The Christian Response to Racism (Part 2 of 2)

In my first part, I attempted to point out how pervasive and systemic racism is in our American culture, and how it has been so from the very founding our our nation. In this part I want to address how it might be possible for us as a nation to move on, past our historic past.

In a sentence: the only way we as a culture will move past racism is to full admit that every race and people can be, and are, racist in our thinking and in our actions. Yes, in America that racism is predominately skewed toward the white race – but it is far from limited to the white race.

In my last post I stressed how critical it is for the white majority to admit our systemic, pervasive racist views. In no way am I suggesting that every white person alive today is guilty of being racist – or for personal guilt in our racist past, for that matter. What I am suggesting is that until we admit that racism can be, and often is, systemic, we will never be able to move to a truly “color neutral” society.

The flip side of that coin is that every person who falls into the “minority” category must admit that their race can be, and almost without exception is, equally racist. It does not take a sociologist to recognize the hatred espoused by the Nation of Islam toward Jews, to mention just one example, or the racism that I see and hear regarding one local tribe of Native Americans to their neighboring tribe. The blatant racism preached by many elected officials in Washington is repugnant, to be honest, but the prevailing culture among the “main stream media” is that it cannot be labeled as “racism” because it originates from an ethnic minority.

So, to be brief, racism is chiefly a human condition, and that condition is sin. Racism in the United States will always be a part of our culture so long as it is only addressed from one side. This is the “dirty little secret” that is rarely, if ever, discussed in conversations regarding racism. But I hold no hope for Martin Luther King’s dream of a nation where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as long as every action, every word, every thought, is viewed through the lens of the color of the skin of the actor, speaker, or writer.

It is at this point that I feel we as a people have failed the vision of Dr. King. Instead of attacking the concept of racism itself, we have simply shifted what it means to be racist – and I will probably be called a racist for writing that. As much as I recognize the guilt of white Americans in establishing what can only be described as systemic racism, I simply refuse to accept the accusation – either expressed or implied – that only whites can be racist.

I repeat – racism is a part of the human condition, and that is sin. Racism is a theological problem, not just a political or sociological problem. Until racism is attacked from the point of view of the cross and the gospel, it will never be adequately addressed. And it is exactly at this point that I believe so many religious leaders have failed. We think that if we can write a couple of new laws, or hold some “unity” meetings, or have a couple of marches, all will be well. Well, it is not ever going to be “well” unless and until preachers start preaching on the sin of racism – in every possible way, shape, and form. In predominately white churches those sermons are going to sound different than sermons preached in minority churches (because the visible forms of that racism are different), but it is only at the foot of the cross that we are going to be able to move into a truly color neutral society.

[By the way, I never want to live in a “color blind” society. I do not want African-Americans to give up their African roots, nor do I want to Latin Americans to give up their Latin roots, or Asians to give up their Oriental roots, or Irish Americans to give up their Irish roots. That is not what the American dream is all about – for me it is about maintaining those ethnic and social connections while at the same time blending in with every other culture. When it works, it is a beautiful thing, and I believe it is the highest of aspirations for every American.]

I must also address a phenomenon that repulses me as much as overt racism – and that is the false or pseudo guilt promoted by so many white politicians. They “claim” to be genuinely concerned for the plights of minorities, and yet with every law that is passed and every speech that is uttered, those to whom they claim sympathy are further degraded. Consider the results of programs such as welfare. What was thought to be assistance to mothers with dependent children, has instead created a permanent under-class of families with no father in the picture. Every study ever conducted has proven that children in fatherless homes fare far poorer than families in the same socio-economic class where there is a father present. Yet, to challenge the idea of welfare is considered to be the greatest of racist “sins.” Here again we see how racist whites can be – all in the guise of helping to overcome racism.

A personally vexing related question for me is this: what action, or series of actions, will constitute an adequate confession of our racist past? How many times, and in what ways, will the white majority have to admit to our sinful past? I ask this because I am honestly ignorant as to the answer. It is clear to me that a significant minority – if not a majority – of white Americans still have not come to grips with the enormity of the problem of racism. So, if that is true, what is the goal to which we should be moving? And how will we know when we get there?

I titled these couple of posts a “Christian Response to Racism” and I fear I have not proposed much of a solution. For me, the only answer is to preach Christ and him crucified. When we stand at the foot of the cross and realize the depth of our sin, we in no way will be able to judge another person simply based on the color of their skin or their nation of origin. It is because we refuse to accept the Lordship of Christ that we are racist – and to deny that is to reject the Holy Spirit who makes us all one in Christ. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are all “miserable offenders.” We can all be “blessed forgiven,” but we are all going to have to confess our guilt first.

Lord, save us from our miserable failure!

The Christian Response to Racism (Part 1 of 2)

I have often thought of broaching the subject of racism and Christianity, but I have always ultimately shied away. This was not because of a lack of interest, or because I thought the subject unimportant, but I never really felt like I had an adequate entry point to fully express my thoughts. That changed recently, and so I want to express some thoughts that I know will offend just about everyone – and I know that because these thoughts first offended me.

First, I need to acknowledge that this opening thought is not my original thinking. It was brought to my attention by an old colleague, one whose insights I trust greatly. I will personalize it, however.

It has always been somewhat of a mystery to me how the German people (as a whole, I’m generalizing) can either deny or minimize the horror of the holocaust. This is not true of every German citizen, to be sure, but even today the account of what happened to Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and other “undesirables” is largely muted in German culture. Like I said, I have always wondered about this, as it seems to me that (a) the Nazi regime was such a deviation from the norms of German society, and that (b) the present German culture is so different from that time period, that it would be cathartic for Germans to acknowledge the atrocities of that one decade and vow that it would never happen again. I can totally understand the fear that making such acknowledgment would foster copy-cats who want to defend Hitler (and this is exactly what happens!), but I have felt that once the enormity of the evil is squarely admitted, it would simply be unthinkable that any subsequent culture would want to replicate Hitler and his minions. As a whole, I think most Americans would agree. Admit the horror, recognize that Nazism was an abhorrent aberration to German culture, create the appropriate safeguards that would prevent such atrocities from occurring again, and move on.

Now that we are all on the same page, substitute “Jew” with “Black” or “African” or “Native Indian” and see how your expression changes. You see, in America the white majority has no problem admitting to the sin of Germany. But, when confronted with the reprehensible treatment of our ancestors toward ethnic minorities, all such confessionalism flies out the window. We become defensive, belligerent, dismissive, and even delusional in denying the racism that was, and in some quarters remains, systemic in our culture.

This parallel between Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 and our own American “holocaust” (the term is not perfectly identical, but comes close) is what is particularly troubling to me. If the white majority in America cannot admit to the sins of our fathers, we will never be able to admit to our own sins in regard to racism, and therefore the scourge will never be adequately removed. It is not so much that whites deny the reality of slavery, it is that the concept that whites are superior to blacks (and other ethnic minorities) is so enshrined in our legal system and in our public theology. It is, as I said, systemic, not anecdotal. The beast is not a symptom, but it is the root cause, of so much of what afflicts America today.

Consider this: there is a pining today for America to return to the glory days of the  1950s (or there-about) when God was welcome in the schools and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited with passion. Well, God may have been welcome in most white schools, but blacks were forcefully kept out of the classrooms, sometimes at the point of a rifle! We were not “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” We were divided legally by race, and justice was only for whites. But it did not stop there. Blacks were not welcome in most white churches, either. It was not just lunch counters and bathrooms that were segregated, but God’s covenant people were clearly divided along lines of color.

I cannot stress this fact enough: this was not just a matter of public opinion. This segregation had the force of law – it was enshrined in the very fabric of our legal system. Blacks could be, and were, lynched for the “crime” of following too closely or inappropriately staring at a white woman. Blacks who were arrested were tried by all white juries. It is not just that the laws were written to protect white privilege, but the implementation of those laws was so skewed to white privilege that a black person (or Indian, for that matter) had no effective recourse. It was this pervasive, systemic inequality that reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr. reacted to so passionately.

And, just as with so many Germans who choose to look past their Nazi past, it is this pervasive, systemic racism that so many white Americans choose to blithely ignore or actively seek to repress.

A common sentiment expressed today is, “Well, that may have been true 100 years ago, but I do not own any slaves, so I cannot be held responsible for my ancestors.” On one level this may be true, but who among us can honestly deny the the effects of this skewed legal system do not continue to affect American culture? Consider the inequality of inner-city schools with the same level of school in the affluent (largely white) suburbs. We excuse our behavior with the suburbs have a higher tax base, so therefore the schools have a deeper revenue source. So, who created the inequality of the tax base? Our tax tables are just another way in which white privilege is enshrined in our legal system. Scoff if you will, but the idea that “all men are created equal” in this culture is just a myth. We may be “created” equal, but the location of one’s birth – even by just a few city blocks – can have enormous consequences for how two babies are housed, educated, and treated in regard to health care and even the legal system.

I was genuinely repulsed as I sat and listened to a dear friend of mine recount how he was pulled over by a white police officer for the crime of “driving while black.” He was in the wrong neighborhood, driving a nice car, so he had to be up to no good. Why is it that black men have to tell their sons (and daughters) how to respond to police officers in ways that I will never have to explain to my daughter? That reality sickens me.

Until this reality is squarely admitted, and permanently and forcefully changed, America will never be a Christian nation. It never has been. And to argue otherwise is plain heresy.

That having been said, we in America have a foundation that will allow us to overcome our past, and to safeguard our future. It is the same safeguard that provided Germany with the strength to overcome the Nazi propaganda, had they chosen to implement it. It is the power of the gospel – the power to fully and totally submit to the grace of our Creator God. It is the power of the crucified and risen Christ. And as far as humans are concerned, it begins with an honest confession that our forefathers have sinned, and we share in that sin to the extent that we perpetuate the systemic sin that they created. The question is, will we have the courage to allow that power to change us?

In part 2, I will examine a corollary issue related to this post. But, I think I have said enough for today.

Rush Limbaugh and the Stunning Collapse of Trumptopia

A little background here. I have been an occasional listener of Rush Limbaugh for years. At first I thought he was some kind of guru or swami. Over time I came to realize he is just a really good entertainer with a keen eye for politics. The title of my page, “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of one of his books, something along the lines of undeniable truths for life. I am not a regular listener, much less a devoted ditto-head. He is a brilliant satirist, and for years he was the only voice that challenged what is now referred to as the “main stream media” – and he has been reviled for it.

But the other day I heard him say things I would never, ever, have expected him to say. When President Trump signed the “Omnibus Spending Act of 2018” I thought Limbaugh was going to bust a gasket. He was absolutely apoplectic – angry, upset, disturbed, irked. I don’t think he agreed with Trump at all.

Which is, to put it mildly, hysterical. I have never heard Limbaugh campaign for anyone more devoutly than he campaigned for Trump – even during the primaries. He claims not to take sides during primaries, but even my occasional listening proved to me that his shows were “all Trump, all the time.” I heard him say on more than one occasion that Trump was not a conservative, but he was willing to overlook that reality for the simple reason that Trump stuck his finger in the eye of the Washington “establishment,” and for Limbaugh that was good enough. And, of course, after the primaries it did not matter who the Republican candidate was, the mission of the day was to make sure Clinton #2 was not elected.

So, returning to Trump signing this 1.3 trillion dollar budget – one that Limbaugh swears was created by the “establishment” in order to destroy Trump. I just have one question – why is Limbaugh, and all of his loyal ditto-heads, upset, or even shocked? They knew that Trump was not a fiscal, nor an ethical, conservative. They knew he made decisions based on what he thought was best for himself. They knew he loved to be provocative and to stick his finger in other peoples’ eyes. What they did not expect is that he would do it to them! They expected a non-conservative, free-wheeling and dealing, ethical opportunist would remain faithful to them and their agenda, and when he did not, they did not know how to handle it.

All of which just drives me deeper into the wisdom of David Lipscomb, and more recently, Glen Stassen. Lipscomb lived during the presidency of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of American presidents. And he also lived during one of the greatest, if not the greatest, catastrophes to ever befall this nation. Through it all he remained steadfast in his conviction that it was only to God and to God’s kingdom that one should pledge allegiance. For Lipscomb a smaller government, or a more constitutionally conservative government, or a more Christian government, was not the solution to mankind’s problem – government itself was mankind’s problem! A physical government might be necessary, but it was an evil necessity, one that should be steadfastly ignored beyond what it was biblically permitted to demand (and for Lipscomb, that was basically only taxes).

Glen Stassen guided me in an individual study of the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a result of that study I was introduced to a new, and for me, profound understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Stassen took an exegetical observation made by W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison and gave it hermeneutical “legs” on which to stand. The observation is that Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you,” far from being just a disjointed and unconnected saying, is actually a central teaching regarding a disciple’s commitment to God and God’s kingdom. If we sell ourselves, and our allegiance, for a mess of political slop, we should not be surprised when the political dogs and pigs turn around and bite us.

Which is, precisely true to Jesus’s words, exactly what has happened to the followers of Trumptopia.

I have been utterly dumbfounded by the way certain Christians have turned a blind eye to Trump and his ethical and moral collapses. I remember the “moral majority” screaming for then President Clinton’s impeachment over his sexual misconduct and his lies. Now we are told sexual misconduct is not a major factor in whether a man should remain president – only that he promote our conservative agenda.

Except that President Trump is not now, has never been, and most likely will never be, either fiscally nor morally conservative.

When we cast what is holy and precious (our physical and spiritual allegiance) into a political pig sty, can we be surprised that the residents of that sty turn and attack us?

With each passing day I am becoming more and more convinced that the Sermon on the Mount speaks directly to the disciple’s relationship to every aspect of his or her culture – and that includes the government. Lipscomb was absolutely correct. Government may be necessary, but it is an evil necessity.

The disciple’s allegiance is to God, and to God’s kingdom. If we forget that, or if we reject that, we have no one to blame but ourselves when the dogs and pigs come growling.

Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Reggie L. Williams)

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, Reggie L. Williams (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) 170 pages including extensive endnotes.

Through the years I have developed somewhat of a credo for my reading/education: I cannot learn anything from someone with whom I agree 100%. I may be encouraged, challenged, edified, reminded, or entertained, but very, very, rarely can I be educated. When I want to learn something, I must reach outside my circle of experience and understanding. In terms of fulfilling that credo, Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

I first came to meet Dr. Williams in a seminar hosted by Wheaton College on the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and culture in April, 2012. I was finishing up my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and much to my joy and everlasting gratitude, Fuller allowed me to create a guided study of the theology of Bonhoeffer. The professor assigned to guide me in this study was Dr. Glen Stassen who was a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller, and a devoted Bonhoeffer scholar. Dr. Williams completed his Ph.D. under Dr. Stassen, so in an academic sort of way there were a number of stars that were aligning themselves that would finally come together during this seminar.

Dr. Williams’ topic at the seminar was on the impact of the year Bonhoeffer spent in New York, 1930-31, and in particular, his exposure to the world of Black Christianity in Harlem. If you are interested in Bonhoeffer, you can read all the seminar’s lectures in the book, Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2013). If you want to be fully educated about Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, you need to read Williams’ complete exposition in this volume, listed above.

To be perfectly honest, reading this book was difficult for me. I am, to a very large extent, the product of the very protected and dominating white culture that Williams identifies in this book as the evil that Bonhoeffer witnessed in Harlem. Reading what Bonhoeffer witnessed during his year in New York was not pleasant. (Note: I had read Bonhoeffer’s account numerous times, but reading the same words through the eyes of Dr. Williams was enlightening – in a very disturbing sense. I had read Bonhoeffer’s words, but through Dr. Williams I actually felt them. It was, as I said, disturbing.)

To provide an exhaustive review of this book would require much more space than I typically aim for in these blog posts. Suffice it to say that Dr. Williams writes as an insider to the injustice Bonhoeffer identified in his work at Abyssinian. While this is truly an academic product, it is also a labor of love – and a gripping account of Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem. Williams provides a lucid explanation of the “Black Christ” to whom Bonhoeffer would have been exposed to in Harlem, the economic and cultural background of the Harlem Renaissance, and draws a clear line of contact between that experience and Bonhoeffer’s work with and for the hated Jewish community in Nazi Germany.

This book would be an extremely valuable purchase if you are interested in: Bonhoeffer and his life; Black theology and its impact not only on Bonhoeffer, but also later 20th century theology; racism, ethics, and/or the role of the gospel of Christ in confronting culture in any age. My only criticism of the book is that it tends to read in somewhat of a stilted manner, and not at all like the wonderful manner in which Dr. Williams speaks.

I actually was able to speak to Dr. Williams following his presentation at Wheaton. I was desperately seeking a topic for my dissertation, and somehow I managed to catch Dr. Williams when he was not the center of a huge group of people (NOT an easy task!) I explained my situation as hurriedly as I could, and to my great surprise and pleasure, Dr. Williams took a number of minutes to question me about what I had studied, what I was attempting to accomplish, and what ideas I already had. In about 15 minutes I felt an inviting warmth and welcome that touched me deeply. I know that experience has influenced my reception of Dr. Williams’ book – and so I want to stress again – this book identifies the racial divide that continues to trouble the Lord’s church. If you are unwilling, or unable, to look in the mirror and examine your own life in light of this reality, do not bother buying or reading this book. If you are willing, and if you can invest in the effort to examine your own ideological weaknesses, then I highly recommend this book.

Luke 22:35-38

In the seemingly never-ending debate over guns and gun ownership and how to curb gun violence, one passage of Scripture keeps showing up. There are some remarkable aspects to this passage, and I have been working for some time on how to properly interpret and apply the passage. I have come to the conclusion that there is one interpretation that I emphatically reject, one interpretation that makes sense on one level, but which I ultimately conclude is not satisfactory, and then I have my own tentative (as much as I can be tentative) interpretation.

To begin, let us put the passage before us:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered wit the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment. And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38, ESV)

Let me begin with the interpretation that I flatly reject. It has been suggested that this passage provides clear support for the concept of arming oneself to the teeth for the purpose of self-protection. I simply cannot accept that interpretation for this passage. I have a number of reasons for making that statement.

  1. This teaching of Jesus is only found in one gospel, and in only one place. I am exceedingly nervous about single-text theology, and anytime anyone wants to build a huge platform on one single text I get suspicious – even if I am leaning toward accepting the conclusion of what is being discussed.
  2. In regard to the above point, when single-text interpretation is necessary, a person must always ask, “Is there (or are there) any text(s) that teach the opposite of what I believe this text is teaching?” In this case I believe there is not just one, but actually a number, of texts that refute the above interpretation. (1) Matthew 5:39, which the ESV translates as “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil…” That phrase is better translated, “Do not resist by evil means*.” Jesus clearly resisted evil people! The apostles resisted evil people, and Christians of all generations have resisted evil people in their world. But Jesus never used the evil tactics of the individuals he was resisting – same with the disciples. Using a sword to defeat a sword would be in clear violation of Matthew 5:39. (2)  Matthew 26:52 – “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” If Jesus wanted his disciples to be armed, he certainly prohibited the use of those weapons. (3) John 18:36 – “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Swords are weapons to defend worldly kingdoms – either personal or national. Jesus repudiated the idea that his kingdom was this-worldly. So there are actually a number of passages that contradict the interpretation that Jesus was condoning the use of weapons for self-protection.
  3. The book of Acts, the letters of Paul, James, and Peter, and subsequent church history demonstrate the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which the disciples of Christ submitted to abuse and even martyrdom rather than defend themselves with offensive weapons.

So, if Jesus was not condoning the use of weapons for self-defense, what was he doing? I now turn to the interpretation that at least on one level makes sense, but on further reflection just does not convince me. That is that Jesus was making sure there was at least one sword among the eleven remaining disciples so that the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 could be fulfilled. After all, isn’t this the interpretation that Jesus himself provided? Well, yes and no.

First, there is no indication anywhere in any of the gospels – especially Luke – that the disciples were included in the arrest or trial of Jesus. How could he be “numbered with the transgressors” if the disciples were not considered to be “transgressors”? Second, consider the context of the saying – it was well after dark on the night of one of the highest feast days of the Jews. Where in the world would any of them be able to “sell his cloak and buy a sword?” But if the saying was meant to be in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 it would have to be fulfilled that night – Jesus could hardly be considered to be “numbered with the transgressors” if his disciples went out and bought a bunch of swords weeks or even days after his death. And, just to carry that thought one step further – where exactly were they supposed to by such swords? The Romans? Jewish zealots? The local pawn shop? Third, the events of the evening flatly contradict the idea that Jesus was arrested for insurrection. No charge of armed rebellion was brought against Jesus – treason yes (before Pilate), but armed rebellion, no. In fact, the attempt to do so strikes me like that of a Monty Python skit:

Accuser – “This man is an anarchist. His slave chopped off the ear of your servant!”
Chief Priest (examining the ear of his servant) – “He did?”
Accuser – “. . . well, yes, . . . but then this terrorist put it back on .”
Chief Priest – “Thanks a lot!”

It just seems to me that Luke is far too precise an author to make these kinds of factual, and even theological, mistakes. So, while I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus was reminding his disciples of the prophecy of Isaiah 53, I just do not think he was using his disciples as the “transgressors” to which the prophecy referred. So, if not option number two, is there a third choice? I believe there is.

I believe that this exchange between Jesus and his disciples was recorded by Luke to demonstrate (1) Jesus’s acceptance of his immediate fate, and (2) the disciples continued misunderstanding of not only Old Covenant prophecy, but Jesus’s own explicit teaching.

I have already said that I do not believe Jesus was somehow surrendering his disciples to use the weapons of the world to defend themselves. In point of fact, in John 15-16 Jesus makes it clear that when the Holy Spirit would be given to the disciples, they would be better armed and protected than even when he, Jesus, was present with them. I reject the idea that the “transgressors” with whom Jesus was to be numbered were the disciples – I believe that the two thieves/robbers with whom Jesus was crucified fulfilled Isaiah 53. If those two options are removed, and if we grant that Luke was a precise and deliberate author (guided by the Holy Spirit, no less) then we have to explore the idea that what Luke recorded in 22:35-38 was an ironic conversation, one that the disciples utterly, completely, misunderstood.

As one last, but I believe significant, bit of evidence, I suggest that Jesus’s response – “It is enough” has enough biblical background to support this interpretation. Consider Genesis 45:28, Deuteronomy 3:26, 1 Kings 19:4, 1 Chronicles 21:15. In these texts the expression is used as a command to stop the conversation – a point of absurdity had been reached and there was no sense in continuing any further. The disciples response, “Looky here, Jesus, we have two swords!” demonstrated their lack of understanding. Jesus just put a stop to the conversation. It was as if saying, “I give up. I’m not even going to try to explain.”

There are many passages of Scripture that we want to turn to as a “proof text” to defend what we already want to believe. When that occurs we must be extraordinarily careful that we slow down, apply all of our tools of exegesis and hermeneutics, and especially consider if there are other passages that suggest an alternate interpretation. I believe Luke 22:35-38 provides such an example. I freely admit my interpretation may be in error, and so in conclusion I would simply suggest that it is far better in the long run to say, “I do not know” what a passage means, and be absolutely correct, than to defend interpretations that are absolutely wrong.

*I am indebted to Glen Stassen for this insight. See Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, p. 137-138, 186.

Of God and Guns

Public disclaimer #1 – I do not generally like to write on specifically political issues. Sometimes I will, but to the best of my ability I try to restrict myself to the point where politics intersects with theology. This is a theological blog, not a political one. However, political discussions often do intersect with theology, and when and where that occurs I feel justified to offer my opinion.

Public disclaimer #2 – I own a number of firearms myself. I rarely shoot them anymore, first because of the price of ammunition, and second because I do not have a place where I feel comfortable shooting. I hate professional “shooting ranges,” and would much rather shoot at a knot on a log or a coffee can sitting on a rock. The one gun I loved the most was a muzzle-loading rifle, and it was just a kick in the pants to shoot. However, it was equally a pain in the pants to clean up afterward.

With those two disclaimers acknowledged, I offer the following:

In the immediate aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the national conversation turned to the debate over the right of citizens to own weapons such as was used in the shooting, and to a lesser degree, the kind of ammunition that was used in the shooting. The responses were so typical as to be caricatures – the far left pushing for the banning of all firearms, the far right suggesting that every person (or at least, school teachers) be required to carry weapons. There is an increasing middle ground – with variations of the two extreme positions being suggested.

While having my own opinion about gun ownership, I want to state unequivocally that neither extreme presents a realistic solution to the problem of gun violence in the United States. The call to ban all weapons is simply ludicrous – far too many people use guns for sport shooting or hunting. Our system of justice does not allow for the confiscation of anything that is both legal and harmless, without clear and convincing proof that such an object is inherently dangerous. The undeniable evidence is that a gun, in and of itself, is not a dangerous object. It clearly can be used, and is used, in dangerous ways, but a gun properly used is no more dangerous than a vehicle – or most medicines for that matter.

However, and here is where my theological brain kicks in, the extreme promoted by the National Rifle Association is just as erroneous as the extreme calling for the banning of all weapons. I offer three succinct reasons for this conclusion:

  1. The NRA and many adherents argue that gun ownership is necessary in order for citizens to protect themselves from the government. However, the 2nd Amendment was ratified when virtually every firearm (private or military) was of flint-lock construction. Each round had to be carefully loaded from the end of the muzzle, and the firing mechanism depended upon a hammer hitting a small piece of flint, which would then create a spark that was directed to a small pan of gunpowder, which would then ignite the powder that had been carefully loaded into the muzzle of the gun. Each “reload” took quite a bit of time, and if done too quickly, could result in some fairly significant damage if the powder was poured down a barrel that still had a smoldering spark. And – this is the kicker – for many years there was no “military grade” weapons. There was no “army.” The military was comprised of state militias, and each man brought his own rifle to fight with. Even as late as the Civil War, many soldiers used their own gun, not a government issued weapon (that did quickly change, however, during the course of the war). If the NRA wants to go up against today’s highly trained and expertly equipped army with a bunch of shotguns and deer rifles, be my guest. To equate today’s weapons to a 17th or 18th century muzzle-loader is simply to argue from false pretenses -and in my way of thinking that is to lie. If the NRA wants to defend firearm ownership based on 17th century technology and military practices – then fine, let them restrict gun ownership to flintlocks – and not even percussion cap muzzle-loaders.
  2. Conspicuously absent from most, if not all, arguments defending the unrestricted use of firearms, is Paul’s message to the Roman Christians in Romans 13. Let’s just be blunt here: there is no support for armed rebellion against the government in Romans 13. The American Revolution was, in terms of Paul’s teaching, completely unjustified. That really is a hard pill to swallow if you enjoy the fruit of the revolution as much as I do. But – the truth is sometimes hard medicine. The founding fathers had no scriptural right to take up arms against England – and in fact the Declaration of Independence makes no such claim. The call to become independence from the King of England is based entirely upon reasons founded in the Enlightenment, not the Bible.
  3. The most egregious claim made by the leader of the NRA is that the right to “bear arms” is a right granted, not by any human government, but by God himself. This is just so scandalously wrong – and profoundly heretical. Nowhere in God’s word is there any defense of gun ownership. It is plainly and unequivocally an act of government that grants its citizens the “right to bear arms.” Any who agree with the NRA in this regard have no knowledge of either the Bible nor the Constitution. It is a shameful thought to even consider.

As I said above – I consider myself a responsible gun owner. I have hunted in the past (although comically unsuccessful), I have some guns that are deeply special to me, and given the right circumstances, I do love to shoot them. My plea is that those who share my convictions about the Bible and about responsible gun ownership will think long and hard and deep and careful about the defenses we present to justify our ownership and use of such guns. In my opinion, there simply is no justifiable reason to own a weapon whose designed purpose is to kill people, and to kill a large number of people quickly. Even if such a weapon is justifiably only used for sport (target) shooting, there is absolutely no reason for the availability of ammunition so powerful that it can penetrate a kevlar (bullet-proof) vest worn by law enforcement officers. To categorically defend the use of such guns and ammunition is to reject the sanctity of human life.

Dear Christians, we can do, we must do, so much better. There is room in this debate for the passionate defense of our cherished freedoms, but there is also room for the realization that far too many people are being murdered by people using weapons that have no other purpose than to destroy the life of God’s most special creation – another human being.

An Essay

“On the Moral Condition of the United States, and the Social and Political Pressures which Prevent it from Improving.”

After yet another example of mass-murder I believe it would be safe to say that there is no one in the United States who would deny there is a serious, and perhaps even systemic, moral problem in the United States. Yet, in spite of this virtually universal acceptance of the reality of the problem, there is an equally universal lack of understanding of the cause of the problem, let alone how to repair the problem. Solutions are usually presented along the lines of liberal / conservative; Democrat / Republican, but even within these disparate and hostile camps there is not much agreement. What follows is obviously just one person’s opinion, but I also believe it to be based on solid theological and sociological foundations.

The root source of our moral collapse in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is the Constitution of the United States, and the closely related document, the Bill of Rights. Designed to be a hedge against the totalitarian regimes of the dictatorships of Europe, these documents enshrined the basic tenets of secular humanism and rationalism, both held in check by the veneer of a “Christian” worldview. That is to say, in both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the individual human is the ultimate reality; but the documents are so infused with deistic, and intentionally latent Christian, language that the conservative nature of the primarily Christian culture managed to subdue what we can now see is the inevitable outcome of these documents.

When the Constitution and related founding documents are read through the lens of at least a formally “Christian” understanding, the pervasive individualism and rationalism are muted. The deistic “creator” of the Bill of Rights is naturally assumed to be the Creating and Redeeming God of the Old and New Testament. “All men are created equal” easily becomes “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” What is so quickly overlooked is that in 1776, slaves of any race were not considered to be fully human, therefore not “men.” Neither, it should be pointed out, were women, who were denied the freedom to vote. But, while the documents themselves were not Christian, those who interpreted them were at least nominally Christian, and the force of biblical morality gave the documents at least an appearance of divine approval.

All of this evaporated when the United States shed the illusion of being a Christian nation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In the new millennium the ability of biblical morality to restrict the inevitable results of the secular humanism disappeared. Now we can clearly see the fault lines of the founding documents of our country. When the individual is the supreme and final judge of morality – of even such basic human characteristics as his/her gender – why is is it a surprise that such a human can wantonly kill dozens of other citizens because of a real or perceived slight in his or her childhood? When the power of a community to discipline – and even physically remove such a person through capital punishment – is removed, there is no recourse for that community to discipline such deviant behavior. Even worse, when the fruit of secular humanism fully ripens, even the desire for such discipline evaporates. This is not a hypothetical statement. Even today there are apologists who speak for the monsters who murder children in their school rooms, suggesting that it is the very idea of communal boundaries that explains such deviant behavior (“he can’t be held responsible – he was abused/bullied/repressed”).

There are those who suggest that what is needed to reverse this trend is to re-establish a Christian identity for the United States. I simply do not see that cat crawling back into the bag. There is simply too much political and sociological pressure to maintain the hegemony of the individual to allow that to happen. In other words, we have become what the founders of our country destined us to become, even though they would be horrified to know what became of their grand experiment in human governance. We can argue until the cows come home by themselves about whether the Constitution is a living or dead document, about a literalist or a dynamic interpretation of the law, or of a dozen more questions. But until we understand and accept that the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, are simply human documents, and display all the frailty of every other human document, we will never have the ability to overcome the trajectory of our increasingly narcissistic and violent culture.

There are, of course, a number of issues that relate tangentially to this question: our seemingly pathological love affair with increasingly powerful weapons of personal destruction, our equally pathological unwillingness to effectively enforce laws which, at least theoretically, could circumvent some instances of mass-murder, and our innate refusal to accept any responsibility for our own feelings of anger and hate.

We are, of a certainty, all fallen human beings.

Is there a political solution? Perhaps, but as I see it that would involve a new  constitutional convention in which the existing Constitution would have to be radically altered to give the community (whether it be the nation, the state, or each community) far more authority that it currently has (basically, the justice system would have to be created from scratch, and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” would have to be replaced with a concept of justice as a pure and impartial search for truth). Frankly this is a ridiculous fantasy, as in, it just is not going to happen.

So, is there a religious, or better yet, a faith solution? Yes, and it is here that I revert to my understanding of Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, and many others. Their view of the world was decidedly eschatological, and some would say apocalyptic. They knew, or at least believed, that the thoughts and plans of mankind were only evil, and that humans were not going to think or legislate themselves out of the mess that they thought and legislated themselves into. In sharp distinction from the millennial optimism of Alexander Campbell, they believed that all human governments were, and are, inherently opposed to God’s rule, and Christians should in no way, shape, or  form, put their trust in such systems. In the words of Jesus, Christians are not to cast their pearls before the swine of secular government, whether it be a monarchy or a democracy. In the face of such hostile governments what is a Christian to do? Exactly what the New Testament taught: pray for such governments in that they allow for peaceful existence, pay whatever taxes or dues are mandated by such governments, and beyond that to love the Lord your God and serve Christ’s church with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. This meant feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the poor and imprisoned, and striving in every way possible to demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. Imagine what would happen if every Christian church believed, and acted, as if God, and not the government, is in charge. If Christians do not believe it, why should the world?

The solution to our narcissistic, and increasingly violent, culture is not to be found in the passage of more laws. It is not to be found in the proliferation of more, and more powerful, weapons. It is not to be found in turning our Constitution into an idol. The solution to this problem is to be found in the crushing realization that we cannot solve this problem. We are the problem, and until we are transformed into the image of Christ, the problem will never be solved.