There is Therefore Now Some Condemnation for Those who Are in Christ Jesus

Feel good moments are not part of the feng shui of Old School Presbyterianism. For that reason, I can empathize with some who viewed the video of Botham Jean’s expression of forgiveness to Amber Guyger as too sentimental and its viral circulation as sappily predictable.

Still, I am having trouble understanding Christians who have argued that Christianity is more than forgiveness because social (read racial) justice is still really important. According to Dorena Williamson:

Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.

That way of putting makes you wonder if what social justice Christians really want is purgatory, a place where you go to burn off your temporal sins even though your spiritual ones are forgiven.

Williamson says people inspired by Botham need to listen to his mother. But what about the apostle Paul? He did write, after all:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Is it anachronistic to think that not even racism could separate someone who trusts in Christ from God and redemption through his son? Or is racism the unpardonable sin?

Of course, Paul also wrote about justice. Five chapters later, he made this point:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

What Paul does not say is that punishment by the governing authorities can separate Christians from the love of God.

Forgiveness trumps social justice, then. Even the Coen brothers understood this in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

…religion and politics, at least by the light of one strand of Christianity, have different standards and scope. The state’s purpose is justice and, according to any number of New Testament writers, the magistrate is well equipped with physical penalties to accomplish it. The church’s purpose is mercy and is similarly furnished with such means as preaching and the sacraments to pursue its redemptive tasks. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill some spiritual void. Even run of the mill ex-cons, like Ulysses Everett McGill, the scheming ring-leader of the escaped prisoners in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” could see that his colleagues’ conversions would have no effect on their legal predicament as escaped convicts. When Pete and Delmar both appealed to their baptism in a muddy river as the basis for a general absolution, Everett responded, “That’s not the issue . . . .. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.” (A Secular Faith, 123)

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First Evangelicalism, Now W-w, but Still Hope for U.S.A.

Thabiti Anyabwile concludes his interaction with agitated Southern Baptists over social justice by making some odd concessions. If race relations started to unravel big eva in 2014, with a major goose from the 2016 election, it now looks like racism is making Neo-Calvinist w-w diagnosis look like nonsense.

How? Anyabwile faults Tom Ascol’s evidence for the influence of critical race theory (aka cultural Marxism) in evangelical circles as insufficient or anecdotal:

Sometimes people note a correlation or a suspicion and pronounce with certainty that a movement or an infiltration is there. I think that’s largely what’s happening when people claim a “movement” exists. Some look at the number of followers on Twitter or the number of returns on a search as “evidence.” But raw numbers tell us nothing about whether those Twitter followers agree with the one they follow or whether the followers were even purchased. Raw numbers of “hits” on searches tell us nothing about whether the content of the hits were for or against the subject searched.

The entire discussion is being built on an inadequate evidentiary approach. We have a low bar that actually breaks the rules of evidence in most every field, and it proves too much.

It used to be in New Calvinist and Neo-Calvinist circles that w-w was sufficient to spot a problem. You did not need to rise to the level of a movement to show that an idea or practice was sinful or destructive. Now, Anyabwile wants Ascol to show the institutional apparatus seemingly if he is going to prove that critical race theory is present in evangelicalism. Would that also mean that we need evidence of a movement to prove that sexual infidelity is making some gains in American society and the church?

Oddly, though, Anyabwile concedes that critical race theory is behind one of Truth Table’s hosts’ recent comments:

On the first point, consider Tom’s listing of Ekemini Uwan’s comments at the Sparrow Conference. He offers it as proof of secular social-justice ideologies infiltrating evangelical spaces. It’s true that Ekemini’s comments have much in common with the fields of whiteness studies and CRT. She uses “whiteness” not as a reference to skin color or even race but to a social ideology rooted in power and greed. But that’s a view at least as old as Frederick Douglass’s writing, well before CRT/IS, cultural Marxism, or today’s social-justice trends.

As long as Frederick Douglass argued that way, the ideas must be okay. So much for Abraham Kuyper.

But Anyabwile leaves room for hope. He argues that just because the founders of the SBC held slaves, we do not throw out their entire theology:

Tom leads an organization called “Founders Ministries.” It’s a reference to the theology and ministries of the founders of the SBC. Founders is dedicated to calling the convention back to the theological commitments (doctrines of grace) of those founders, among whom were men like Basil Manly Jr, who owned 40 slaves. Manley would not be the only early leader of the convention who owned slaves. In fact, the convention was formed following a split on the question of slave owning. You could say the SBC was the pro-slavery denomination. Its flagship seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently issued a report documenting that institution’s history on the question of slavery and racism. The report indicates that the seminary’s founding faculty—James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams—all held slaves and, in some cases, actively defended the practice. Yet such men are cited in books and sermons as heroes of the convention and of evangelicalism.

Now, here’s the question: Are we to attribute all the beliefs and commitments of the founding leaders of the SBC and Southern Seminary to Tom as a leader of “Founders Ministries”? If a person expresses indebtedness to Boyce, Broadus, Manly, or Williams for their writing on some subject, are we to attribute to that person anything or everything we find repugnant in Boyce and company or their writings on that subject? I would answer an emphatic “No” to both questions.

By way of analogy, the same point applies to Americans who defend and memorialize the American Founding. Just because Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin owned slaves, we do not reject all that they did, especially the institutions and political rationales they left behind.

If Anyabwile is willing to entertain that sort of sifting of the American past, he needs to write a letter to the New York Times (and maybe send an email message to Jemar Tisby).

Still Confused about Christian Nationalism

The folks at The Witness used the anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville protests to re-publish the Charlottesville Declaration, an appeal to American churches to repent of and oppose racism. Here is an excerpt:

Now is the time for the Church to again be the moral compass for this nation. Now is the time for a prophetic, Spirit-led remnant to bear credible “word and deed” witness to the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As in the generation that preceded us, we especially call upon those born-again disciples who still cherish the authority of Scripture and the enablement of the Spirit. We declare that old time religion is still good enough for us in this new era, religion that provides us a full-orbed Gospel of evangelism and activism. May we be salt and light witnesses against the kingdom of darkness, knowing that we war not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)).

To this end, we call upon white leaders and members of the Evangelical church to condemn in the strongest terms the white supremacist ideology that has long existed in the church and our society. Nothing less than a full-throated condemnation can lead to true reconciliation in the Lord’s body.

According to John Fea, Christian nationalism looks something like this:

The most extreme Christian nationalists create political platforms focused on restoring, renewing, and reclaiming America in such a way that privileges evangelical Christianity. Many of these extreme Christian nationalists may also be described as “dominionists” because they want to take “dominion” over government, culture, economic life, religion, the family, education, and the family. Christian nationalists of all varieties are marked by their unwillingness or failure to articulate a vision of American life defined by pluralism.

As a political movement, Christian nationalism is defined by a fear that America’s Christian identity is eroding, a belief that the pursuit of political power is the way to “win back” America, and a nostalgia for a Christian nation that probably never existed in the first place.

It looks like the Charlottesville Declaration insists that the United States conform to the gospel. Its drafters and signers also exhibit a fear that the nation’s Christian identity is, if not eroding, not sufficiently evident.

So why don’t those opposed to Christian nationalism also oppose The Witness’ Christian nationalism?

Imagine if this reporter read the Nashville Statement on gay marriage and wrote about a grassroots movement to preserve heteromarriage:

Article 1
WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

Article 2
WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

Article 3
WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.

On it goes for eleven more points.

What is worth noticing is that the Nasvhille Statement is not nationalist. It begins by talking about the West, never mentions the United States, and comes in French, Dutch, Japanese, and German versions.

But it is the sort of statement that some who oppose Christian nationalism refused to sign (as did I). Some evangelicals say the statement is “theology for the age of Trump,” others say it’s a “disaster.” But these same critics can’t see any indication of Christian nationalism in a statement that expects the United States to conform to Christian norms on race. I don’t suppose it has anything to do with calculating evangelicalism in relation to Trump. If so, that’s also a Christian version of nationalism since it lets political necessity shape Christian witness.

The lesson seems to be:

It is wrong to say America is a Christian nation when the nation is not Christian.

It is right to say America should be a Christian nation when the nation is not Christian.

Have The Weak and Strong Turned into the Righteous and the Wicked?

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Lots of imperatives there, but substituting orthodoxy on race for conformity on political affiliation is hardly in keeping with what Paul commanded in Romans 14:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;

Maybe the way around this call to forbearance (even tolerance) is to say that Donald Trump is simply evil. If so, then it would be doubly odd to condemn a chief sinner when Jesus hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other deplorables. Since when does following Jesus mean imitating what he will do when he returns on Judgment Day?

One point to remember about the weak and the strong is that it allows for Christians to feel superior. Some are strong, others weak. Not sure how you turn that into some form of egalitarianism. The strong can handle more than the weak, and so have a better grasp of the gospel than those who form certain kinds of legalism.

So if the supremacy of the strong is a biblical idea, what is so bad with talking about some groups being better than others? Is it really so bad (when so many do it) to believe in the supremacy of the educated? American society in most middling to upper institutions runs on the premise that someone who is educated beyond high school will be a better employee, student, leader, manager than someone with less education. That is not hatred (though it can turn into it) of the uneducated. It is a recognition (perhaps debatable) that education is generally a good preparation for lots of human activities.

The point of the weak and the strong in Paul’s epistle seems to be to recognize difference but not let that be the basis for exclusion or cliques in the church.

I understand that people who moved in religious right circles did not handle their (self-understood) superiority very well. But I don’t think the social justice Protestants are setting a great example. If Paul can say “chill” about activities that some Christians deemed sinful, when did the new set of apostles arrive to declare that Paul’s instructions have hit their expiration date?

How Slippery is the Normativity Slope?

I listened to a discussion among Asian-American PCA pastors about race and ethnicity and was surprised to hear the use of “white normativity” as frequently as they did. They object strenuously to white normativity in the church. I wonder about that way of putting it since John Frame and I are both white and yet the differences he and I have about worship have little to do explicitly with being white. I do, by the way, like the idea that Frame’s brief for Contemporary Christian Music has as much white culture attached to it as exclusive psalmody since the old canard about so-called traditional Presbyterian worship was that it was too white, male, European, and suburban (even though none of the Westminster Divines had a clue that Levittown was on the horizon of white cultural normativity).

Here is one example of the use of white normativity from one of the interlocutors’ talks/homilies/speeches:

That leads to a deeper and better informed repentance, does it not? One that names with far greater specificity, repenting of specific sins specifically…one that names with far greater specificity the problem of white cultural normativity and supremacy in the church.

If you wanted to know the instances of white normativity in the church, like too much stuff that white people like, you might be surprised to hear that wealth is an instance of white dominance in the church and a way to repent is for whites to pay ecclesiastical reparations to black and people-of-color congregations. But wait, isn’t currency itself a form of white normativity? Can you really make up for it by relying on it in the way you make up?

Aside from that logical speed bump, the real point here is how do you head down the rhetorical path that relies on intersectional ideas like white normativity and turn off before you arrive at heteronormativity. After all, for the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the systemic nature of injustice does not stop with skin color but runs all the way to sexual identity:

We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

This is not some threat about where ideas lead. Some PCA pastors could make a real contribution and explain how to address racial and ethnic inequalities or discrepancies while excluding discussions of sexual orientation, gay marriage, and Christian-family-normativity in general. Since I don’t rely on the arguments that lead someone to detect white normativility and then reject it with contempt, I can’t do the heavy lifting here.

But since the PCA is at a difficult juncture about homosexual identity, some in the communion may want to ponder whether white normativity and heteronormativity tend to pick up speed on the slope of normativity.

Fun With Numbers

Would it surprise readers to learn that Tim Keller and I, according to the intersectionality meter, enjoy more privilege than 96 percent of the rest of Americans? Would it also surprise anyone that Tim Keller and I have more privilege than Donald Trump? Because if you move the slider on Christianity from Christian to Not Christian (sorry Donald), your oppression footprint decreases, from a 5 to a 14, which means Trump has more privilege than 88 percent other Americans. Throw in income, with differences for religion, and here his how the picture changes: Trump (rich) 11, me (moderate) 5, Keller (more than me), 4. So in the intersectionality sweepstakes, Tim Keller has more privilege than Donald Trump and I. (And since Keller and I are Christians, that may make both of us Christian nationalists.)

This fits what Keller himself has even admitted.

Keller acknowledged white privilege and ways he’s benefited from it, but with his characteristic wit he added, “I’m not going to feel sorry for myself because that is a very white thing to do.”

Or:

John [Piper] and I are both old enough to remember the complicity of evangelical churches and institutions with the systemic racism in the US before the civil rights movement. I took my first church in a small town in the South in the early 1970s. The courts had recently ruled that the whites-only public swimming pool, operated by the town with taxpayers’ money, had to be integrated. So what did the town do? It shut the pool down completely, and the white people of the town opened a new private swimming pool and club, which of course, did not have to admit racial minorities. Because I was a young pastor, our family was often invited to swim there, and swim we did, not really cognizant of what the pool represented.

Here’s some more fun with numbers. What does minority and majority populations mean without nationalism? The world’s total population is 7.7 billion. The United States’ population is roughly 330 million. That means Americans (third in total behind China and India) are 4 percent of the world’s population. In majority/minority statistics, that looks decidedly like a minority.

But I get it with power and wealth Americans look a lot bigger and wealthier than the rest of the world’s peoples. Doesn’t some of that size and power extend to minorities within the United States, such that Amish or Armenian-Americans in the United States have more power and wealth than people living in Nigeria or Guiana?

And what about minority groups not based on race or ethnicity but on religion? Are members of the Presbyterian Church in America — roughly 350,000 — a minority compared to Japanese-Americans at 1.4 million, or Korean-Americans, or Chinese-Americans at almost 5 million? Can ethnicity and wealth simply turn those numbers around so that a denomination that is 7 percent the size of Chinese-Americans has the same sort of privilege as — well — Tim Keller?

And don’t even get me started on how flawed Asian-American is as a category?

However you slice it, the numbers only make sense if you start with the United States and its population, which makes you some kind of nationalist.

More Questions about Timelines

If you listen to a certain podcast, you might learn that pro-life is a recently concocted notion (can forty-five years be that recent?) that white evangelicals use monochromatically to vote in ballot boxes and hector in the public square. You might even come to think that pro-life advocacy is a kind of cover for racially tinged views that prevent white evangelicals from noticing the circumstances that affect black pregnant women who face both economic hardships in providing for children and poor health care during childbirth.

If you did, you might be surprised also to read this from only four years ago (but decisively thirteen months before the 2016 POTUS election):

Abortion horrifies us because the notion of life as a gift has been infused in us by our Creator. In the account of humankind’s creation in Genesis 2, it says, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). God endowed all human beings with inherent dignity when he created them in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). We have an instinct for life because existence itself images the Creator.

Since God animates all humanity he has all rights over it. In Genesis 8, after the Flood he declares, “‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’” God’s unrivaled command over the lives of all people as their Creator means he alone has the authority to declare the conditions under which life can be taken.

. . . God loves the little children, but black babies are dying by the score. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an African American woman is almost five times more likely to have an abortion than a white woman. In the state of Mississippi, white women had 665 abortions in 2006, or 22.6 percent of all abortions in that state. By comparison, black women had 2,250 abortions or 76.3 percent of the total.

Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, and the crusade to legalize abortion has also been linked to the eugenics movement, an effort to perfect the human race by promoting reproduction (i.e. selective breeding) among human beings with desirable traits and to discourage reproduction (i.e. sterilizing adults or aborting children) with undesirable traits. African Americans were generally not viewed as having the traits necessary for the progress of humanity, so they were frequent targets of racist eugenicist ideas like abortion.

The disproportionate number of abortions in the Black community should cause outrage among African Americans. Instead, organizations founded to uplift people of color support institutions that tear those same people from the womb. The NAACP has openly affirmed a woman’s legalized choice to abort and Planned Parenthood financially supports NAACP national events. Another important organization, the Congressional Black Caucus partners with Planned Parenthood. In 2012, a former CBC chairman, Emanuel Cleaver even received the Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood for his support of “women’s reproductive rights.” The affiliation of the NAACP and the CBC, though, should not be taken to mean that all Black people support abortion. It is an inaccurate and pejorative stereotype to say African Americans do not care about life in the womb. Yet there are reasons some black people have aligned themselves with organizations like Planned Parenthood.

. . . While the contribution of certain individuals and organizations during the Civil Rights Movement should never be forgotten, this advocacy is no reason to ignore the contra-biblical practices of abortion providers. Fortunately, many African Americans have consistently opposed abortion. Alveda C. King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been a public advocate for life. The National Black Pro-Life Coalition spearheads many pro-life efforts among minorities.

Christians of all races must be concerned with life “from the womb to the tomb” (and beyond!). This is why Christians of any race cannot support Planned Parenthood as long as it conducts abortions. Believers must do this while continuing to creatively address other important issues. The struggle is for the right to life and the right to a quality life. Love for God and his word requires both.

Good to Know Reformed Protestantism is not Tribal

A couple more reflections on the Poway shooting put into perspective the kind of ties that people have to Protestants with Reformed convictions. If you were completely on the outside of Reformed and Presbyterian circles, if you were an evangelical who was leaving born-again Protestantism for something progressive, you might imagine writing what Christian Stroop did for Playboy:

The pattern of evangelical homeschoolers committing racially motivated, violent crimes raises questions about how homeschooling and white evangelical subculture may be contributing factors in the radicalization of young people. Earnest’s branch of the Reformed tradition, as religious studies professor Julie Ingersoll described in detail for Religion News Service, has its origins in the defense of slavery and still valorizes overtly white supremacist theologians such as R.L. Dabney.

Some Orthodox Presbyterians are adherents of Christian Reconstructionism, an extreme right-wing version of Calvinist ideology that, as described by legislative policy analyst with the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, Kathryn Brightbill, “teaches that God’s plan for civil society is to implement Old Testament political law, including the stoning parts.” If we are determined to find solutions to America’s epidemic of gun violence and hate crimes, we must put aside taboos around criticizing Christians and take these considerations seriously. Brightbill is one of two experts on U.S. homeschooling, both of whom were homeschooled in evangelical subculture and who are now a part of the increasingly visible “ex-vangelical” movement, that I asked to weigh in on the issue.

Never mind that Stroop is against heteronormativity even while writing for a publication that put hetero into heteronormativity:

[Exvangelicals] are former insiders who testify to what they see as the traumatizing effects of living under evangelicalism’s patriarchal, heteronormative, and racist norms. As Stroop wrote for Playboy last June: “When Christian nationalists are in power and perpetrating horrors, we should oppose their dominionism not with a different reading of the Bible, but with a robust defense of pluralism and secularism.”

In contrast, if you were in a denomination that has fraternal relations with the communion in which the shooter is a member, you could imagine writing what Kevin DeYoung did:

All of us in the Reformed world were shocked and saddened to learn that the alleged Ponway Synagogue shooter was “one of us,” a theologically minded young man who belonged to an OPC congregation. Without a doubt, this is an occasion to reflect on whether any of us have been soft on anti-Semitic hatred or if any of our churches are breeding grounds for murderous angst.

And yet, by all accounts, the parents and the pastor have said the right things and seem to be the sort of people that manifestly did not create a killer. If there is any causal link it is with the radicalization that happens in apocalyptic communities on message board sites like 8chan. Just because the shooter may have stolen evangelical language or Reformed theology to make his point does not mean the Christian faith is to blame any more than Jesus was to be blamed when his disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in order to defend his honor (Luke 8:51-55). The key is that Jesus rebuked them, and so must we when we see people under our care twist our teachings or when we witness their zeal turning to violence.

In our age of political polarization, we often hear accusations—on both sides—that Tragedy A was the result of a “culture of hate” or that Horrible Atrocity B was the product of “good people saying nothing.” I suppose those arguments can be true, but as a rule they are almost always so nebulous as to be unprovable and so universal as to be non-falsifiable. If millions of people in the same “culture” never act out in violent ways and a very, very, very small number do, how effective is the culture anyway?

Again, I’m not suggesting that families or religious communities or broader societal factors never play a role—and sometimes it can be shown that they play a significant role—but as a stand-alone argument, we should shy away from “the culture” as a causal explanation for much of anything. It’s unfortunate that some of the same academics who look for finely tuned, always qualified nuances in making arguments about the past are quick to make sweeping causal claims when it comes to analyzing the present.

DeYoung failed to add the unfortunate side to ministers and church members from Reformed backgrounds who also make sweeping causal claims. On the upside, that may mean that Reformed Protestantism has less binding power than political conviction or racial/ethnic identity. That could be a reason for thanks.

Back in the Day When Some Were Planting PCA Congregations in NYC (and others were joining the PCA)

It was not an innocent time. Robert Hughes, art critic for Time magazine, wrote a book about cultural antagonisms in the United States, The Culture of Complaint. David Denby, a movie critic for New York magazine, reviewed it for the New Republic. It doesn’t sound like much has changed (except that sensitivities have escalated):

For years liberal intellectuals in this country have sounded sickly and confused. half convinced that their privileged position has disqualified them from criticizing any less powerful group, afraid of asserting what might be seen as an advantage. Something like academic Afrocentrism may be largely nonsense, but how many have the stomach to attack it? How many have the courage to say that gay artists whose lives have become nightmarish from the fear of AIDS are not necessarily better painters or sculptors? Putting it in pragmatic terms: Is making such points worth the risk of sounding like Hilton Kramer? Even if you can avoid such a ghastly outcome, the task requires a relish for combat and a willingness to hit an open target—a sort of herculean insensitivity.

Enter the bull in the shopping mall. Hughes was born in Australia but has lived in America and written art criticism for Time since 1970. He combines the curiosity and the ambitious learning of a scholar (he has written distinguished books on Australia and Barcelona) and the ready indignation and sense of timing of a great journalist. He is a controversialist, a public intellectual. The book, written in 1992, as the political tide was turning, is implicitly addressed to liberals: You are the conscience of a great country. Why be so frightened? Hughes offers a guide for the perplexed, a moral and intellectual compass for those who want to remain liberals in this culture without giving up their standards, their education, their sense of what matters. Brandishing bis sword, be charges in, laying about on all sides. He ridicules the American touchiness, the querulous tone of grievance. He talks tough to self-pitying artists, to academics, to black intellectuals and ideologues, to politicians.

So even when today it might seem like times were better just as Bill Clinton was coming into the White House, America was divided and Americans were sensitive. In New York City, Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins.

More Denby:

The widespread and unstoppable confusion of formal equality (which is obtainable through law) with equality of power and gifts (which is unobtainable) has led to a kind of Tocquevillian nightmare, a culture of self-pity and envious accusation. In the art world, for instance, the overproduction of artists caused by the runaway art market of the ’80s and the general lowering of standards leads anyone not actually celebrated by the media to designate himself an aggrieved party. “What are your ‘standards’ but further oppression?” the victim demands. The “you” that figures in so much paranoid-accusatory rhetoric is, of course, the white heterosexual male, whose “standards,” a mere construction, are assumed to be inherently corrupted by power. Second, the exacerbation of the differences among us, and the cynically calculated omission of what is held in common, leads to a grim spirit of intolerance—declarations of “cultural war” on the right and calls for separatism on the African-American left. Ideology annihilates the compromises necessary to keep the country going. . . .

Hughes fears no man or woman, but most liberals shrink from hurting anyone’s feelings. That is why James Wolcott was being disingenuous when, in the course of defending Rush Limbaugh recently in The New Yorker, he called on liberals to stop whining and “lean into the microphone.” In other words, get your own demagogues, bullies and wits. But as Wolcott surely knows. American liberals have committed themselves to abandoning the narcissism of the tribe; they are committed to respecting every group in the country. If conservatives have been making most of the jokes in recent years, that’s because it’s so much easier for them. For the liberal, everyone matters. That is the American glory and the American horror.

The point of this trip down memory lane is not to try to explain Trump, though with cultural conditions like this in the early 1990s, only a few years after Ronald Reagan helped a lot of Americans to see morning in America again, it is hard not to think that little emerged in the nation’s cultural, political, and religious institutions to offer some check on what Denby himself recognized as nonsense. The gatekeepers — universities, media, journalism — only seemed to guard the gates against those who thought it was impossible not to hurt someone’s feelings. Even Jesus did that.

Denby even received confirmation of Hughes’ observations when he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University:

The queasiness and prissy-mouthed grayness are often produced by the highest motives. During a year spent at Columbia attending classes with first- and second-year students, I saw many a promising discussion of social issues dry up at the border of genuine disagreement. As soon as a student actually said anything, he or she would be greeted with the comment (from another student), “That may be true from your point of view …,” the implication being that a point of view is not a strength but a weakness. Students quickly learn to stay away from anything that might betray a social judgment. The conservative students retreat into a grouchy silence and probably listen to Limbaugh in the dorms. The liberals take up a right-minded droning politeness; they learn that the only safe thing to do is to attack “power.”

They were, of course, only imitating their betters. The post-structuralist jargon, it turns out, serves all too well to reinforce liberal squeamishness. According to the recent academic orthodoxy (and Columbia is far less orthodox in these matters than many other schools), as soon as you write or speak you are in danger of allowing language, which encodes the structures of power, to do your thinking for you. In practice, any kind of vivid or concrete speech—any-thing personal, physical, evocative, active — “privileges” one point of view or another. (A graduate student in English upbraided me tor saying that a female student with long hair had long hair. Even though I was describing a specific student, the description was “a limiting stereotype.”)

Denby and Hughes also noticed that race-consciousness was pronounced, though an Afrocentrism that celebrated the continent seems to have found an outlet in affirmations of black pride:

After acknowledging the racism inherent in many nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies of Africa, Hughes goes through the claims of Afrocentrism and dismisses them. And so with the Afrocentrist version of slavery. After insisting that no history of slavery written before about 1960 can be quite trusted to tell the truth about black cultural history, he shreds the Afrocentrist insistence that Europe was solely responsible for the slave trade, filling in the large role played before and after the European dominated slave trade by Muslim slave traders and by African tribes themselves. And he dispels the notion of an African Eden, either of the past or the present, to which African Americans can return.

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Afrocentrism may strive without being fully believed. At Columbia, in the wake of a rampaging, nonsensical lecture by Professor Leonard Jeffries of City College, I noticed that even some of the brightest African-American students to whom I talked were unwilling to dismiss the stuff out of hand. They half-believed in it, perhaps as a way of maintaining self-respect. They may have been heading, most of them, into mainstream academic and professional careers, but by talking Afrocentrism they were not selling out to whitey. (“The Bull in the Shopping Mall,” The New Republic, May 10, 1993)

These discussions of cultural markers, race, and history were not present in NAPARC churches in 1993. But in ways that seem to contradict the logic of cultural transformation, the church is often downstream from universities and journalists.

Is It Wrong to Read John McWhorter?

I understand that German-Welsh-Americans may be selective in the African-American authors they read and quote, but since some of those who ridicule white evangelicals also recommend black conservative intellectuals like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, maybe an opening exists for appealing to John McWhorter for a brief moment. Here, the instruction has less to do with how African Americans make their case for racial injustice than with the way that white Americans receive arguments about racism’s persistence and depth:

Coates is a symptom of a larger mood. Over the past several years, for instance, whites across the country have been taught that it isn’t enough to understand that racism exists. Rather, the good white person views themselves as the bearer of an unearned “privilege” because of their color. Not long ago, I attended an event where a black man spoke of him and his black colleagues dressing in suits at work even on Casual Fridays, out of a sense that whites would look down on black men dressed down. The mostly white audience laughed and applauded warmly—at a story accusing people precisely like them of being racists.

This brand of self-flagellation has become the new form of enlightenment on race issues. This brand of self-flagellation has become the new form of enlightenment on race issues. It qualifies as a kind of worship; the parallels with Christianity are almost uncannily rich. White privilege is the secular white person’s Original Sin, present at birth and ultimately ineradicable. One does one’s penance by endlessly attesting to this privilege in hope of some kind of forgiveness. After the black man I mentioned above spoke, the next speaker was a middle-aged white man who spoke of having a coach come to his office each week to talk to him about his white privilege. The audience, of course, applauded warmly at this man’s description of having what an anthropologist observer would recognize not as a “coach” but as a pastor.

Parallels between anti-racism and religion are particularly telling since McWhorter has repeatedly argued that opposition to bigotry has turned into a form of orthodoxy and people who question are heterodox at best, but likely heretics:

I have seen whites owning up to their white privilege using the hand-in-the-air-palm-out gesture typically associated with testifying in church. After the event I have been describing, all concerned deemed it “wonderful” even though nothing new had been learned. The purpose of the event was to remind the parishioners of the prevalence of the racist sin and its reflection in themselves, and to offer a kind of forgiveness, this latter being essentially the function of the black people on the panel and in the audience. Amen.

Some might see all of this as a healthy sign of moral advance. And I suppose if I had to choose between this performativity and the utter contempt most whites had for any discussion of discrimination 50 years ago and before, I’d choose our current moment. But goodness, it piles high and deep, this—well, I’ll call it fakeness. The degree of fantasy and exaggeration that smart people currently let pass in the name of higher-order thought on race parallels, again, Biblical tales.

Coates, for example, argues in one article after another that America’s progress on race has been minimal, despite pretty window dressing here and there, and that there is no reason to hope things will get any better. Yet one can be quite aware of the prevalence and nature of racism in America while also understanding that the recreational pessimism of views like Coates’s is melodramatic and even unempirical. To insist that Starbucks or even Dylan Roof define America’s progress on race is as flimsy as treating certain young black men’s misbehavior as embodying the black essence. Perfection is ever a dream; we are, as always, in transition. Everybody knows that.

The very fact that the modern equivalent of the graduate student I knew reveres Coates’s writing is a sterling indication that America has grown up quite a bit on race even in the past quarter of a century. The fact that this brand of enlightenment has not made it to every barstool and kitchen table in the country hardly disqualifies it as influential. Anyone who really thinks that on race America has merely rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic isn’t old enough to realize that most smart white people as late as 1978 would have found The Wire about as interesting as Chinese opera.

In which case, social media banter about race these days (which also shows up in books that describe how much white churches have perpetuated racial hierarchy) has more to do with the purity of each person and less to do with those people who still experience some of the real consequences of racism in the United States:

This new cult of atonement is less about black people than white people. Fifty years ago, a white person learning about the race problem came away asking “How can I help?” Today the same person too often comes away asking, “How can I show that I’m a moral person?” That isn’t what the Civil Rights revolution was about; it is the product of decades of mission creep aided by the emergence of social media.

What gets lost is that all of this awareness was supposed to be about helping black people, especially poor ones. We are too often distracted from this by a race awareness that has come to be largely about white people seeking grace. For example, one reads often of studies showing that black boys are punished and suspended in school more often than other kids. But then one reads equally often that poverty makes boys, in particular, more likely to be aggressive and have a harder time concentrating. We are taught to assume that the punishments and suspensions are due to racism, and to somehow ignore the data showing that the conditions too many black boys grow up in unfortunately makes them indeed more likely to act up in school. Might the poverty be the key problem to address? But, try this purely logical reasoning in polite company only at the risk of being treated as a moral reprobate. Our conversation is to be solely about racism, not solutions—other than looking to a vaguely defined future time when racism somehow disappears, America having “come to terms” with it: i.e. Judgment Day. As to what exactly this coming to terms would consist of, I suppose only our Pastor of White Privilege knows.