Get Involved in Politics, But Don’t Get Immersed in Politics

The following blog post was first published on Reformed Margins, an online platform for Reformed Christian thinkers from various ethnic minority backgrounds to join in the broader Reformed and Evangelical conversations.

I moved to the Baltimore–Washington metropolitan area in 2012. Prior to the move, I had followed politics sporadically, but I wasn’t too engaged.

After 2012, partially due to the political climate of where I lived, and partially due to some of the relationships I was developing, I started to slowly explore the world of politics in depth. I started to listen to politics-related radio and politics-related podcasts. I started to read politics-related articles and politics-related books. And as a Christian, I started to explore how the Christian faith and politics intersect one another.

How should my faith inform my political stances? Why do I often find myself at opposite ends of the political spectrum with others who are Christians? How can I dialogue in Christian ways about political issues with people who may disagree with me? And as a pastor, when is it okay and when is it not okay to vocalize my opinions?

But perhaps more fundamentally, how politically active should I be as a Christian in the first place? Is political activism part of God’s calling for the Christian, or is it a distraction from the true mission of the church?

In this blog post, I will aim to pull out some relevant biblical passages to make two simple points:

  • Get involved in politics
  • But don’t get immersed in politics

Get Involved in Politics

In Jeremiah 29:5–7, God tells the Israelites, who were living in exile in the enemy city of Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The Israelites could have clustered together and collectively decided to be unconcerned about Babylon. But instead, God commanded them to be invested where they were, and he told them to work for the welfare of the city.

And I believe that this principle–that the people of God should work for the welfare of the greater culture–carries over into the New Testament.

In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus intentionally uses the example of an ethnic outsider to demonstrate that we are to not only love the neighbors within our own tribe, but we are also called to love on the outside (Luke 10:29–37). That is also why Paul writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). While we as Christians are to serve the church, the church also exists to serve the surrounding culture.

“Okay, I agree that we need to serve the surrounding culture,” one may say, “But does it necessarily mean that we need to get involved in politics?”

I believe that exercising biblical wisdom in light of the biblical narrative warrants the answer, “Yes.”

In biblical times, most people were not able to engage in politics, simply because most people lived under monarchies and thus had no governing authority. But there are in fact several cases in the Bible where people of influence did get involved with politics.

Shiphrah and Puah, when ordered by the king of Egypt to kill all Hebrew babies who were male, “feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Exod 1:17). They were in positions of influence, and they were called to carry out a political command, and they refused to follow through. It wasn’t that they were trying to be political–it was that their faith in God necessitated taking a political stance. Other examples in this category include Daniel choosing to pray three times a day (Dan 6:10) and the early apostles choosing to preach Christ despite being commanded not to do so (Acts 5:29). In all of these scenarios, the characters involved could not faithfully follow God without being political. Political involvement was a natural consequence of them simply living out their faith.

But I want to take it one step further. The Bible does not only include people taking political stances, but it even includes people creating political policies in secular governments. Joseph, upon becoming second-in-command in Egypt, created a national food collection and distribution program (Gen 41:37–57). Nehemiah, in his role as the cupbearer to the king of Persia, successfully requested money and supplies to build the walls of Jerusalem (Neh 2:1–8). Esther, in her role as queen of Persia, helped to create a decree that prevented the genocide of the Jews throughout the empire (Esth 8).

Joseph, Nehemiah, and Esther all found themselves in scenarios where they had political power in secular governments. But instead of ignoring their political power, they chose to exercise God-given wisdom in their God-given positions to make political decisions.

In the grand narrative of Scripture, Joseph, Nehemiah, and Esther were a minority. Most people did not have the political power that they had, so we don’t know what most people in the Scriptures would have done in those shoes. But the examples that they have set are precedents for all leaders of secular governments to follow.

The United States is a democracy, and in a democracy, the government is ruled by the people. Therefore, all U.S. citizens have political power. We may not have as much political power as Queen Esther, but we still have more political power than most people in the Bible did. And I would argue, therefore, that the examples of Joseph, Nehemiah, and Esther are examples for us to follow. Instead of ignoring our political power, we can must also exercise God-given wisdom in our God-given positions to make political decisions.

Let’s put it another way. The church exists not only to serve itself but to serve others. The church exists partially to work for the welfare of the surrounding culture. This can happen at the micro-level–through personal evangelism, through ministries to the homeless, etc. But this can also happen at the systemic level–through political engagement. Politics allows people to seek the welfare of the city, or to do good to everyone, at the systemic level.

The biblical understanding of stewardship, therefore, applies not only to our management of our time, money, and talents, but it also applies to our democratic voting ability.

Therefore, as Christians, I believe that it is good to learn about the political system, to apply biblical wisdom to the issues, to weigh candidates, to seek to persuade others, and to vote.

But how exactly do we vote? After all, different Christians will prioritize different political issues and will support different political parties. Unfortunately, this conversation is filled with complexity and nuance, and I don’t have time to address that here. I would just encourage you to have humble conversations about politics with Christians who are different from you, and then draw from the Bible, your experiences, and your convictions and vote what you feel is good for our country.

But Don’t Get Immersed in Politics

Although I believe Christians are called to be involved in politics, there can be danger in being too immersed in politics.

One of the main motivations for an over-immersion in politics is fear. When Christians place too much hope in their country of citizenship, and when that country is moving in a direction they find disagreeable, they cannot help but fear. But the Bible is clear that the fear of man can be driven out by the fear of God.

The psalmist writes in Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’

From the dawn of history, kings of all stripes and politicians of all political parties have sought to thwart God’s plans. But God sits up in heaven and laughs, because he knows that ultimately he will have his way. There is nothing that our country’s leaders can do that can threaten God.

Daniel also had a similar revelation in Daniel 7. Daniel and his people had been living in exile under enemy occupation, and they had been hoping that one day God would rescue them and restore them to their land. In this story, Daniel has a dream, in which he saw four beasts, each representing a different foreign king. But although all of these beasts were terrifying and powerful, they were no match for the Ancient of Days, the Son of Man who sits in judgment and rules with an everlasting dominion.

The message of Daniel’s vision is that the kingdom of God is more powerful and more eternal than any kingdom of humankind. Although the actions of human leaders may seem authoritative and frightening in the moment, God will have his way in the end, and he will establish his rule.

This perspective is much needed today. Sometimes when we are being worked up over the politics of our country, we can forget that there is something more important than our country, and that is the kingdom of God. I imagine that the Jews in Jesus’ day must have needed this reminder often.

In Matthew 15:15–22, some religious leaders ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” In response, Jesus says, to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In this exchange, people asked Jesus a political question (“is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”), and he gave them a direct response to that political question (“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”). But he doesn’t stop there. He then draws their attention to an even more important matter–to render to God the things that are God’s. In essence, Jesus is saying, “Yes it’s important to engage with politics of the Roman Empire. But what’s more important is to engage with the politics of God’s kingdom.”

In the midst of all of the drama of American politics, let us never forget that our true citizenship is not as citizens of any geopolitical country but of heaven. Therefore, we do need to imitate the paralyzing worry and fear of others, but we can remember though our country may fall, the church will not.

So yes, I encourage you to vote today. It is critically important for Christians to exercise their God-given political power to serve our country. But as we vote today, let us remember that the most important questions that we as Christians need to answer in life are not the ballot questions, but they are the spiritual questions in the kingdom of God.

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Balance

The following blog post was first published at The Village Church blog.

Our church has just started a short sermon series titled Balance, and it is a much-needed topic today.

Our culture today is filled with extremism, and the trends do not seem to be slowing down. Many groups or organizations used to be more broad, more diverse, and more balanced, but they are now becoming more narrow, more monolithic, and more extreme.

This is debatably true of modern political parties. Over the past few decades, the two major political parties in America have been becoming less moderate and more extreme, and as a result, many people who feel like they do not fit in have been quietly leaving those parties. In fact, a 2016 Pew Research article stated, “The share of independents in the United States stands at its highest point in more than 75 years of public opinion polling.”

Why do some people leave political parties when those political parties become more and more extreme? Because the people are not as extreme as those political parties. This phenomenon points to an important principle: groups are often more extreme than individuals.

Individuals, on their own, are much more nuanced. They are a mixture of values and opinions. They are, in a word, balanced. However, when many individuals come together for a cause, then they start to become less nuanced. They start to clearly define specific values and opinions, and they start to draw lines and boundaries. They start to classify certain people as good guys and other people as bad guys. They start to lose their balanced nature and become extreme. And over time, if that group becomes too extreme, then some individuals will realize that they do not fit in anymore, and they will leave.

What is true of political parties is also true of churches. Today it is common for churches to be more extreme than the people in those churches. It is common for churches to draw lines and boundaries, even though the people in those churches don’t see those lines and boundaries. It is common for churches to classify certain people as good guys and other people as bad guys, even though the people in those churches don’t see them that way. And to be clear, a lot of this is good and necessary. It is healthy for a church to be clear about its values and stances, and part of the church’s responsibility is to define for the individual what the individual has not yet defined.

However, if churches are not careful, they may unintentionally find themselves overemphasizing certain values and underemphasizing other values.

In our sermon series, we are highlighting what we believe to be three necessary components of a healthy church: robust orthodoxy, compassionate community, and intentional mission. The reason why we chose these three components is because we have often seen churches that have overemphasized one at the expense of another. In other words, they have become extreme. Instead of having a balanced perspective of the three, they have heavily prioritized one over the other two, so much so that they even look down on churches that have different priorities.

For example, a church may be strong in robust orthodoxy but weak in intentional mission. Such a church may have very carefully worded doctrinal teachings, but it may be an uncomfortable or confusing environment for a non-Christian trying to learn about the faith. Another church may be strong in intentional mission but weak in compassionate community. Such a church may be a place where non-Christians are brought in through the doors all the time, but many feel that they are saved only so that they can be used to bring in others, and they experience a lack of genuine care. Still another church may be strong in compassionate community but weak in robust orthodoxy. Such a church may frequently have social gatherings, but although the participants experience plenty of fun and “fellowship,” they do not regularly and intentionally challenge one another to grow in truth.

When churches value one component at the expense of others, two things happen. Firstly, they inevitably start to look down on other churches that have different priorities. “Don’t go to that church. They’re always talking about social justice.” “Don’t go to that church. That church never cares about the neighborhood it’s located in.” “Don’t go to that church. They’re always functioning in their ivory towers.”

And secondly, people will start to leave those churches. Whether a church prides itself in being a biblical truth church, a loving family church, or a missional discipleship church, if those aspects are overemphasized at the expense of other values, then some people who want to live a balanced Christian life will find themselves becoming Christian independents–they will drop out of church altogether.

We of course don’t have everything figured out. We have plenty of ways to improve. But our goal is to be a church for the balanced Christian–a Christian who loves the truth, who loves his/her brothers and sisters, and who loves the lost.

Why Ethnic Minorities Reacted So Negatively to Mike Pence at the SBC

The following blog post was first published on Reformed Margins, an online platform for Reformed Christian thinkers from various ethnic minority backgrounds to join in the broader Reformed and Evangelical conversations.

Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the United States’ largest Protestant denomination, held its Annual Meeting in Dallas. Almost 10,000 messengers gathered to hear reports about various denomination entities, to elect new officers, and to debate and vote on new resolutions.

A few days before the meeting began, members of the SBC were primarily concerned about two major news stories. Firstly, Paige Patterson–arguably the most influential SBC pastor of the past thirty years–had recently been fired from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Secondly, J.D. Greear–a young, dynamic pastor at The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area–was in the running for president of the SBC (which he eventually won).

Few would have guessed that something else would soon come to dominate the headlines. On June 11, the day before the Annual Meeting began, the SBC announced that there would be a schedule change–Vice President Mike Pence had been given a speaking slot on June 13. On June 12, Garrett Kell made a motion to replace the speech with a time of prayer, but after a brief debate, the motion was voted on by messengers, and it failed.

On June 13, Mike Pence delivered his speech at the SBC Annual Meeting (see the full transcript here). Aside from some remarks about the importance of evangelism, Bible study, and prayer, the speech was filled with boasts about what President Donald Trump had accomplished over the past five hundred days of his presidency–from Korean peninsula peace talks to largescale tax reform to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel.

Understandably, many people, both before the speech and after the speech, publicly criticized the SBC for allowing the speech to happen (see here and here). Some highlighted the need to separate church and state–as Ed Stetzer tweeted, “When you mix politics and religion, you get politics.” Others talked about how Pence’s presence compromised the church’s mission and disrupted church unity.

But one article in particular caught my eye. Titled “I Don’t Understand Minority Reactions to the VP Visit: That’s Why We NEED Each Other,” Dave Miller wrote in SBC Voices that although he didn’t comprehend why many minorities reacted so strongly to the announcement of Pence’s invitation, he wanted to be able to comprehend. He wrote, “I know some of you in minority communities are discouraged but things are beginning to change and we need you. I need you. I need to hear what you think and how you think even when it makes me uncomfortable or challenges my normal thinking.”

I am thankful for people like Dave Miller–people in the SBC who genuinely want to understand the experiences and opinions of minorities. It is this open-mindedness that prevents stagnation and fosters growth.

I am a SBC pastor who is an ethnic minority. I am only one voice, so I cannot represent all ethnic minorities in the SBC. However, I thought I would offer my take on the situation in the hope that more people will understand where we come from. Here are a few things to know about ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations, and how it affects our reaction to what happened at the SBC Annual Meeting.

1. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations hold tightly to the narrative that they are outsiders.

As an Asian American, even though I was born and raised in the United States, I have always had a slight inferiority complex whenever I am in situations where there aren’t many Asian Americans around. It’s not a characteristic that I chose to have; it has been with me for as long as I can remember. It’s this inner voice that constantly reminds me, “You are different. No matter how hard you try, you cannot fit in.”

I am fortunate enough to have never personally experienced an intentionally malicious form of racism, but nonetheless, my inferiority complex has been subtly reinforced by small experiences here and there throughout my life. It started at an early age, when I would hear comments in middle school about Asians being good at karate or math. It persisted into adulthood, when people would ask me, “But where are you really from?” And it continues even into my ministry career, when people assume that just because I am an Asian pastor that my church is an Asian church. All of these experiences have slowly but steadily built this deeply ingrained narrative that I am a permanent outsider.

As a result, whenever I go to denomination events, I cannot help but feel that I am different. The closest experience that I can think of is choosing where to sit for lunch on the first day of high school. There is this overwhelming perception (whether warranted or not) that everybody else has a clique, a niche, a place of belonging, and I am the lone wanderer looking for my place in this world.

2. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations have struggled with the decision to be in those denominations.

Just as a fantasy football fanatic often feels comfortable spending time with fellow fantasy football fanatics, and just as a stay-at-home mom often feels comfortable spending time with fellow stay-at-home moms, many ethnic minorities feel comfortable spending time with other ethnic minorities.

As an Asian American, I have an immediate bond with other Asian Americans–even those I am meeting for the first time. We have a united set of shared experiences from which we can draw, from our family-language-barrier struggles to our addiction to bubble tea to our near-idolization of Jeremy Lin. And to step outside of that familiar bubble into another bubble is not an easy decision.

Almost all Asian American Christians I have come across have struggled with the following question: should I attend an Asian American church? In almost all cases, an Asian American church guarantees more comfort, more security, and more community. And in almost all cases, Asian Americans who do not attend Asian American churches (whether they are predominantly white or multi-ethnic or something else) have intentionally chosen to set aside comfort, security, and community. And many of them, for better or for worse, and especially when things get hard, sometimes ask themselves, “Did I make the right decision?”

I want to suggest that what is true of churches is also true of denominations. Many ethnic minorities have chosen their predominantly white denominations with mixed feelings, and almost every time something happens that reminds them that they are different, they ask, “Did I make the right decision?”

3. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations long to be acknowledged and valued.

I concede that there are ethnic minorities out there who seek recognition in an inappropriate way. They criticize, attack, and condemn everything in the majority culture in an abrasive, disorderly fashion. They have no desire for reconciliation. However, the large majority of ethnic minorities that are in predominantly white denominations are there because they genuinely believe in the core mission of those denominations, and they want to be effectively valued and utilized so that they can help to further that mission.

Ethnic minorities are often thinking about the majority culture, “I am sacrificing a lot to commit to you. I hope that you are also committed to me.” Although they will still feel like outsiders, they can at least rest in the fact that they are valued outsiders. However, if ethnic minorities are not acknowledged or valued–if there are never any conversations about race, if there is no minority representation in leadership, if there is no interest from the majority culture in their traditions–then many of them over time will feel more and more alone. Furthermore, the self-isolation of ethnic minorities perpetuates if there are decisions within the denomination as a whole that seem to reveal an extreme lack of understanding or awareness of ethnic minorities (e.g. Lifeway’s 2004 VBS curriculum).

The experience is similar to basketball stars who choose to leave their team, take a salary cut, and accept a bench role in order to be on a championship-contending team. They have intentionally made large sacrifices because they believe in their new team, and perhaps the most demoralizing thing to do to these players is to give them zero playing time. Similarly, ethnic minorities often make large sacrifices in order to be a part of predominantly white churches or denominations. They did not join these organizations just to silently sit on the sidelines. Rather, they joined these organizations in the hope that they will get involved.

4. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations are more politically progressive than their counterparts.

When I am spending time with white ministers within my denomination, people are often taken aback when I mention that I identify with the political left more so than the political right. It is almost as if I am speaking heresy. Evangelical Protestants frequently assume that all theological conservatives are political conservatives, but that assumption is not true. A Pew Research study in 2014 found that while 65% of white evangelical Protestants lean Republican, only 49% of Asian evangelical Protestants, 31% of Latino evangelical Protestants, and 12% of black evangelical Protestants do so. Alternately, while only 21% of white evangelical Protestants lean Democrat, 37% of Asian evangelical Protestants, 41% of Latino evangelical Protestants, and 73% of black evangelical Protestants do so.

We can debate why this discrepancy exists, but at the very least, we all need to recognize that this discrepancy exists. If we do not, evangelicals on the political right will unintentionally but inevitably push those ethnic minorities away.

5. Many ethnic minorities in predominantly white denominations are very disturbed by the allegiance of white evangelicalism to the Republican Party.

The sudden rise of Donald Trump caught many Americans off-guard, but among the most flabbergasted were evangelical minorities. When it came to light that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016 (which was a higher percentage than votes that Republican candidates received in 2004, 2008, or 2012), many of these minorities who had been faithfully laboring in evangelical churches found themselves wondering, “I didn’t realize that I was so different from everybody else.” And as they continued to silently watch white evangelicals react negatively to #BlackLivesMatter, the removal of Confederate monuments, and the national anthem controversy, their awareness of the stark differences between them and the majority culture grew stronger and stronger.

That is the context in which Mike Pence spoke at the SBC. For many, the fact that the leadership of the SBC saw no issue in allowing Mike Pence to speak at the Annual Meeting, the fact that the majority of SBC messengers would affirm this decision by vote, and the fact that Pence’s adoration of Trump received so many standing ovations all added to the same old narrative that we had been preaching to ourselves for so long: we are outsiders.

I share all of this not from a position of judgment and condemnation. I have no intention of leaving the SBC. I share this in the hope that some white evangelicals in predominantly white denominations will have a greater awareness of the ethnic minority brothers and sisters in their midst, so that we can work together toward building racial reconciliation.

The Secularization and Reclamation of Social Justice

The following blog post was first published as two articles on Reformed Margins, an online platform for Reformed Christian thinkers from various ethnic minority backgrounds to join in the broader Reformed and Evangelical conversations.

Over the past decade or so, I have been realizing the extent to which my culture and upbringing have affected my theology. I have been forced to take off my cultural glasses in order to reread the Bible with fresh eyes, over and over and over again. As a result, I have noticed subtle and gradual shifts in my theological convictions (although my allegiance to the core doctrines of the Christian faith have not changed).

Most notably, one of the major doctrinal areas where I have done almost a complete about-face is social justice.

For much of my Christian life I didn’t think very much about social justice. It didn’t seem relevant to what I understood to be “the gospel.” After all, I grew up attending a large suburban Chinese American church, and like many Chinese American Christians, I was theologically conservative and politically apathetic (see here and here). Christian social justice was by and large a theologically progressive movement, so it didn’t fit into my theological conservatism. On the other hand, secular social justice was by and large a politically activist movement, so it didn’t fit into my political apathy.

But as a result of conversations, experiences, and study, I now see social justice as a pivotal task of the church.

You may react to the sentence above in one of various ways. Perhaps you are like my former self, and you react with concern. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “The church should proclaim the gospel, not pursue social justice.” Or perhaps you react with commendation. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “Bravo! I am so glad you are talking about this.” Or perhaps you react with confusion. You may read the sentence above and immediately say, “What? This seems new to me.”

There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to social justice, and it is largely because people mean different things when they are talking about social justice.

What do I mean when I talk about social justice? Social justice is the justice of God applied at the social level. Because “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa 30:18), he has a moral standard for human life. And since human beings are social creatures, God’s moral standard not only has individual but social implications. When God’s justice is applied at the individual level, it can be deemed individual justice. When God’s justice is applied at the social level, it can be deemed social justice.

And justice is important because justice is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins, that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). In other words, one of the main components of the gospel is that God establishes and applies justice through Jesus. And my suggestion is that a gospel-centered establishment and application of justice is both individual and social–it includes both individual justice and social justice. In this paradigm, social justice–in its original, unadulterated form–is not an anti-gospel agenda. It is part of the gospel agenda.

For much of church history, Christians pursued social justice. In fact, the very phrase “social justice” was first popularized by Catholic scholars Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio and Antonio Rosmini in the 1840s, and it was cemented in Catholic doctrine by Pope Pius IX in the 1930s. Pius IX described social justice in 1937, “Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good.”

But although the phrase “social justice” is relatively new, what it describes is nothing new, as its meaning has been manifested throughout history. Ever since the book of Acts, Christians have been at the forefront of social justice–caring for widows and orphans, starting hospitals, advocating for prison reform, and abolishing slavery. All of these actions were examples of social justice.

However, in the modern evangelical world there are many Christians who no longer hold to the term social justice and instead view social justice advocates as people who are undermining or even preaching another gospel. In some circles, the term “social justice warrior” is used in a derogatory way to describe protesters who come across as rude, uneducated, or violent.

So how did we get to a point where the phrase “social justice” is seen in some camps as antithetical to the gospel?

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a subtle shift regarding the term began to take place in the Western world: social justice became secularized.

What I mean is that the church has largely and gradually relinquished its responsibility for social justice and handed it over to the world. The church has stepped back from this task, and the world has stepped into the resulting vacuum. Bryan Wilson wrote in his book Religion in Secular Society, “The welfare services, which once were prompted by Christian motives and a sense of charity, have been almost completely secularized. What was once done from Christian duty is now an accepted state provision as part of the extension of general political, civic and social rights.” In other words, the church has handed on the torch of social justice to the secular state.

In new hands, the meaning of social justice has evolved. The secular world has adopted and adapted the divine calling of social justice, incorporating all sorts of extra-biblical beliefs and positions along the way. And now social justice has become a shifting mixture of partially biblical and partially unbiblical origins. The phrase is now so ambiguous that in his book The Mirage of Social Justice, Frederich Hayek wrote of the phrase “social justice,” “I have now become convinced, however, that the people who habitually employ the phrase simply do not know themselves what they mean by it and just use it as an assertion that a claim is justified without giving a reason for it.”

But there is something even more lamentable than the hijacking of the meaning of social justice–the fact that this has mostly happened under the quiet watch of the church without alarm. Many Christians in the church have not only surrendered their responsibility of social justice to the world, but they have largely done so without remorse or regret. They have been content with allowing the world to tarnish God’s original design for social justice.

And when those in the church do think about social justice, they often fall under one of two unhealthy camps. Those who identify as theological progressives often pursue a worldly social justice devoid of Christian principles. And those who identify as theological conservatives often condemn social justice and attack its anti-Christian agenda. But regardless of their view of social justice, both camps have the same flaw: whether for or against social justice, they fail to see they are viewing social justice through a secular lens.

Instead, the proper response to the secularization of social justice is not to unite with nor to abandon the cause, but rather to reclaim the cause by returning it to its original biblical standards. In this third camp, social justice is not idolized, nor is demonized, but rather it is viewed in its proper place as a component of the gospel.

Understandably, some Christians may find the notion of reclaiming definitions to be foolish. “Let the secularists have their term,” they may say, “It is not helpful for Christians to use terms that are so laced with unintended cultural meanings.” And to some extent, they are right. There are plenty of words that I do not intend for Christians to claim. I suppose that one can propose new, biblical definitions for words like “humanism” or “enlightenment,” but such efforts would only be confusing.

But why should we claim the term “social justice”? I can think of two reasons.

  1. History is on our side. Not only did the term originate in the church, but the term was and still is applied regularly in the church. And the fact that others outside of the church may use the term in a different way should not hinder our use of the term (just like how the fact that others outside of the church may use the term “marriage” in a different way should not hinder our use of the term).
  2. Social justice is a natural bridge to the Christian faith. There are many things in the Christian faith that are offensive to those outside the faith, but in 21st century America, social justice is one of the few biblical concepts that is actually attractive to those outside the faith. And if we publicly hunker down on the offensive aspects of our faith while publicly stepping around the attractive aspects of our faith, then we will continue to unnecessarily segregate the American church from its greater culture. People in the secular world are longing for social justice, but too often they only encounter versions of social justice that are incomplete or distorted. If they are able to witness a biblical form of social justice, it may be the means through which they may experience the church.

But what exactly does it look like to view social justice through a biblical lens? What was God’s original design for social justice in the first place?

A Biblical Survey of Social Justice

In the New Testament, God established the church, and he gave it a mission: to go into the world in the power of the Spirit and make disciples, for the glory of God and the good of the world. However, the church is not an isolated institution in the grand timeline of history, but it is the direct fulfillment of various stories, commands, and promises in the Old Testament. God has appeared in different times and different ways through various people in the Old Testament, and all of this was to foreshadow and point to Jesus and his church. Therefore, understanding the Old Testament will help us to clarify the mission of the New Testament.

The Old Testament makes it clear that from the very beginning God has always desired for his people to pursue social justice. Therefore, if the church is the people of God, then one of the components of the church’s mission must entail the pursuit of social justice.

The Origin of Justice

When God created the world in Genesis 1, he did not create it with disorder and chaos but with order and harmony. He made it so that things were not random, but rather, so that things should be a certain way. Another way to think about it is that God created the world with the possibility of right and wrong, and he declared that the world should be right. This should-be dimension of creation is the foundation for the term justice. Justice at its core is the concept that things are to be what they should be. It is the idea that God’s standard for creation should come true in the reality of creation.

Thus, one of the main differences between biblical justice and secular justice is the origin of justice. Biblical justice rests on the unchanging values of God, while secular justice rests on the changing values of humanity. Biblical justice is to move reality toward a divine and permanent standard that is based on God’s character, while secular justice is to move reality toward whichever standard that has the most support or attention at the moment.

When God created human beings, he gave them an identity and a mission. Firstly, their identity was that they were image-bearers of God (cf. Gen 1:27), and their mission was that they were to multiply and rule the earth (cf. Gen 1:28). And in their role as image-bearing earth-rulers, they were commissioned to be the enforcers of the should-be dimension of creation. In other words, human beings were called to protect the order and harmony of creation, and to ensure that creation was filled with the character of God. They were to be advocates of justice.

But in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned, that justice was lost–things are now what they should not be. God explained through his curses in Genesis 3:16–19 just how that justice was lost.

In 3:16, God declared specifically that there would be struggle within the relationships between parent and child and between husband and wife. Thus, one of the consequences of sin is social fragmentation. Sin does not just affect people but also the relationships between people. In other words, while sin operates at an individual level (we have pride, lust, greed, etc.), it also operates at a social level (we have divorce, poverty, racism, etc.).

In 3:17–19, God cursed the ground, which represents the relationship between humanity and creation. Our sin had tarnished not just humanity but also all of creation. To put it another way, sin has altered reality so that it is no longer what it should be. Before, what existed in reality was identical to the decree of God. But now, what exists in reality is different from the decree of God. One way to describe the difference between God’s decree and God’s reality is the word injustice. If justice is the establishment of God’s decree in reality, then injustice is the distortion of God’s decree in reality.

And injustice reared its head in the subsequent chapters. In Genesis 4, Cain killed his brother Abel. Toward the end of the chapter, Cain’s descendant Lamech boasted about being several times more wicked than Cain ever was. By Genesis 6:5, it was evident that injustice had manifested itself at the social level, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Therefore, God initiated a flood to wipe out almost all of humanity. It is interesting to note that in the narrative of the biblical flood, God did not just destroy individual human beings, but he also destroyed the land and the animals. After all, sin had not only tarnished individuals, but it had also tarnished all of creation. It wasn’t just that individuals required justice–creation itself required justice.

The Imperative of Justice

But immediately after the flood, God clarified something about justice. In Genesis 9:3, he declared that humans could now ethically kill animals for food, but in Genesis 9:5, he declared that it was still unethical to kill humans. And he then explained the reasoning in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

God decreed that human beings have a level of dignity and value that animals do not have because they are image-bearers of God. Therefore, to give respect to human beings is to give respect to God, and to insult human beings is to insult God. Thus God established in a sense a hierarchy of justice: while death of any sort is wrong, the death of a human being is especially wrong. Because human beings are image-bearers of God, it is especially unjust to kill a human being.

Here lies a second distinction between biblical justice and secular justice. Secular justice at its core cannot provide a philosophically adequate foundation for its declaration that some things are more valuable than other things. After all, if there is no supernatural, then reality simply consists of a collection of ever-changing chemical compounds. What reason would there be for claiming that organic compounds are more “valuable” than inorganic compounds, or specifically, that humans are more “valuable” than rocks? Biblical justice establishes a hierarchy of value. Not only are human beings the primary designated enforcers of justice, but they are also the primary designated recipients of justice, and the reason is because they are image-bearers of God. The pursuit of justice for humanity is vitally important because human beings are reflections and representatives of God. Therefore, justice cannot just be a fad, but it must be an imperative. God’s dignity and glory are at stake.

The Inevitability of Justice

A few chapters later, God initiated a relationship with a man named Abraham, and he promised to Abraham that he would become a great nation, and through him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1–3). Although sin had cursed the whole world, Abraham’s descendants would initiate a movement that would bless the whole world. One of the crucial components of this divine blessing was explained in Genesis 18:19: they were to do justice. “For I have chosen [Abraham], that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice…”

It was God’s intention to reverse the effects of sin through the lineage of Abraham, by instilling blessing instead of cursing, and by instilling justice instead of injustice. Abraham’s descendants were to fulfill the original mandate to humanity–to multiply and rule the earth, so that the way things are are the way things should be.

Within God’s initiation with Abraham lies a third distinction between biblical justice and secular justice. Biblical justice has a certain and definite direction and outcome because God himself desires it. Secular justice, ultimately, has no guarantee. One generation may take up the cause and make several gains, but the next generation may undo all of the gains. There is no assurance that things will ultimately get any better. Conversely, there is the assurance that one day things will actually get worse, as the sun will run out of hydrogen in about 5 billion years. However, in the biblical paradigm, because God is watching and intervening throughout history in order to accomplish his desire for justice, one can say along with Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Nonetheless, throughout the rest of Genesis, injustice continued to play out (in both individual and social manifestations)–cities fought with one another, rich people argued over wells, relatives separated and settled in distant lands, people were sold into slavery, etc. However, in the book of Exodus, through a dramatic foreshadowing of the gospel, God rescued the Israelites from slavery. This was a beautiful demonstration of God’s power to save, and it was a beautiful picture of God’s desire for justice.

When the nation of Israel was established, God commanded them to be a nation that valued social justice. Deuteronomy 16:20 says, “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Therefore, throughout the Mosaic Law are commands about caring for the poor, the widow, and the sojourner. Israel was to be a nation that restored the justice of God on earth.

By the time David came to the throne, it may have seemed that God’s command to Adam and his promise to Abram were finally starting to be fulfilled. After all, 2 Samuel 8:15 says, “So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people.” And similarly, the prophets constantly talked of justice. Isaiah said, “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa 1:17). Micah asked, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).

But it soon became clear that Israel was unable to be this beacon of justice. And so, because of their wickedness, God gave Israel justice by allowing them to be conquered and exiled. Nonetheless, God did not forget his people. He told his prophets to proclaim that although injustice was rampant in their present day, there would one day be a future day of justice. He said through Isaiah, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). He declared through Jeremiah, “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5). And he proclaimed through Ezekiel, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” (Ezek 34:16)

God was telling Israel that he would one day appoint a servant who would fulfill the promises of old. This servant would rule over creation, he would bless the nations, and he would establish justice. He would make all things right again.

The Climax of Justice

Fast forward several hundred years, and Jesus quoted Isaiah at the start of his ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19). Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of all of these Old Testament promises. He was the royal descendant of Abraham and David who would establish justice.

Jesus intentionally sought out the marginalized of society, and he taught us to care for the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned (Matt 25:35–40), in order to show us what this new kingdom of justice was to look like. It was a kingdom that reversed poverty, sickness, and brokenness. But Jesus did even more. He also volunteered to die on the cross, and when he did, he established justice for any who would believe in him.

The death of Jesus depicts yet another distinction between biblical justice and secular justice. Ultimately, all secular justice can offer are examples of justice to counteract the examples of injustice. However, it cannot cure injustice at its core. There is a fundamental issue that it can never address: it is not just that people are sinful and broken, but the system itself is sinful and broken. Therefore, the only way the curse of sin can be addressed is if there was a new system altogether. And that is what exactly what God established through Jesus.

Throughout most of history, there has been nothing new under the sun. However, what Jesus initiated was new. When Jesus died and rose again, he established a new creation. And he declared that his followers would be recipients of a new covenant. And he declared that members of this new covenant are justified, or made right before God, because they have been born again. In other words, the whole system of injustice can be overthrown, because there is a new system of justice in place now.

The Movement of Justice

In the middle of history, in the world of injustice, Jesus initiated a movement of justice, and he has invited those who would believe to join him. And he established that this justification is not only individual but also social–“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This is a movement that not only establishes justice in individual hearts, but it also establishes justice in whole communities. This is a movement that not only makes lives right, but it also makes societies right. This is a movement that not only purifies sin at the personal level, but it also removes sin at the social level. How do we know that? Because the trajectory of history is a new creation where justice is holistically established–both individual justice and social justice. In the book of Revelation, it is not just people who will be healed, but whole nations will be healed. And it is not just sin that is erased, but curses will be erased (cf. Rev 22:2–3).

This movement is called the church. Jesus has told the church to take up the mantle of reconciling the world to himself, so that one day all the wrongs in the world will be right. Therefore, the Old Testament commands for social justice in the time of Moses, the Old Testament stories of social justice in the time of David, and the Old Testament cries for social justice in the time of Isaiah are all being fulfilled through the church.

The church is the final distinction between biblical justice and secular justice. While advocates of secular justice can offer the legislature, the military, the education system, the business sector, the non-profit sector, etc., none of these systems can ensure true and lasting justice because injustice exists in them all. There will always be government corruption or corporate greed or implicit bias. The blind cannot lead the blind. However, advocates of biblical justice have a resource like none other: the church. The church is God’s chosen method of enforcing justice, and it has the power to do the job. The church has the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever it binds on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever it looses on earth shall be loosed in heaven (cf. Matt 16:19).

Therefore, as the church, let us fight for justice. Let us not only offer the good news of individual justice but also the good news of social justice. Let us serve the marginalized. Let us reverse the effects of sin in society. Let us multiply, fill the earth with blessing, and rule with justice.

This is biblical social justice: to manifest God’s character and to enforce human dignity by the church throughout the whole earth in the power of Jesus, with the confidence that one day sin would be reversed and creation may be redeemed.

This is a social justice that is unchanging, for God’s character is behind it. This is a social justice that is imperative, for God’s dignity is behind it. This is a social justice that is guaranteed, for God’s hand is behind it. This is a social justice that is holistic, for God’s salvation is behind it. This is a social justice that is being fulfilled, for God’s church is behind it.

That is a social justice worth fighting for.

The War Over Laws and the War Over Hearts

Ever since the birth of democracy, politicians and activists have been waging wars over laws. I’m not talking about literal war, although sometimes debates over laws have certainly resulted in literal wars (e.g., the American Revolution, the American Civil War). I’m talking about people exercising the freedom of speech through political debates, public demonstrations, print media and social media methods, etc., in order to get their opinions and agendas to become the law of the land. Sometimes these wars stay civil. But sometimes they can get pretty nasty, with people attacking one another, undermining one another, and exposing one another’s flaws–and employing all sorts of political manipulations and legislative loopholes.

More recently, there have been heated wars regarding the tax code, immigration, healthcare, net neutrality, national monuments, and gun control, just to name a few. In all of these cases, there has been a lot of time and energy invested by all sides, from debating to condemning to shaming to protesting to recruiting to mocking, all for the purpose of passing (or fighting the passage of) laws.

Obviously, in the arena of government law, there are many worthwhile battles to fight. The laws of our nation have drastic consequences.

But I want to suggest (to everybody, but to Christians in particular) that as we fight this war over laws, that we do not neglect a much more important war: the war over hearts.

Today is the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. And Dr. King was a man who dedicated his life to not only fighting the war over laws but also the war over hearts. In his sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor,” he said, “Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the final goal that we seek to realize, genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities that are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law that etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”

Desegregation can only go so far. Civil rights laws can only go so far. Winning some wars over laws can only go so far. As Dr. King points out, laws cannot end things like fear, prejudice, pride, and irrationality. Laws cannot bring about “genuine intergroup and interpersonal living”, “personal and social transformation”, or “true integration.” Such things can only come about through winning the war over human hearts.

There has been a very long history of people trying to change the culture with new laws, but they never work out. In the 20s, Americans prohibited alcohol. But alcoholism remained. In the 60s, Americans passed the Civil Rights Act. But racism remained. In the 80s, Americans started fighting the War on Drugs. But substance abuse remained.

And the reason for all of this is because although people won the war over laws, they didn’t win the war over hearts. Laws are of course important because they limit the excesses of sin, but they cannot remove the sin itself. Even the book of Romans teaches this–that the Law can only make us aware of sin, but it cannot remove the sin. The sin is too embedded in people’s hearts.

But despite this reality, unfortunately, I’ve often seen that many people are too concerned about the war over laws and not concerned enough about the war over hearts. In fact, often the very methods that people use to fight the war over laws cause them to lose the war over hearts. In the war over laws, when people resort to manipulation or deception or bullying or social shaming, they only agitate their legislative opponents, and they lose the war over hearts. So while a short-term fight is won, the long-term fight may be lost, because ultimately, the war over hearts is more permanent and more fundamental than the war over laws.

At the end of the day, a nation’s culture is controlled not by the laws of the land but by the hearts of the people. It is the hearts that determine the laws, and not the other way around. There are of course times when a nation’s laws does not fully reflect the hearts. There are plenty of government laws in existence that the majority of the public disapprove of, and there are plenty of government laws that do not exist that the majority of the public approve of. But eventually, over time, the laws will catch up to the hearts. Slowly but surely, as the hearts shape the culture, the laws will eventually follow.

Nevertheless, sometimes I am afraid that modern-day Christians are trying too hard to make Christianity the law of the land, and as we wage this culture war, we are slowly losing the hearts of the people.

I must remind you that there were two notable time periods in history where we had essentially won the war over laws–ancient Israel and medieval Europe–and in both cases the war over hearts was lost. And God could have said of both of those cultures, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13).

So what can we do? Obviously we as Christians should still seek to influence government policies. Just as William Wilberforce’s faith drove him to seek the abolition of the slave trade in the early 1800s, we ought to allow our faith to drive us to influence the laws of the land. But I would say that this should be secondary to an even more important task–the task of influencing the hearts of the people.

And thankfully, God is in the business of changing hearts.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

So let us fight the war over hearts. Let’s love our neighbors, speak to political enemies with gentleness, turn the other cheek, befriend the least of these, and humbly share our faith. Because if we stick to that agenda, we will change hearts, we will change the culture, and will will change the world.

Larry

 

 

“Not All ___ Are Bad”

Recently, many people have come out publicly to share their stories of police brutality. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all police officers are bad.”

Recently, many people have come out publicly to share their stories of racial discrimination. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all white people are racist.”

Recently, many women have come out publicly to share their stories of sexual assault. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all men are sexist.”

This common exchange exists because of a fundamental misunderstanding. In all of these cases, there are people who are demonstrating tremendous vulnerability and courage in order to point out that there is a problem. But in response, some people, instead of acknowledging the individual victim’s problem, assume that the victims are talking about another problem altogether (namely, that a certain demographic of people is bad), and as a result, they try to defend or justify that demographic that they think is being accused.

I created a few simple diagrams to illustrate where the disconnect is. When victims of abuse speak up about police officers, white people, men, or anybody else, they are trying to bring attention and awareness to a certain problem: that the status quo needs change. But how does the status quo need change? What exactly is the problem? It seems like someone can be communicating one of three things.

Argument #1: Some of them are bad.

Slide1

In this argument, people are accusing some police officers, some white people, or some men of being bad. They do not intend to say that all police officers, all white people, or all men are bad. You can debate how big the bad circle should be in relation to the size of the overall circle, but it is clear that the bad circle is smaller than the overall circle.

Argument #2: The system is bad.

Slide2

This concept may be a bit foreign to some people, so I’ll try to explain this the best I can. In this argument, people are saying that the system–and not the individuals that make up the system–is bad.

For example, one can say that a certain police department needs reform. Perhaps they need better training. Perhaps they need body cameras. Perhaps the police officers need to reflect the demographics of the communities they serve. When they say these things, they do not mean that all police officers are bad. They are talking at the organizational level.

This is also true of racism. When people say that there is systemic racism, they usually do not mean that all white people are racist. What they mean is that our country has had racist policies and practices throughout history that have now created a society where ethnic minorities are underprivileged. From African American slavery to Native American forced displacement, such policies (whether intentional or not) have drastically affected the living conditions of non-whites, so that even today there are statistically significant discrepancies in living conditions (e.g., education levels, income levels, suicide rates) between whites and non-whites.

And lastly, this is true of sexism. Again, people using this argument are not accusing all men to be sexist, but they mean that there are many things in our society that contribute to a systemic sexism. Such things include the social expectations of gender roles, the objectification of women in the media, the lack of female representation in leadership positions, etc. This also includes the exploitation of women in the pornography industry, the verbal abuse of women in the gaming world, and the prominence of rape culture on college campuses.

This argument is very different from Argument #1 because it is not just claiming that some people are bad, but it is claiming that the badness has become so prevalent that all of society has been affected.

Argument #3: All of them are bad.

Slide3

In this last type of argument, people are actually claiming that all police officers, all white people, or all men are bad. There is not one who is good.

Here’s where the misunderstanding takes place. The large majority of victims of abuse are talking about Argument #1 or Argument #2. Either they are claiming that there are some bad apples who need justice, or they are raising awareness to issues in the system, or both. Very rarely do they actually use Argument #3. Nonetheless, when people say, “Not all ___ are bad,” they automatically are assuming that the victims are employing Argument #3, which is why they feel the need to deny Argument #3. And they are subtly shifting the conversation away from Argument #1 or Argument #2 into the arena of Argument #3.

In other words, instead of addressing the victim’s very real problem (Argument #1 or Argument #2), they pretend that the victim is bringing up another problem altogether (Argument #3), and they then deny that this other problem exists.

Slide 4

It can be easy to point fingers, but I believe that we all do this to some degree. For example, when my wife brings up a problem, sometimes I deny that another semi-related problem exists. And in those conversations, what I have done is the same thing these problem-deniers do. I redefine the problem, and I refuse to believe that my redefined problem exists.

There are all sorts of potential reasons why we do this. Maybe it’s because we want to protect the status quo, and we cannot bear to think that there is something wrong with it. Maybe it’s because we are just not loving enough to want to tackle the problem, so we give ourselves the illusion that there is no problem. Maybe it’s because we don’t like feeling guilty, and we assume that people who want to point out problems want us to feel guilty about it, so we find a way to maneuver ourselves out of the guilt.

Regardless, this subtle response that we employ when we are presented with cries for help allows us to do nothing. It makes us think that we are off the hook, and that it is no longer our responsibility. And when enough people have this mentality, it ensures that the problems will never be resolved, and the victims of abuse will continue to be victims of abuse.

As a Christian, I believe that once upon a time humanity had a major problem, and that was the problem of sin. And when we cried for help, God did not redefine the problem, nor did he deny the problem, nor did he ignore the problem, nor did he justify the problem, nor did he politicize the problem.

Then what did he do? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In order to address the problem of sin, God sent his Son Jesus to become sin for us. And Jesus immersed himself so much in the problem of sin that he walked among sinful people and suffered a gruesome death at the hands of sinful people. And he did that for us. The irony is that in order to rescue the victims of sin, Jesus became the truly innocent victim of sin.

So when we hear problems of abuse, let’s not resort to these argumentative tactics to excuse ourselves. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and dive in. Let’s listen, engage, empathize, and serve.

Larry

Having Dialogue with the Alt-Right

Over the past several days, I’ve seen a lot of people publicly denounce and condemn white supremacists, the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and the alt-right. And rightly so. Last weekend’s events in Charlotesville have made it clear to even the most persistent deniers that racism is alive and well in America. And I’m not just talking about individuals thinking racist thoughts. I’m talking about large groups of people who are committed to violence. And if you still aren’t convinced that this is a thing, watch this 22-minute documentary by VICE News.

However, I want to direct this blogpost not to the alt-right but to those who are condemning the alt-right. There is a tendency for people of all stripes to criticize and condemn “the other” without thinking much about themselves, or to do so without thinking about how they are criticizing or condemning. Obviously, when evil is present, prophetic condemnation is absolutely necessary–I am not arguing otherwise. But as a Christian, I believe that one of the fundamental principles of condemnation is self-evaluation (cf. Matthew 7:3-5). It is not biblical for Christians to condemn others unless they do it with humility and self-awareness.

Note: Before you label me with non-original labels, allow me to introduce myself. I am a Christian pastor in Baltimore. I used to be a socially and fiscally conservative libertarian. Now I lean left on most political issues, I am a part-time vegetarian, and I compost my fingernails. I am not a typical Democrat, nor am I a typical Republican, so please refrain if you can from calling me a Communist or a Nazi.

I spent the past several days reading up on white supremacy. I found it difficult to understand how somebody in America today could be a white supremacist, so I spent a lot of time just learning. I looked through Confederacy pride Facebook groups, I watched videos on alt-right YouTube channels, and I read up on the history of the KKK on Wikipedia. And I am realizing that there is some major disconnect between reality and what many political liberals perceive to be reality.

And because of this, I am afraid that we on the political left are missing a golden opportunity to initiate dialogue with those on the far right. And instead, we are only pushing them further and further away from us.

Some of us make these public condemnations on social media to tell our friends where we stand on political issues, so that those who agree with us will like our posts and those who don’t agree with us will de-friend us. Others of us make these public condemnations on social media because we actually want to make a difference in society. If you are in this second camp, then I want to help your attempts at dialogue to be more effective. Here are a few things you should know about the alt-right.

1. The alt-right consists of many different factions that believe many different things. Sometimes I get the feeling that people on the left think that the alt-right is this massive unified organization of people who carry Confederate flags, do Nazi salutes, deny the Holocaust, and hate on black people. Reality is a lot more complex than that. The alt-right is not an organized group of people; rather, there are many different factions that believe many different things, and they often disagree with and even condemn one another.

There are some people in the alt-right who self-identify as alt-right, and there are others who do not even self-identify as alt-right. There are some people in the alt-right who love David Duke, and there are others in the alt-right who condemn David Duke. There are some people in the alt-right who are violent, and there are others in the alt-right who are peaceful. There are some people in the alt-right who genuinely believe that whites are superior to other races, and there are others in the alt-right who do not believe that. There are some people in the alt-right who are anti-Semitic, and there are others in the alt-right who are not. It is very important to be specific about what we are condemning, and it is important to direct these condemnations to the right crowds. Calling all Confederate-flag-wavers Nazis, for example, is not only unhelpful but incorrect. This is the equivalent of calling all liberals pagans.

2. Most people in the alt-right do not self-identify as white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or KKK members. Even the hated Richard Spencer, who supposedly coined the term “alt-right,” doesn’t self-identify with these labels. In fact, many alt-right people are very frustrated by the fact that they are continually called these things, and they feel that they have to state over and over that they are not white supremacists, that they are not neo-Nazis, and that they are not part of the KKK. Therefore, while condemning such camps with these terms may give the condemner a feeling of vindication, they will be ignored by the vast majority of the alt-right, because they don’t feel that the terms are directed toward them. The alt-right feels the same amount of affiliation for the term “white supremacist” as Democrats feel for the term “Marxist.”
3. Most people in the alt-right do not see themselves as racists. Obviously, you will have a few outliers who are proud of being racist, but the vast majority of people in the alt-right do not think that they are racist. I’m not saying that they are not racists; I am just saying that they do not perceive themselves as racists. Therefore, calling them racists will have the same effect as a preacher yelling, “Sinner!” to non-Christians who don’t believe they are sinners.
4. Many people in the alt-right have publicly condemned James Fields. Many of the people in the alt-right, including many of the Charlottesville protesters, have condemned the man who violently drove a car into the crowd of anti-racism protesters. They say that this person was a rogue white nationalist who clearly disobeyed their given instructions to be peaceful and restrained.
5. One of the primary concerns of the alt-right is the issue of free speech. This is very important to understand. People on the left often frame the issue around the issue of racial equality. They divide the country into two camps–those who are for racial equality and those who are for racial inequality. All other issues are secondary issues. However, people in the alt-right often frame the issue around the issue of free speech. They divide the country into two camps–those who are for free speech and those who are not for free speech. All other issues are secondary issues. People on the alt-right have been frustrated by the censorship of opinions on college campuses, the regulations of big government, and the political correctness of society, and they want to speak out against this perceived Big Brother. Therefore, the brandishing of provocative symbols and flags, the lack of etiquette and politeness over social media, and the display of public marches are all assertions of this free speech. And both on the internet and in person, people in the alt-right often say things that they know to be ridiculous (e.g. “Hitler did nothing wrong”), and they purposefully choose contentious social issues to address (e.g. race), because they want to test the limits of free speech, and in order to revolt against what they perceive to be this liberal cultural speech police.

Post-Charlottesville, while people on the left were talking about racism, people on the far right were talking about free speech. When I was reading up on forums and comments, I found that one of the biggest complaints alt-right folks had about Charlottesville was the fact that the alt-right had spent months going through the legal means to peacefully organize a rally, while the “alt-left” (yes I know that this group of people is not a real thing) simply showed up without any legal permission and shut down their government-approved rally, thus denying them their free speech. I do not intend to get into a debate regarding whether racial equality or free speech is more important. I am merely pointing out that the alt-right feels that this was yet another example of how their attempts at free speech have been hijacked, and as a result even more people now don’t understand who they are, and now they are being wildly accused of things and getting death threats for things many of them don’t stand for.

I want to make it clear that I am not siding with the alt-right in any way. I believe that many of the policies that many people in the alt-right endorse are inherently racist, and I believe that their tiki-torch-carrying marches were horrendous and appalling.

But I do not think it is appropriate for us to respond with shame-based condemnation and social isolation. If we do this, then we are no different than the morally self-righteous Pharisees. If our goal is healing, understanding, and reconciliation, then many of the methods that we have been employing this week have not been effective. When we broadly condemn groups of people in ill-informed ways, the alt-right feels misunderstood and mischaracterized. When we use their worst examples to characterize their whole movement, the alt-right feels frustrated and helpless. When we shout them down and refuse to allow them to gather publicly, the alt-right feels trampled upon and muffled. And all this does is turn them into martyrs and give them more reasons to fight for their cause.

Good parents do not impulsively yell at their children whenever they do something wrong. Good parents invite their children to have conversations, they ask them questions, they listen to them, and they guide them to do what is right.

In the same way, God did not whole-scale condemn us when we sinned. Instead, he came into our space, lived among us, taught us how to live, and died for us. It is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4). Let us demonstrate kindness to others who need it.

Larry