Monthly Archives: June 2015

Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race (Part 1): Cultural Captivity

The primary problem with southern Presbyterian defenses of segregation was not that they assumed an individualistic view of sin but that they embraced a spiritualized, even neo-platonized, understanding of the Gospel. Like their Presbyterian forebear Thornwell, men like Gillespie, Richards and Smith insisted that the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression. In other words, their political theology suffered from an under-realized eschatology even more than it did from some sort of American individualism. While this under-realized eschatology led them to conceive of the expression of the kingdom in this life in individualistic terms, it also led them to a greater reliance on the Old Testament as the best source of biblical insight regarding social and political life.

Lucas points out that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not lead southern churches to avoid speaking toward political matters; it simply made them selective in the issues that they addressed. I would make the point more specific by suggesting that the doctrine led them to prioritize the Old Testament over the New Testament as the source for political insight. The Old Testament rendered plausible the theological defense of a thoroughly communitarian and segregated vision of political life, while the rejection of the social and political relevance of the New Testament rendered its more radical and inclusive social ethics moot. Thus southern Presbyterians read Pentecost through Babel, and the unity of the nations in Christ through the division of the nations from Israel, rather than the other way around. Only by interpreting the Gospel through the law could they imagine that church membership, let alone justice within political society, could legitimately be constituted on the basis of race.

To read the rest of this article, please go to Reformation 21.

Why We Should Read Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Creation

If you have been paying attention to the media hype about Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Laudato Si’, you might be forgiven for assuming that the pope’s 180-page encyclical is devoted to the issue of climate change. In fact, the encyclical devotes relatively little attention to the phenomena of global warming: as little as 2% of its text, according to climate change skeptic Calvin Beisner. It offers but a cursory summary of the scientific consensus, calling the faithful to accept that consensus and take steps to curb global warming. But it offers nothing in the way of an argument that would persuade a climate change skeptic to change her position on the issue. The only way that might happen is if the skeptic in question is a Catholic Christian – or otherwise admirer of Pope Francis – who is committed to following papal direction for its own sake.

The danger, however, is that a thoughtful, theologically insightful, and morally helpful statement of the Catholic Church’s teaching on creation will be ignored by many conservatives because of its conclusions regarding climate change. This danger is all the greater given the valid economic critiques that have been raised against the encyclical by Catholic intellectuals such as my friend Sam Gregg, not to mention the criticism from climate change activists and scientists that Pope Francis significantly understates the threat of global warming.

You might be surprised, then, to learn that Laudato Si’ is first and foremost a theological document whose assertions regarding policy are presented cautiously and tentatively – as proposals for debate and discussion – rather than as conversation stoppers.

The pope is quite clear on this point:

[T]here is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions [60]. On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair [61].

It is worth emphasizing that when the pope speaks of “this situation” which requires a solution he is not primarily referring to the problem of climate change. Rather, he is talking about ecological deterioration in general. We are wrecking our planet in more ways than one, and the pope’s fundamental thesis is that in doing so we are failing both to love God and our neighbor by failing to live as stewards of the creation that he has given to us as a gift.

The solution, Francis is at pains to stress, cannot consist simply of changes in laws or regulations. What is required is nothing less than “ecological conversion” away from the self-centered, consumerist-driven, technocratic paradigm that dominates modern society and that leads modern society to dominate [i.e., ruthlessly exploit] creation. (It is the same sort of dominating attitude, the pope points out, that characterizes modern attitudes toward the embodied human being, giving rise to moral catastrophes ranging from abortion to rampant confusion about gender.) On this central point, as I hope to argue in forthcoming posts, Laudato Si’ is a praiseworthy and helpful document. I would even go so far as to say that it is one that all serious Christian leaders should read.

But why, you may ask, is the pope taking a position on global warming, a point on which there are “honest debate[s]” and “divergent views.” Here, it is clear, the pope must defer to the experts. But he obviously believes that there is a meaningful consensus that the church is obligated to take seriously.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as a Reformed Protestant I do not believe the pope has any divine authority within the church. Just as important, following Calvin I would argue that the church has no authority to offer official pronouncements on matters of academic debate or public policy. Its public authority is tied up with, or contained within, the Word. When the church attempts to use its spiritual authority to “come down” on matters of controversy or disagreement it almost always ends up undermining its own credibility. The exceptions – areas on which scriptural teaching is relatively clear – merely prove the rule.

So while I am an admirer of the tradition of Catholic social teaching, I think that teaching is at its best when it avoids pronouncements on specific policies.

On the other hand, I believe the document’s clear theological teaching on what evangelicals like to call creation care is desperately needed within conservative evangelical circles. We tend to be dangerously and irresponsibly suspicious of environmental concerns. To be sure, as the pope notes, there is a radical sort of environmentalism that is in sharp conflict with Christianity. But too many conservative Christians have gone to the opposite extreme of turning environmentalism into a whipping boy. How many times have I heard pastors drop off-handed remarks dripping with scorn for “environmentalism”? How often do our writers list environmental concerns as one of those areas on which Christians need not work towards any substantive agreement? It’s as if stewardship for creation were no more important than what baseball team you root for or what style of music you like.

In part this dismissive attitude arises from an unhealthy skepticism toward science and the scientific community. It is true that within certain strands of society there is far too great of a deference towards science. But too many evangelicals go to the opposite extreme.

Let’s face it, for most of us our conclusions regarding biology or quantum physics, let alone climate change or evolution, come down to who we decide to trust (which, incidentally, is one good reason why the church should abstain from ruling definitively on these matters). For instance, most of us are not experts on the matter of climate change, and it is eminently reasonable for us to defer to the consensus of the scientific community (this book offers a good introduction to the issue). On the other hand, it can be praiseworthy to withhold judgment while continuing to learn from what others have to say. The scientific community has not done a very good job persuading the American public of its concerns about climate change in a measured, sympathetic way. But populists on both sides tend to be dogmatic and even shrill, undermining the trust necessary for thoughtful and open-minded communication. Both sides need to do the hard work of listening and learning in a spirit of humility and respect.

Enough about that. I want to stress that this encyclical is not primarily about global warming. I’ll have more to say about the positive aspects of the pope’s encyclical in the next few posts. For now let me just say: Read it. Reflect upon it. Take its call to Christian stewardship seriously. It won’t do you any harm, and it just might do your Christian sanctification a world of good.

Bearing the Death of Jesus in Charleston, South Carolina

In his classic short story “Jesus Christ in Texas” (1920) W.E.B. DuBois explored what it might have looked like if Jesus had reappeared incarnate in the early twentieth century South. In the story a stranger, who a white pastor senses he has known long ago but can’t determine just where or when, secretly exchanges places and clothing with a black convict on the run from police. Falsely charged with attacking a white woman, the stranger is viciously lynched by a white mob.

DuBois describes the closing scene from the perspective of the white woman:

She shuddered as she heard the creaking of the limb where the body hung… she saw the dead man writhe. He stretched his arms out like a cross, looking upward. She gasped and clung to the window sill. Behind the swaying body, and down where the little, half-ruined cabin lay, a single flame flashed up amid the far-off shout and cry of the mob. A fierce joy sobbed up through the terror in her soul and then sank abashed as she watched the flame rise. Suddenly whirling into one great crimson column it shot to the top of the sky and threw great arms athwart the gloom until above the world and behind the roped and swaying form below hung quivering and burning a great crimson cross.

She hid her dizzy, aching head in an agony of tears, and dared not look, for she knew. Her dry lips moved: “Despised and rejected of men.”

She knew, and the very horror of it lifted her dull and shrinking eyelids. There, heaven-tall, earth-wide, hung the stranger on the crimson cross, riven and blood-stained, with thorn-crowned head and pierced hands. She stretched her arms and shrieked.

He did not hear. He did not see. His calm dark eyes, all sorrowful, were fastened on the writhing, twisting body of the thief, and a voice came out of the winds of the night, saying: “This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!”

DuBois’s story is fiction, of course, albeit fiction that speaks a powerful truth. But in the events of this past week, beginning with the horrifying tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this story was played out in the truest way possible.

A deeply disturbed young man, filled with self-righteousness and hate, was determined to do what he could to spawn violence in return for perceived injustice. He was welcomed with open arms by Christians meeting for prayer. He was given the special seat just next to the pastor.

Near the end of the time of prayer he opened fire, murdering nine of the black worshipers in cold blood, and then turning his gun on himself. Only because his suicide attempt failed did he flee, to be captured later by police.

Those nine Christian women and men had taken up Christ’s story as their own, paying the ultimate price because they were willing to welcome a stranger. Like Jesus, they were betrayed by an enemy they had treated as a friend.

Immediately the national media and the politicians took up the appropriate battle cries, exploring the significance of the shooting for matters of race, gun control, or South Carolina’s Confederate flag. The public, liberals and conservatives alike, joined in the free for all on Facebook, Twitter, and other public fora. Evangelical leaders called for justice.

Some conservatives went so far as to bemoan the fact that the worshipers at Emanuel were not permitted to have and use guns to defend themselves. This is a completely understandable reaction. Jesus’ disciples also wanted to use the sword to defend their Lord when he was confronted by his enemies during that prayer meeting in Gethsemane. It is sobering that Jesus’ final act of healing before his death was in just this instance, on behalf of one of his enemies, a member of the armed mob who had been wounded due to Peter’s act of self-defense.

The family members of the victims at Emanuel also spurned the call to respond to hatred and violence with hatred and violence. They took up Jesus’ narrative further, speaking to the murderer himself in court:

Ethel Lance’s daughter:

I just want everyone to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You’ve hurt me. You’ve hurt a lot of people But God forgive you, and I forgive you.

Myra Thompson’s husband:

You know I forgive you and my family forgive you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happened to you. And You’ll be OK.

Tywanza Sanders’s mother:

We welcomed you Wednesday night at our Bible Study with open arms. You have killed some of the most prettyfullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same… But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.

How many of us would be capable of taking up Christ’s story in these ways? How many of us could offer such testimony and forgiveness?

Many of us are prepared to purchase a gun, to respond to hatred and violence with more violence, defending ourselves and the ones we love. And from an earthly standpoint the refusal to do defend oneself seems downright foolish. Jesus’ murderers laughed at him publicly because he claimed the power to defend himself but refused to do so. His response was simple: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

These brave Christian men and women of Charleston are enacting Jesus’ life and death in the most breathtaking way. Pray for them. Learn from them. This is the Gospel in action. This is Christian ethics in its purest form.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)



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