The events unfolding in Minneapolis and other cities around the country this week in response to the death of George Floyd, and following on the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have reignited arguments over racism and justice in our society. As we have seen before, while these debates will capture our attention for a brief intensity, all too quickly we will return to our “regularly scheduled programming”…until the next time. That is to say, we as a people are quick to forget, and this goes for both our recent history as well as our deeper history. Scripture frequently enjoins us to “remember” and so in that vein, I would like to call to our remembrance some of our story that I believe will shed light on our present strife.
Before I entered seminary, I pursued a career in history and realized that my teenage hobby (yes I was a nerd) was a powerful tool for understanding the world around me and not just useful for keeping up on “Jeopardy”. The reason is that studying the past can reveal the cause-and-effect chain of events that created the present we currently inhabit. Following my foray into history, I completed a seminary degree and realized that the gospel that proclaims the possibility of my individual salvation also proclaims a reclamation and restoration of this fallen world with all of its systems and institutions by Jesus when he establishes the Kingdom of God. This means the mission of the church is not just about saving individual souls, but about testifying to the redemption of societies, institutions, and cultures.
Remember: God Has Always Cared About Systemic Injustice and Abuse of Power
At this point, I know some of you will be concerned that I am pursuing a “social justice” agenda that distracts from the gospel. Let me be clear that I am not doing that. I am pursuing a return to a gospel that is not so distracted by a focus on individual spirituality that it is distracted from issues of social justice that are central to its work. When God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, it was a response to systemic injustice. God’s redemption had as its focal point the giving of a law that created a standard for a just society for the people to establish. When the people failed to adhere to that standard, a monarchy was instituted to establish justice and when the kings failed to uphold it, prophets were sent to decry the injustice they saw. Often the prophets were calling people to account not for things they had personally done, but things which their society had done around them or which previous generations had done. When the prophets were killed by the kings and their religious-political establishment, God ended the existence of Israel as a political entity in exile but promised to establish a new kingdom under a true “Messiah” (anointed one).
On the eve of the appearance of that Messiah, John came proclaiming repentance and once again confronted those in power, kings and priests, with their exploitation of the people based in part on their ethnic identity (“do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’”) and called tax collectors and soldiers to cease their abuse of power as a condition of their baptism. Then when Jesus appeared on the scene he echoed John’s message of repentance and proclaimed that his kingdom was good news for the poor, the prisoner, the blind and the oppressed. In his ministry he consistently pushed against the powerful (priests and kings) and was ultimately killed because after his demonstration against systematized extortion in the temple, they feared losing “their place and their nation”. The subsequent history of the early church shows a concern for justice and equity and a pursuit of unity and equality between Jews and Gentiles that had never been seen before, as a hallmark of the effectiveness of Jesus’ work on the cross.
So the gospel speaks consistently and directly to societal and systemic ills and injustices with the redemptive power of the cross and the resurrection. Such ills and injustices do not arise overnight but are the product of histories. So for instance, Hitler did not create anti-semitism in Germany and persuade otherwise justice-minded people to slaughter 6 million of their neighbors. He built on centuries of prejudice, hate and injustice. Likewise, when people of color in America experience injustice, it is not an isolated incident of lone racists, it is the residue of a legacy that has not been dealt with.
If we would see an end to these events, we must remember and deal redemptively with our past. That begins with telling the truth about it. As someone who grew up in the white evangelical church, I have come to realize that I was not always told the whole truth about this country’s past. So let me briefly recount some of the salient points as it pertains to what we see taking place around us today.
Remember: Our Global and National History Is Stained
Over 500 years ago the first Europeans arrived in North and South America with a belief, fully endorsed by the church, that they were permitted by God to lay claim to any lands inhabited by non-Christians. Over the subsequent 3 centuries, all of these two continents were under the control of various European monarchs as colonies to be exploited for the good of the mother countries in Europe. The original inhabitants were slaughtered, enslaved, pushed aside onto barely inhabitable lands, or, most commonly, died of disease brought by the Europeans. In any other context we would call this unjust conquest and genocide. In our history books it is the “age of exploration and colonization”.
With the demise of the native populations, Europeans began kidnapping and bringing Africans to their American colonies to provide labor. Over the 300 years of the Atlantic slave trade, an estimated 12 million Africans were kidnapped and put aboard slave ships. Ten percent of them perished on the journey and the other 10 million served as slaves on plantations from Argentina to Delaware. They were classified as chattel and could be bought or sold at a whim, any children born to them were also property of their owners and there were few laws governing their treatment and even fewer that were enforced. Again, all of this was with the church misusing Scripture to justify these practices.
When Britain’s colonies secured independence (following a war that was precipitated by rioting against unjust British laws and policies that led to martial law and armed rebellion), they enshrined in their founding documents a racial caste system in which non-whites counted as 3/5 of a person and indigenous peoples counted not at all. Slavery persisted, and native Americans saw more and more of their lands taken as the U.S. expanded, conquering and acquiring territory through war and purchase until it reached the Pacific Ocean. This was in pursuit of what was termed "Manifest Destiny" an idea that often had religious overtones and was seen as a divine mission that America was pursuing as part of God's work.
While slavery ended following the Civil War, it was replaced by an unjust economic and legal system (known as Jim Crow) that eventually prompted 6 million African-Americans to migrate to the North and West between 1915 and 1970. It has been observed that migration is the last desperate recourse of people experiencing hardship. These were refugees within our own borders. The socially sanctioned violence of lynching propped up the economic and legal system and resulted in at least 4,000 public murders between 1880-1940. Upon arriving in cities in the North and West, riots of white people against their arrival were common. Of special note are the Tulsa riots of May 31-June 1, 1921 in which black residents and businesses were attacked by white mobs on the ground and from the air resulting in dozens of deaths, thousands injured and 35 city blocks of what had been known as “Black Wall Street” being destroyed.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s sought to address these injustices and saw some legislation passed, but was often controversial and either ignored or outright opposed by white churches. In the minds of many white people, this is where the story ends. Laws were passed that assured African-Americans of their rights, so the problem had supposedly been solved. Any racism present today is in individual hearts and cannot be attributed to the system and certainly cannot have anything to do with me. Yet in spite of the legislation of the 1960s, African-Americans continue to experience drastically different outcomes economically and in the legal system. Metrics like home ownership, unemployment and sentencing and incarceration rates are staggeringly disproportionate in favor of whites.
When I ask why this is, there are certainly policy components that must be considered. But given what I see in Scripture and as I consider our history, there is striking reality that I am confronted with. Racism is a deeply embedded national and generational sin of which our country has been guilty. It has never repented in any meaningful way or acknowledged the scandal that this sin represents. There is a spiritual root to our current strife that must be addressed. If there is doubt that this is the case, consider a few things. We have a national monument in our nation’s capital to mark Germany’s crime of the Holocaust. It is a deeply moving experience to visit it and to confront the horror of that unspeakable outrage. Yet we have no national monument anywhere to the equally unspeakable horrors that have been visited on Native Americans or African-Americans by our forebears. Consider also, the flag that was a symbol of armed rebellion against the government is accorded honor in many parts of the country, even until recently flying over the Capitols of some states. Furthermore, three states still observe “Robert E. Lee Day” on the same day as MLK Day, celebrating as a hero someone who any rational person would have to consider as a traitor, leading an armed rebellion against the government. Meanwhile, when athletes symbolically protested police brutality against African-Americans by kneeling during the national anthem, they were derided as unpatriotic.
Clearly, we have not reckoned adequately with our history when these realities exist side by side.
I am not suggesting that erecting a national monument would solve our struggles related to the sin of racism in this country. Nor am I in a position to call on Congress to commission such a project, although I would certainly approve of them doing it. My point is that such a monument would reflect a nation that had reckoned with its past in a serious and meaningful way. We memorialize what matters to us and what we memorialize speaks volumes about us as a people. The people of God throughout the Old Testament, when they experienced God’s redemptive acts, or dealt with national sin, often built monuments to remember the occasion throughout their generations.
Remember: The Church Is (or Should Be) The Monument
What I am suggesting is that the church itself is designed to be a monument to remember the redemptive work of God in Christ and to showcase that sin has been dealt with. The New Testament speaks of the church as a temple being built to the glory of God. Specifically, in Ephesians Paul says that the existence of a church, being made up of reconciled Jews and Gentiles, serves as a witness to the “powers and principalities” that the work of God in Christ has undone the systems that held humans in bondage to hatred and violence.
So the question is, does the church, as presently constituted in America, bear witness to that reality? I would answer that it does not.
So I am suggesting that the church strive to become such a monument to grace. We can, by God’s spirit, deal truthfully with our past, no longer forgetting our national sins, but bringing them into the light so that they no longer have dominion over us. We can, by God’s power, see a church emerge that is united by faith, rather than divided by race. This is not just about where we attend on Sunday, but who we identify with and listen to. In God’s view there is a single church in America (and indeed the world). Who are the historic African-American Christian figures you are aware of or have learned from? If we know of Edwards and Finney and Graham, are we equally acquainted with Richard Allen (founder of the AME church), Sojourner Truth (Methodist abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights), and William Seymour (leader of the Azusa Street revivals)? Who are the spiritual siblings of color we are listening to and learning from in fellowship today?
We, the church, are a people formed by the one who came proclaiming a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Repentance means agreeing with God about our rebellions and crimes against the just society we are meant to live in in God’s world and turning from them to seek the good of our neighbors. Until our nation can confront its past, seeking God’s forgiveness and renewal, we will continue to see events like these unfold.
As a church we need to remember, call our nation to remembrance, and experience God’s redemption that will leave us as a monument to his grace.
If you are curious to learn more, here are some resources I have found helpful:
There is no question at this point that we are living through a calamity that will be more than a footnote in history books over the next several decades at least. The scope of the calamity centers certainly on the COVID-19 virus, the lives it has taken and the health impacts that have been felt around the globe. Additionally though, it has had vast economic impacts that would accompany any pandemic, but that were made more pronounced by extended lockdowns in many countries, including our own. Additionally, those health and economic impacts exposed inequities in American society as communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the virus, due in large part to pre-existing gaps in health care access among other systemic factors. The lockdowns added another kind of social strife to the pandemic’s list of impacts as they exposed and exacerbated existing divisions within societies and especially in American political culture. Further, it has highlighted, both globally and nationally, the disparities of wealth as the ability to socially distance, work from home, engage in remote education, etc. are certainly not equally feasible, based largely on income and net worth. All of this is to say nothing about the mental, emotional and spiritual toll that the isolation that physical distancing, the inability to gather, the limited ways we are able to serve our neighbors through our work, etc. have taken on us as human beings. Without a doubt, this is a calamity that we are living through. How are we, as Christians, to think about and respond to such a situation? Allow me to offer some thoughts.
First, as followers of Christ, our greatest responsibility is to make much of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through word and deed. In these days, our words and deeds are in many ways more visible than at others, so we should always be asking: does this choice, this tweet, meme or post, this action, exalt and adorn the gospel, or detract from it? This singular focus should inform our every move as believers.
Secondly, as those whose hope in Jesus is secure, we should avoid two extremes. On the one hand, we must never allow panic, irrational fear, or outrage define our response to circumstances that threaten our lives. We await the coming of the Kingdom which is unshakable and so we should not be shaken in the present. On the other hand, we must never allow that hope to make us indifferent to our own suffering, much less to the suffering of others. Scripture is clear that suffering and death are a feature of this present fallen world because of sin. Jesus died to defeat sin, suffering and death, so they are not intrinsically good or helpful things that we should think of as anything other than an assault on God’s good design. In other words (and to borrow a very tired cliche), we must not be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.
Thirdly, avoiding those two extremes allows us to minister uniquely to those suffering around us and to deal with our own suffering. We can offer true and empathetic comfort to our neighbors who should be struck by both our genuine lament and our refusal to despair in the face of disaster. This is paramount because while suffering is an evil intrusion into God’s good world, we serve a God who suffers voluntarily and who can work within suffering to bring about redemption. It is by dying that death was defeated and we are assured that our suffering and deaths will be redeemed by that same Savior. This is a uniquely Christian perspective on suffering that is not shared by any other faith or thought system that I am aware of. Many religions treat suffering as intrinsically virtuous to force separation from this temporal world. Other systems, many of them not religious, treat suffering as a thing to be avoided at all costs, creating environments where others are harmed to keep a privileged few insulated from hardship. The Christian will embrace suffering as not the greatest evil while simultaneously affirming the reality that it is inherently wrong.
It is that last point that I feel is the church’s most potent witness in these days. So much of the strife over what to do has seemed to assume that there is a scenario where we get to the end and there would be minimal to no real loss or pain. There has been an assumption that we were in a position to successfully mitigate all of the harms this virus unleashed and come out to where it wouldn’t show up in the history books. We think that quicker action would have resulted in “manageable” loss of life or we imagine that the lockdowns created unnecessary economic suffering. As Americans, we want to have it all, even in a pandemic. Our history, especially in the last 2 generations has been spared such disasters, so we have come to think we are immune to them somehow. We expect minimal loss of life with minimal impact on the stock market and an unnoticeable inconvenience to our daily lives. To that the church should compassionately and unequivocally say that plagues are bad. They are the result of humanity abandoning the Living God and thus inviting death and chaos into God’s good world. They wreak havoc that humans cannot control or manage. It is our hubris and arrogance that imagines we can, but it is those qualities that got us into this mess in the first place. Christians can model the humility that accepts that we cannot fix or stop all suffering in the world, but we know the One who can…and will! Plagues invite us to recognize that while bread is a good gift of God, we do not live on bread alone. Prosperity and health and safety are all good things but they are fleeting and meaningless if we are separated from the God who provides them.
Adopting this perspective will help us make much of the cross as we demonstrate an empathy with the suffering of our neighbors, a willingness to suffer with and for them, and a faithful resolve that neither their suffering nor ours has to have the last word. It will make us humble towards our leaders as we recognize that while they can make matters somewhat worse or better, they are neither fully to blame, nor capable of fully preventing or solving this crisis. Such a posture will demonstrate faith, hope and love in the midst of a calamity. It is our birthright as those whose citizenship is in heaven to live in this way.
We have been hearing a lot in recent weeks about the tension between our rights as citizens and the restrictions placed upon us in the interest of public health and controlling the effects of COVID-19. The discussion is in many ways and exploration of the question that the teacher of the law asked Jesus that was answered by the story of the Good Samaritan: "Who is my neighbor?" Love of neighbor is at the heart of the Christian ethic and is easily the most radical and counter-cultural teachings in the realm of morality. Every nation and culture enshrines various ways of answering the question of what the moral good is, and no nation has every fully embraced Jesus' radical teaching that there are no boundaries on who we are to show love and concern for. In the case of our nation, the primary value has been expressed in the language of individual rights.
While it seems less the case in recent years, I remember that during the 90s and early 2000s it was common to hear a controversy about the ten commandments being displayed in public places throughout the country. This was often presented as a defining issue for our nation: would we be guided by God’s law or yield to the pressures of secular atheistic humanism? As a student of both Scripture and history, the assumption that the ten commandments held a significant place in American culture always puzzled me. The perspective put forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence 1776 and by James Madison in the Bill of Rights 15 years later, situated human rights squarely on the individual. They are a possession and a privilege that is to be jealously guarded by each individual and the documents serve as guardrails to let citizens know what they can reasonably demand from their neighbors, especially those elected to govern them. The Bill of Rights is addressed to Congress in order to limit its ability to infringe on the rights of citizens and therefore echoes the Declaration that presents armed rebellion as the ultimate means citizens have of ensuring their rights against an overbearing government.
By contrast, the Ten Commandments are framed as a statement of responsibilities that each Israelite has towards their neighbor. This is particularly true beginning with the fourth commandment in which Israelites are not only commanded to rest but are also commanded to ensure the rest of those around them (sons, daughters, male and female servants, sojourners, and even animals). The pinnacle of the law in Israel is expressed as love of neighbor in the context of ensuring that your neighbor's rights are not infringed (Leviticus 19). This subtle difference in posture is significant. The Bill of Rights encourages the culture of individualism that characterizes American society in which everyone is fighting for their rights in a way that often is competitive and ends up being divisive. As a result, our political engagement tends to view “winning” as protecting our rights rather than “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) The laws of Moses, echoed and amplified by Jesus and the Christian Scriptures, are a call to preserve the rights of others in a way that often means yielding our own advantages and rights. Jesus himself is the exemplar of this, who in Philippians 2 is said to have not clung to what were his rights and prerogatives in order to secure the good of others.
The goal of both documents is similar: securing the blessings of God’s shalom (life, liberty and the enjoyment of God’s good gifts in creation) for all people. The consistent tenor of Scripture is that that goal is achieved when we take responsibility for one another, recognizing our unity as humans. The tenor of the Bill of Rights and the culture it has influenced is that that is best achieved when everyone looks out for themselves. While the Bill of Rights is framed in terms of the reality of human sinfulness, Scripture calls us to lean into God’s redemptive purposes and live contrary to “business as usual”. As fallen humans, protecting what is ours comes naturally, while it takes a work of the Spirit to transform a heart to advocate for others in a truly selfless fashion.
So in these days of pandemic, as followers of Jesus, we should not be asking which of our rights are endangered and require our vigilance to defend. We should instead be asking, which of our neighbors are hurting and how can we seek their good regardless of what it costs us? We serve a Savior who sets just such an example and commanded that we should go and do likewise. May the church bear a powerful witness to that radical love in word and deed in these dark days.