Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:
- An open letter to members of the Churches of Christ -ministers, scholars and thought leaders within the fellowship
- Speaking Up on the Issue of Race in America – from Harold Shank and Robert Solomon
These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.
The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
A little theology
As stated by James Davison Hunter,
The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicization of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer. A vision of the new city commons [in which the church participates] … leads to a postpolitical view of power. It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization. This would not mean civic privatism [permanent withdrawal from the public square] but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Kindle Locations 3876-3882). Kindle Edition. (Emphasis in original.)
Interesting, isn’t it, that one of our deepest and most influential thought leaders regarding the church and culture thinks the American church is not ready to enter the public square and present our case. Why not?
Well, in part because when we do this, we often do a truly dreadful job of it. Too many of our leaders say things that don’t help at all — that even hurt the cause of Christ. And we’re so eaten up with the American culture that we think we have nothing to offer but the same, failed solutions offered by secular powers: better laws, better policies, and political activism (get the vote out).
We seem unaware of what make the Kingdom different. We have some regrouping and rethinking to do.
Stanley Hauerwas advises,
[W]e content ourselves with ersatz Christian ethical activity—lobbying Congress to support progressive strategies, asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent. Falwell’s Moral Majority is little different from any mainline Protestant church that opposes him. Both groups [the left and the right] imply that one can practice Christian ethics without being in the Christian community. Both begin with the Constantinian assumption that there is no way for the gospel to be present in our world without asking the world to support our convictions through its own social and political institutionalization. The result is the gospel transformed into civil religion. …
All our ethical responses begin [in the church]. Through the teaching, support, sacrifice, worship, and commitment of the church, utterly ordinary people are enabled to do some rather extraordinary, even heroic acts, not on the basis of their own gifts or abilities, but rather by having a community capable of sustaining Christian virtue. The church enables us to be better people than we could have been if left to our own devices. …
As Barth says, “[The Church] exists … to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to [the world’s] own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise” (Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2).
Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (pp. 81-83). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis mine.)
In short, yes, we should certainly support racial reconciliation in society. But the reason the church supports racial reconciliation is that the joining of the nations into a single community is a part of God’s mission, going all the way back to Abraham. But God’s solution is not community forums, retraining of police, DOJ oversight of local police departments, and new laws. God’s solution is Jesus – and thanks to the work of Jesus, the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Therefore, once the church takes the log out of its own eye and finally has the credibility to suggest a solution, that solution is going to be Jesus. (If it’s anything else, why is the church giving such advice? I mean, the church as the church is not a consultant to the principalities and powers on secular, Jesus-less conflict resolution. We are called to preach Jesus.)
And so, as Hauerwas says, we’re going to find it very difficult to talk to the powers and principalities. We will be speaking from the only worldview that the church has, the worldview of Jesus, a worldview in which racism is being defeated by the transforming work of the Spirit. And if we seek, as the church, to change the world for the better without Jesus, we’re effectively declaring that Jesus is not needed. And this we cannot do and still be the church. And we’d be very wrong. There is no other solution.
Richard Beck says it well in his blog, Experimental Theology (emphasis in original):
In the bible justice flows out of the worship of God. Spiritual revival is the prerequisite of political change.
Political and economic systems orbit spiritual values and priorities. And until those spiritual values and priorities are brought into alignment with the kingdom of God political and economic systems will be stubbornly resistant to change. People with good intentions might agree that our political and economic systems are unfair and unjust, but until we begin to live with new values nothing much will change, politically and economically speaking. As the gospels tell us, the kingdom of God begins with repentance, a spiritual change that results in a new pattern of life. And change is what no one wants to do. It’s too costly and inconvenient. And so the political and economic systems of the nations roll on unchanged. Even as we name them as unjust and oppressive.
This is why calls for social justice are often so impotent. These calls frequently ignore the deep spiritual rot that is at the root of oppression. As the bible teaches us, the root cause of oppression is idolatry, worshiping the “god of the nation,” the animating spirituality guiding our political and economic arrangements. The bible discerns the diabolical aspect of these reigning spiritualities, a religious perspective many social justice warriors lack.
Amen! Amen! Amen!
And not only are we limited to the Truth — the Truth who is Jesus — but this is a truth that the world does not want to hear.
God, Jesus, and the Spirit are not welcome in the public square. Because of the First Amendment, the government will not be able even have such a conversation – and so it will continue its humanist program of making better people with better laws – a “solution” that cannot succeed. (Obviously enough, the civil rights laws have helped in very real ways, but they’ve not solved the problem — because they can’t. Only the Spirit can change us to be like Jesus.)
If my imaginings were to come true, the church would at least have the credibility to offer Jesus as a solution. If the log were out of our eye, the suggestion that Jesus is the answer may be unacceptable to the powers and principalities, but it wouldn’t be unbelievable.
But the principalities and powers can be very jealous. They want to be the solution so they can have the loyalty of and thus power over those they’ve delivered from oppression. They will not easily let Jesus take credit.
Boil it down to the individual level. Without Jesus, how do you persuade a secular police officer to arrest, rather than shoot, a man he considers a danger to society? Fear of the law? The law already makes this illegal. Fear of being fired? Police departments and unions already consider vigilante justice wrong. The problem is not a problem of law and policy and training but a problem of the heart. You can’t have enough cameras and laws and workshops to change the heart.
But if the individual policeman sees a community made of people transformed to love and live together as one across racial and ethnic lines, maybe he’ll see the wisdom of giving up racial bigotry. But how will a heart be changed without the Spirit?
(Rom. 7:18-19 ESV) 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
(Rom. 8:13 ESV) 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
There is a rebuttal argument, of course. Let’s consider it briefly: Because the church loves its neighbors, and because the victims of illegal police shootings are our neighbors, shouldn’t we do something to help protect them from illegal police violence? That’s for the next post.
PS — One of the difficulties of having this conversation in the Churches of Christ is the denial of so many of the work of the Spirit to transform the individual Christian into the image of Christ. Without that doctrine, we really have nothing to say about racial hatred other than it’s wrong. We have no solution for it. Anyone can preach the superiority of a life built on love; only Jesus offers the Spirit as a Helper to actually do it.