I’ve actually been sitting on most of these ideas for several weeks now. Why haven’t I shared these thoughts, and why have I delayed making this post? Several reasons.
For one thing, when so many voices loudly demand that everyone who is anyone say something about a specific thing, there’s something inside of me that doesn’t want to say anything simply because I’m expected to say something. I never want to mindlessly join the chorus of voices on each and every issue that pops up simply because someone tells me I should speak.
For another thing, so many things have happened in recent days, and the 24 hour news cycle has been relentless. I’ve tried to step back and listen to as many voices as possible, which at times has felt like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Still, the book of Proverbs says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (Proverbs 18:13)
The thoughts that follow are the result of a list of ideas I’ve been working on and adding to over the last several weeks. The order does not reflect the importance or ranking of my thoughts.
- Freedom of Speech. I’m thankful to live in the United States of America, I’m thankful that the Constitution of the United States protects free speech, and I’m thankful that Americans are allowed to peaceably protest. In a time of widespread frustration, it’s worth remembering that these freedoms are historically and globally unique. In a time of widespread angst, it’s worth recognizing how remarkable this freedom is. To be clear, there is plenty of speech I don’t like, and there are plenty of protests I’ll never join. But that’s exactly why we protect speech – not for the speech that’s popular, but for the speech that’s unpopular! I’m thankful to live in a country where people are free to express their convictions and free to peaceably protest when they are upset. The most serious patriots must always defend speech with which they disagree, and the most outraged protester must always be self-aware enough to appreciate the freedom they have to peaceably protest.
- Protests and Riots. The First Amendment protects peaceable assembly, not rioting and looting. There is a world of difference in a peaceful protest and a violent riot. There is a world of difference in a peaceful march and destructive looting. While Americans must continue to value free speech – even speech with which we strongly disagree – we have every reason to expect our leaders to control rioting and looting. The burning of buildings must stop. Immediately. The destruction of property must stop. Immediately. Yes, I’ve heard people arguing that the destruction of property is nothing compared to the loss of innocent lives at the hands of “bad” cops. However, the destruction of property, looting, rioting, and burning buildings simply ends up taking attention away from the problems at hand. If you want to protest police violence and police brutality, destroying private property is not the answer – especially when that property is in the neighborhood of those who have been victims of violence. If our society is going to make any progress on race relations, our leaders must protect peaceful protests while also responding swiftly and strongly when a protest devolves into rioting and looting.
- American Sins. Clearly the United States is not without sin. While I’m thankful for the freedoms we enjoy, and while I’m thankful to live in the United States, I can also recognize the fact that our country has a spotted past – as well as a spotted present and a future that is certain to have spots and stains. Like all nations, we are a nation of sinful people who have done sinful things. At times we have even enshrined those sins in our legal code, condoning and even promoting what ought not be done. One has only to think of how the Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land, or how women were not allowed to vote for decades, or how African slaves were brought to this nation. It is worth noting that over time, our nation has “self-corrected” on many of these issues. However, we have not arrived as a nation. Today one has only to think of how unborn babies are considered as non-human and killed in the womb, or how our nation has redefined marriage and gender. While I am thankful to live in the United States, we are obviously a nation of sinful people who have done and continue to do sinful things.
- Systemic Sin. In light of recent events, many have talked about the “systemic racism” that exists in the United States. By this they mean a prevailing way of thinking and an existing social construct that favors one race over another. Many on the conservative side have bowed up against such an idea. They proudly beat the drum that all are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain rights. While I’m thankful for our founding documents that have allowed a certain measure of “self-correction” over the centuries, I also recognize that when human societies are made up of sinful human beings it is entirely possible that sinful actions become “systemic.” I think the Bible gives us examples of such systematic sin. The world before Noah was thoroughly and systemically corrupt. The men at Babel were contributing to an organized, systemic rebellion. The nation of Israel built and promoted pagan worship, and in doing so they promoted systemic idolatry. The men of the Sanhedrin who tried Jesus were clearly guilty of organized, intentional, systemic injustice. Considering our context, I see no reason why the United States could not be guilty of systemic sin, including systemic racism. We can debate the extent of systemic racism in the United States in 2020, but we must be open to the possibility that such systemic racism does in fact exist.
- Shut Down Inconsistency. There is a clear inconsistency between the strictness of state-mandated Coronavirus shut down orders compared to the permissiveness of political protests and marches. Any thinking person can recognize that if crowds are dangerous in light of Coronavirus, a crowd of protesters is not less dangerous than a church, school, or business. Like most churches, my church willingly went along with the “shut down” and did not meet corporately even though meeting is inherent to who we are as a church. By definition, churches congregate, churches assemble! Nevertheless, we followed the state requirements because churches weren’t being singled out – schools and businesses were also included in the shut down. The vast majority of churches, schools, and businesses did what the government asked them to do – we shut down in the name of social distancing! However, governments and media have been remarkably silent about the massive crowds of protestors who are not distancing. I have no doubt that if churches, schools, or businesses tried to defy the shut down orders on a similar scale, many would have been punished by the authorities and shamed by the media. No such punishment and no such shaming has taken place for the protestors who are ignoring all “distancing” rules. Some have even argued that the necessity of protesting outweighs the danger of the pandemic. Again, I am confident that no such concession would have been made for defiant churches, schools, or businesses.
- Worldview and Liturgy. It’s worth remembering that everyone has and operates out of a worldview. A worldview is a collection of assumptions, ideas, and beliefs about reality that shape the way we think about life, the way we live with other people, and the way we define right and wrong. Christians operate out of a specific worldview. So do Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists. The protests taking place today are being organized by and led by people who have a worldview, a basic set of ideas and assumptions about life. As these protests have organized massive crowds (congregations) of protesters, a certain liturgy has developed. There is chanting and singing that teaches and reinforces important ideas (not unlike a Christian congregation reciting a creed and singing hymns). There is dancing, and there is preaching. There is even a physical response like kneeling or lying down, often re-enacting meaningful events. All of these actions are essentially a liturgy that has developed out of the worldview that stands behind the protests and marches. The protests may look different than a worship service in a church, a mosque, or a synagogue, but the developing liturgy suggests a form of worship is flowing from worldview.
- The Bible and Race. In light of recent unrest, some have insisted that the Bible doesn’t recognize race. These people argue that the Bible simply views all human beings as members of the human race. I understand and agree with the idea that all human beings are created in God’s image. In fact, I think this understanding is an indispensable part of the unity people are looking for right now. This is a worldview issue, a question of anthropology, and without the biblical teaching about the imago dei we will find no true unity. On the other hand, I tend to disagree with the claim that the Bible doesn’t recognize race. Perhaps there is a conflation of “race” and “ethnicity” at the root of this question. But clearly the Bible does recognize these social constructs. God’s promise to Abraham involved making him a distinct “nation” and using him to bless all “peoples.” Israel was a distinct people who interacted with other nations, races, and ethnicities throughout the Old Testament. The New Testament recognizes Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile. The early church wrestled with tensions between Jewish believers and non-Jewish believers. The book of Revelation even recognizes “racial” or “ethnic” differences and seems to suggest that these differences will eventually magnify the glory that Jesus receives (Revelation 7:9-12).
- White Racism. Clearly racism is part of our nation’s history. Native Americans have suffered greatly at the hands of those who “settled” the United States. Slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow are not bright spots in the American story. On a personal level, I pastor a Southern Baptist Church. The Southern Baptist Convention was founded by men who supported slavery and owned slaves. These realities are undeniable parts of the American story. I think it’s obvious that these historical realities have a greater “weight” for Native Americans and African Americans than white Americans. I think it’s entirely possible that some white Americans struggle to recognize their own bias. I think it’s entirely possible that some white people struggle to see how some of these historical realities have contributed to a situation that “favors” one race over another. However, the notion that all white people are inherently and inviolably racist is preposterous. Also, the notion that only white people can be racist is ridiculous, unbiblical, and not applicable around the world. Ridiculous, because if true, the only solution seems to be some form of segregation or separation. Unbiblical, because no race has the market cornered on a particular sin (James 2:1-7). Not applicable outside of our context, because other countries have different power structures and racial makeups.
- The Authority on Race. Closely tied to the idea that white people are inherently and univocally racist is the idea that minority voices have an authoritative perspective and voice on the issues of race and ethnicity. To be clear, I’m willing to admit that white Americans have not always done a great job listening to the voices of minorities and trying to understand their experiences. However, I strongly deny the idea that any one race has an omniscient perspective on the issue of race relations. I also deny the idea that our experiences and perceptions are always an accurate measure of reality. “Feeling” a certain way about a situation may or may not correspond to the reality of that situation. In the current “conversation,” there seems to be an absolute unwillingness to question certain voices. There seems to be an absolutely unwillingness to question certain “feelings” or “perceptions.” Do we need to listen to all voices regardless of race? Absolutely. Do white people need to do a better job of listening to minority voices and trying to understand the concerns of our fellow citizens? Surely. Should we treat the voices of a certain race as authoritative and beyond questioning? No.
- Conversation or Cowering. Many have been calling for increased dialogue and conversation. As I said above, many who have not been heard desperately want their voices to be heard. This is clearly something that should happen in the United States. However, a conversation requires talking and listening. Too often our “conversations” turn into shouting matches as soon as someone offers an alternative view of reality or facts that contradict our perception of reality. The result of these shouting matches is usually public shaming, calls for boycotts and cancellations, and demands that people recant and renounce. In the end, we aren’t having dialogue or conversation. Perhaps we’ve spent too much time listening to sound-byte-debates on cable news. Perhaps we’ve all spent too much time in our alogrithm-controlled-social-media-echo-chambers. Perhaps we aren’t used to hearing perspectives that differ from our own, and we have no clue how to actually talk to people with whom we disagree. When we really need more conversation, we end up with more rage and more yelling. We demand retractions and separation when we ought to be building relationships. We say we want to have a conversation, but we really want our opponent to recant and cower.
- Patriotism and the Flag. Something interesting happened in the midst of the “debate” about gay marriage. What began as a plea for equality shifted to a demand for celebration. The LGBTQ community began by asking for the right to marry, and they insisted this right would not harm those who believed in a traditional definition of marriage. However, it didn’t take long for the LGBTQ movement to demand that everyone approve of and even celebrate gay marriage. I think something similar is happening in the “debate” about patriotism and the flag. Take Drew Brees as an example. Brees recently spoke up in defense of showing respect to the flag during the National Anthem. Many people pushed back, and Brees apologized. I don’t mention this to attack or shame Drew Brees. By all accounts he is a stand up guy who genuinely cares about other people and sacrifices for his community. I mention Brees to highlight the shift in the current “debate” about patriotism and the flag. A few months ago the debate centered around the right to protest the flag. Now the debate seems to be centered about whether or not one should even show respect for the flag. As I said above, I’ll always support free speech, even the speech with which I disagree. But free speech certainly includes the right to be proud of the United States and the right to show respect for the flag. No one is arguing that the United States is a perfect nation. But why is it suddenly unacceptable for someone like Brees to think people should show respect for the flag?
- Removing Statues. What should we do with statues and monuments that memorialize Confederate leaders? What should we do with statues and monuments that memorialize people from history with whom we strongly disagree today? One side views these statues and monuments as offensive and hurtful because they are associated with racism. The other side argues that we should learn from our history rather than erasing our history. How do we cut this knot? For starters, we need to be honest about the fact that an inanimate statue or monument is not actually hurting anyone. Offensive? Maybe. Hurtful? No. There are statues and monuments all around the United States that celebrate people and ideas I don’t respect or believe in. These statues and monuments are offensive to me personally, but they don’t hurt me. The notion that a statue or monument is an act of aggression or oppression arises from a victim mentality that is actually seeking to enact an agenda. What is that agenda? Pushing a particular worldview and political ideology. Here’s how you know this is true. If conservative Christians were to protest the statues, monuments, and symbols of gay marriage or abortion or socialism, we would be called bigots, homophobes, and fascists. There is no genuine concern to remove all statues and monuments that anyone might find offensive. Rather, there is a desire to rewrite history in an attempt to control that narrative about who America was and who American will be. Finally, we all ought to be concerned about the role of mobs in tearing down statues and defacing monuments. A community deciding to take down certain statues and monuments is one thing – and in many cases it may be the best thing and the right thing. However, a mob marching through town and destroying everything they find “offensive” and “hurtful” is a dangerous way to function as a society. Sooner or later, the mob may be coming for you.
- Social Media. Social media is one of the most bizarre and surreal parts of life in 2020. There is incredible pressure for people to post a slogan or an image every time an issue comes to the forefront of our national attention. While I’d rather see pictures of kids, pets, and food – I’m totally fine with people posting their thoughts and trying to rally people to their cause. I’m not sure many people have ever been won over by an argument on social media, but if you want to use your online “platform” to raise awareness about a certain issues, go for it. At the same time, I think we all need to step back into the real world and acknowledge that we are not the sum total of what we post on social media. We also need to acknowledge that silence – especially silence on social media – is not the same as calloused indifference. If a person doesn’t join your cause and post your slogan and share your meme, it doesn’t mean they are against you and your cause. In fact, it may just mean they are busy living in the real world. Additionally, we need to recognize that some who post the most on social media actually make the least difference in the real world. Too many confuse social media chatter for “activism”. Of course, as I write this, I’m aware of the irony at play – a blog is a form of social media and I intend to share this post on social media. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that social media is not the real world. Christians ought not be people who practice our righteousness only to be seen by others, and we ought not judge others by what they don’t post on social media. Rather than obsessing about Tweets and status updates, we ought to commit ourselves to love our actual neighbors.
- Defunding the Police. Of all the ideas and proposals that have been suggested over the last several weeks, this is by far the most ludicrous. At times the hypocrisy has been hard to take in with people posting things like “burn it down” and “bleep the police” only to call 911 when rioters approached their neighborhood or gated community. At this point the hatred directed towards police is entirely driven by mob hysteria. We all know most police are decent people trying to earn a living and protect their communities. Are there bad cops? Of course! Should bad cops be punished to the full extent of the law? Absolutely! But most police officers are not corrupt or racist. In fact, most police officers are worthy of our respect and admiration. These people risk their lives to care for others. This is a noble thing even if there are bad cops and even if good cops make tragic mistakes. Furthermore, Christians know that defunding and dismantling the police is simply not an option in light of human depravity. We’ve read the book of Judges and know what happens when people are free to do whatever is right in their own eyes. Chaos ensues, and the book of Judges testifies to this chaos with a series of tribal war lords trying to restrain the evil that breaks out at the end of the book. Christians are realists when it comes to human nature, and the doctrine of total depravity reminds us that human evil must be restrained by governments who bear the sword (Romans 13). Finally, it’s worth noting the inconsistency in the idea to “defund” the police. Many of these same people lament the failure of our public schools and constantly tell us the answer is more money, more resources, and more training. Maybe that’s the approach we ought to take with our police forces. Rather than defund them and dismantle them, maybe we ought to invest more in them and expect more from them.
- Identity Politics. The divide growing in our nation is frightening. The issues that divide us leave little middle ground for compromise. Every issue feels like a polarized dichotomy, a zero sum game. The only way for me to win is if my opponent loses, so we end up trying to destroy our political opponents to advance our own agendas. This is truly a case of the end justifying the means, and the result is a constant battle between warring factions. We try to label the other side and control the narrative to make sure that no one would ever think highly of our opponents. In this battle, everyone feels immense pressure to take sides. Our two party political system only makes this worse. Even when you don’t feel entirely at home with one party, most of us feel pressed into a choice. That choice makes us feel like we’ve compromised on some level, and it also makes us the enemy of the other side – even if we don’t see ourselves in that light. All of this political division is driven by politicians who intend to force us into categories and identities. Once you’ve taken a side, the mission moves from divide to conquer. While I think this caustic divisiveness is lamentable, I also recognize that it’s largely unavoidable in light of the issues at stake. As I said above, the issues that divide us leave little middle ground for compromise.
- Which Lives Matter. I’m approaching this question as a Christian and as a pastor. Which lives are we supposed to speak for? Do black lives matter? Do blue lives matter? Do unborn lives matter? Do all lives matter? I understand the rationale of those who want us to say without qualification or equivocation, “black lives matter.” As a Christian, I agree with that statement (although I also have concerns about that statement because of it’s association with the Black Lives Matter organization). I believe black people bear the image of God, so obviously their lives matter. I also understand the logic of speaking up specifically for the most vulnerable lives among us. At the same time I feel compelled to speak up for my friends who are police officers, and I wholeheartedly agree that blue lives matter. I also want to speak up for the most vulnerable among us an insist that unborn lives matter. Maybe we should just settle on the slogan “all lives matter?” While the statement seems beyond debate, we’re now told that saying all lives matter intentionally overlooks the most vulnerable and mistreated among us. We’re told this statement is so blatantly obvious it doesn’t need to be said, and when it is said it’s actually an assault on black lives. From a pastor’s perspective, you can’t win for losing. Whatever you say on this issue will be perceived as a slight to one group or another. Maybe we’ve reached the point where the slogans about who matters are no longer helpful because they only create more division. Maybe we need to move beyond slogans and actually treat people like they matter.
- Black Lives Matter. On this point I’m not talking about the slogan “black lives matter.” I’m talking about the organization “Black Lives Matter.” First, I’d like to point out the fact that in popular conversation it’s extremely hard to distinguish between the slogan and the organization. Just this week the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, JD Greear tried to make this distinction. He tried to give support to the idea that black lives matter while also distancing himself from and criticizing the Black Lives Matter organization. Social media followed the example of cable news and roasted Greear with sound byte criticism. Some felt like he slighted black lives, while others felt like he practically joined the Black Lives Matter organization. Whatever you think about Greear and his statement, the incident reveals just how hard it is to separate the slogan from the organization. Why does this matter? It matters because the Black Lives Matter organization strongly supports the LGBTQ agenda. One might hear the organization’s name and assume they are primarily concerned about race. However, a quick look at their website makes it clear that the Black Lives Matter organization is entirely supportive of the LGBTQ agenda. Christians find themselves with an difficult decision. While many feel pressured to say “black lives matter” without reservation and without qualification, we must ask ourselves if it is possible to make such a statement without accidentally associating with an organization that opposes a biblical view of marriage, gender, and sexuality.
- Cable News. Cable news stations can pontificate all day about being fair, balanced, honest, factual, trustworthy, and unbiased. At the end of the day, these news stations exist to make money. This money is made through advertising, which is in turn based on ratings. The higher the ratings, the more these stations can charge for advertising time. How do cable news stations get higher ratings? Three basic ways: entertainment, fear, and anger. You will tune in if you are entertained, and you will certainly tune in if you are afraid and angry. Is it any wonder that the talking heads on cable news are such alarmists and so divisive? After I watch cable news for five minutes I feel like I’m living in the middle of an apocalyptic, dystopian horror movie. Perhaps we aren’t too far off, but a strange thing happens when I disconnect from cable news and reengage with the real world. My blood pressure drops. I feel less afraid. I feel less angry. Don’t get me wrong … I plan to keep checking in on cable news, especially since this is an election year. I just hope we can check in on our favorite cable news station with an awareness that the talking heads have a financial stake in making us terrified and outraged.
- Proverbs and Wisdom. During our recent experience of a national quarantine, we should have taken the time to read through the book of Proverbs. There are so many pieces of wisdom in Proverbs that could revolutionize life in the United States if they were believed and put into practice. For example, Proverbs 14:13 says, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to believe everything we hear from the echo-chambers of social media and cable news. Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both an abomination to the LORD.” Surely this principle would revolutionize our justice system and our tendency to follow the mob and make snap judgements about people and situations. Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly a shame.” Too many of us want our voices to be heard without taking the time to listen to others. Proverbs 26:4-5 are my favorite verses in Proverbs. Verse 4 tells us to not answer a fool in his folly because in answering the fool we become like the fool. Verse 5 tells us to answer the fool in his folly because if we don’t the fool will be wise in his own eyes. Which one is it? Do we answer the fool, or not? Wisdom helps us know when to do what, and we desperately need wisdom today.
- Empathy and Listening. Recently Beth Moore – no stranger to controversy – was criticized for “liking” a Tweet that suggested Christians should not be talking during this time. The Tweet suggested that Christians wade into the protests simply to listen and understand and show empathy. The Tweet suggested that Christians not view protestors as a mission field to be reached but as voices to be heard and learned from. The Tweet suggested that Christians not take this opportunity to preach the gospel. What a foolish suggestion! Surely there is a time to speak and a time to listen. Surely there are wise ways to share the gospel and foolish ways to share the gospel. But Christian people are by nature people who talk about Jesus. We are witnesses. We have been sent. We have a commission. We have a message that offers true hope and true freedom and true unity. How can we be silent at a time like this? Every good missionary takes time to learn about his context, and every good friend is willing to sit in solidarity with those who are suffering. But to suggest that Christian people not talk about Jesus or the good news of the gospel is asking Christian people to disobedient to Jesus and to abandon who he has called us to be.
- Christian Unity. It’s true that our churches are not often marked by racial unity. It’s true that even when a church has racial diversity there is often another common cultural component that binds people together (education, socio-economics, politics). It’s true that church “planting” in the United States is often an untold story of church “splits.” Truth be told, we are often no different than the Corinthians with their factions and fighting. They divided over their favorite personalities, and they divided over socio-economics. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul called the Corinthians to pursue unity. The New Testament authors and the early church leaders had every opportunity to permit division. Instead, they always called God’s people to unity. They believed the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile had truly been torn down, and they believed our reconciliation to God also resulted in reconciliation with others. The apostles never capitulated to the human tendency to divide. 2,000 years later, we may not always experience unity in our churches, but that doesn’t mean we give up on the pursuit. It also doesn’t mean we won’t experience real unity, even if it is fleeting, incomplete, and rare. We believe the gospel is powerful. Jesus will unify his people in the end, and we believe he does it now, too!
- Blessed Are the Peacemakers. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called his disciples to live differently than the world. The world has always operated under the assumption that there would be blessing for the loudest, strongest, angriest, and most aggressive. Jesus offers a different way, a better way. According to Jesus, the truest blessing is reserved for the poor in spirit, for those who mourn, for those who are meek, for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for those who are merciful, for the pure in heart, for the peacemakers, and even for those who are persecuted and reviled for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:1-12). I certainly don’t expect secular people to live out Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount. However, I do expect God’s people to pursue this kind of living. Rather than follow along with the rage and division and self-promotion, Jesus calls his people to a better way. True blessing isn’t reserved for those who are right and who’s rightness is loud enough and convincing enough.