“They literally own a day of the week.” This line from last year’s film Concussion, which chronicles the NFL’s concussion/CTE scandal, references the central place the league holds in American life. The last week has seen an escalation of a year-long controversy surrounding that same league on an entirely different issue: the use of the anthem by some players as a platform for protest. It has led to the expected, but still striking, barrage of social media debate, diatribe and demonization. A nerve has clearly been struck.
The debate is framed as a two-sided affair. On the one hand, those who value free speech, emulate the best of America’s long tradition of peaceful protest, and pursue the constant quest for a more perfect union. Their champion in this affair is Colin Kapernick. On the other hand, those who love this country, respect its flag and honor the men and women who have served and died in its defense. Until Friday they lacked a clear champion and then President Trump cast himself in that mold to great acclaim. And so the weekend unfolded in a dramatic display of pageantry and rhetoric. Each side told the story from their perspective with the appropriate hailing of heroes and deriding of villains. On Sunday I posted to FB the line from Fiddler on the Roof “Wait, he’s right and he is right? They can’t both be right!” to sum up how I felt about the whole thing.
I was troubled by Kapernick’s original choice of display but I had to admit that he was protesting injustice, about which Scripture has much to say, and often the prophets to Israel cast their protest in the most shocking possible ways in order to jar people into repentance (often intentionally desecrating sacred national symbols), so I couldn’t bring myself to fault him. I was likewise troubled at the President’s remarks on Friday, feeling that for a president to call for someone to be fired was a misuse of his position. And yet, the NFL as a business, especially as an entertainment business, should take seriously that the anthem is a huge piece of the gameday pageantry and that athletes using it as an opportunity to protest tarnishes their product. All the while I have felt that something deeper about this troubled me, but until today I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I discovered it as I continually tried to discern my view of the whole thing amidst the push and pull of the various issues and could find no settled approach. I was then reminded that Jesus was often confronted with impossible “either-or” dilemmas. In every case he pointed to a third way. This was not manipulative or deceptive or merely clever. No, he was showing that the arguments we often find ourselves in are rooted entirely in a sinful warping of two half-truths so that no matter who loses the argument, our Enemy wins and we miss the point. So I had a revelation as I watched the games on Sunday (and yes, I plan to keep on watching football this season).
Quite simply I was struck by the fact that anyone sincerely and deepy cares about what happens on an NFL field before the kickoff. I was impressed by how central this league is to our nation’s psyche such that it somehow informs and impacts our collective national identity. It has been buried in the undercurrent of the discussion that football is something that unites us as Americans. Think about that. It’s not being said glibly or as a cliché. The activity of 22 grown men trying to move an inflated piece of leather over 100 yards of turf for an hour is something that defines what it means to be American. In my mind I was transported back to the Roman arenas of the first century where sports of all kinds were conducted as a function of the civic religion and devoted as acts of worship to the emperor. So I was reminded that there is (or should be) a third group in this discussion.
On the third hand are those who do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God; who bear the fruit of love (against which there is no law); those who know that true authority is found in humble service and who are on a diplomatic mission of reconciliation to the whole world. Their champion in any and every arena is Jesus the Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords. Their citizenship is in heaven, their temple is not a stadium, their venerated symbol is a wooden instrument of torture and death and their anthem sings of an empty grave and the defeat of death. Before their champion and His symbol they are grateful to kneel, as every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth is destined to.
So to that group, among whom I had to remind myself that I belonged yesterday, I would remind you that you do not have to care about what happened on any field of play this past Sunday or any Sunday. You live under the truth of what happened in a cave on That Sunday. So while we have a right, responsibility and privilege of engaging in issues of politics and justice as ambassadors of our King, we must be more than protesters for American ideals, we must be prophets of Kingdom mandates. We must be more than patriots who love the American people, we must be pilgrims who love and labor for the Kingdom vision of one people drawn from every tribe and tongue and language and nation. So on Sunday remember that despite what everyone else seems to think, it really is just a game and not a matter of eternal significance.
“Can’t we just move on?”
That was the question I was recently asked in an exchange with someone over the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA. We all were struck by the force of the reactions and the deep divisions that were exposed in the ensuing days and weeks. At some level, we all knew we were wrestling with a past that is controversial and yet no voices seemed to be moving us towards healing. In a sense of wearied frustration, then, this question came to me and I freely admit that it found a sympathetic hearing in my spirit. I wish we could just move on and be done with these conversations. But I know that those of us who are faithful followers of Jesus cannot just move on and be done. I have thought and prayed long and hard over what to say and how to say it. I have realized that I desire to give a definitive word on the subject but that since I am still being confronted with my shortcomings in this area, I cannot give such a word. I can only share what I feel convinced of at this point and invite others to join me in seeking God’s face and will for His body to be the redemptive force he designed it to be (Eph. 3:6-11).
...the slavery in Scripture bears little, if any, resemblance to the institution that was in place in the Western Hemisphere in the 16th to 19th centuries
“A Peculiar Institution”
This past Sunday, I preached through Paul’s Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon) at our service. Three of these books interact with the idea of slavery. In the course of a 35-minute message I could not address all that could or should be said on that subject. One thing I did not say, but which does need to be said regularly and clearly to American believers is that the slavery in Scripture bears little, if any, resemblance to the institution that was in place in the Western Hemisphere in the 16th to 19th centuries. Here are five points that highlight these differences.
1. In the OT, slavery was entered into voluntarily as a solution to the problem of debt
2. The motivation behind slavery was a mutual benefit to slave and master. The master
received the productive labor of the slave and the slave’s challenge of poverty and debt
was alleviated through the master’s generosity. (Lev. 25:35-43)
3. Treatment of slaves in both the OT (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27) and NT (Eph. 6:9, Col. 4:1) is
regulated and restricted. Laws are addressed to masters and they are held accountable
for excessive and harsh treatment. Significantly, Sabbath laws and observance of
festivals were applied equally to masters and slaves.
4. The legal status of slaves (implied by the above realities) in the OT was as persons
with rights that were protected by the law and thus were not merely property.
5. Exiting slavery in the OT was relatively easy as there was a release of slaves every
seventh year as well as a release of all purchased land back to ancestral families every
50th year, (the Jubilee). Also, family members could redeem someone from slavery by
paying the debt owed to the master. (Lev. 25)
Slavery addressed in the NT was often similar in purpose (alleviation of debt) but also would have included the Roman Empire’s acquisition of slaves from wars of conquest. It was not regulated by OT law of course, but rather Roman law and so was outside of the scope of the church to deal with in its totality. However, the book of Philemon as well as the statements about equality of believers in Christ (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11) suggest a trend in the church away from slavery and towards more equitable economic arrangements. To the extent that slavery in the world of the NT conformed to OT standards, however, it could not be regarded as sinful and should be thought of more in line with modern contract employment.
That being said, New World slavery had none of those attributes. It was entered through the practice of kidnapping and slave-trading which is explicitly condemned in both Old and New Testaments (Ex. 21:16; 2 Tim. 1:10). The motivation of New World slavery was exclusively the good of the master and not that of the slave. Masters were routinely not held accountable for the treatment of their slaves and slaves had no legal standing as persons in courts to seek redress of grievances or abuses. Slavery was permanent and perpetual and so exit was exceedingly unlikely and entirely at the discretion of the master. Furthermore, since slavery in the New World was based on race, even once a slave was freed, they were not given legal status to afford them the same opportunities for advancement as whites in their society.
Thus it must be said that the slavery practiced in the New World generally, and in this country particularly was correctly named our “peculiar institution” in that it was unique among slaveries practiced in antiquity. It also stands condemned as sinful and immoral by the principles of Scripture not least because of the racial basis that falsely divides humanity along biological lines, denying that those enslaved bore the image of God.
Remembering vs. Honoring
So now I come to the topic of monuments built in honor of Confederate generals and soldiers. Given that there is debate over the causes for which each of them fought (and they did individually choose to pursue their “Cause” for a variety of reasons) and over what the Civil War was “about”, I will leave that aside for the moment. I will simply observe that to my knowledge, the United States is the only country to erect monuments in honor of people guilty of mass treason. I have thought long about what this means and where the attitude comes from that leads over 80% of Americans (by one poll I heard) to support keeping these monuments in place.
I would suggest that it lies in a root belief as Americans that our nation represents the greatest hope of mankind for living and flourishing in the way God intended us. Our founding and the principles enshrined in our documents are consistent with biblical truths such that mankind experienced a leap forward in the elevating and protecting of human rights and dignity thanks to the “American Experiment”. This is often referred to as “American Exceptionalism” and as a historical fact I would not disagree with it.
...it is hard to address honestly some of the episodes in our history because they threaten to undermine our identity as the world’s heroes
What this belief in America often results in, however, is a defensive desire to see our nation as the hero in every story in which we take part. We are always to be seen as the “good guys”, while the “bad guys” are always “out there”. Thus, America only fights good wars on the right side and we always win (I think this is part of why Vietnam posed such an identity crisis for the country). Therefore, as a nation, it is hard to address honestly some of the episodes in our history because they threaten to undermine our identity as the world’s heroes.
For instance, on any objective understanding, our treatment of the native people of this continent over the space of nearly 300 years was grossly unjust. No Christian approach to thinking about war would condone a massive migration that results in armed conflict and transfer of massive tracts of land and the deaths of whole tribes. Rather, it would be condemned as criminal. Likewise, our conduct of both the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars as well as the ensuing Filipino-American War were land grabs that mirrored imperialist actions for which we have rightly condemned other nations. And certainly our institution of slavery subjecting millions of Africans to bondage and many to death is an injustice of the highest magnitude.
And so we have difficulty facing these national sins because it would force us to concede that for all of our nation’s virtues, strengths and laudable acts in history (and there are many), we are prone to the same failings and abuses as very other nation in the history of humanity. So we are reticent to take down memorials to Confederates and have trouble identifying Robert E. Lee as a villain in our history. And here I will make a comparison between our experience and Germany’s. Germany has been able to identify the villains of its past without erasing its history. It has preserved the camp at Dachau as a witness to their sins and they have converted Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden into a history of the Nazis’ atrocities. But there are not statues of Adolf Hitler or Hermann Goering to be found anywhere.
Protestants, not Protesters
This brings me finally then to the issue of the protest of both these memorials here in our country as well as the protesting of their removal and the question I opened with, “Can’t we just move on?” As strongly as I feel about this issue, I have reached the conclusion that protest is not the primary vehicle for the church to engage in as an agent of progress. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we would do well to apply the gospel of grace that Luther recovered to this situation.
protest is not the primary vehicle for the church to engage in as an agent of progress
Scripture is clear that healing, restoration and growth are always preceded by seasons of confession and repentance. It is equally clear that sin is not only an individual reality but also a corporate one. It is possible to bear responsibility for sins that we did not personally participate in. So the church at Corinth is held responsible for the sexual sins of one of its members (1 Cor. 5). It also indicates that sins can have generational impacts. It is thus that both Daniel (Dan. 9:3-19) and Nehemiah (Neh. 9:6-38) personally confess the sins of their contemporary countrymen as well as their ancestors going back to the wilderness generation. In the same vein, it fell to David to make right what Saul had done to the Gibeonites in order to remove God’s judgment through a famine on the nation (2 Sam. 24).
Paul tells us that we are ambassadors of reconciliation and that such reconciliation lies at the heart of the gospel mystery. If we are to faithfully declare that message it must be from a posture of confession and repentance as individuals, as churches and as a nation. Protests, while they have a place and a role to play in this discussion, position us as adversaries of our neighbors. The goal of protest is to bring force to bear to stop behavior. The goal of repentance is restoration of relationship so grace can flow and bring healing. So what if instead of fearfully or angrily defending our own, we stood vulnerably with our neighbors, confessing our collective sins and seeking to repent and be reconciled to those who have been sinned against? I think then we might, by God’s grace, be able to finally move on together.
I was recently interviewed by Randy Hekman for an upcoming radio broadcast. Randy is the leader of The Grand Awakening, a prayer gathering of believers across Grand Rapids (they'll be meeting at Berean on Aug. 1 and 15 from 7-8). He is also the co-chair of the Prayer Team for the upcoming CityFest that the Palau organization is organizing in GR for fall 2018. The full interview will be available by radio in the coming weeks but for now here is this excerpt
This marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for our church as well as this weekend being in some ways the "officially true" (to borrow a phrase from my daughters) beginning of summer. As we look ahead, our church faces some exciting opportunities as well as some daunting challenges (and the two are related). God is most definitely directing our steps and presenting us with opportunities to engage in his mission. As I have shared recently, we are seeing God draw the churches of GR and especially those we partner with in our neighborhood to build His kingdom together in our communities. We anticipate the next year of activity as the Palau organization prepares for its CityServe and CityFest initiatives. We rejoice in our recent combined prayer service with our neighborhood churches and anticipate the next one on July 30 (mark your calendars!).
We are also humbled by how our Wednesday night Gathering has introduced us to our neighbors in the community. We praise God for the relationships Jim and his staff and our youth have built at The Well and how those will grow on their upcoming canoe trip. We are thankful for the funds our Capital Campaign has raised and the improvements already made to our facilities as a result. We look forward to the coming projects and how they will bless and allow our ministries to grow in impact. Our recent VBS, Celebration service and carnival saw much engagement from the community.
Most importantly a dedicated group of us has faithfully met on Wednesdays to seek God's presence, guidance and provision for our body. Revivals have started with less and we need revival! That brings me to the challenges. We face shortages of volunteers and funds that pose a gap between what we can see in the present and what we feel God is presenting us with as a vision for our future. Rather than being discouraging to me, I receive this gap as an invitation. Joining God in His mission is not automatic. It will require that we invest our time, treasure and talents in contexts that may be unfamiliar or intimidating. We will need all hands on deck to sacrificially pursue the goals God has for us. I have already been challenged by what I have seen in Paul's life in our Bondservant series and how necessary it is for us s a church to hear.
The next two weeks will be especially significant in applying the themes of Gospel Mission and Discipleship to our church. If you are unable to attend either this week or next, make sure to listen to these two messages online. Let me encourage you to take time this weekend to reflect on your commitments to Berean and consider how God might be asking you to do more. Specifically, I would ask you to join me in praying specifically for our church daily for revival (my prayer has been focused around Philippians 1:9-11) and to join us at least once over the summer on Wednesdays to "Watch One Hour". I would ask you to consider your giving and whether God is asking you to be more invested in His mission at Berean through your finances.
Finally, I would ask you to consider your involvement in serving. I know many of you devote sizable time to our body and I am so grateful for it, but I also know that some of us have not made the step of doing much more than attending on a regular (or semi-regular) basis. I am excited for what God is laying before us and I pray that all of us are counted worthy of participating in it. May we be used to build Hs Kingdom for His glory in our lives, our church and our city!
For the past three or four decades the evangelical movement has been at the forefront of the "culture wars" in Western society, and especially in the U.S. Issues come and go in their prominence but have included school prayer, evolutionary theory, the content of entertainment, abortion, same-sex marriage and numerous others. The forum for these wars has been just as diverse: the media, the courtroom, the legislature, and the marketplace as well as the church and school. One consequence of this engagement is that the word "evangelical" has taken on more of a political significance than its original theological emphasis. This has had the related effect of branding our movement by what we are against, rather than things for which we stand. While that oft-quoted phrase is of concern to me, as I shared in my sermon this past Sunday, I am more concerned about the impact these developments have had on our understanding of the mission of the gospel.
One way to think about this is to ask "What is the greatest threat to the church?" If we adopt a "culture war" mentality, then the greatest threat would be something like a liberal legislative agenda or the curtailing of "religious freedoms". Behind those threats would be the people advancing those programs who then become opponents or adversaries. We then dutifully take up arms to defeat those people in order to save the church. In adopting this mentality and approach, we forget the heart of the gospel, miss the nature of the true threat to the church, and ensure the failure of the mission of the gospel (in our lives or congregations anyway, not absolutely, as there is always a faithful remnant). The heart of the gospel is that Jesus put himself in the power of his enemies so they could kill him, so that he could save them from their hatred of God. As his followers, we are called to lead lives of willing sacrifice for the good of those who oppose us. This is what Jesus meant by saying we are salt and light right after saying that we are blessed when we are persecuted for His sake. The gospel way is a radically different way of bringing about change in our world. The world can form institutions that fight for their rights and advance an agenda through the powerful tools of media, education and politics. The impacts produced by those means are always temporary and are regularly incomplete. Only the church, through the foolishness of the proclaimed Word, matched by truly selfless acts of love, can bring about eternal blessing through changed hearts as the Spirit is unleashed in and through us.
I was recently made aware of a tangible expression of what this looks like in the real world. Kevin Palau, the son of renowned evangelist Luis Palau, has been ministering in the city of Portland, Oregon for many years now with his father's evangelistic ministry. In his book, "Unlikely", he chronicles the impact they have had in the city of Portland. I have just started reading the book and have been struck already by the nature of the story. What grabbed me more than the story itself, is the fact that Sam Adams wrote the foreword for it. He was the mayor of Portland when Kevin began his initiative in the city and was notable for being the first openly gay mayor of a top-25 U.S. city. You can sense the immediate pressure of the "business-as-usual" approach of the culture wars calling Kevin to arms. However, in his foreward to the book, Sam Adams chronicles how, without abandoning their convictions on which they differ, they were able to partner together for the good of the city. He was able to see people whom he expected would regard him as an enemy demonstrate genuine (not self-interested) love and concern for him and for the things he cared about (the well-being of his city). Far from being a denial of the gospel, it was the fullest imaginable expression of it. For it is precisely in loving those who are enemies of God that we live out the drama that God loves us, who were his enemies, to the point of sacrificing Himself for them.
All of this serves to remind us that the true enemy is never a person, group, or institution. It is the forces of sin and death that capture human hearts and drive us to hate God and others. If we can be yielded to God's Spirit, he will convert us to be lovers of the self-sarcrificing God and of all people, especially those who have no love lost for us. May we be devoted to fighting the real enemies and gain many friends of the gospel as a result.
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.