Personal Sins Require the Cross, Institutional Sins Only Need Policy

Here’s why the talk of systemic sin and social salvation comes up short. It underestimates the gravity of sin and the significance of the remedy. Consider R. York Moore’s case for corporate repentance:

Salvation for American Christians is a transaction between two individuals—themselves and God. This over-simplification of sin does not make sense of systemic, corporate evil, brokenness, and social maladies. American evangelicals reason that if someone is poor, perhaps it is due to his or her individual sinful choices. If someone is denied access to education, perhaps it is because of his or her work ethic or ability to work with others.

Notice that relations between God and man on the sin score card over simplify sin. Never mind that the remedy for my sin only required the eternal son of God to take human form and bear the guilt and penalty of my sin by dying a brutal death. Overly simple? I don’t think so.

Moore goes on to mention ways that healing and restoration “in Christ” may come for the social maladies and corporate injustices of “banking and land development policies [that locked blacks] into cycles of poverty, inadequate housing, and educational opportunities.”

Here are a couple ways to engage the environments, cycles, and systems of injustice that disproportionately impact Black communities.
• Land developers can work with political leaders to create affordable housing that has better potential for wealth creation.
• Policy makers in the banking industry can work toward pathways of empowerment for Black entrepreneurs.
• Law enforcement can pursue racialized quotas in their ranks coupled with substantive ethnic diversity training.

If I follow the implications of Moore’s logic, viewing sin from the perspective of sin and salvation is simplistic because corporate sin is so much more complicated. But the remedy for these structural sins that are so much graver than personal sins comes from a few policy changes that seem inconsequential when compared to the crucifixion.

This is why talk of social sin and social redemption is worrisome. It treats the saving work of Christ as insignificant compared to political reform.

Who’s simplistic now?

Selective Implicit Bias

The journalistic treatment of the Larycia Hawkins controversy at Wheaton College is out (written by a lapsed Orthodox Presbyterian no less). Once again evidence of academic naivete cloaked in a pose of dissent and asking hard questions emerges.

I have no problem with Dr. Hawkins questioning jingoistic American patriotism or American Protestants who wrap themselves in the flag. American civil religion is national patriotism at it worst and Protestants have been especially egregious in their fawning over American greatness (though for the last 30 years they have had lots of help from Neuhaus Roman Catholics). But if you challenge Americanism, don’t you also have to question Islam?

A year or two after arriving on campus, [Hawkins] developed a distaste for performances of patriotism and decided to stop saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. “I feel very strongly that my first allegiance is to a different kingdom than an earthly kingdom,” she told me. “It’s to a heavenly kingdom, and it’s to the principles of that kingdom.” Evangelicals tend to emphasize righteousness on an individual scale, but Hawkins was becoming attracted to theological traditions that emphasize systemic sin and repentance.

In particular, she was reading a lot of black liberation theology, a strain of thinking that emerged from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Jesus’ central mission was to liberate the oppressed, the philosophy argues, but mainstream American Christianity is beholden to irredeemably corrupt “white theology.” The tone of black liberation is often angry — think of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “God damn America” sermon — and conservative evangelicals are wary of it because of its theological pessimism and its politically radical roots. But Hawkins was beginning to view many of the Bible’s commands through a lens of race and class. “Theology is always contextual,” she told me, a core idea of black liberation theology. She said that evangelicals have trouble confronting “an ontological blackness of Christ.” Responding to Wheaton’s charge for professors to “integrate faith and learning,” she took these ideas into the classroom.

Fine. But an academic’s job is also to ask hard questions about Islam, liberation theology, and Jeremiah Wright. It’s not fair selecting which ox you gore.

A Liberal Cigar Smoker? Go Figure

Don’t always believe all that the Allies tell you.

Thanks to our southern correspondent now comes news (only 25 years old) that Charles Spurgeon brought politics into the pulpit (good and hard):

The great preacher did not shun political questions as a diversion from spiritual religion. Although he kept political ventures within limits, especially in his sermons, he urged others to go further. “I often hear it said,” runs one passage in a sermon, “ ‘Do not bring religion into politics.’ This is precisely where it ought to be brought, and set there in the face of all men as on a candlestick.”

Not only that, he was a Liberal:

Spurgeon’s identification with the Liberal Party is well illustrated by an address to local voters that he issued at the 1880 general election. “Are we to go on slaughtering and invading in order to obtain a scientific frontier and feeble neighbours?” he asked. “Shall all great questions of reform and progress be utterly neglected for years? … Shall the struggle for religious equality be protracted and embittered? … Shall our National Debt be increased?”

Spurgeon was advocating four great principles. First, he was protesting against the recent imperialistic ventures of a Conservative government; that was a stand for peace. Second, he was calling for measures of change that would benefit the common people; that was a commitment to reform. Third, he was urging religious equality, the distinctive aim of Nonconformists. Fourth, he was demanding a decrease in wasteful public spending; that was a recommendation of retrenchment.

Nothing wrong with being a Liberal, and the British Liberal Party was more akin to positions advocated by Republicans and Progressives in the United States. So we’re not talking Barack Hussein Obama or John Kerry. Still, I sure would like to know how you minister the word of God and endorse a party platform outside the promised land of Israel. Can we get a little exegesis here?

2K Makes You (and mmmeeeeEEEE) Virtuous

That’s because two-kingdom theology allows you to distinguish between what is and isn’t explicitly a matter of faith.

For instance, Rod Dreher goes batty over Ben Carson’s remark (in support of Trump) that “Sometimes you put your Christian values on pause to get the work done.”

Unless Rod is thinking about joining the Covenanters, his very citizenship is an instance of putting aside Christian convictions — the Constitution, hello! — in order to accomplish a measure of social order among a people with different religious (and other) convictions. Or is Dreher in favor, as an Orthodox Christian, of some kind of Constantine political order? Then please send back the advance on the book on the Benedict Option since the original Benedict Option arose out of a sense that political establishment compromised genuine faith.

A little 2k could also help Archbishop Chaput who seems to be doing his impersonation of college undergraduates who fear the campus of Princeton University is but little removed from Ferguson, Missouri. The wikileaks of emails with critical remarks about Roman Catholic political maneuvering shows a hyper-sensitivity normally associated with 19-year olds (maybe spoiled ones at that). Chaput quotes approvingly an email from a non-Roman Catholic friend:

I was deeply offended by the [Clinton team] emails, which are some of the worst bigotry by a political machine I have seen. [A] Church has an absolute right to protect itself when under attack as a faith and Church by civil political forces. That certainly applies here . . .

Over the last eight years there has been strong evidence that the current administration, with which these people share values, has been very hostile to religious organizations. Now there is clear proof that this approach is deliberate and will accelerate if these actors have any continuing, let alone louder, say in government.

These bigots are actively strategizing how to shape Catholicism not to be Catholic or consistent with Jesus’s teachings, but to be the “religion” they want. They are, at the very core, trying to turn religion to their secular view of right and wrong consistent with their politics. This is fundamentally why the Founders left England and demanded that government not have any voice in religion. Look where we are now. We have political actors trying to orchestrate a coup to destroy Catholic values, and they even analogize their takeover to a coup in the Middle East, which amplifies their bigotry and hatred of the Church. I had hoped I would never see this day—a day like so many dark days in Eastern Europe that led to the death of my [Protestant minister] great grandfather at the hands of communists who also hated and wanted to destroy religion.

Michael Sean Winters thinks that the charge of anti-Catholic bigotry is overheated and shows the calming effects of 2k:

The supposed “bigotry” towards the Catholic Church exposed in the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, released by Wikileaks last week, is nothing of the sort, despite the best attempts of some to make it so. This whole controversy is simply an effort, a stupid effort, to stop Clinton’s ascent to the White House. I say stupid because crying “wolf” is never a smart political or cultural strategy and, besides, anyone who is genuinely concerned about bigotry could not possibly be supporting Trump. This is about Republican operatives who hold the portfolio for Catholic outreach doing their part to ingratiate themselves with Trump.

Even though Winters is Roman Catholic and writes for the National Catholic Reporter, his additional comments reveal that he understands 2k and is willing to employ it:

First, conservative Catholics have every right to be Republicans, to try and play their faith in ways that correspond to their conscience, to reach conclusions that might differ from that of more liberal Catholics. They sometimes leave aside certain concerns that I think are central to the relevance of our faith at this time in history, but as Halpin said in explaining the context of the email, there are those on the left who do the same. The bastardization came when conservative Catholics claimed theirs was the only acceptable application of faith. Second, by aiding the reduction of faith to morals, these conservative Catholics have unwittingly been agents of the very same secularization they claim to oppose. As soon as our faith is no longer about the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, it has no claims to authority and people will walk away.

The only problem for Winters is that his bishops and pope keep commenting on political matters that invite the laity to bastardize the faith by seeking papal authority to back up — like — their own opinions — man.

Even Kevin DeYoung sheds a little 2k light to the allies who are usually tongue-tied by the transformationalist rhetoric of its NYC celebrity preachers:

This does not mean I think every Christian must come to the same decision in order to be a good Christian. There are simply too many prudential matters in the mix for Christians to be adamant that you absolutely cannot vote for so and so. . . . While our church might discipline a member for holding the positions Clinton holds or for behaving the way Trump has behaved, this does not mean we have biblical grounds for disciplining a church member who, for any number of reasons and calculations, may decide that voting for either candidate (or neither) makes the most sense. And if we wouldn’t discipline someone for a presidential vote, we should stop short of saying such a vote is sinful and shameful.

Now just imagine if Pastor DeYoung’s church or those of his gospel co-allies actually disciplined ministers who supported ministries of different faith and practice. It would be like having the Gospel Coalition show precisely the opposite of what DeYoung recommends for Christians when sorting out politics — firm about theology and ministry, soft about policy. But as we now know, the opposite is usually par for the course — indifferent about denominational distinctness and aggressive about civil affairs.

More 2k, more confessionalism, healthier churches, better citizens. Will that fit on a bumper sticker?

What Am(mmmeeeEEEE) I Missing?

A few more observations about religious journalism after the news that Books & Culture is ending its run next month. A couple of evangelical academics have taken this news about the way that I felt when I heard that Chris Hughes had bought the New Republic and its editorial staff resigned.

According to Alan Jacobs:

For twenty-one years, Books and Culture has been one of the most consistently interesting magazines in the English-speaking world. I have often been surprised at the number and range of people who agree with me about that. Alex Star, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine and now an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, once told me that he read every issue in full. Cullen Murphy, former editor of the Atlantic, told me that John Wilson is the best editor in the business.

Chris Gehrz seconds Jacobs:

… in any event, it’s certainly a good moment to celebrate what John Wilson has been able to accomplish over twenty years of editing B&C — and how much I appreciate that he has gone out of his way to encourage young authors and scholars. Thanks, John, and all those who have made Books & Culture possible these last twenty-one years.

Both authors mention personal ties to John Wilson and my own relations to the magazine no doubt inform my reaction to the news which is a measure of sadness, especially for people who are losing the jobs. But I can’t say I’ll miss B&C because I haven’t subscribed to it for years.

One reason was precisely those young writers that Gehrz believes John Wilson cultivated. For me that was a fault of John Wilson’s powers as gate keeper for what could have been the jewel in intellectual evangelicalism’s crown. If you want to point to the rich treasures of the evangelical mind, why not turn to its intellectual statesmen and make your publication evangelicalism’s go to place for your movement’s most insightful writers? But evangelicalism suffers from an implicit egalitarianism that elevates the ideas and opinions of the novice and untested to the same worth as the tried and true.

This was exactly what Leon Wieseltier refused to do with the New Republic. In the “back of the book” he turned to some of the academy’s best minds (including Mark Noll) and gave them lots of room to explore a range of ideas that — sorry — B&C never approximated.

Maybe it is apples and oranges, but I doubt Jean Bethke Elshtain could have evaluated Hillary Clinton for John Wilson the way she did for Wieseltier:

I am no a family-above-all person. Some families are rotten and the children in those families should be spirited to safety as quickly as possible. But truly rotten families are, thank God, few and far between. More commonly we have good enough families or almost good enough ones. How high do we place the threshhold in assessing good and bad parenting? Whose business is it anyway? Here Clinton makes one of the more lamentable moves in her book. She is dead-on about the importance of being attuned to the needs of infants, feeding them, cuddling them, holding them, but in a discussion of the fact that there is not “substitute for regular, undivided attention from parents” we learn that the “biggest difference” that emerged from a study she cites and endorses, was “in the sheer amount of talking that occurred” in various households. It is no surprise that Clinton favors the chattering classes, but she proceeds to malign poor and working-class parents because they interact less with their children….

Like Clinton, I recoil when I hear a parent shout at a child. I, too, cringe when a parent is curt, abrupt and dismissive. But I recognize that this is not the same thing as neglect, not the same thing as abuse. Perhaps, as the late Christopher Lasch insisted, the working-class or lower-middle-class style aims to instill in children a tough, early recognition that life is not a bowl of cherries, not a world in which everyone is telling you how great you are; that their lives will be carried out in a world in which they tasks they are suited for, the jobs they do, the lives they live, and even the way they talk (or do not talk) will be scrutinized and found wanting by their “betters.” I know that Clinton would argue, in response, that she means no invidious comparison. But the comparison is there and it is invidious. According to her book, the higher the income and education, the better the parenting, all other things being equal….Don’t get me wrong. As a general rule, children shouldn’t have to…[suffer]. And no group of children should be stuck in such a situation as a permanent condition. But life is hard, and its necessities bear down on people. In the light of such recognitions, it is best at times to restrain ourselves and not rush to intervene and fix everything and tell people struggling against enormous odds that they are doing a crummy job. Sometimes Clinton understands this, sometimes she doesn’t.

I Just Wanna End Small Group Prayer

This should put a stop to it — just have believers think about what they say before they pray:

1. Avoid vain repetition. The one leading in prayer should be careful not to say, “O Father,” “Holy Father” or “Lord” over and over and over again.

2. Avoid hesitation and stumbling. The one leading in prayer should spend time on the prayer prior to the service so that he does not come across unprepared.

3. Avoid ungrammatical expressions. For example, the one leading in prayer should avoid such phrases as “Grant to give us…” “Grant to impart to us…” Grant and give are verbs expressing the same thing. This is a redundant and inaccurate use of language.

4. Avoid disorder. We need regularity and order in our prayer. The ACTS acronym is helpful: Include prayers of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (i.e. Petition and Intercession). By following an order, the one leading in prayer can help those he is leading pray along unhindered.

5. Avoid praying in minute detail for certain things. Balance out prayers in general. Especially for a Lord’s Day morning service. It is good to pray according to the same general nature for all the things for which the one leading prays. If there is a man or woman who has a terminal sickness, it is sufficient to plead with the Lord to heal that individual. There is no need to go into all the specifics of that with what he or she is dealing.

This is based on Samuel Miller’s thoughts on prayer which goes on for another 13 items. Not quite Rick Warren like, so not enough for forty days of driving your way to a life of purpose. But if Christians ever had to consider that praying in public does not come naturally to some believers, this post might get them started. And it really would throw a wrench into the praying patters of the seemingly intimate small group.

When the Gospel (Coalition) Needs Conservatism

At a time when out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing (forty percent in 2013) and straining urban life in major ways, Bethany Jenkins, who writes with the blessing of the Gospel Coalition and who swims the the heady streams of New York City evangelicalism, considers being a single mom:

These days it almost seems passé to talk about needing marriage before having children. Today’s single woman doesn’t need marriage—or even a man.

Single mothers by choice (SMBC)—in contrast to by circumstance or chance—are single women who have chosen to have children through sperm donation (75 percent) or adoption (25 percent). The difference between these women and women like me who choose to remain childless, says Kate Bolick in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is desire:

Again and again, the [SMBC] I spoke with described how they’d wanted to be a mother for as long as they could remember and how the urge to get there became so overpowering, it felt less like a rational decision than a compulsion. This conviction—that no matter what, they would have a child—is, I’ve concluded, the most common denominator uniting all choice moms.

Such women are praised for their courage and confidence. One SMBC, who became a mother through sperm donation, says her friends called her “amazing” and “brave.” Yet she confesses she didn’t feel brave. “It’s not about being brave—it was about wanting to stop feeling like a childless mother, and take the next step before I ran out of time.”

My single friend, Christine, on the other hand, became a mother by adoption. Her journey was less a pursuit of self-actualization or self-fulfillment and more a response to a need—not a need she felt within herself, but a need she saw in someone else.

While working with high schoolers through the faith-based nonprofit Young Life, Christine met Ana, a 15-year-old expectant mother. When Ana’s water broke, her mother refused to take her to the hospital. That’s when Ana called Christine. Christine drove her to the hospital and stayed with her through the birth, holding her hand in the delivery room. Over the next few years, it became apparent that Ana and the birth father couldn’t care for their daughter, María.

It wasn’t easy, but Christine stepped up. At one point, she and María shared a 425-square-foot apartment and, since María’s biological familial ties weren’t completely severed, there were some relational challenges, too. But Christine says María is the greatest joy she has ever known—in spite of the obstacles. She also says she didn’t stumble into motherhood: “I longed to become a mom, so I diligently prayed for God to give me a child. When this opportunity arose, I had eyes to see it. If this hadn’t happened, I believe I’d have seen another opportunity. I was on the lookout for it.”

Hasn’t she heard about the importance of fathers in socializing children (especially boys)?

Meanwhile, Gracie Olmstead who writes regularly for American Conservative, puts motherhood in perspective, as in it’s not all about her but about the child:

Motherhood is not easy. It is often painful, frustrating, and difficult. It involves a host of unpleasantries. In our age, in which the self reigns supreme, motherhood runs counter to every society-endorsed impulse and mantra. Motherhood is all about sacrifice—from the moment our bodies begin to reconfigure themselves in order to grow a new human being.

Motherhood means sleepless nights, sore nipples, baby blues, weight gain, aching backs, temper tantrums, frightening doctor’s appointments, endless laundry, constant cleaning, incessant worry, near heart attacks, and lots and lots of money. Motherhood isn’t about self-filling. It’s about self-emptying.

That isn’t to say motherhood can’t be fun and joyous. It truly is and can be. But in order to embrace it, one must believe that all of the pain and hardship involved in motherhood is good, and that the child that results from all our work and hardship is inherently, intrinsically good as well. One must have a moral imagination, a “stable sentiment.” Mothers must have chests.

Olmstead adds that today’s decision to have a child could turn into tomorrow’s regret at giving birth:

As soon as we take away the idea of virtue—the idea that an act, despite the pains and sacrifice it might require, is objectively good and worth pursuing for its own sake—we permanently impede humankind’s ability to pursue selfless action. It does not matter if you tell a woman she should procreate “for the good of the species,” or tell her that she’s biologically predisposed to want children. If there is no overarching moral code related to the bearing and raising of children, then motherhood is subjugated to the wild and changeful whims of human emotion and desire. One second, you might want a baby; the next, you might spurn your child—and there is no law or code that can suggest you should do otherwise. “Instinct” becomes “impulse,” and so we waffle from whim to whim.

What accounts for the difference between an evangelical and conservative outlook on motherhood? Could it be that born-again Protestants really put the mmmmmeeeEEEE in all about mmmeeeeEEEE since personal experience and fulfillment is so important to being an evangelical? In contrast, conservatives (who may also be evangelicals) tend to think about the traditions and webs of social networks that go with marriage and rearing children. If the New York evangelical intelligentsia had given Bethany more instruction in conservatism than the gospel, maybe she’d see the problem with single parenthood.