All posts by Cliff Wall

About Cliff Wall

Married, father of five, and pastor and preacher.

Visions of Grace: BeUMC? GoGMC?

The concise letter of Jude calls for faithful Christians to contend for the faith in the face of false teachers within the church, “who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4 NRSV).

“Grace” is a common term between genuine and false teachers. Both use the same word, but with different meanings. As someone has said, “they share the same vocabulary but use different dictionaries.” False teachers, who slip in the church on false pretenses, interpret grace in such a way to give people a green light for “licentiousness” (GK: aselgeia). It’s a term associated especially with the pursuit of illicit sexual pleasure, as v. 7 indicates with its reference to Sodom and Gomorrah’s indulgence in “sexual immorality” and “unnatural lust.” Unlike many modern Methodist theologians, Jude here clearly connects grace to morality and morality to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He understands that some may affirm the Lordship of Jesus with their lips, but deny it by their behavior (see Luke 6:46; Matt 7:13-29).

United Methodist congregations, lay members, and pastors find themselves torn between two competing visions of grace. Progressives promote a vision of grace that emphasizes acceptance and affirmation, especially as it pertains to sexuality and gender identity. Whereas traditional Christianity has maintained that blurring the lines between the genders sexually (Lev 18:22; Rom 1:26-27) and in terms of identity (Deut 22:5) is contrary to God’s design in nature, progressives see the wide variety of potential sexual expressions and gender identities as all good, God-given expressions of nature.

What started out as a push for the acceptance and celebration of monogamous same-sex marriages, as predicted, has become a call for the acceptance and celebration of all possible expressions of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. As the popular progressive Lutheran (ELCA), Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “God created us as sexual beings in endless variety. WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married.” 

In 2019, like many annual conferences, the Western NC Conference of the UMC passed a petition that declared the traditional position of the church to be evil, unjust, and oppressive and even “inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The petition also encourages the promotion of the entire LGBTQIA+ spectrum. During discussion, one lay delegate asked for clarification of all the letters and the + at the end. A progressive delegate explained that the + includes orientations and gender identities yet to be named or discovered. Indeed, some mainline churches, including UMC’s, are even employing drag queen ministers who are clearly promoting the celebration of that “endless variety” (see UM News report promoting one such ministry).

Progressive and traditional Methodists both emphasize grace. It’s not enough, however, to simply declare that one believes in salvation by grace. The question is what do the differing camps mean by that? Whereas progressives emphasize grace as inclusion via affirmation, traditionalists see grace as inclusive by way of invitation, yet transformational via forgiveness and new birth. Traditional Methodists, in harmony with the promises of the new covenant, know grace to include the removal of hard hearts that resist obedience to God’s law, and the gift of a new heart, a new spirit, and the gift of God’s very own Spirit, who gives believers a new set of desires and the power to overcome sin to live life in harmony with the commandments of God (Jer 31:31ff; Ezk 36:22-27).

Traditional Methodists know that life in the flesh, under the power of sin, leaves us helpless and hopeless to overcome human desire distorted and misdirected to the wrong pursuits apart from the grace of God (i.e. Rom 7). But we also know that by the power in the sacrificial death of Jesus and in the Holy Spirit, we can overcome the power of sin in order to live a life wherein “the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4 – Paul here clearly referring to the fulfillment of the new covenant promise). Nonetheless, we are also well aware that believers need to help one another and encourage one another to remain on guard, as Paul warns, against the mind of the flesh, which is “hostile to God;” for “it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot, . . .” (Rom 8:7).

Whereas progressives tend to pit grace against law, the particulars of the promises of the new covenant itself demonstrate the harmony between them. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus didn’t have a problem with the promotion of obedience to the law. What he had a problem with was the legalism associated with manmade traditions that misinterpreted the law to be too strict with regards to some issues (i.e. sabbath keeping) and on other issues developed clever ways to provide loop holes around the commandments. Jesus didn’t criticize the Pharisees for taking the law too seriously; he criticized them for their hypocrisy and abandoning God’s commandments in favor of human tradition. “Then he said, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the command of God in order to keep your tradition'” (Mark 7:9).

Indeed, Jesus insisted:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matt 5:17-20

Commenting on this after insisting there is no contrariety between gospel and law and referring to the promise of the new covenant from Jeremiah, John Wesley warned:

But if these things are so, we cannot be at a loss what to think of those who in all ages of the Church, have undertaken to change or supersede some commands of God, as they professed, by the peculiar direction of his Spirit. Christ has here given us an infallible rule, whereby to judge of all such pretensions. Christianity, as it includes the whole moral law of God, both by way of injunction and of promise, if we will hear him is designed of God to be the last of all his dispensations. There is no other to come after this. This is to endure till the consummation of all things. Of consequence, all such new revelations are of Satan, and not of God; and all pretences to another more perfect dispensation fall to the ground of course. “Heaven and earth shall pass away;” but this word “shall not pass away.”

Sermon 25 On the Sermon on the Mount

Wesley would go on to say “no allowance is made for one darling lust; no reserve for one idol; no excuse for refraining from all besides, and only giving way to one bosom sin.” In this sermon and another in his series on the Sermon on the Mount, Wesley also warned about well-meaning, good-natured men, and genteel intellectuals and concerned ministers, who “above all, come in the appearance of love” (Sermon 32 On the Sermon on the Mount), who in some form or fashion pit gospel against law and encourage people in sin.

The crisis in the United Methodist Church today over sexuality is merely a symptom of much more serious differences. At the root is contradictory and competing visions of the nature and authority of Scripture. Many among progressives will deny this, and say that we just interpret Scripture differently. It is true that we interpret Scripture differently, but we do because we have very different views about what Scripture is.

Adam Hamilton, one of the most prominent leaders of the liberal and progressive movement, who literally has his own section of Cokesbury, has stated that some sections of the Bible never reflected the heart and character of God. He pits his vision of Jesus against the Bible, at least those parts that he deems unworthy of the character of God revealed in Jesus. He teaches the Bible is more a word about God, than a word from God; that humans who wrote portions of the Bible were merely describing experiences of the divine the best they could but sometimes got it wrong. Moreover, he more than suggests that as a whole the Bible is not the word of God, but portions of it may be. Hamilton’s view of the inspiration of the Bible in general is that it is inspired in the same way that even modern Christian authors may be inspired. He seems to prefer divine “influence” instead of inspiration.

Taken together, the implication of Hamilton’s teaching is that modern authors may by inspiration of the Spirit correct the authors of Scripture and therefore be preferred to certain passages of Scripture. He certainly feels free to do that himself (see his book Making Sense of the Bible or here for the nutshell version). And do note that Hamilton is one of the more moderate progressives.

Contrast Hamilton’s view with what Wesley says in his preface to his New Testament Notes:

The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.

John Wesley Preface to New Testament Notes

Hamilton’s view is in contradiction to Wesley’s statement above, but also to the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church found in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.

Article 6 of the Articles of Religion says the Old and New Testament Scriptures are the sufficient standard for Christian faith and practice with regards to things necessary for salvation and Article 7 says:

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.

Hamilton’s teaching is contradictory to Wesley’s and to these articles. And because there are contradictory and competing views of the nature and authority of Scripture (including its general reliability) progressives and traditional Methodists do interpret things quite differently.

While progressives say they respect the authority of Scripture they do so in a very different and limited sense. One indication is that those promoting “the continuing UMC” seek to narrow the range of essentials to exclude beliefs regarding sexual morality. Prominent leaders, for example, repeatedly assert that because the doctrinal standards don’t say anything about sexual orientation or gender identity those issues are in the non-essential category. But the doctrinal standards, the Articles of Religion, for example, do not suggest that they themselves are the sufficient standard for Christian faith and practice and the sum total of essential Christian doctrine. Clearly they point us to the Bible for what it is we are to believe and how it is we are to live. And the Bible clearly places sexual morality in the category of core moral doctrine as it regards salvation. Hence, the repeated warnings in the Bible about unrepentant sexual immorality keeping one from entering into God’s kingdom (i.e. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:9; Eph 5:3-6; Rev 21:8). To suggest these issues are indifferent matters of opinion is to devise a manmade tradition in order to sideline the moral law of God.

But the distortion of grace goes much further. What at best is the kind of doctrinal indifference that John Welsey called the “spawn of hell,”(Sermon 39 Catholic Spirit) has made allowances for Bishop Karen Oliveto to teach that the church has been wrong to make an idol out of Jesus and that Jesus himself was led by a Syrophoenician woman to repent of bigotry as if he was an ordinary sinner like the rest of us (this has become a popular and common teaching among progressive mainliners). It has also led United Methodist leaders to promote the ministry of Nadia Bolz-Weber (mentioned above), who in her book Pastrix refers to the wiccan goddess as something like God’s aunt, merely another expression of the divine. This is obviously in defiance of the first commandment! Those promoting the misleadingly called “Continuing UMC” will insist they are not going to change the doctrinal standards. Of course they won’t. Just look how far they’ve gotten ignoring, disregarding, and . . . redefining them!

I just saw a report of a UMC pastor who says we need to do away with the idea that people need to be born again and the concept of original sin upon which it is based, along with the doctrine of hell. These kinds of declarations are not new. He renounces these historic Christian doctrines, which are also doctrinal standards of the UMC, as harmful fantasies. Instead, he preaches: “We are evolving creatures striving to emerge from the primal ooze of our past to achieve a more advanced form of life.” And he’s more likely to be promoted than reprimanded in the “continuing UMC.” Indeed, it’s more likely that I’ll be reprimanded for writing this article.

In these days of decision when United Methodists are deciding between whether to remain in the “Continuing UMC” or to go with the Global Methodist Church, the decision will require some serious consideration of which vision of grace you would choose. Grace that gives license for immorality and denial of the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Or grace that transforms as it forgives and heals hardened hearts for obedience to God’s holy word? Consider the final word of admonition from Jude.

But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; for they said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.” It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions.  But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.  And have mercy on some who are wavering;  save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing,  to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Jude 17-25

Article written by Rev. Dr. Cliff Wall

Left for Dead, He Left Death in the Dust

Left for dead. His enemies secured it; the Romans ensured it. Laid in the dust of a stone-cold tomb. Left for dead. The Truth buried. The power of love tossed aside after being stabbed in the back and pierced in the side by the love of power.

The Truth trampled; the Savior silenced and sealed in a stone-cold tomb. Love was left for dead by those who could not bear to hear the Truth. Love was left for dead, but the Lord of Love who had died would rise by the power of the Spirit, the love between the Father and the Son.

On the third day, the Lord of Love left death in the dust of a stone-cold tomb. The Lord of Love, left that stone-cold tomb ablaze with the love of God and love for those who had abandoned him and denied him; for those who had betrayed him and falsely accused him and shouted “crucify him;” the ones for whom he had prayed, “Father, forgive them!”

The Love that was left for dead; the Truth that was buried, left sin and evil and death in the dust of a stone-cold tomb as he burst forth with new creation life charged by the heat of divine love.

It’s in the hope found in a stone-cold, empty tomb that stone-cold hearts are strangely warmed and set ablaze with the love of the crucified Savior and the life of the risen Lord, Jesus, the Christ.

Love was left for dead, but the Lord of Love left sin and death in the dust when he left that stone-cold tomb. But rest assured beloved, that same Savior who left that tomb promised that he would never leave us or forsake us. For in His own glorious resurrection, by faith, we find in his empty tomb, the assurance of our own.

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 KJV

When the Love of Power Met the Power of Love

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings explores one of humanity’s fatal flaws: the love of power. The ring of power, the one ring “to rule them all . . . and in the darkness to bind them” only has the power to allure, because people have hearts easily swayed by it and insatiably attracted to its false promise. That is, the false promise of autonomy and control of one’s own destiny.

Some intellectuals, like the atheist philosopher Nietzsche, have concluded that the lust for power and control among humans, is really all there is. This philosophy is dramatically and explicitly depicted in the wildly popular TV series, “Yellowstone” starring Kevin Costner. As Dostoyevsky well knew, in a world where people live as if God doesn’t exist, then anything is permissible to secure one’s fortunes. In a world like this, any gods that are acknowledged are thoroughly domesticated at best, and totally subservient to the all too familiar idols of money and sex erected on the pedestal of pride. I think this is true whether we’re talking about actual atheism or the practical atheism among Christians that John Wesley warned about (Sermon 130: “On Living Without God”).

Ancient historian Tom Holland, an agnostic, who early in his career thought of Christianity as backwards and a roadblock to progress, now acknowledges that the Judeo-Christian worldview is the foundation to the progress made in the world toward individual rights that so many take for granted. He discovered, contrary of his early inclinations, that it was the advent of Christianity in the midst of a pagan world that was incredibly brutal and callous that really made a difference (see Dominion by Tom Holland). It was when the ring of power had cast one of its darkest spells that the love of power meet the power of love. They were on a collision course predestined before time and the collision broke the spell of the power of darkness definitively.

Countering the love of power was at the heart of Jesus’ mission, and casting out the dark prince of this world and breaking his spell over hearts and minds was one of his chief goals (John 12:31ff). On the night of The Last Supper, Luke tells us that Jesus had to address again his own disciples’ tendency to fantasize aloud about the power they would have when Jesus came into his kingdom. Luke tells us that Jesus repeated a lesson that he had tried to get across in other settings before (Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45).

A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with  you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table?  But  I am among you as one who  serves.

Luke 22:24-27 NET

Even at this late stage, Jesus’ disciples were still attracted to the ring of power. The dark prince had already seized control of Judas because of this fatal attraction and his other disciples were susceptible to the same fate. So once again Jesus explained, as he would later declare to Pilate, that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). John tells that he not only explained it, he demonstrated it by assuming the posture of the lowliest servants and washing the disciples’ feet to their shock (John 13). This was a prelude to Jesus’ ultimate shock and awe campaign to defeat the devil and cure the love of power with the power of love on the cross.

There are signs of the love of power, the desire to be our own god, to declare autonomy and independence from God, to make our own way rather than submitting to God’s way. One is manipulation of the truth. In other words, the use of lies to attempt to bend reality to conform to our pride and desires. Lies are the result of lawlessness, where people’s desires become a law unto themselves. Another way to describe lawlessness, is inconsistency with covenant, when people selectively apply covenant agreements when it suits their desires, and ignore them or redefine the terms when it doesn’t. And whether this happens in the context of a single relationship or among larger groups or organizations, those who are hellbent on getting what they want when they want it, will use favors and bribes to entice and/or threats and false accusation and leverage of power, to coerce others into going along with them. Covenants, to be beneficial, require the wiling cooperation of those authorized to enforce them to encourage accountability to them. Without that, covenant takes a back seat to convenience and covenantal crisis and chaos is the result. These are signs of the love of power, indeed signs that you are dealing with evil, what Jesus, on the night he was arrested, called the “power of darkness” (Luke 22:53).

A sign of genuine love is truthfulness. Another word for this is “covenant consistency.” Genuine love, inspired by the God who is love, is committed to truth, the reality of the character of God revealed in the purpose and design of God’s good creation and in the revelation of God’s word. Love can never be separated from truth. And love never issues threats to coerce. As Paul said:

Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does  not brag, it is not puffed up. It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about  injustice, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things,  believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Cor 13:4-7 NET

Love never issues threats, but it does give warnings. Threats are designed to bring someone into conformity to a lie; warnings are designed to make those we love aware of and save them from the real danger of wandering too far beyond the guardrails of the truth. Threats involve contrived consequences designed to control; warnings help people avoid dangerous natural consequences and snares that often accompany foolish decisions. Love warns but not to coerce. Just as Jesus warned Judas, who had been enticed by the power of darkness to betray him. Since the beginning of Holy Week, I’ve seen reminders of Jesus’ love exemplified by sharing his last supper with Jesus and washing his feet, but I haven’t seen any share how Jesus loved Judas by warning him of the horrifying personal consequences of his actions.

For the Son of Man will go as it is written about him, but  woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would be better for him if he had never been born.”

Mark 14:21 NET

Jesus came to inaugurate a kingdom founded on the power of love in the midst of a world corrupted by the love of power. Contrary to the delusions of grandeur that plagued the fallen world, including God’s own chosen people, even those in Jesus’ own inner circle, Jesus came to found a kingdom not by force but by love. Jesus told Pilate:

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were  from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 

John 18:36

When Jesus met Pilate is a love story. The love of power came face to face with the power of love. And the Lord of love told Pilate that he came into this world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). The kingdom founded on the power of love was also firmly grounded in the truth. And it was not a kingdom that would be won and secured by force. Indeed, as he was arrested, Jesus rebuked his own disciple’s attempt to prevent his arrest by sword. He acknowledged that he had the power to summon an army of angels to fight for him, but he would not. His kingdom would not be founded by force, and it would not be a kingdom like those of the world founded in the love of power and for the pleasure of those who lorded their power over the weak.

Jesus demonstrated that his kingdom would be distinguished from worldly kingdoms by the power of love. He, the master of everything, demonstrated this by becoming the servant of all, by washing his disciples’ feet, and most of all by giving his life for the forgiveness of the sins of Israel and the world on the cross, where he was crowned king of Israel and Lord of all. By doing so, he also demonstrated for his own followers how to live in love as citizens of that everlasting kingdom.

His is a kingdom that can’t be taken by force, but neither could it be established by force. His is a kingdom that can only be received freely through faith, by letting go of the ring of power and clinging to the cross of Christ, by the gift of God’s unmerited and unforced grace. That is the power of love.

“I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34-35

The Key to Victory: Confidence in Scripture?

After the death of Moses, and just before Israel began the military campaign to take control of the promised land, God himself encouraged the new leader of Israel, Joshua. He also reminded Joshua of the key to his and Israel’s success.

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:7-9 ESV

The key to Israel’s victory was their faithfulness to the written word of God, a principle also highlighted in Psalm 1. Ironically the book of Joshua is often misused to undermine Christians’ confidence in Scripture. And this not only by non-Christians, but also by ministers in the church.

Joshua, they say, promotes genocide; that it describes Israel as having been engaged in an extermination campaign against the Canaanites. It is true that there is some language in Joshua that could be taken that way, if taken in a strict wooden literal sense. Joshua 11, for instance, describes the conquests in northern Canaan. Of one Canaanite strongholds, Joshua 11:11 says they were devoted to destruction, “there was none left that breathed.” The narrator goes on to explain that several other cities were also “devoted to destruction” and “they did not leave any who breathed” (v.14). This, according to even ministers like the United Methodist, Adam Hamilton, is where this author of Scripture got it wrong. He deems Joshua 11:11 & 14 to be passages that do not reflect the actual heart of God and declares that these passages were never inspired by God at all.

But Joshua 11:15 itself insists that Israel had done “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (see Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

Although Rev. Hamilton has repeatedly insisted, as he once again did recently in an article he wrote in response to Tom Lambrecht, that he and no one he knows really has a lower viewer of Scripture than conservatives. It’s hard to take Rev. Hamilton’s claims seriously when in his own words he has declared that not all of the Bible is inspired by God and that some parts, like the passages in Joshua above, were never inspired of God. He also teaches explicitly that the parts that are inspired are inspired in the same way as the writings of many other books or sermons such as the writings of C.S. Lewis. On the one hand, he says the Bible is more authoritative than other Christian works because it was closer to the source of the main events.

But on the other hand it’s not clear that he really believes this because he says the authors of Scripture were trying to describe their encounters with the Divine, but sometimes misinterpreted those experiences in ways that do not reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus. Hamilton sees Scripture as a word about God rather than a word from God. And he sees it as a word about God that is flawed, irredeemably so in some passages. The problem is the passages that he deems “problematic” are much more pervasive than he acknowledges and some of the teachings of Jesus himself would fall into Hamilton’s problematic “bucket.” He certainly could not honestly agree with John Wesley’s statement in his preface to the New Testament notes.

The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.

Wesley was merely echoing the longstanding belief of the Church that Scripture is a reliable, trustworthy, true, and sufficient testimony to the good news of the saving work of God in our fallen world. Whatever he says, it’s obvious that Rev. Hamilton really doesn’t believe that Scripture is sufficient. He actually teaches that it is deficient. Regarding Joshua, he puts us in a position where we have to decide is Adam Hamilton right or is the book of Joshua (i.e. 11:15) and the book of Deuteronomy right (i.e. 20:16-17)? It would be helpful to reflect on the accusation that Joshua promotes genocide. Did God really command Israel to commit genocide?

As Joshua 11:15 indicates, the story we find in Joshua is the culmination of a narrative that begins in Genesis. It’s the culmination of a story line that runs all the way through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those who think they are just picking at bad threads in a few passages in Joshua are really pulling a thread that will unravel the entire narrative beginning in Genesis, a narrative that Jesus and the apostles and all the New Testaments writers assumed to be the trustworthy and true word of the Living God.

In Genesis 15, when God ratifies his covenant with Abram, God prophesies long into the future and shows Abram that the descendants that God will give him will end up enslaved in Egypt for 400 years before being delivered and being granted the land of the Canaanites.

“And they shall come back here [Canaan] in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites [one Canaanite tribe mentioned to represent all of them] is not yet complete.”

Genesis 15:16

Genesis 15:16 indicates that God was giving the Canaanites 400 years before bringing judgment, which would also have given them time to repent. In Leviticus 18, in the midst of prohibitions given to Israel regarding various forms of sexual immorality, including child sacrifice, Leviticus 18:24-25 says:

Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean,  and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.

These were the sins for which God would drive the Canaanites out of the land with Israel as the instrument. Note the language “drive out.” This language with regards to the Canaanites used here in Leviticus is also used in Numbers and throughout Deuteronomy. It’s also used in Joshua itself. In the same passage from Leviticus 18 above, God through Moses goes onto to warn Israel that they too are to avoid falling into those same sins because God would judge them in the same way. The passage also assumes that there would be foreigners residing among Israel under Israelite rule (Leviticus 18:24-30). Most of those would be the very same Canaanites that Israel was to “drive out” and “devote to destruction.”

The mission of Israel was to take control of Canaanite strongholds, to drive them out of power, to destroy their evil influence in the region. Deuteronomy 20:18 captures this intent: “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have dome for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.” Israel’s call was to set up a kingdom under the leadership of the Creator himself to be a witness to and to spread the holy, healing presence of God to all the nations of the earth. This included the Canaanites themselves. Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho, and her family would be some of the first recipients and an example of that very thing (Joshua 6).

“Drive them out” didn’t mean literally to completely expel every single one of them from the region, and “devote them to destruction” leaving “nothing that breathed” didn’t mean that all of them were to be literally exterminated. The last chapters of Joshua and the beginning chapters of Judges make this very clear. Tens of thousands of Canaanites remained among the Israelites even under Israelite rule. In the reign of king David later we will read about how one of his most loyal soldiers was Uriah the Hittite, and how David was condemned for the tragic injustice he infamously perpetuated against him (2 Samuel 11-12).

The language of total annihilation and leaving nothing that breathed and so forth was stock figurative hyperbolic language used throughout the Ancient Near East, including by the Canaanites themselves to describe victories in battles. The battles themselves were real and incredibly brutal as war has been throughout history into the present day. The different Canaanite tribes themselves were often at war with each other as various warlords (i.e. kings) would seek to gain total control over the land. I just finished watching a Netflix documentary discussing the age of the Samurai in Japan in the 1500’s and how various clans led by various warlords fought for control over all of Japan for well over a hundred years in incredibly vicious and brutal battles. I think this may help us imagine the situation that God led Israel into in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and his many successors. But he wasn’t leading them to commit genocide. God’s intent in his call of Israel was to reclaim ground subverted under the influence of the serpent and suffering under the curse of sin to restore his healing presence and blessing to all families of the earth, including Canaanite families (Gen 12:3; 18:19).

People who use Joshua to undermine the church’s confidence in the written word of God, are undermining people’s confidence in the very thing that God told Joshua would be the key to God’s people’s success. Israel’s call found its ultimate-albeit still-to-be consummated- fulfillment in Jesus Christ. And the mission to reclaim ground for the kingdom of God continues with the faithful witness of the Church (Matthew 28:18-20). The Church is not called to wage war physically in the same way that Israel did, but we are called to wage war against the “spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:10-20).

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, …

2 Corinthians 10:4-5

If we are to be successful we too must have confidence in the testimony of Scripture, that it reliably and truthfully bears witness to the Word of God in the flesh by whose blood and by whose word we conquer the deceiver of the whole world, the devil (Revelation 12:11). If we are to successfully reclaim ground for the kingdom of God–first and foremost in our own hearts (Mark 4:1-20)–we must regain confidence and commitment to the word of God.

By Cliff Wall

Deliver us from ____ ?

One of the primary reasons God sent his Son into the world was to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The Son of God entered into the world to cast the devil out and thereby break his grip and influence over the kingdoms of the world (John 12:31). The primary device the devil uses to gain control over people is deception. When people believe his lies they are under the control of the devil. Moreover, he uses fear to keep people bound to the lies by making truth seem too controversial and too costly for total commitment. As the slanderer, the demonic further uses deception to incite hatred among and between people. He convinces the “us” that the root of all their woe is the “them.”

Jesus entered into the world when many Jews were praying to be delivered from the Romans that they so despised. In contrast Jesus taught his followers to pray, “deliver us from evil” and to love their enemies. Jesus didn’t come to destroy the Romans, he came to destroy the works of the devil and to draw all people, Jew and Gentile, to himself (John 12:32). His mission was to rescue Israel and people of all other nations from the power of darkness and evil itself, to be a light to the nations. The devil on the other hand works to keep people in the dark and divided. He leads them to believe that what they really need is to be be rid of their enemies rather than reconciled with them. He convinces the “us” that evil is located outside of themselves in the “them,” which leads people into self-righteousness. Hence Lesslie Newbigin’s warning to the church about the danger of Marxism in his book, The Open Secret (1995).

A just society can flourish only when its members acknowledge the justice of God, which is the justice enacted in the cross. If I do not acknowledge a justice that judges the justice for which I fight, I am an agent not of justice, but of lawless tyranny.

At this point the Christian has to be aware of the trap set by Marxism. I am not here questioning the Marxist analysis of the nature of capitalism, which I find very convincing; I am speaking of the Marxist understanding of human nature. The most obvious feature of the dedicated Marxist is extreme moralism. For the Marxist, evil is always something external to oneself. It is the “class enemy” that constitutes the locus of the evil against which one has to fight. Consequently there can be no thought of forgiveness and reconciliation. There are only two realities — the oppressor and the oppressed, the exploiter and the exploited. The oppressed and the exploited are the exclusive bearers of truth and righteousness. There is no truth or righteousness over them. so to speak, that is able to judge and forgive them. Two things follow from this: (1) When the “oppressed” acquire power, absolutely no check exists upon their use of that power. There is no righteousness over them that can judge them. The result is the kind of tyranny that we have seen under Stalin and his lesser imitators. Those who identify themselves as the representatives of the “oppressed” are in a position to combine unlimited self-righteousness in respect of themselves with unlimited moral indignation in respect of their opponents. This is the most characteristic feature of the dedicated Marxist. Since there is no transcendent righteousness that can judge and forgive both the oppressor and the oppressed, the way is open for unlimited self-righteousness (p. 111).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in a Soviet gulag for questioning the moral underpinnings of the Soviet régime, well knew the tyranny of which Newbigin warned. He also knew the proclivity to locate evil outside oneself in the other isn’t only a problem among Marxists. As he said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” and that line shifts in every heart throughout a person’s life (The Gulag Archipelago, 1974, p. 168). The story of Judas reminds us that no matter how close we may be to Jesus, we’re never far from the devil (John 13:21-30). Chillingly, Solzhenitsyn warned of a threshold, a point of no return, where one may completely give oneself over to evil (p.175). It reminds me of John 12:35-36 where Jesus says,

“The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (ESV).

Jesus calls us to pray “deliver us from evil.” The evil-one himself would prefer that we pray “deliver us from them.” During Jesus’ earthly ministry many Jews would rather pray “deliver us from the Romans.” The Nazis prayed “deliver us from the Jews.” The Bolsheviks picked up an ancient radical Pelagian sentiment and prayed “deliver us from the rich.” Dr. Michael Brown recently posted an article in which he writes that some are rejecting calls to pray for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris saying to do so would be like praying for the devil himself. I suppose their prayer is “Lord, deliver us from the Democrats.”

A PBS legal counsel was caught on tape before the election saying kids of Republican parents should be taken from them and sent to reeducation camps if Biden were to win because he believes Trump is close to Hitler. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and MSNBC and Nicole Hannah Jones of the New York Times posited that millions of Trump supporters need to be deprogrammed and punished. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee wants to throw a blanket of suspicion over most of the National Guard because most of them likely voted for Trump as did about 75 million of the general population. Some are praying “deliver us from the Republicans.”

Others are praying, “Lord, deliver us from the Federal government” in the name of white supremacy. This was the prayer of Timothy McVeigh, who detonated a bomb at a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people including 19 children in 1995. Others are praying “deliver us from ‘whiteness'” itself. By this they don’t just mean extremist groups like neo-Nazis and the KKK; they mean white American and white Christian culture in general. Jemar Tisby is apparently suggesting that all of white Christian religion is totally corrupted by racism. Are some praying, “Lord, deliver us from white Christians?” Along those same lines some are praying “deliver us from the police.” All of these, of course, are variations of “deliver us from them.”

The prayer that Jesus taught, however, is “deliver us from evil” which is only possible if it is accompanied by a prayer for God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Us always begins with you and me. A posture of recognizing our own need for forgiveness and a willingness to forgive others is not optional if we are to be truly delivered from evil. It’s not the evildoers and haters but evil and hate themselves that is the greatest threat. No one will actually “win” the zero sum game that’s being played (Matt 4:8-11; 16:26). As Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Monastery at the Mount of Temptation

In Jesus the Truth entered into a world riddled by lies and full of hate and spoke the truth in love. He was the Truth in Love in the flesh! Pilate tried to forge a compromise between the Truth and lies, but in the process couldn’t help but torture the Truth. When push came to shove he sent the Truth to be crucified in the name of political correctness and the self-interest of personal expediency (John 18-19). All of us are tempted to temper our commitment to the truth out of fear. Fear keeps us bound to lies and from bearing bold witness to the truth. In Jesus, however, we see that the Truth can be denied and betrayed, mocked and ridiculed, distorted and tortured, and even killed dead and buried, . . . but not forever. To choose truth over lies, to choose faith over fear, to choose love over hate, is to choose life over death.

Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven: Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil; For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen.

The First Commandment is Still Relevant. Can I get an Amen?

. . . the most urgent contemporary mission field is to be found in their own traditional heartlands, and that the most aggressive paganism with which they have to engage is the ideology that now controls the “developed” world.

Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret,1995.

U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri made headlines by closing his prayer to open a session of congress with “Amen” and “Awoman.” Ironically, his silly attempt to be politically correct and inclusive would break the rule that many progressives in congress, including Nancy Pelosi, want to impose. They want to prohibit the use of any gender distinguishing terms like man and woman, husband and wife, and mother and father. Amen, however, has about as much reference to men as menopause (except for the ideologues that would insist men actually can experience menopause, periods, and pregnancy while also trying to ban gender distinguishing terms). Amen is simply a Hebrew word to express affirmation that one believes a claim to be true or to express the desire for the will of God to become a real and living reality in the lives of people and God’s good world. But make no mistake, the manipulation of and the battle to control language and speech like this is about controlling people and using the coercive power of government to punish those who would dare dissent. It might be silly, but it’s no joke.

Also of concern is that Representative Cleaver, who is also Reverend Cleaver, a graduate of a United Methodist seminary and an ordained United Methodist clergyman, evoked the Hindu god Brahma in his prayer as he implied that Brahma is just another name for the same monotheistic God revealed in the Bible. This seems to be a confused attempt on Cleaver’s part to fill the term monotheism with syncretistic pantheistic meaning. This isn’t surprising as he doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the actual meaning of words.

Brahma is not equivalent to Yahweh, the name of the God revealed in Jesus in the New Testament to be the one God: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. In a nutshell, in Hindu thought Brahma is one of many expressions of the all-encompassing and only true reality called Brahman. While some view Brahman as an impersonal force and consciousness, others see Brahman as a personal being that is ultimate reality and the only real consciousness that pervades everything. It’s not, however, that Brahman is merely in everything, Brahman is everything and everything is Brahman. Distinctions between Brahman and its perceived innumerable expressions are an illusion that results from ignorance that Brahman is all that really exists. The god Brahma is one of many expressions that brings the world of illusion (the world we live in) into existence. Brahma is the creative force. Vishnu is the god that sustains the world that is prone to cyclical decay until it can no longer overcome the forces of decay. At this point the god Shiva, the god of death and destruction, destroys the world. Then Brahma creates it anew to repeat the same cycle all over again infinitely.

The individual souls that make up the ultimate soul, Brahman, within and through these cycles go through a process of reincarnation after death in which they may become reembodied in the form of any type of creature. This cycle is viewed as a curse from which people should seek release and is due to ignorance that all is Brahman and Brahman is all. This release, called moksha, can be achieved via many different paths. Devotion to the any number of gods and goddesses, various forms of study and meditation, and fulfilling the duty of one’s social status (i.e. within the caste system), which traditionally excludes the possibility of moving into higher classes in this life, are the means by which people may work toward enlightenment and the release of moksha. This is to lose one’s distinctive identity and consciousness by achieving total unity with Brahman.

In this worldview there is no real distinction between the universe and Brahman. Hinduism is inherently diverse and therefore there are many different paths to achieve moksha. Through one’s efforts a person develops karma. Karma, good or bad, determines the fate of people in the cycle of reincarnation or their release from it. Ritualistic devotion to any number of the countless gods may attract their favor to help a person build up positive karma in hope of eventually achieving release from the reincarnational cycle of life. The overall cycle of creation and destruction via the work of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva seems to be endless. Human history as an illusion is not really headed anywhere in terms of a real permanent existence. This way of thinking about the nature of God, human nature, and the world is not the same as the Biblical Christian worldview. It’s a worldview that is contradictory and competing to the orthodox Christian worldview, which precludes syncretism.

Like paganism in general, Hinduism can be tolerant of almost any path except one, the path that claims there is only one true path. As Christians experienced with ancient Greco-Roman paganism, there are definite limits to Hindu tolerance, at least within Hinduism itself (not to say that all Hindus would seek to impose their worldview on Christians). Jesus can be accepted as a way but not the only way. Jesus as the only way is inherently related to the concept and the claim behind the First Commandment: the Creator of the universe is the only God to whom humans are to direct worshipful devotion. The Creator, who revealed himself as Yahweh and in the unique incarnation in Jesus as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not a expression of ultimate reality; he is ultimate reality. He is a personal being, the source of all other forms of being, who created the universe out of nothing. There is no force apart from God to which God is subject or dependent. The universe exists not as an endless cycle that is only an illusion. The universe is the real and good creation of God that is dependent upon God for its existence, but God in no way is dependent upon it for His existence. God is timeless and eternal; the universe had a beginning.

Humans were created in God’s image with free will to reign under God’s authority to bring blessing to the rest of God’s good creation. Idolatry is the illusion that human happiness and blessing and harmony and peace in the world can be achieved apart from total devotion to the one and only true God. Hence, the First Commandment.

Salvation is by receiving God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ as the gift that it is in this one life that he has given us to live in this world not by working to build up good karma over the course of countless lifetimes. Christian salvation is not to escape the world, but to be redeemed for the sake of the world and to pray for God’s kingdom to come in all its glory on earth as it is in heaven. History has a final and eternal destiny with humanity and the rest of God’s good creation in perfect harmony with the will of God but not at the expense of our creaturely and conscious existence distinct from God.

While there are some marginal similarities between the worship of Brahma and the God of the Bible, they each represent very different worldviews that are contradictory and competing. Both might be false, but both can’t be true. From a Biblical point of view one might as well pray to Baal as to pray to Brahma. By the way, it’s not the Hindu forms of paganism that we really need to be concerned about. It’s the aggressive and intolerant version that’s engulfed many Christian denominations and secular western society that Lesslie Newbigin warned about that is of real concern. But God is faithful and will never leave or forsake the faithful.

If the Bible is true, the First Commandment is still relevant for Christians today. I believe that it is. Can I get an amen?

If 2020 Gave A Christmas Gift . . .

Image used by permission.

By Cliff Wall

It’s time once again for the Christmas story. Most are familiar with the imagery of the nativity, the stable filled with animals along with Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus in a manger. Familiarity and the airbrushed imagery fit for a Christmas card, however, may cause us to forget how unusual this setting is for a story about the birth of a king. Let’s put it this way, someone in the midst of a functioning stable would smell more than merely hay. After all, sheep do more than just eat and bleat. In any time it’s hard to imagine such a setting being fit for a king.

Luke tells us of an impoverished couple bringing this king into the world under less then ideal– far less than ideal– circumstances. Moreover, his birth was announced and worshipfully proclaimed by angels to poor shepherds in the field, not to dignitaries in palaces, Herod’s or Caesar’s. Familiarity and sentimental modern imagery can blind us to the lowly and humble beginnings of this Jesus, who was destined to be king of Israel and Savior of the world. It may also blind us to the fact that this setting for the birth of this particular king was not accidental or incidental. The angel of the Lord claimed to bring “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10 ESV). The lone angel was then accompanied by a multitude of angels that exclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14).

The angels proclaimed good news of great joy for all the people that would not be received as such by every person. With the phrase “unto you is born” the angel evokes Isaiah 9:6-7.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The son of Mary was the promised Prince of Peace whose reign will establish everlasting peace built on the foundation of perfect justice. Peace is more but not less than the absence of conflict. It will include swords being beaten into plowshares and no more war (Isaiah 2:1-5). It will also include perfect well-being in body, soul, and spirit that comes with the restored blessing of the full presence of God. It’s the peace of heaven to come and to be enjoyed by God’s people on earth. But it is a peace that will ultimately only be received by “those with whom he [God] is pleased!” (Luke 2:14 ESV). Or as the NRSV renders it, “peace among those whom he favors!”

Who are those that God favors? While some minds will immediately go to abstract and ethereal debates about predestination (abstract and ethereal albeit inevitable and necessary), what Luke 2:14 likely has in mind is more concrete and “down to earth.” Fitting with the lowly circumstances of the King of Glory’s birth in a stable and into a poor family, those with whom God favors are the meek and humble. And this is in contrast to the arrogant and proud like the Israelites in the second half of Isaiah 9 who defiantly resist God’s attempts to humble them and trust in their own strength and ingenuity (Isaiah 9:8-21). This is the truth clearly expressed in Mary’s song of praise after she conceived Jesus as a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:46-55). The everlasting peace to be ushered in by the reign of the Prince of Peace is for the humble, more likely to be found among the poor. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Indeed, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6; cf. Prov 3:34).

God sent his Son to restore peace by establishing a kingdom of pure justice and righteousness. The words justice and righteousness are used more or less synonymously throughout the Bible. In addition to general faithfulness to God’s covenant commandments, biblical justice includes impartiality and fairness, that judgments not favor the rich over the poor or the poor over the rich in the settlement of disputes. It also includes personal responsibility on the part of those who have the ability and opportunity to work. But those with the ability and opportunity not only have a responsibility to take care of themselves but also to take care of the poor who for whatever set of unfortunate circumstances lack the ability and the opportunity to take care of themselves. This central part of biblical justice is expressed in Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians about idleness for those who were able to work. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10b). Biblical justice demands that neighbors love one another by holding each other accountable to the covenant with the Lord, which includes care for those genuinely in need. Additionally, among many other things, justice does include punishment for wrongdoing, but mercy and forgiveness are also an inherent part of it.

Isaiah tells us that the messiah will be the perfectly impartial and righteous judge who will treat the poor and the meek fairly, but, in contrast, he will destroy the wicked (Isaiah 11:3-4). “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). It’s not that only the literal poor can be meek and humble. While the poor are dependent upon the faithfulness of the rich, both rich and poor are ultimately completely dependent upon the faithfulness of God, which both may be tempted to forget (Deut 8).

The peace that Jesus came to bring is indeed built upon the foundation of justice and righteousness. It is true that there is no peace without justice, but justice, to be genuine, requires truth. Caesar and the Roman Empire promised peace, but it was a false peace because the justice it was built on was not grounded in truth. The Roman Empire, like all other kingdoms of this world, was built on the lie of idolatry. It’s peace was forged through propaganda to suit the desires of powerful elites. Facts were forced to fit the fiction. It’s false narrative was maintained through threat and fear. Rome’s version of justice came with no robust commitment to truth (John 18:38?). It’s “good news” of peace through its “lord’ and “savior,” Augustus Caesar, was pure propaganda designed to secure the power and glory of the empire and its emperor and other false gods. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, was born to bring glory to the one true God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

There is no peace without justice, but there is no justice without truth. Truth is not putty in our hands to shape as we see fit to suit our own desires; Truth is as firm as the character of God and his will for his creation. The prophet Isaiah reveals that times of evil and oppression are accompanied by injustice fueled by lies.

Justice is turned back,
    and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
    and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
    and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
    that there was no justice.

Isaiah 59:14-15

So God sent his Son, with whom he was well pleased, into the world to bear witness to the truth, indeed he was and is the Truth in the flesh. In an unjust world under the power of sin, however, he was bound to become prey. Soon after his birth Herod, who was hell bound and determined to hang onto power and human glory no matter the cost, would seek to slay him. Throughout his life and ministry Jesus was pursued by the evil one and his minions (Rev 12). His witness to the truth got him convicted by a corrupt court and crucified on a Roman cross. But the poor Truth born in a stable could not be buried for long in a rich man’s tomb.

Jesus was born to bring peace built on genuine justice firmly anchored in the Truth. He was poor in the things so valued by this fallen world, but he was and is rich in justice and mercy. He has more than enough to share as a free gift for all those humble enough to know that they have fallen far short of the glory of God’s justice and to know that they, like poor beggars, desperately need him as Savior and Lord.

While I was writing this, I saw an article and social media discussion where some who call themselves progressive Christians were arguing that references to Jesus as Lord, Savior, and King should be replaced with more “inclusive” terms in Christmas carols even though the lyrics of the traditional carols merely express the language of the New Testament. They want to replace references to Jesus as “Lord” with “Love,” for example. In Silent Night this would be “Jesus, love at thy birth.” In Away in Manger: “the little love Jesus asleep on the hay.” They fail to realize that God is love (1 John 4:7-21), but love is not God. In other words, the character of the Creator and his revealed word define what genuine love is, not the sinful sensibilities of a fallen world (1 John 2:15-17). They are admitting that they really do not accept Jesus in the exclusive terms that he is presented in the Bible, which quite simply is in perfect harmony with something as basic as the very first of the Ten Commandments. Why? Pride.

Pride causes us to seek only the gifts within ourselves. Humility opens us to receive gifts from others outside ourselves, including the greatest gift of all, God’s one and only Son. It requires humility to believe in a king as Savior and Lord who was born in a stable and crowned with a crown of thorns and coronated on an old rugged cross. He is the Way–the only way– to everlasting peace.

This year has been a tough one for sure. Christmas this year will be less than ideal, but it was far less so the night Jesus was born. If 2020 was designed to do anything, maybe it was designed to humble us, and that just may be the best Christmas gift any of us could receive. Really.

He speaks and listening to his voice, new life the dead receive; the mournful broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.

Charles Wesley, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”

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!