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.

Social Justice according to Peter Berger

What Richard Mouw heard (not sure he learned) from the sociologist who died last week:

In an informal group discussion at Hartford Seminary, back in the ’70s, we were discussing social activism, and I made this comment: “Every Christian,” I said, “is called actively to work for justice and peace in the world.” Peter repied, “Really, Richard? You really mean that?” I assured him that I did. Then he told me about an elderly aunt, who lived in a retirement home. Every morning, he said, she struggled to work up the courage to go to the cafeteria for lunch. She had a problem with bladder control, Peter said, and she was afraid of embarrassing herself in the lunch line. Each day she prayed to the Lord to give her courage, and then she would go down to the cafeteria. For her, he said, the most radical act of faith for her each day was to summon up the courage to go to lunch. “Now, Richard, what do you want to tell her about her obligation also actively to work for justice and peace in the world?” Peter Berger taught me an unforgettable lesson with that story.

Is the lesson that the elderly get a pass from joining the social justice warrior ranks? Or that social justice isn’t what social justice warriors think it is?

What Glenn Beck and Peter Lillback Need to Know about the Church and Social Justice

The church’s mission is not social justice if, by such equity we mean the punishment of wickedness and the reward of virtue. One way to substantiate this assertion is by looking for the word “justice” in the church’s corporate witness. A word search reveals in the Belgic Confession, for instance, that justice appears in the discussion of God’s treatment of sin and the remedy in Christ (Article 20) and in the work of the magistrate (Article 36). A similar use of the word occurs in Calvin’s catechism where he talks about the justice of God in punishing sin (Q. 154), and penalties for stealing (Q. 205). Calvin also speaks of justice in connection with the second petition of the Lord’s prayer (Q. 269), and the respect for justice that accompanies sanctification (Q. 290). In the Westminster Confession, “justice” appears only in chapter three on the eternal decree (3.7), providence (5.1), the work of Christ (8.5), justification (11.3), the function of the civil magistrate (23.2), and the last judgment (33.2). If the earliest Reformed Protestants believed the church should promote social justice, they were remarkably silent both about that part of ecclesiastical duty and the very idea itself.

If by social justice, like the way that Peter Lillback used it on the Glenn Beck show, one means various ways to improve a person’s material circumstances, such as education for the ignorant, relief for orphans, welfare for the poor, food for the hungry, and medicine for the sick, the matter of the church’s duties is contested. Word and deed advocates insist that the church carries out such work indiscriminately, that is, it provides welfare to everyone irrespective of their standing within the church (no matter whether a given congregation has the capacity to provide medical or educational assistance). Word and sacrament advocates in contrast hold that diaconal work is an important and necessary ministry but that the church’s role in alleviating misery extends only to the saints (except in extraordinary circumstances). Even then, the diaconate’s commission is not nearly as broad as the welfare state’s. Diaconal work is not an excuse, then, for the church to establish hospitals, orphanages, schools, and kitchens under the oversight of the church. The doctrine of sphere-sovereignty has long put limits on the church and given many of these functions to the family.

By the way, why exactly should the church be involved in the work of humanitarian relief or social justice when a perfectly good nation exists – in the United States, anyway – for carrying out such functions? Political conservatives may well object to the idea that the American government is perfectly good or whether the state should have nanny-like responsibilities. The Bible may not vindicate the political conservative position, but given the affinity of Mr. Beck and Dr. Lillback to the Republican party, and hence to some form of conservatism, one might think that objections to the culture of dependence fostered by the welfare state (one of the many unintended consequences of good intentions) might occur to anyone who thinks the church should give out aid as freely as the state. In fact, Paul’s counsel to Timothy in his first letter (chapter five) indicates that the apostle himself was well aware of the problem of giving assistance to the undeserving poor (in this case, widows).

So if the church’s mission is not social justice or material welfare (beyond the work of the diaconate), then why is the church constantly tempted to pursue social justice? In his interview with Beck, Lillback implied that the problem of social justice comes when it is part of a liberal theological package. What he fails to see is that the church’s involvement in social reform and political activism is the way by which churches become liberal. In other words, no good form of ecclesial social justice exists. Even if the church still preaches the gospel, social justice is the means by which the church loses sight of her purpose and the significance of her message. The reason is that to argue that the church has an obligation to pursue a political or social agenda (or even a program of material welfare), the church has already become confused about the gospel and its benefits. In the words of the sociologist, Peter Berger, social justice is a form of “works righteousness.”

Three historical examples might help to make this point plausible. The first comes from the reunion of the Old and New School Presbyterians in 1869. The language of the plan for reunion was lush with references to the political circumstances of the United States after a grueling Civil War. The implicit logic was that the nation needed a Presbyterians to unite as much as it had needed to avert southern secession. Here is how the report put it:

The changes which have occurred in our own country and throughout the world, during the last thirty years – the period of our separation – arrest and compel attention. Within this time the original number of our States has been very nearly doubled. . . . And all this vast domain is to be supplied with the means of education and the institutions of religion, as the only source and protection of our national life. The population crowding into this immense area is heterogeneous. Six millions of emigrants, representing various religious and nationalities, have arrived on our shores within the last thirty years; and four millions of slaves, recently enfranchised, demand Christian education. It is no secret that anti-Christian forces – Romanism, Ecclesiasticisim, Rationalism, Infidelity, Materialism, and Paganism itself – assuming new vitality, are struggling for the ascendency. Christian forces should be combined and deployed, according to the new movements of their adversaries it is no time for small and weak detachments, which may easily be defeated in detail. . . .

Before the world we are no engaged, as a nation, in solving the problem whether it is possible for all the incongruous and antagonistic nationalities thrown upon our shores, exerting their mutual attraction and repulsion, to become fused in one new American sentiment. If the several branches of the Presbyterian Church in this country, representing to a great degree ancestral differences, should become cordially united, it must have not only a direct effect upon the question of our national unity, but reacting by the force of a successful example on the old World, must render aid in that direction, to all how are striving to reconsider and readjust those combinations, which had their origin either in the faults or the necessities of a remote past.

Now this reunion had not addressed the theological problems that had created the Old School-New School split in the first place, namely the teaching of the New Haven Theology and the denial of the federal theology on which the Presbyterian Church’s confession depended. By the 1860s those doctrinal problems seemed to be insignificant compared to the pressing needs of the nation. This was the church of Charles Hodge, by the way.

Only four decades later, the ecumenical spirit that led Old and New School Presbyterians to lay aside differences prompted American Protestants more generally to join hands to form the Federal Council of Churches. And the reason for this amazing act of ecclesial generosity was not a church synod or council that had steered a path through the polity, sacramental, and doctrinal divisions among American Protestants. Instead, the reason for unity was social justice, namely, the need for the churches to address antagonisms within the American economy and the nation’s politics that were dividing citizens of the United States along class lines. So the Federal Council’s first act was to write a new creed, a social one:

We deem it the duty of all Christian people to concern themselves directly with certain practical industrial problems. To us it seems that the churches must stand —

For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.

For the right of all men to the opportunity for self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.

For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crises of industrial change.

For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.

For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries and mortality.

For the abolition of child labor.

For such regulation of the conditions of toil for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.

For the suppression of the “sweating system.”

For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is a condition of the highest human life.

For a release from employment one day in seven.

For a living wage as a minimum in every industry, and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.

For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.

For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.

For the abatement of poverty.

To the toilers of America and to those who by organized effort are seeking to lift the crushing burdens of the poor, and to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor, this Council sends the greeting of human brotherhood and the pledge of sympathy and of help in a cause which belongs to all who follow Christ.

Mind you, this statement, approved by the Presbyterian Church in which Benjamin Warfield was a minister, failed to supply proof texts for these proposals, thereby avoiding the “thus, sayeth the Lord” motivation that social justice needs. Even more telling was that these churches believed they could unite on points of public policy even while divided on liturgical, polity, and doctrinal matters that the Lord had indeed commanded. In other words, the social and political problems of the hour were obscuring the church’s basic teachings and practices.

A similar understanding of the relationship between the religious and the social, or the theological and political is at work recently in the Manahattan Declaration, the very statement that Lillback recommended to Beck at the end of their interview, when he said:

I would like to tell all of your listeners and Glenn, you personally, that you need to put your signature on the Manhattan Declaration. Chuck Colson spoke to me about this some months ago and he said, “Would you help me sign it?”

And I had the privilege of being one of the first 100 signatories. And basically, he said this — we need to bring together the movement of people across this country who are willing to die for what they believe in. And the things that are being challenged where the government is going to come to force us out of the convictions are the sanctity of life, our definition of historic marriage and our resounding commitment to protect rights of conscience of religious liberty.

In the Manhattan Declaration, not only have the differences among Protestant denominations been placed in the background compared to the pressing social demands of the sanctity of human life and religious liberty. Also Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodoxy are now united in the name of Christ and for the sake of the gospel to advocate certain moral and social causes in the public sphere. One paragraph from the Declaration supplies the “thus, sayeth the Lord” part that the Federal Council missed:

We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image. We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person. We call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address as we, with St. Paul, commend this appeal to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

The specific public questions that demand a Christian response are as follows:

Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense. In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.

Meanwhile, these Christians who disagree on the gospel – and hence worship God in different communions – are agreed that the matters they address are on the order of the very gospel that divides them. The Declaration states:

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.

These examples indicate that when churches engage in social or political programs invariably they lose their theological bearings and become liberal – as in, they lose sight of what is orthodox. (I personally do not think that everyone who signed the Declaration sees the tension between their own church’s faith, and the problems of cooperating with Christians who are not in fellowship with their communion. I also don’t know why they could not have formed a committee or association to pursue these matters without appealing to Christ or the gospel. One obvious reason is that a non-religious appeal lacks urgency and purposefulness.)

Conceivably, a historical example might be found that disproved this rule about social and political involvement generating liberalism – though the state churches of Europe would seem to vindicate this point in spades. But behind the historical record is a theological principle, namely, that when a church confuses the benefits of redemption with the comforts of a better life or the equitable workings of the state it has misunderstood the significance of the message it proclaims. Calvin, for what it’s worth, called such confusion, a “Judaic folly,” as in confusing the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly one.

So what Beck needs is a better account of why social justice is code for liberal theology. Lillback missed a golden opportunity when he failed to tell Beck what the confession of his own denomination teaches about the mission of the church:

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (WCF 23.3)

P.S. Apologies to NORM! if this is more scholarly than blogs tend to be.