corrupted America that the whole system has to be burned to ground and something entirely new put in its place.

Professor Cornel West, a Christian socialist, says America is a failed social experiment. He apparently sees it as a government and economic system for which there is no hope of redemption. Apparently, for West every wrongful death of every black person at the hands of a white person is a manifestation of white supremacy and racism regardless of the facts of the situation. He and many others, politicians and media pundits included, seem to know this to be true before they know anything other than a black person was allegedly wrongfully killed at the hands of police or other white citizens. Many politicians, media pundits, celebrities, and even preachers immediately portray the situation in the worst possible light and highlight each incident as an example of how the whole “system” is totally corrupt.

A clergy colleague shared an article claiming that modern policing in America is inextricably linked with slavery and expressed the opinion that the whole system of law enforcement has to be abolished and started over. The media and certain politicians insist that each incident is evidence of an epidemic of racially motivated killings of blacks in America. Celebrities insist that black people are being hunted down every day in the streets and these incidences are all like modern day lynchings. Theologians and preachers talk about each incident as an example of a pattern, even a pandemic of racially motivated hate crimes against blacks. They also seem to suggest we have made little to no progress since the beginning of the struggle for civil rights. Well-meaning others, who just want people who are hurting to know they care, repeat the same refrain. These are accusations and verbal condemnations that have set the country ablaze with rage emotionally and physically in light of very real atrocities and tragedies.

The truth is the media highlighted incidences are rare occurrences statistically speaking. As of March 31, 2020 there were 228 citizens shot by police; 31 of them were black. Last year 9 unarmed black suspects were killed by police; 19 unarmed whites were. The total number of unarmed citizens killed by police was 41. The way some in government, media, and academia spin and sensationalize the stories of real people and real tragedies is irresponsible, deceitful, and dangerous according to many of those who study the actual data. Those who make these misleading and exaggerated accusations end up sowing further division, resentment, and vitriol that leads to far more calamities for everyone, including minority communities especially. It also impedes real and needed reform from taking place. This is the conclusion of many who have carefully studied the data, which do not reveal the supposedly clear and irrefutable pattern that is so often touted. The data needs to be analyzed in context apart from the hyperbole and cherry picked cases. (Please listen to this detailed discussion about what the data actually reveals. It’s long but you can’t gain understanding from mere soundbites, internet memes, and short video clips).

The fact that some studies show that black suspects are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white suspects does not mean it was all because of racism and white supremacy any more than the fact that all interracial crime between whites and blacks involves a black perpetrator and white victim 85% of the time means it is all or even mainly motivated by race. It’s also worth noting that Professor Roland Fryer’s research surprised him when he found no difference in lethal force used by police against black verses white suspects. Others have found similar non-disparities. While black men may be more likely to be killed by police, black men also commit a disproportionate number of murders (50%) and are disproportionately more likely to try to kill police officers (43%). Police officers are 18+% more likely to be killed by black man than unarmed black men are to be killed by police. The clear and pervasive pattern of racism that is assumed is wrongly assumed based on media hype. Suggesting that each incident is an example of a pervasive pattern of racism and that people are being killed by police for no good reason every single day is misleading in the extreme. Last year of unarmed citizens killed by police 19 were white; 9 were black, out of a total of 41.

Black men are far more likely to die at the hands of other black men than police. Professor Fryer’s new research shows that unnecessary and overly pervasive scrutiny of police departments will likely only lead to more crime and loss of life in those cities. He doesn’t argue that investigations of police departments should not be done, he merely suggests that careful consideration must be given to the unintended consequences. In some cases it could be a sharp rise in violent crime and cost many, many more lives. (Again, please watch the discussion of the facts in the video linked above).

Does this mean racism does not really exist? Of course not. I was reminded of the sad legacy of racism at a community prayer meeting yesterday morning as I sat in fellowship with white and black Christians, including a fellow Methodist of the AMEZ denomination. We were in fellowship on Tuesday but worshiped in separate churches on Sunday in large part because of the sad legacy of racism. I reminded the group of that sad history. We had a pretty frank discussion of that legacy and the exaggerated media hype of current events.

Racism is being presumed as a motive in current events even before all the facts of a case are known. In some cases, this is driven by an ideology that sees white supremacy and racism as inextricably, hopelessly, and irredeemably woven into the very fabric of the American system of government and economics. I once witnessed a lecturer with that viewpoint dismiss a black woman’s concern about the overwhelming amount of black on black violence in cities, including her own, as a distraction and itself as a problem also caused by white supremacy. It’s a doctrine of systemic total depravity that is far more extreme than the most extreme Calvinist understanding of total depravity among individuals.When racism is presumed and assumed in this way, is there any way to ever rule it out as a motive? If it explains everything does it really explain anything at all? (Consider the following from “experts” in this NPR article: “. . . the risks of congregating during a global pandemic shouldn’t keep people from protesting racism, according to dozens of public health and disease experts who signed an open letter in support of the protests. ;White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19′).

Take the cases of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbery. The former seems to be a clear case of police brutality with malice; the latter seems to be a clear case of stupidity and possibly racial profiling on the part of civilians recklessly trying to make a citizen’s arrest without legitimate cause. All that many in the media needed to know, however, was that black men were apparently wrongfully killed by white men. Then they ran with the predetermined narrative and indicted not only those particular white men but also the whole system. They did not even seem to want to know anything about the backgrounds of the white men, whether they may have expressed any racist views or were affiliated with any racist organizations. They did not need to know if there were any particular specific policies or procedures or laws that intentionally and explicitly promoted racial bias in either case. All they needed to know was that black men were apparently wrongfully killed by white men, period. As Kmele Foster, himself a black man, says, that presumption and the promotion of that narrative by the media is not only unhelpful and distracting, it is dangerous (again see the video link above). And the proof is in the nihilistic and murderous rage that has engulfed our nation and set so many of our cities ablaze.

There are elements of society that simply want to burn the whole thing down by any means necessary. Some, including clergy, have made excuses for the rioting, looting, and violence. Some have heaped praise upon it and continue to add fuel to the fire. Some are comparing the riots, which have hijacked and perverted legitimate peaceful protests, to the Boston Tea Party. There was a very direct relationship between the British government and the British East India Company that allowed the latter a monopoly. This included taxes without the represented consent of American colonists. I’m not sure how this is like the relationship between federal and local governments and Target, Aldi, Wendy’s, Auto Zone, and many other small businesses, many of them owned by minorities in minority communities. And what about a church being set on fire? I can’t see how the Boston Tea Party is so similar.

But what the analogy does tell us is that many see this as a political revolution. And they are willing to incite, encourage, and support riotous and violent rage toward those ends. And the violence has in some cases led not only to attacks against police but also savage beatings of private business owners, men and women, young and old. We must reject this violence totally and absolutely and also the leadership of those who makes excuses for it. If this is what some will do to gain power, what do we think will happen if they actually succeed by intimidating enough george-floyd-and-minneapolis-protests-live-updates-41c2ce6citizens to give them a bigger stick?

They say there can be no peace without justice, but there can be no justice without truth. But so many have retained a notion of justice while rejecting the notion of truth or at least its necessity to bring about real justice. The real danger in this whole movement is that it may sweep up the whole nation into a spirit of rage and revenge and its all consuming, devouring fire. God invites us to be saved from the inferno by repenting and receiving the Spirit of reconciliation, the Holy Spirit of forgiveness, peace, righteousness, justice, and . . . truth.

Racism may be America’s original sin; it is an inexcusable sin, but it is not the unforgivable sin. Deliverance from evil is not possible apart from forgiveness. May God have mercy on us and save us from the spirit of rage so that cooler heads may prevail. Come, Holy Spirit and blow your cool refreshing wind into our hearts and over our land.

 

 

The Killing of George Floyd

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on Monday was unjustifiable. It was extremely disturbing. It was heartbreaking to watch. It really looks like murder.

It defies any explanation I can think of to believe that it was in any way necessary for the police officer to drive his knee with the full weight of his body behind it into the neck of a man lying face down on the pavement with his hands cuffed behind his back, much less for as long a he did. The police officer who chocked the life out of Mr. Floyd should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The other officers who stood by and knowingly allowed it to go on for so long should be prosecuted as well. It is incredible that they were not immediately arrested when the video evidence came out.georgefloyd

What happened to Mr. Floyd was wrong. By all appearances it was a cold and callous crime on the part of the officers involved, especially the one directly involved. Racism is also wrong. It is evil. But that the murder of George Floyd was racially motivated should not be assumed. It may have been; but that conclusion should be the result of a thorough investigation. And this particular case is not in itself proof that the entire Minneapolis police force is hopelessly racist, much less every police force across the country or the country as a whole itself. But with cases like this some have predetermined conclusions that racism is the main cause regardless of the facts or the lack thereof.

Our country has a horrible history of racism. And although we have made great strides to correct some of the systemic racial injustices of the past, racism still lurks in the hearts and minds of some people today to one degree or another. But the sins of generations past should not be used to predetermine the motives for crimes of whites against blacks in the present regardless of facts and evidence. I just cannot lend support to these kinds of predetermined narratives.

What I can do is condemn racism in general because it is contrary to the gospel of God who created all of us in his image and likeness and who redeemed all of us in Christ to be a part of his multi ethnic, multi-colored family. It is a sin against our common humanity and dignity as human beings. I can also condemn racism when facts reveal that to be a motive for crimes in particular cases. I will not assume racism, however, every time a white person commits a crime against a black person any more than I will assume racism when a black person commits a crime against a white person. The fight against racism would be better served by conclusions that are proven through investigation rather than just being assumed prior to any investigation.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, it is not clear that white police officers are more likely to use deadly force against black suspects than black police officers. This was a finding that surprised researcher Roland Fryer Jr. in a study he reported in 2016 (see link below). Blacks are disproportionately more likely to be killed by police officers in general, but it is not clear that racism is the primary reason why. Fryer found that police officers are more likely to use non-lethal force against black suspects, but also found there was no difference when considering lethal force. He also discovered that black police officers were more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects than white police officers. The difference was statistically significant, but is not easily explained simply with reference to racial prejudice. Neither are the actions of white police officers against black suspects easily and simply explained by racism. This is not to say that racial bias plays no role, but it is not as self-evident as some want to assume.

Researchers in another recent study also found that white police officers are not more likely to use lethal force against blacks than black police officers. As reported by NPR, one of the researchers suggested that bias against black suspects may still be an issue, even for black police officers. The question is why? Is it simply because of skin color or are there other factors that play a role? The racism theory is not as self-evident as some politicians and media pundits tend to portray it. Of course, no study is the be-all-end-all. As reported in the NPR article linked above, criminologist and bias trainer, Lorie Fridell, says the case is far from settled because “we don’t have any definitive studies on this.”

It is irresponsible to assume racism as a predetermined conclusion regardless of the facts of a situation. Conclusions should be the result of investigation. It is even more irresponsible—sinister really—to use a predetermined narrative to stoke the fires of racial tension and use it to encourage and excuse violent rioting, the destruction of public and private property, random looting of businesses, and violence against innocent people. This only further damages minority communities.

The killing of George Floyd is unjustifiable, but it does not justify spreading an unsubstantiated narrative and encouraging violent riots in the streets. And the rioting in no way mitigates the killing of George Floyd. It seems that the country is unified in its condemnation of the deadly force used to choke the life out of George Floyd. It could be an opportunity to have an honest conversation. Are there enough people honestly willing to have it?

 

 

 

Decreeing & Declaring or Begging & Pleading? Praying with Faith and Wisdom

It has been difficult for churches to navigate through this time of pandemic. Early on especially, there were many who were wrestling with what it means to have faith in the midst of panic and fear. We must never allow our faith to surrender to the fear that demands we bow down to the idols of the world. But faith does not demand that we dispense with caution. Caution is inherent to wisdom. Jesus not only desires to increase our faith, he also wants to increase our wisdom. It’s God’s word that makes us wise enough to discern the will of God in the midst of many dangers, toils, and snares. And it is the wisdom of God that should inform and guide our faith.

Unfortunately many Christians operate with a definition of faith that is not really biblical. Some people’s idea of faith is based on the preaching and teaching of “prosperity preachers” who teach a “name it and claim it” brand of prayer. The idea is that faith is a force that gives us the power to decree and declare our own desired reality into existence. Faith may also be viewed as providing an impenetrable “hedge of protection” against the ills of life in the world. Fear, it is said, weakens the hedge and allows the enemy a way through. There is not only a misunderstanding of faith, there is also a misunderstanding of fear based on a misreading of Job 3:25. It’s a misreading that misses the whole point of Job and ends up giving fear, ironically, far more power over people (I may explore the misunderstanding of fear in another article).

As a result, there have been some who have wrongly believed that taking precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was an unacceptable capitulation to fear (this is not to say that some of the precautions taken were not in themselves foolish). They wrongly believed that faith would guarantee a shield of protection and given them a license not to take necessary precautions. I have seen stories in the past few weeks where some have apparently died as a result. These ideas have crept into the minds of many Christians in a variety of different settings to one degree or another. The primary source of these ideas are popular “word of faith” preachers who have had huge platforms in television ministry and popular books for decades now.

One prominent “faith teacher,” Kenneth Copeland, recently took up the task of decreeing and declaring that COVID-19 go away. He literally tried to lead his staff and followers to huff and puff, and blow it away. After evoking the power of God, Copeland clearly believes he has the power himself to command the wind and control the atmosphere to blow the virus away (Watch the video clip HERE – Go to 27:58 minute mark to see the decreeing and declaring to blow COVID-19 away). This is why he made the controversial and blasphemous statement in the past that when he sees in the Bible where Jesus says “I am,” Copeland said he just smiles and says, “I am, too.”

This idea of prayer as decreeing and declaring is often justified by reference to Romans 4:17—actually just the last phrase of that verse. The phrase is about the one who “calls things into existence the things that did not exist” (ESV). That power is wrongly attributed to Abraham’s faith. In context, it is clearly God who has the power to do that and it is God and God’s power that was the object of Abraham’s faith. Abraham trusted in God to bring to pass what God himself had promised. “Faith” teachers like Copeland would have us believe that we posses that kind of power ourselves and that we can decree and declare things into existence ourselves. Typically they do acknowledge that we can only decree and declare what is revealed in the Bible to be God’s will, but they interpret the promises of the Bible in such a way that gives people license to decree and declare just about whatever it is they want in terms of prosperity and personal comfort and security. In other words, the decreeing and declaring usually revolves around all the things that Jesus insisted should not be the primary focus of our lives, personal security and wealth (Matthew 6; Luke 12).

Christians are not called to trust in their own power to call things into existence; Christians are called, like Abraham, to trust in “God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). God’s word does not promise us that we have the power to decree and declare and demand at any time perfect personal security and prosperity. We are promised a world of perfect peace, but that’s a world of God’s own making in his perfect timing when Christ comes again. In the meantime, Jesus promised that in this fallen world we would have tribulation (John 16:33). Nevertheless even in this world we can have a measure of the peace of the world to come in hope. Hope, however, requires patience to wait for God’s timing rather than trying to force it in our own power (Rom 8:25).

Faith does not demand that we throw all caution to the wind. Biblically that would be what Proverbs calls foolishness. Why did the Christian look both ways before crossing the road? Well, of course, it was to get to the other side, and it’s not really a joke.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.  Proverbs 22:3 NLT

The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence. Proverbs 14:16 NLT

In this fallen world there are many dangers, toils, and snares. Believers are not to trust in their own ability to blow them all away, but to trust in God to give them the wisdom to avoid them. But believers are not guaranteed protection from all possible danger. The book of Revelation shows how believers by trusting in God and refusing to compromise their faith out of fear of the devil and evil men will avoid the danger of God’s coming wrath. They are not, however, guaranteed that they will be able to avoid the wrath of the dragon that is carried out through the beast (Rev 12:7-17; 13:5-10). There are some dangers that God will guide us around; there are others that God will guide us and save us through as we endure.Pharisee and Publican

Christian prayer is not decreeing and declaring our own will according to our own timing; Christian prayer is humbly asking—even persistently and patiently begging and pleading (see Luke 11:1-13; 18:1-14 REALLY!! READ THESE PASSAGES!)—and trusting in God’s will and timing. Prayer is not arrogantly commanding and demanding as if we are God; prayer is humbling asking and trusting in God’s power and God’s timing. And faith is trusting in God to give us wisdom to avoid the dangers of this fallen world, especially the danger of forever being prisoners of our own arrogance and foolishness. Wisdom is still crying in the street, but there will come a time when it is too late to answer her call.

Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
    in the markets she raises her voice;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof,
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
    I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused to listen,
    have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,
because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when terror strikes you,
when terror strikes you like a storm
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
    they will seek me diligently but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
    and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel
    and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
    and have their fill of their own devices.
For the simple are killed by their turning away,
    and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but whoever listens to me will dwell secure
    and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:20-33 ESV

 

 

Our Wonderful, Less than Ideal Life Together

Today Christi and I celebrate 22 years of marriage. We’ve been married almost half my life, as she pointed out to me this morning. Someone said we make marriage look easy. What may look easy is the end result of a lot of love, forgiveness, patience, and endurance. Love is only easy in fairy tales. Our life together has been no fairy tale. 99382149_3596680343680601_1588761888018137088_n

We got married in a historic train depot and had the reception on its deck. The day of the wedding terrible thunder storms moved through spawning deadly tornadoes. One almost blew Christi’s grandparents’ car off the road as they made their way to the wedding. It knocked the power out. We ended up getting married by candle light and using a battery powered boom box for music in the sweltering heat and muggy humidity of eastern, NC. That day we made the best of a less than ideal situation. It sort of set the pattern for the rest of our lives together.

Two years later we were both poor college students and working in retail. We had our first child, Grace, in the second semester of a Master’s program I was in at East Carolina, which I completed the following year. A couple of weeks later we learned that my father had cancer and our Grace had hip displaysia. Both would require major surgeries within a few weeks of each other. We had to move back to my home area beforehand to be there for my parents.

We moved in next to my parents shortly after my father had a laryngectomy and was still recovering only to discover there was no running water at our house or theirs. This was just a couple of weeks before our 17 month old daughter was scheduled to have hip surgery. Thanks to some good neighbors we were able to figure out a temporary solution to the water problem that got us by for a while. Like a lot of other things, it was less than ideal.

The next year, June 2003, Christi gave birth to our second child, our son, Ian. It was after this that postpartum depression and incredibly difficult circumstances took its toll on Christi. It was far from ideal. She would battle clinical depression for years to come. Regretfully, I often didn’t handle it very well. At times I was selfish rather than self-sacrificial, resentful rather than forgiving, callous rather than compassionate. At times we both treated each other badly.

Over the nest decade we would have many, many joyous moments, miraculous moments even, but not without hardship. In December of 2005 Anna was born but stillborn until being revived about 10 minutes after delivery by emergency C-section. She not only survived but has thrived by far exceeding the early prognoses of doctors. In 2008 I took a salary of less than half of what I had been making in the business world to pastor a small country church. I also became a full-time divinity school student at Duke. It was wonderful in many ways, but all less than ideal, especially after my mother, for whom I am an only child, developed concerning health issues.

In 2012 I completed my MDiv studies. Just a few weeks before finals Christi had to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks. After graduation we had to prepare for another move. In 2012 we moved to another church that was going through a major financial crisis. And I not only had to move my family, I had also had to find an affordable apartment for my mother and move her too. It was all far less than ideal.

By 2013 it looked like Christi had been finally delivered from depression. In September that year Silas was born. In June of 2015, Catherine was born. In 2016 we moved to another church, and also had to move my mother into another apartment near by. In June of 2018 Benjamin was born. It was all so wonderful, but still less than ideal. By February of 2019 it became evident that my mother would no longer be able to live on her own. I had to stay with her for several weeks before getting her moved into an assisted living facility because of dementia while in the middle of the busiest semester of my DMin program . Today we celebrate our anniversary and await the arrival of our seventh child (another one in June!) in the midst of the uncertainty  due to a pandemic and the economic calamity that has ensued. It’s all far less than ideal, but it’s still wonderful.

It’s wonderful because I get to share this less than ideal life with the wonderful, even if less than ideal, woman with which God has blessed me. She is still my wonder woman! We have learned through the years that less than ideal in this world is all we can expect, including from each other. Yet we enjoy the good things in life and each other because of a love that has endured, because we committed to endure together. The hope of God’s ideal world gives us the strength to make the best of what we have now, knowing that “for those who love God all all things work together for good, . . . ” (Rom 8:28 ESV).

Sometimes people miss out on the really good things, the God things, in life because they’re not willing to patiently endure through that which is less than ideal. The marriage that lasts is built on love that endures through a life that is far from easy.

I am far from the ideal husband; Christi is less than the ideal wife. But our life together is still wonderful, even if it has been less than ideal.

Mother’s Day Dimly Through the Window

One of the most difficult things about the pandemic is not being able to see our most beloved loved ones face to face. My mother, who has dementia, is in an assisted living facility. We visit her at least weekly, but only from the other side of a window. She has a clear view of us; we only have a dim view of her. Every time we visit, she forgets why we can’t just come in. She can’t really hear us, and we can barely hear her.Mom through the Window

Most of the time we write her notes in large print to tell her we love her, at least. One time we talked with her on the phone of one of the nurses (they say they can’t open the window even a little bit). It’s all quite frustrating, especially for her.  This has been the case since the beginning of March; it will be the case on Mother’s Day tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. I know countless others are going through it with us. It’s hard when we can only see each other through the glass dimly.

One day, in the near future, it’s quite likely that Mother will pass through the veil before I do; and we won’t be able to see her even through a window. On Mother’s Day many will remember their mothers and honor them, but won’t be able share their love face to face at all. Death seems to close the window altogether. But I’m reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:12 which says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (KJV).

Faith provides us a window in God’s word through which we get a glimpse of the Lord and the new world, that which is perfect, yet to come (1 Cor 10). Through this dark window we get a dim view of the ultimate bright side of life of which those on the other side have a perfect view. Faith grows in the ground of this hope so that we can know that love and our love relationships with the Lord and each other in the Lord never ends, that nothing can “separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39)

This Mother’s Day may be hard because we still only see through a glass dimly. But one day we will see face to face in the light of God’s everlasting glory. Oh, What a day! What a day it will be!

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Cor 13:8-13 ESV

Truth and Lies About Immortality: Milton and Dostoevsky

Lately I’ve been reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Both contain two intriguing views on the nature of evil to say the least. What has intrigued me particularly in reading the two together is the different ways that distorted concepts of immortality contribute to rebellion against God and to evil actions.

GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile
Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1866

Paradise Lost is an epic poem, first published in 1667, in which Milton describes the fall of the archangel Lucifer, who became known as Satan and the devil, and his temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden. Satan’s fall is in part contributed to his own denial of being a creature created by God. Satan claimed an absolute immortality and self-sufficiency apart from any dependence on God (Book IV). He rails against God as a tyrant and uses sophistry and clever rhetoric to lead other angels and Adam and Eve (Gen 3:5) to claim the same independence for themselves to disastrous results. The blurring of the line between creator and creature is used as self-justification for self-will.

In The Brothers Karamazov, written in 1879, it is not the claim to absolute immortality that fuels evil; rather it is the denial of immortality altogether. “There is no virtue if there is no immortality” (Book 2, Chapters 6 & 7). In this case the denial of immortality is the denial of continuing existence for humans beyond death and the ultimate judgment of God that paves the way for evil in this world. Dostoevsky, the Christian Russian novelist, proved to be prophetic.

Dostoevsky set out to warn of the dangers of atheistic socialism, although he identified Christian socialists to be the most dangerous of all (Book 2, Chapter 5). My guess is the Christian socialists of which he warned thought in much the same way as the Sadducees we read about in the Gospels. That is, as practical atheists with little to no concern for thoughts about the afterlife, the supernatural, and the judgment to come. The infamous cult leader, Jim Jones, was a Christian socialist who started out as an openly atheist minister who saw the Soviet Union in Russia as the promised land. Jones who initially denied the existence of God eventually, like Lucifer, came to see himself as god, also with horrifying and disastrous results.

Both the claim to absolute immortality apart from dependence on God and the absolute denial of even an immortality that is dependent on God are dangerous temptations that can lead to self-will and rebellion against God with disastrous results for those who succumb to such temptations and for the world. We must remember we are creatures completely dependent on and accountable to the Creator. This is something that the rebels in Paradise Lost and The Brothers Karamazov were intent on forgetting.

When rational creatures live as if self-sufficient and accountable to no one they begin to use reason in clever but sophistic ways to justify their desires. The way Thomas Aquinas described it sin disrupts the inclination to virtue and misdirects the use of reason to the penultimate rather than the ultimate, namely friendship with God (ST, II, part 1 q. 85:3.) Reason and the will, thus, become slaves to inordinate passions rather than being subordinate to God. It is a “matter of our will surrendering to those appetites or desires and reason then providing post hoc rationalizations justifying the action” (Angus Brook, “Thomas Aquinas on the Effects of Original Sin: A Philosophical Analysis,” The Heythrop Journal, 59,no. 4, July 2018, 722.). The will of the creature is exalted above the will of the Creator and becomes the measure of all things. People begin to see themselves as capable of creating their own truth rather than needing to discern and submit to the Truth.

This is how the image of God gets distorted in people, and that distortion disrupts the flow of God’s blessing and brings a curse. In other words, people live on lies not realizing that without repentance they will be destroyed by them. Hence, Jesus calls Satan the father of lies and the father of all liars (John 8:39-47). Our fallen world runs on lies, but it is headed for a head on collision with the Truth in the judgment to come.

Lies lead to disaster eventually. Dostoevsky foresaw that on the other side of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn saw it in its aftermath. Both exhorted people to renounce lies and earnestly seek to be people committed to the truth. Inspired by both of them, Jordan Peterson in recent times has urgently encouraged the same. Being people of the Truth in a world of lies is not easy and it can be dangerous as history has proven time and time again. It certainly proved deadly for Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). But in the resurrection Jesus proved that lies will not ultimately prevail over Truth and that the life that is firmly grounded in the Truth will not forever be overcome by death.

Both the claim to absolute immortality apart from God and the denial of any immortality at all (i.e. no eternal judgment to come) are foundational lies that lead people to believe they can live life according to their own rules, “rules for radicals,” if you will. But every lie will eventually be exposed by the Truth. A commitment to Truth in a fallen world of lies can be costly, but the reward in the world to come will infinitely surpass any cost we may incur. And Truth is not just a concept, Truth is a person with a name. He’s the one who said let your yea be yea and your nay, nay (Matthew 5:37). His name is Jesus.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. ~ Colossians 3:1-10 ESV

 

 

 

 

 

The Christian Answer to COVID-19?

N.T. Wright made headlines in Time Magazine in the past few weeks by asserting that Christianity offers no answers about COVID-19. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am a thankful admirer of the scholarship of N.T. Wright and that I am fairly well read when it comes to his work. That being said, I was a bit perplexed with his assertion in the Time article.

I understand his assertion that Christianity offers no answers to be a bit of hyperbole to ward off wild speculation about why God may be punishing us—that its the fault of a particular class of sinners and punishment for a specific set of sins. For instance some conservative Catholics seem to think COVID-19 is punishment for Catholics receiving communion in the hand rather than on the tongue. I can think of a lot of other things that may be upsetting God more. But Wright seems to go a bit further to suggest that it would be a “knee-jerk would-be Christian” reaction driven by mere rationalism to suggest this might be a punishment, warning, or sign from God at all. He also referred to those who might suggest such a thing as “silly suspects.” I was disappointed, not least because I probably fall into his insulting category.

I understand it would be wrong to place blame on any particular group or to suggest that this is a specific sign pointing to a particular end-times scenario. I take Jesus seriously when he warned not to assume that a particular group that experiences tragedy is made up of worse sinners than everyone else. Jesus used two smaller-scale tragedies (a slaughter of Galileans at the hands of Pilate and an accident in Jerusalem) to warn about a greater judgment to come that requires the repentance of all people (Luke 13:1-5). I also take the message of Job seriously that in this world the righteous often suffer in spite of their righteousness and not because of any particular sin. Jesus is the perfect case in point. But it is going too far to suggest that Christianity offers no answers at all and that its not supposed to, even if it is hyperbole.

There are some who have made a philosophical move to define God’s goodness in such a way that it necessarily removes any possibility of punishment coming from God. Some go to extremes this way. I used to be one of them. They take the statement that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV) to mean that God never does anything that would cause pain and suffering to such an extent that God is relieved of any responsibility for even what the Bible clearly reveals to be his own judgment. John Barclay explains this as taking a concept—in this case God’s goodness—and “perfecting” it by taking it to its extreme definitionally. Often this takes concepts beyond how they could be defined in context biblically and then reads that concept back into scripture. Usually this involves screening out texts that don’t fit the “perfected” concept. Barclay offers Marcion as an extreme example of this biblically unwarranted “perfecting” of the concept of God’s goodness ( John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, Erdmanns, 2015, p. 71, Kindle).

Not everyone goes to the extremes that Marcion did, but many hold a view of God’s goodness that drives them to downplay God’s judgment almost entirely if not altogether. N.T. Wright is not actually among them. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, he says, even though we are inclined to find it offensive, sometimes “God has to get his boots muddy and, it seems, to get his hands bloody, to put the world back to rights” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, Intervarsity, 2006, p. 65, Kindle). The use of punishment to restrain evil no more impugns God’s character than it would that of a police officer using force to stop someone from murdering another person. But some will feel the need to protect God’s character by disassociating punishment from God altogether. Others will prefer to use passive language to describe God’s judgment by suggesting that God only allows or permits people to suffer but never causes it directly.

The reality is we can never get away from the fact that God set up the world with consequences to sin built into it, and that the Bible at times clearly depicts God taking an active role in bringing about those consequences. Those who define God’s goodness in such a way as to exclude God’s judgment altogether are following the lead of Plato more so than Moses and the prophets, or Jesus and the apostles. Interestingly, when it comes to natural disasters or plagues, Wright does seem to be somewhat conflicted. He admits that the prophets would be content to attribute them to the judgment of God, but Wright himself is not quite as keen on doing that as they were (Evil and the Justice of God, p. 81).

So, what about COVID-19? Is it a punishment for sin? Is it true that Christianity really provides no answers and was never meant to? When Charles Wesley considered the reason for calamitous earthquakes in his day, he traced their cause back to the fall in Eden and their cure to repentance and faith in Jesus. The least we can and should say about the current pandemic is that it is a reminder of the first pandemic among human beings created in the image of God that got us quarantined from Eden in the first place. The pandemic of sin continues to plague the human race today. And its ramifications in creation remain with us still. Even if you consider that Eden was a specific place on Earth and not the entire Earth itself, the fact remains that God intended the shalom of Eden to multiply and spread with his image bearers around the globe. This was also the intention with the call of Abraham’s family through Isaac and Jacob, and this is the goal of the expanded family of Abraham to include Jews and Gentiles in Christ Jesus.

COVID-19 and all other causes of disease and death among people are a constant reminder of the aborted mission of humanity in Eden because of sin and the judgment of God. Atheists might say it’s just part of the cruel and callous randomness of the natural world, but Christians should not suggest the same. We may not have insight into the particular reasons for it in the present moment, but that doesn’t mean there is no reason at all, or that Christianity doesn’t give us any clue at all. From the Christian perspective we live in a fallen world because of the fall, and the fall was because of sin, and the punishment for sin is death. This is the bad news of the problem that points us to God’s solution in Christ. Easter is the answer to the coronavirus and to all disease and death because Jesus’ death and resurrection solves the problem of the pandemic of sin that is, according to scripture, the cause of all that plagues humanity.

Jesus said he would send the Spirit “to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). I’m not sure how that can happen by downplaying the biblical connection between human sin and natural evil or to simply say Christianity provides no answers. To use a line from C.S. Lewis, what good is it for God to shout to us in our pain if he can provide no answers for its cause? Isn’t it normal for people to look for the cause of pain in order to alleviate it? The fact that we don’t have all the answers or the fact that there are some answers that are more problematic than others does not mean Christianity provides no answers. Rather than just calling people to lament over the brokenness of the world, why shouldn’t we also lead people to lament over the cause of the brokenness? Then we could lead people not only to lament, but to repent and to rejoice in the cure found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who suffered under the curse to redeem us from it. To quote N.T. Wright, “there is no need to shrink back from the radical diagnosis, since the remedy is at hand” (Evil and the Justice of God, p, 100).

If the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, then we believe there are not only answers about the coronavirus, there is also an answer to it and everything else that plagues this fallen world because of the fall. Medical science may discover a solution to COVID-19. We all pray they do! But faith in Jesus is the ultimate answer to the problem of our broken and fallen world, and our sure and certain hope for the complete healing of it. And it is the answer that I know N.T. Wright knows and can explain very well. Maybe I’m just being one of those silly suspects and missing the point, but I think Wright missed an opportunity to present the radical diagnosis and the remedy of the gospel in that Time article.