The Spirituality of Social Justice

Here’s what it feels like to be pro-social justice without actually risking anything:

Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply “preach the Gospel.” Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political.

The Bible shows believers as holding important posts in pagan governments — think of Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament. Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors, whether they believe as we do or not. To work for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation requires political engagement. Christians have done these things in the past and should continue to do so.

Nevertheless, while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one. There are a number of reasons to insist on this.

One is that it gives those considering the Christian faith the strong impression that to be converted, they need not only to believe in Jesus but also to become members of the (fill in the blank) Party. It confirms what many skeptics want to believe about religion — that it is merely one more voting bloc aiming for power.

Another reason not to align the Christian faith with one party is that most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom. This does not mean that the church can never speak on social, economic and political realities, because the Bible often does. Racism is a sin, violating the second of the two great commandments of Jesus, to “love your neighbor.” The biblical commands to lift up the poor and to defend the rights of the oppressed are moral imperatives for believers. For individual Christians to speak out against egregious violations of these moral requirements is not optional.

However, there are many possible ways to help the poor. Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth? Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between? The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.

Christians should be involved in government, but most preachers telling you that won’t be involved. Why? It violates the spirituality of the church and confuses the two kingdoms, if church officers to serve in government or testify before legislative bodies.

Churches should encourage political engagement but they won’t take a side between the parties because that would be partisan. And which policies and legislation allow for bi-partisan moderation? If you want police or prison reform you are going to have to work with real politicians who belong to real political parties.

And Christians, including ministers, should speak to matters of injustice even though the Bible doesn’t address social or political realities. “Lift up the poor” and “defend the rights of the oppressed” but don’t ask me how to do it (or also ask why I’m stressing this right now when I wasn’t preaching about this twenty-five years ago).

“Christians cannot pretend.”

Keller’s editorial is part of a pose. He can present himself as one on the side of social justice without ever having to dirty his hands with support for a specific policy or legislator. At least the PCUSA actually passed resolutions in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act. They didn’t do what J. Gresham Machen recommended, which was saying, “yes, drunkenness is a sin, but the church doesn’t have the biblical warrant for declaring federal or state policy.” Keller apparently agrees with Machen about that. He doesn’t agree with Machen’s reluctance to line up behind the crowd.

And speaking of policy, while many are sizing up (some in installments!!!) the MacArthur inspired statement on social justice, practically all the #woke evangelicals have forgotten about the Justice Declaration. That was a 2017 statement about prison reform, co-sponsored by Prison Fellowship and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. (By the way, the Justice Declaration attracted about 3,300 signatures, MacArthur’s about 9,500.)

If you want to pursue social justice, maybe you identify one issue, like prison reform, promote it, stick with it, and keep at it.

Or if you want to look like you are on the right side of social justice, you affirm it but leave the details to practically everyone else who already knows, thanks to the media, politicians, news networks, ESPN, that social justice is a problem.

What value have you added?

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If It Is Not a Gospel Issue, What about Gospelly?

The Gospel Allies are not helping to clarify what is and what is not a gospel issue. Their brand is slipping away.

Kevin DeYoung comes the closest to adding clarity when he writes:

“gospel issue” should not be shorthand for “you must be passionate about all the same things I’m passionate about.” Nor should it be synonymous with notions of “building the kingdom” or “transforming the culture.” By the same token, preachers must be careful lest they allow CNN and Fox News, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to set the agenda for their weekly pulpit ministry. If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the “gospel” became more social than gospel.

But then he the North Carolina pastor taketh away with this:

And yet, “gospel issue” need not mean any of these things. If “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue. When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10).

So there is the gospel issue of preaching the new birth and justification by faith alone, which leads to the gospel issue of good works that are the fruit of saving faith, and those good works or the third use of the law bring social justice into view or the views of social justice warriors into view.

In a similar way (as Justin Taylor observes), D. A. Carson says something good:

For some Christian observers, cessationism is a gospel issue. In their perception, the charismatic movement is characteristically afflicted by one brand or another of health, wealth, and prosperity gospel that distances itself from the gospel of the cross: this makes the matter a gospel issue. Some forms of the charismatic movement so construct a two-stage view of spiritual wholeness, the second stage attested by one or more particular spiritual gifts, that the nature of what Jesus achieved on the cross is in jeopardy. Others, it is argued, adopt a view of revelation that jeopardizes the exclusive, final authority of Scripture, and this threatens the gospel that the Scripture heralds. But other Christian observers, fully aware of these dangers and no less concerned to avoid them, nevertheless remain convinced that at least some charismatics manage to display their gifts without succumbing to any of these errors, while self-consciously holding to the same gospel that the observers hold. In other words, for them the charismatic movement (or, from the obverse direction, cessationism) is not necessarily a gospel issue. They want to avoid building legalistic fences around their positions. Once again, it is difficult not to see that personal experiences and sustained habits of assessment have entered into one’s judgments. Determining whether X is a gospel issue is often more than a narrowly exegetical exercise.

To put the same matter another way, another sort of example might be introduced. We have seen how the doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement is usefully considered a gospel issue provided (a) that we have adopted a robust definition of the gospel, such that (b) to disown that facet of the cross-work of Christ necessarily diminishes or threatens the gospel. But I have not heard anyone recently suggest that the exemplary function of the cross is a gospel issue, even though Peter unambiguously insists that Jesus died leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. This is as much a gospel issue as is penal, substitutionary atonement, even though it is not treated in that way today, precisely because it is not one of the controverted points. In other words, the things that we debate as to whether they are gospel issues reflect the hot topics, and especially the denials or errors, of our age. That is one of the reasons why I mentioned the filioque clause and the eternal generation of the Son at the head of this editorial: at one point, they were very much considered gospel issues. The second of these two is currently making something of a comeback—but certainly if we are careless about them, our carelessness suggests how our own theological foci have shifted with time and demonstrates once again that discussions of the sort “X is a gospel issue” commonly address the errors and dangers of a particular age. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it is in any case an inevitable thing. But it should be recognized for what it is.

In other words, the nature of salvation is at stake either explicitly or implicitly in debates about the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ on the cross.

Then Carson raises matters of politics and social relations to the level of “gospelly”:

Certainly the majority of Christians in America today would happily aver that good race relations are a gospel issue. They might point out that God’s saving purpose is to draw to himself, through the cross, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation; that the church is one new humanity, made up of Jew and Gentile; that Paul tells Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as his brother, as the apostle himself; that this trajectory starts at creation, with all men and women being made in the image of God, and finds its anticipation in the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Moreover, the salvation secured by Christ in the gospel is more comprehensive than justification alone: it brings repentance, wholeness, love for brothers and sisters in the Christian community.

But the sad fact remains that not all Christians have always viewed race relations within the church as a gospel issue.

More worrying, survey after survey has shown that in America today, even among those with a robust grasp of the gospel, black Christians and white Christians do not view these matters exactly the same way. Even where both sides agree, on biblical grounds, that this is a gospel issue, black Christians are far more likely to see that this is a crucial gospel issue, an issue of huge importance, one that is often ignored, while white Christians are more likely to imagine that racial issues have so largely been resolved that it is a distraction to keep bringing them up.

Carson seemed to recognized that doctrinal matters are properly theological and concern the way that man becomes right with God. But then he gives ground an allows that questions surrounding social relations, and specifically societies that are comprised not simply of Christians but of non-Christians, are “gospelly.” He does not seem to consider why should non-Christians ever consent to be governed by the “gospel issues” defined by Christians. And whatever happened to allowing those with expertise in public policy, law, governance, and electoral politics set the debates about race relations and laws about bigotry rather than thinking any Christian whose read a book by Keller or Carson think he is competent to pontificate about laws governing hatred or prejudice (which is kind of complicated in a society where freedom of thought is a long and cherished ideal).

And then, a golden oldie from Thabiti Anyabwile on how a matter of policy becomes “gospelly.” After the federal grand jury’s determination not to indict Ferguson police offer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, Anyabwile told readers (I am assuming they are Christian because of that “gospelly” thing) that they have three options:

We may turn the television and turn our heads and continue the unusual business of business as usual. . . .

Or, we may declare the matter resolved and proclaim from the burning rooftops, “The system worked.” . . . Our civic ideals require we remain involved in an open, honest discussion about what worked and what didn’t so that what we cherish isn’t slowly eroded by our inattention. That inattention is no option for the righteous, either.

The only course forward for all of us is that active engagement that applies and seeks to live up to our highest ideals. The debate about what constitutes “justice” is part of the process. The review of our systems and the amendment of laws is part of our highest ideals. The righteous must work to keep the foundations from being destroyed. They must walk by faith and they must do the good deeds that lead to life.

Notice the move back and forth between we “the righteous” and “civic ideals.” I assume and have heard Anyabwile enough to know that he believes a person is only righteous because of faith in Christ imputes that righteousness to the Christian. So why mix a theological category with a political one — righteous with civil? This is not clear, but it does in lean in a Social Gospelly direction. The mixing of civil and theological categories becomes even more intermingly:

There is no way people of good conscience or people of Christian faith can look at the events in Ferguson and conclude there’s nothing left for us to do or nothing that can be done. No, both pure religion and good citizenship require we not settle for what’s happened in the shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision. The Ferguson grand jury has given us our marching orders. They have ordered us to march for a more just system of policing and the protection of all life. We are obligated–if we love Christ or love this country–to find a way forward to justice, a way suitable to the dictates of our individual consciences and the word of God.

If the United States is a Christian country, maybe this sort of co-mingling of theology and law works. But we are not in Christian America anymore.

If you listen to Anyabwile’s comments about the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, you hear him complain about the failure of the statement to define terms like “social justice,” “intersectionality,” Marxism, and the like. It doesn’t seem particularly fair or just to be prissy about words when after four years you are not any more clear about the gospel and social justice than John MacArthur.

A Wrestling Match Over the Resurrection

Chris Gehrz thinks a belief in the resurrection will produce activist evangelicals (maybe even social justice types):

What would happen if evangelicals let the reality of the resurrection penetrate into our hearts and give us the vitality and power of Christ’s victory over death?

First, it would cause us to value life all the more. Yet many “pro-life” evangelicals seem to care little when their preferred presidential administration closes this country to those seeking refuge from war and gang violence. Or when it ignores the deaths of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico. Or when it leaves unaddressed (or worsens) problems with health care, drug abuse, poverty, and climate change that threaten the lives of millions.

Second, a living orthodoxy of resurrection would leave us evangelicals more hopeful and less fearful. Instead, as I observed in our book, “The same people who argue most strenuously for the historicity of the resurrection can seem the least likely to live as if Jesus Christ has actually conquered the grave.”

The resurrection as the basis for social policy and legislation — I have not seen that one before. But Gehrz thinks this corresponds with what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

That is not the way I typically think about the resurrection, especially after what Paul writes just before that verse:

… flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Instead of turning Christians into transformationalistizationers of culture, the reality of death and the hope of the resurrection would seem to teach believers that this world is inconsequential to the world to come, that as Paul writes elsewhere, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” We may not labor in vain. But we die and we receive glory, and that puts the affairs of this life in a different perspective, as it seemed to for Paul:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4)

Gerhz even seems to agree with this when he writes, “a lived belief in literal resurrection should lessen our fear of both literal and metaphorical death.” If true, then it would less our fears of inequality and injustice since Christians will have a life to come.

But by trying to appropriate the resurrection for social justice, Gehrz seems to be guilty of what Paul warned against:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Christian teaching on salvation transcends the politics and economics, which likely explains why Paul had so little to say about the social injustice of the Roman Empire. Christianity is an otherworldly faith because Christians await the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns.

Does this mean Christians should eschew politics of only vote for Republicans? Probably not on politics, it’s a free church when it comes to the ballot box. Which is to say that Christians have all sorts of material for sorting out the social and political problems that come with a fallen world.

We don’t need to baptize them in the miracles of redemption.

Thank You, Lord, I’m Not a Christian-Identity Christian

Can the social justice warriors tell the difference between John MacArthur and Louis Beam? I was not aware of Mr. Beam until I listened to a remarkable discussion of Katherine Belew’s book, Bring the War Home at bloggingheadstv. Nor was I aware of a statement about social justice from Founders Ministries until I saw Ryan Burton King’s explanation of why he could not sign it (which I saw somehow through the blur of retweets).

Beam was a Vietnam veteran who became a prominent figure, so I’ve learned, in paramilitary, Christian identity, and the Klan. Belew makes the point about a fairly large — between 5,000 and 250,000 — network of white nationalists that connected people like Beam to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

MacArthur, of course, is that famous pastor who is the Jerry Falwell of California minus the politics. In fact, MacArthur is taking heat for not calling the church to get behind movements and networks that resist the intersectional dynamics of racism, sexism, economic exploitation, heteronormativity — I’m tapped out — and a whole lot more.

Listening to the podcast which I highly recommend, I couldn’t help but wonder if the folks who accuse the United States of harboring white nationalism can actually tell the difference (or make distinctions) between the KKK and the OPC, or if it is a case of either you’er for us or you’re against us and if you’re against us then you are antithetically (thank you Abraham Kuyper) on the side, intentionally opposed to us? I for one would think that anyone with antennae for social justice who owns a home would rather have John MacArthur as a neighbor than a guy like Beam who stockpiled guns, trained terrorists, and who did not exactly respect the rule of law.

I also wonder if those alarmed by the direction in the United States since the presidential election of 2016 can do the math and recognize that 81% of evangelicals (maybe 60 million) is a lot larger than the 250,000 who may traffic in Christian Identity networks. That might sound scary except when your remember that if — and I say if though apocalypticism seems to be one potential tie — if the two groups overlap, then 59,750,000 evangelicals are not part of white nationalist organizations. (Thank the Lord for Geerhardus Vos and amillennialism.)

One last thought, around the 31 minute mark, Robert Wright wondered how such a small group of terrorists could ever think they would take down the most powerful nation on God’s green earth. That made me wonder how Christian transformationalists could ever think they could redeem New York City. Is there a connection between transformationalism and Christian Identity?

Nah.

Which Social Cause Is Right for Your Congregation (and Denomination)?

Forbes magazine has several tips for businesses to find the proper outlet for their social activism that may also be instructive for churches wanting to enter the social justice field.

1. Look in the mirror. When it comes to defining your social mission, start with your business mission. Increasingly, we find it helpful when these two are aligned from the start – even if your company makes widgets. Strategic leaders recognize that giving back can be baked right into your corporate DNA, such as with equity pledges, where companies offer a small percentage of their equity to nonprofits. Regardless of your organization’s structure, your business mission will help inform the most aligned direction to harness your corporate energies and offer the best opportunities for pro bono volunteering and other engagement.

2. Go on a listening tour. As you consider your mission and values, it’s important to get your employees involved so that they feel “heard.” Surveys are a common tool to cull employee interests around causes, including where many of them may already be volunteering and giving. Sure, you won’t be able to prioritize every cause, but you may be able to find patterns of common interests, which will help when it comes to increasing volunteer participation if you decide to pursue these causes. And even with the many causes that you don’t elevate to the corporate level, a volunteer platform will empower employees to pursue many different interests as a part of their volunteer work.

3. Do your research. When it comes to selecting specific nonprofits to ally with or support, tools like Charity Navigator provide insight into organizational history, financial health, accountability and transparency. Make sure that you do your due diligence in assessing how your company can make the biggest impact at the most minimal cost.

4. Get help. Experts in the field can serve as invaluable translators helping companies and nonprofits speak the same language, align expectations and goals and establish relationships destined for success. Guidance from a trusted expert in the nonprofit world can help steer your company to the cause area and nonprofit that is the best possible match.

Since confessional churches rely on word and sacrament, perhaps activism related to literacy, wheat farms, and grape growing is the best fit. Here‘s a story about wine cellar workers at Woodbridge who want to join the Teamsters. Perhaps your diaconate could help.

Also, the National Association of Wheat Growers has several items on its list of policies that might guide a session or diaconate’s thoughts about social justice.

Too bad, though, that cellar workers and wheat growers are not high on the list of causes that motivate millennials. The top five are:

Civil rights/racial discrimination 29%
Employment (job creation) (tie) 26%
Healthcare reform (tie) 26%
Climate change 21%
Immigration 19%
Education (K-12) 17%

The runners up:

Respondents also sited wages (15%), environment (14%), college/post-secondary education (13%), poverty and homelessness (13%), mental health and social services (12%), criminal justice reform (11%), women’s rights (10%), women’s health and reproductive issues (9%), early education (8%), sexual orientation-based rights (8%), and literacy (4%) as issues they care about.

That’s a boat load of activity for any single congregation. Even a denominational agency, like the Committee on Social Justice, would have a hard time meeting at most three times a year to give due attention and resources to all of these matters.

The encouraging news, though, is that millennials have a fairly low bar for what constitutes social activism:

Researchers also asked respondents what types of actions they take on behalf of the causes important to them. Voting topped the list, in order or priority, followed by signing a petition, no action, posting on social media, and changing purchase of products and services. Voting, researchers surmised, is seen as a vital form of activism; the survey found that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said they had voted in the 2016 presidential election.

So, if your officers are voting, Tweeting, and posting on Facebook, they already have a social-justice ministry.

Something for All Commissioners to Consider before Heading Off to General Assembly (or Synod)

What’s true for liberals may also be true for Christians who think they have social justice covered:

Consider some ways liberals have used their cultural prominence in recent years. They have rightly become more sensitive to racism and sexism in American society. News reports, academic commentary and movies now regularly relate accounts of racism in American history and condemn racial bigotry. These exercises in consciousness-raising and criticism have surely nudged some Americans to rethink their views, and to reflect more deeply on the status and experience of women and members of minority groups in this country.

But accusers can paint with very wide brushes. Racist is pretty much the most damning label that can be slapped on anyone in America today, which means it should be applied firmly and carefully. Yet some people have cavalierly leveled the charge against huge numbers of Americans — specifically, the more than 60 million people who voted for Mr. Trump.

In their ranks are people who sincerely consider themselves not bigoted, who might be open to reconsidering ways they have done things for years, but who are likely to be put off if they feel smeared before that conversation even takes place.

It doesn’t help that our cultural mores are changing rapidly, and we rarely stop to consider this. Some liberals have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.

Within just a few years, many liberals went from starting to talk about microaggressions to suggesting that it is racist even to question whether microaggressions are that important. “Gender identity disorder” was considered a form of mental illness until recently, but today anyone hesitant about transgender women using the ladies’ room is labeled a bigot. Liberals denounce “cultural appropriation” without, in many cases, doing the work of persuading people that there is anything wrong with, say, a teenager not of Chinese descent wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom or eating at a burrito cart run by two non-Latino women. (Gerard Alexander, “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are,” New York Times, May 12, 2018)

Resist that temptation to feel good after a vote for the right side of history.

What Would a Woke Christian Do (WWWCD)?

Is it just I, or do the times when Jesus ministered seem very different from ours?

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

7Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

Jesus Heals Many

14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him. (Matthew 8)

First, we have a centurion with a servant who boasts that he has authority to boss people around. Does that put Jesus off? No. Instead, he marvels at the centurion’s faith.

Would a social justice warrior be so insensitive to the power relationships, the intersectionality, that pervaded Roman society and that assumed a high ranking military official should have servants and bark orders at them?

Or how about Peter’s mother-in-law (leaving aside that the first pope was married)? Yes, it’s a genuine act of kindness for Jesus to heal the woman without being asked. But what’s up with Peter’s mother-in-law feeling the need to wait on Jesus as soon as she recovered? Why not tell Peter, who later had to learn to feed sheep, to feed his Lord?

Or maybe our standards of equality, justice, politeness, and social rank are not the Lord’s.

Does this Apply to Parks Departments and Historical Commissions?

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Pet 2)

Or is it better for Christians to be known for their protest love?

Perhaps most difficult of all, I believe victory will come through our obedience to the Lord who commanded us to love our enemies. We cannot live in the disobedience of ignoring the sin of racism and using the terminology “love your enemies” to justify the protection of prejudiced practices. This is not the example of Jesus.

Jesus taught us that telling the truth – and acting accordingly – is integral to godliness. As the Word of God and the Son of Man, he confronted the oppressive actions of church leaders. He challenged bigotry, judgmental attitudes, and injustice. He exposed the prejudices that his enemies loved. He knew exactly who his enemies were, and he took every opportunity to speak directly about the wickedness they shielded. The love of Jesus for his enemies was not a cover-up; it was rooted in revelation. This is the example we must follow. This is the work of love that the church has inherited.

But we have shunned the revealing, revolutionary acts of love because they are too difficult. We have invalidated our own message. The reason that the Church has not been able to rightly dismantle white supremacist notions is because the Church is guilty of undermining racial justice.

All Political Sermons are Bad

In the spirit of J. Gresham Machen, remember that if you don’t mix religion and politics, you don’t have to perform the contortions that allow you to affirm Civil Rights legislation (as a work of God) and oppose Prohibition (not as a work of God even though Protestants did think it was a work of God). Just keep politics out of the church.

But that’s not what Christians do.

And American Presbyterians have been guilty for a long time before liberal Protestants went all in on the Social Gospel. Mark Tooley reminds:

This week I studied at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, a fort dating to the 1700s, when President George Washington led an army there in route to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Farmers in western Pennsylvania had revolted against the authority of the new republic to tax the whiskey they distilled from grain otherwise expensive to ship from their remote frontier.

Quickly realizing this threat to the new nation’s cohesion, Washington in 1794 summoned the militias from Pennsylvania and nearby states into an army of 13,000 that he personally led against the rebellion. At an evening celebration of greeting for the President and his army, the town of Carlisle illumined a special proclamation simply declaring: “The Reign of the Laws.”

Such a poignant and wonderful exclamation: “The Reign of the Laws.” The people saluted Washington, but they, like he, did not place their faith in his personal rule but in impartial law as the antidote to anarchy.

While in Carlisle Washington worshiped at the stone Presbyterian church, which I visited, and where he heard Dr. Robert Davidson preach “A Sermon on the Freedom and Happiness of the United States of America.” Washington described it in his diary: “Went to the Presbyterian meeting and heard Dr. Davidson preach a political sermon, recommendations of order and good government and the excellence of that of the United States.”

Washington’s summary was fair and succinct, but the sermon merits elaboration, both for illustrating how Christians in early America viewed God’s purposes for their nation, and for modeling, at least in part, how we today might view government, justice and nationhood providentially.

The sermon is based on King David’s question in 2 Samuel 7:23: “And what one nation in the earth is like Thy people, even like Israel?” Pastor Davidson warned against being “carried away by the spirit of the times, to substitute mere political harangues in the place of the Gospel of Christ,” recalling, per Proverbs 27:34, that “righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people.” And he noted the “duties of citizens are not to be considered as topics foreign to the Gospel” as the “Gospel views man in every condition in which man can be placed.”

Davidson heralded the “great goodness of God to our own state and nation in particular; our high and many privileges, the gratitude due from us to God for them; and the wise improvement which we ought to make of them.” As a national comparison, Davidson recalled:

The history of the Jewish nation, if read with suitable views, and especially in order to gain an acquaintance with the ways of God to men, would be one of the most instructive that could merit our attention. …We see how much superior, in point of privileges, the Jewish nation was, to all the other nations around them.

As God had showed unmerited and unprecedented favor to the Hebrew nation, Davidson urged considering the “great goodness of the Divine Being to our state and nation in particular; – our high privileges; the gratitude which we owe to God for them…” And he recalled:

This part of the New World presented itself as a place of refuge for those who wished to enjoy religious and civil freedom, unmolested, and to the greatest extent. They hoped that here they could worship God according to their consciences, and would be at a secure distance from all the insults of tyranny.

After reciting the British oppressions precipitating the American Revolution, Davidson declared the new independent nation had the “freest and best form of civil government, which could be learned from the wisdom and experience of ages,” and that with “all the imperfections” still “is one of the most free and excellent under the sun.”

Of the American republic, Davidson further rhapsodized:

This is a government, which all the real friends of freedom in the old world appear to admire; and under the wings of which the oppressed of every nation would wish to take refuge. Here is liberty and equality, according to the just acceptation of those favorite terms; liberty, civil and religious to the utmost extent that they can be, where there is any government at all; and an equality of rights, or provision made for the equal protection of the lives and properties of all. That all men should be equal, as to abilities, station, authority, and wealth, is absolutely, in the present state of things, impossible. But where every citizen has a voice in making the laws, or in choosing those who make them, and is equally under their protection, – there is equality.

I for one (why not five) am convinced that modernism did not begin with adapting Christianity to biology, higher criticism, or immigration reform. It began when Christians, like Pastor Davidson, started to adapt Christianity to modern nations like the United States. Once you start making the Bible say things it doesn’t, it’s hard to stop.

The White Man’s Burden

With all the talk of intersectionality and white privilege, it now turns out that white men themselves can play the victim card. We too are oppressed and marginalized as Pete Enns recently discovered:

White male privilege really is a thing, I never see it from the outside in, and I was never challenged to critique white male privilege as an expression of my faith. Rather, it was allowed to fit far too comfortably with my faith.

Not being an oppressed person puts me at a disadvantage. I rarely need to cry out as the psalmists do about being treated with injustice, prejudice, with violence. I don’t need to worry about being pulled over by uniformed protectors of the public. There are many more places I can go and things I can do because I am part of the dominant culture.

And I don’t worry about my competence or value being questioned because of my gender. I am the default, the norm. I do the judging.

An iteration of the Christian faith that doesn’t see the problem here, really see it, is its own refutation.

But here come some complications when men of privilege grasp for the ring of oppression:

Was the fact that Pete was a victim of white male domination at WTS its own form of oppression? On the scales of social justice this instance of maltreatment (according to some) does not itself rise to the level of what people of color have experienced. But Pete needs to see that white male privilege only goes so far when it collides with other white men with privilege. Ten years ago the Psalms would have made total sense of Pete’s experience.

But that raises a question about using as expressions of lament the prayers of kings, which is much of the OT Psalter. Should a victim of oppression really appeal to a prayer from an officer who according to social justice warriors is inherently oppressive? After all, the left has taught us that the wealthy and powerful are chief among the perpetrators of injustice. So how do you sing the songs of lament of the wealthy and powerful, like kings as opposed to the oppressed people (who haven’t left much of a paper trail)?

One last wrinkle: can a white Christian man really appeal to the text of Hebrews even if that is his academic specialty? Isn’t this a form of cultural appropriation? If Oberlin College students have taught us about authentic tacos in the cafeteria, and if Pete wants to approve the arguments that currently fuel the politics of identity, hasn’t he gone to the wrong place if he turns to the Psalms? Wouldn’t T.S. Eliot be a better fit for a white Christian man if he were — hypothetically of course — to experience oppression?

The gods of social justice are a demanding bunch. Call on them at your peril if your complexion is pink or ruddy.