Tag Archives: forgiveness

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!


Mercy for Christmas

We didn’t get the sermon recorded this morning, so I thought I’d share the essence of the message I preached this morning here.

As you read through Luke chapter 1, especially Mary’s song of praise during her visit with Elizabeth who was in the third trimester of pregnancy with her son John the Baptist and the prophecy of John’s father, Zechariah, the word mercy appears repeatedly. As the virgin mother, Mary, who was just a few months behind Elizabeth in her pregnancy with the Messiah, Jesus, extols the virtues of the Lord she refers to God’s mercy twice. Mary and Elizabeth

“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Luke 1:50 ESV

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, ..  Luke 1:54

Zechariah, as his tongue is mercifully released after being stricken mute by the angel Gabriel, also praises God. Zechariah too describes God’s action in bringing the Messiah into the world as an act of mercy (1:72, 78). In both cases, Mary and Zechariah speak of future deliverance as if it had already happened, interestingly as does the prophet Isaiah in his prophecy of the child to be born who would inherit the throne of David and reign in justice and righteousness forever (Isaiah 9:1-7).

The mercy of which Mary and Zechariah spoke was an essential part of the fulfillment of long awaited promises made to their ancestors, Abraham and the long line of his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. The fulfilled promise of mercy brought great joy, and with it the promise of greater joy still to come.

Christmas is about God’s gift of mercy, given in the most intimate and personal of ways. In fact Christmas reveals and confirms that the God who made covenant with Israel for the blessing of the whole world, really is a God of mercy. Mercy is at the heart of who God really is and what God is really like. And this is what God claimed to be like all along. As he reveals himself to Moses after making covenant with Israel in the first place, God describes himself thus:

….. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7

Although grace seems to get more attention, mercy and grace are really two sides of the same coin. Grace is divine unmerited favor and blessings. Grace is receiving something good that we do not deserve and could not earn. Mercy, on the other hand, is the withholding of or relief from deserved punishment. Mercy is the removal of something bad that we do deserve.

Neither mercy nor grace should ever be used as an excuse to continue in sin, although it often is. We see warnings about that very thing all over the New Testament itself (i.e. Romans 6; Jude among other places). It’s certainly not true that God really doesn’t care about what we do. God does indeed care what we do. He does because he really cares about us. God cares about what we do, but not as a pitiless taskmaster who just wants to get all the personal benefit he can out of us.

One of the most important aspects of the Gospel, the Good News, is that God really doesn’t need us anyway. Now that may leave you wondering how that’s good news, but it really is. God is by nature a personal being, one God in three persons, a tri-personal being, who is completely sufficient in himself. God needs nothing outside of himself. God doesn’t need us, but the good news is, God really wants us because he loves us. Creation wasn’t born of any necessity in God; creation was born of love, you and I are the product of love when it comes to the Maker of us all.

God loves us, therefore God has compassion for us, knowing our frailties. Knowing our sin and rebellion, every bad thought, desire, and deed we’ve ever done, he loves us anyway and offers us mercy.

Mercy is about relief, relief from suffering and punishment because of sin in the world in general or specific sins in our own lives individually. Jerry Clower told the story of coon hunting with his friend John who liked to climb trees to knock the raccoon out amongst the coon dogs. Once when John had climbed a really tall tree to knock the coon out, he soon realized it wasn’t a coon at all; it was a wild cat! After a long struggle, John yelled down for somebody to shoot the thing. They said, “No! We can’t really see good enough; we might shoot you.” John yelled back, “Well, just go ahead and shoot up here amongst us anyway, ’cause one of us has got to have some relief.”

God’s mercy is about relief, but it’s better than what Jerry Clower’s friend was asking for! On Christmas day, mercy was born and could be found in a manger. On Good Friday mercy pleaded from the cross to which he had been sentenced and nailed unjustly by those he came to save, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)

Do you need mercy! “Mercy there was great and grace was free!” (Hymn “At Calvary”) God in Christ offers each of us, who deserves far different, the gift of mercy.

Sometimes, even at our best, we feel like we just haven’t quite done enough, that somehow God loves us less because we haven’t perfected our performance. In times like this we need to remember God’s mercy. It’s not about the perfection of our performance, it’s about the sincerity of the efforts that we make in faith. All of us will fall far short of perfection in our attempts to please and represent God. We will make mistakes. But God’s love for us is none the less. God looks own our hearts and our efforts and rejoices as much as parents or grandparents do over their own portraits drawn by their small child or grandchild. Even before we’ve done anything at all, God’s loves us, and he knows our frail frames and has compassion (see Psalm 103).

Mercy is never earned – it is a gift – but it must be received. Even when we sin egregiously and give into temptation, mercy is still there for us. When we repent and confess our sin, God in his mercy forgives us (1 John 1:9). But mercy is received in the presence of God. We must turn away from sin and turn back to him! And mercy is all that we will receive! Justice is what we get when we refuse to repent and confess our sin, when we continue to try to justify ourselves rather than seeking to be justified by God. Justice and punishment only happens outside of the presence of God; in God’s presence there is only mercy (Luke 15) and therefore joy!

R.C. Sproul, the wonderful Reformed theologian and teacher of the faith who recently went home to be with the Lord, said this of mercy:

“God does not always act with justice. Sometimes he acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness. We may see nonjustice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.”

In Christ God provides all of us mercy! It is never earned and never deserved. That would be justice. Mercy is God’s gift. It’s a gift that must be received. And it’s also a gift that must be given and shared with others. That’s one way you will know you’ve trully received God’s mercy in the first place (see Matthew 18:21-35), when you are eager and willing to extend mercy to others, even those who have hurt you or seek to hurt you or the Church deeply. Even when it comes to people who actively conspire against the Church and the people of God, we are called by God to offer mercy in compassion. Mercy is a gift to be received and a gift to share with others.

How ’bout a little mercy for Christmas this year. Receive it and give it in the name of Jesus and for his sake.

This doesn’t mean that we pretend like evil actions don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that we should not speak against sinful actions or demand that perpetrators cease and desist from committing evil. Indeed, mercy would demand that we warn evildoers about the consequences of their actions and the judgment to come. We can renounce evil actions without hatefully condemning evildoers to life devoid of our compassion and mercy. Whether it is received or not we are called to offer it. After church today, I saw a report that radical Muslim suicide bombers attacked a Methodist church in Pakistan. I pray for the victims’ families, and also the terrorists. I pray that the victims may be comforted by the hope and peace of Christ. I also pray that the terrorists would be convicted of the sin of murder in their hearts and repent and receive the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Contempt long harbored in the heart can quickly metastasize into hate, and hate will eventually consume all who stew in it.

The one born and laid in a lowly manger (Luke 2:7) grew in the wisdom of God (Luke 2:52), and eventually taught:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:27-36

How about some mercy for Christmas this year?

The Power to Become

Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. Self-improvement is in the air; weight-loss and exercise equipment commercials on the air waves. Many realize the need and long for the possibility of becoming better than they are right now in some form or fashion. Some out of concerns for personal well-being, others out of concern for deeper and healthier relationships. There’s a general sense that we can be and should be better than we are.

There’s a wonderful promise in the Gospel of John. It comes right in the middle of the opening prologue which extols the greatness of the divine Word Who became flesh bringing grace and truth and revealing God.

John 1:12 “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” (ESV)

In our own power we only have the power to be, through faith and trust we have the right and, with it, the power to become something else, something far greater. In ourselves we can only be who and what we are, but through the power of God in Christ we can become not just better, but new – a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). In ourselves we can only be sinners, as John would put it, “children of the devil” (see 1 John 3); in Christ we become saints, children of God. Thank God for the power to become!

Some don’t see the needed change as being this drastic. It’s easy for us to admit that we are weak, but very hard to admit that we, in ourselves, are wicked. We are weak, but the Bible says we are weak because we, in ourselves, are wicked. Sin is nothing to be taken lightly. We need more than just another self-help guru; we need a Savior. In Jesus Christ we have one.

Once when leading a small group discussion I asked whether the concept of sin was obsolete in modern society. Many said, yes, but only because they had a very superficial theoretical understanding of the concept. Sin isn’t the breaking of arbitrary, insignificant rules, but living in such a way as to put us in conflict with the will and designed purposes of our Creator and our fellow human beings. Moreover, sin isn’t just the breaking of rules, but the power that renders us broken, even dead spiritually, incapable of even acknowledging God much less obeying Him. Sin is the evil force within us that keeps us focused only on ourselves. And it’s not just the bad things that we do to ourselves and others, but also the failure to do good for ourselves and others. Sin puts us at odds with God and each other, but by the grace of God faith in Jesus reconciles us to God and each other.

So that feeling that we should be better than we are is on the right track, but it even greater than some might imagine. In ourselves we are powerless to become anything other than what we are. Of course, by the general grace of God we can be better sinners, better in the sense of mitigating the immediate harmful effects of sin, but only by the special grace of God in Christ can we become saints, children of God.

It is the gift of forgiveness and new birth, available to all, but even a gift still has to be received. We receive it by faith, by believing that we really need it and by trusting in what God has done for us in Christ, by placing our lives in His hands to be transformed. As the Charles Wesley hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” says, “He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free …” The grace of God, which is what God has done for us in Christ, cancels the penalty and debt of sin that hangs over us, and it also breaks the power of our brokenness, the power of sin within, freeing us for joyful obedience to God. This blessing we receive by faith, which changes our status from sinner to saint, child of the devil to child of God, and it changes our hearts from lovers of sin and self to lovers of God and neighbor, including our enemies. The grace of God received changes us from the inside out, and it’s not just a spiritual change, it is a change that will affect our whole being, spirit, soul, and body in a positive way (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Sin leaves us plagued with fears, anxieties, jealousies, anger and bitterness, as well as self-destructive compulsions and addictions. These addictions are often to substances from without, sometimes to pleasures from within. Sin renders us prisoners of our own wayward and corrupt desires and corrosive emotions, spiritually cut off from God. From this state only God can set us free.

opening jail cell

Early in life Jerry found himself addicted to booze and bets. It wasn’t long before he himself became a bookie, not long after that a pimp. One day his life was threatened by someone whom he owed money. In a rage he went home to get his gun, with which he was determined to kill the man who had made the threat. As he pulled the gun from the metal box he kept it in, he became terribly frightened by the darkness of evil that had engulfed him and then incredibly ashamed of the depths to which he had sunk. Then he remembered his grandmother praying over him when he was a boy, and he called out to the one she had taught him about, Jesus Christ, to save him. Then and there he was forgiven for all that he had done, and he was set free from the evil that had a death grip on his heart. He was filled with an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. He ran out into the front yard shouting for joy and praising God to the top of his lungs. Neighbors and bystanders looked at him as if he had lost his mind. He had. He lost his mind, but he received the mind of Christ!

There are no depths of darkness which are too deep, no sin too bad, no fear, anxiety, resentment, or addiction too strong for the grace of God in Jesus Christ or for those who receive him and believe in his name. “… his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me.” Thank God for the power to become! Happy New Year!