Tuesday, June 28, 2016
We want to praise the Lord for the wonderful things he does. We were praying for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America as they were considering a public confession concerning racism, both during the time of Civil Rights and even up to today, and a commitment to struggle against it. In the Lord’s mercy such an Overture was passed as they (we) met down in Mobile, Alabama. I take this to be a very good thing for our denomination, and an evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
It doesn’t mean racism is ended, for that kind of sin is very human and will plague us until Jesus comes back again. Yet, it is good for the Church to try to come to grips with it in both its history and its present existence. One of the challenges I think we all have is to decide to love people who perpetuate racism through either their ignorance, but especially through their obstinate defense of it. Often they don’t see what they are doing, or failing to do, as sin.
It can be hard for people to see that something they are not doing is actually sin; we call these “sins of omission.” It is the standing by and doing or saying nothing that often leads to the perpetuation of injustice.
“Rescue those being led away to death, hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Proverbs 24:11-12)
In my opinion much of the sin for which the founders of the PCA and even continuing into the life of the PCA are culpable, in regards to racism, is a sin committed by omission. That sin particularly is failing to hold individuals and congregations to accountability for their racist attitudes and actions. One of the objections to the overture was that the PCA has no official statements or actions of racism so therefore there is nothing for the whole denomination to repent about. Ironically, there was even the call that if anyone has sinned they should be held to account through church discipline according to our standards. How peculiar this demand is when the history of our denomination shows very few instances of such discipline, and in one case I know about, when discipline was sought, how much abuse was suffered by some of the Pastors who brought the action.
Evidently, to those who say we should now bring discipline, there must have previously been no racism in our congregations, or in the individuals who make them up, since we haven’t found anything to discipline. One major point in seeking the Overture is that there has been an obstinate refusal to see racism as sin, and therefore a resistance to go after individuals or churches who perpetuate it through discipline in the church courts. The evidence of this neglect is overwhelming, and it is damning evidence against the PCA. This has resulted in some having felt comfort in the church to hold such attitudes and conduct themselves in ways that have damaged persons of other ethnicities and brought dishonor to the name of Christ in our denomination.
What this action of the PCA has done is a corporate way of distancing ourselves from, and even renouncing, what many African American and ethnic communities have considered to be the reputation of some local PCA congregations (and thus the denomination). Those reputations may have lingered from before the PCA existed, but many churches and the buildings (which are the public reputation and geographical landmark) in which they worship, surrounded by ethnic communities, have publicly exhibited racism and exclusion. The building in which my congregation worships in Chattanooga, Tennessee had that very reputation until 1990, (the year we took it over) well into PCA years. Where was the cry for discipline against that congregation then?
One congregation (which told me this story) in South Carolina, came into the PCA after the First Presbyterian Church in their city (from which they divided,) decided to racially integrate. They were welcomed by the local PCA Presbytery, in the guise of leaving a liberal church. That congregation no longer rejects African Americans, hallelujah! Yet this action of General Assembly now acts as a means of renouncing that determined act of segregation. Again, hallelujah!
The plea of some not to repent as a denomination but rather to pursue in discipline specific individuals is a perverted call to engage in a “witch hunt.” Surely this is not what they want, and this is not what I desire. I know some of our founders will die never having realized the extreme meanness (let alone horrible exegesis and terrible Biblical interpretation) of their arguments for segregation, nor the shame they have brought the church they loved so much, nor the offense and stumbling block they have caused brothers hoping they could join a fellowship of Reformed believers but wondering about our latent hypocrisy.
This repentance helps set us right in acknowledging our attitudes, statements, and actions (of either omission or commission) were and are wrong, while in patient love we leave the judgement concerning some of our founders to God. Hopefully, moving on from here, our church courts will hold individuals, and congregations, accountable. We are waiting for Jesus to smooth out all our blemishes and make us a radiant bride, we claim no perfection until then, but we are grateful when he holds a mirror up to our face and we see things we should have faced long ago.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
I’m about to go to a meeting and at this meeting there will be discussions going on about racism. This will be a rather significant meeting since it is the annual meeting of my denomination and the discussions are going to lead to various actions, reactions, and attitudes. What will be thought, said, or done is going to be consequential though there will be cynics who will dismiss much of it, as cynics do (and this will be from all sides of the issue). There will be those at this meeting who will belittle, dismiss, or evade as those who suffer from “racial discussion irritation” tend to do every time the subject comes up.
There will be some people at this meeting who will expose the formation of their thinking and attitudes concerning the issues of race as being politically driven, and will interpret everyone who might oppose them as being politically driven as well. Thus they are dismissive that there is any “real” issue of moral, spiritual or Biblical substance. They will voice the idea that there might be some justification to the discussion if it just wasn’t put into the vocabulary of social justice forgetting that such vocabulary owes much of its content to the Biblical prophets.
This usually comes from a conservative political side, which has cooked a stew of interpreting racial issues, complaints, cries for justice, and analysis of racial incidents as simply political in nature. They have often interpreted the voicing of racial concerns as only things to be manipulated by liberals or democrats and not actual moral, ethical, or spiritual matters. Such manipulation has happened of course, but it does not invalidate our own personal, congregational, or denominational history and involvement in our national racial narrative.
This pattern of dismissal was true during the time of slavery, and the struggle for civil rights. According to this narrative black people have never had any real issues or complaints; everything was manufactured by abolitionists, or Northern agitators, or communists for their own purposes. The proof positive of this was always to find a Negro who expressed resentment about people bringing the issue up when they claimed to be pretty happy in the system (slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, apartheid). Oppressed people have sometimes had difficulty not only understanding their oppression (the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt), but feeling free to tell the truth about it.
There is an interesting dynamic in racial discussions that tends to be fairly constant, although stretching across different demographics. This dynamic is the tendency to assume that one can live in America and be aloof from the conversation. The issue of race in America is a national artifact, it is part of our collective history, has created our present culture, and affects every single person residing in this country. The way we react or fail to react to the artifact of race and inter-racial conflict adds to the artifact.
Because race as a created social construct played so heavily in the creation of America it is very difficult to walk around in public without people assigning you to a racial category. Whether or not anyone told you how and when it happened, certain privileges and complications go with that designation. The designation can be solely in another person’s mind, and the privilege or hindrance associated with their designation can cause one to have a blessing or be cursed. Sometimes this designation ends up being fatal. An example of this would be “driving while black” or being profiled and creating a confrontation that leads to violence. There are always exceptions and negative designations are not universal, yet our history reveals tendencies depending on the lightness or darkness of skin color.
Majority culture people who have had the possibility of living a segregated life and not actively mingling with other kinds of folks sometimes act as if they can intellectually observe all this discussion from afar, as if they have not been the recipients of racial privilege due to racism. We often enter racial conversations as if we can be neutral, can walk away from the issue if it bothers us too much, or think that we bear no responsibility for the national culture and how it affects minority cultures. Unfortunately we seem to get away with it too often, but it is an illusion that besets obtuse individuals who do not realize how offensive and destructive to relationship healing that they continue to be.
We have met Europeans who have immigrated to the U.S. in the last decade or so who claim that none of these problems are theirs, that they are somehow not involved. We have met Africans who have reacted exactly the same way, and might insist to any white racist that they are not African-American but African and should be treated differently, and react to African Americans as if this American fight is not theirs. Again, to enter into this society is to enter into a society one of whose major and significant historical and cultural artifacts is the color of your skin, not your language nor your tribe nor where you are from and not how long you have been here. It is part of the mess in which we step and gets on everyone’s shoes. You might deny it but the stink of it goes with you.
Since only those people in denial think they can escape it the only realistic way through it is to deal with it, to think about it, to discuss it. That discussion will inevitably be with those of “another” people group, as least if one actually wants to make progress in coming to any kind of reconciliation. Many of these discussions can be painful, opening up wounds to heal them.
There are those who believe that “it is best to let sleeping dogs lie.” Some might believe that those problems from a past era are over, might even be regrettable, but why bring them up now? Again, this presupposes a certain sense of denial about current racial tensions and injustices and betrays a lack of concern or sense of responsibility about the past. Some people think silence is a mark of peace or even a way to maintain peace and unity when in actuality it is too often a resignation (on the part of some), to the idea that progress and healing cannot be pursued or accomplished. To others it is a convenient hiding place from dealing with their sin.
I am looking (and I am looking for it first in myself) for a discussion in sincerity, conducted with honesty, of truth telling. I am looking for humility, a conversation of hope, filled with mercy and readiness to forgive and be forgiven. I am looking for a hatred of sin, not just that of others but our own, and a great rush to repentance and revenge. Revenge? Yes, the kind that the Apostle Paul spoke of when he wrote the Corinthians about how they had dealt with sin in their church in 2 Corinthians 7:11. I don’t think the reference concerns revenge against a person, but a revenge against sin, uncleanness, and against the Devil. My hope is for a godly sorrow that leads to a great zeal for repentance, holiness, and justice among us; not to harm anyone but rather to heal our souls and our church.
Thursday, June 9, 2016
I am fairly loath to ever make pronouncements as to whether or not someone who has just died has gone to hell. That decision is “above my pay-grade” as we used to say in the military. It is also out of my knowledge base or capacity to know someone’s dying prayer, or dying hope and faith. This of course leaves room for hope for most of the people we have known.
As an American I am one of many who grieve over the death of our celebrities, to some degree. It is usually not personal, as I have either never met such people or only met them as a fan in a very brief moment, or see them from afar. This doesn’t mean that their life, or their talent and craft, has not affected me. We are a celebrity culture and the culture that significant people have helped to create is the culture in which I have lived, and often enjoyed. Even if I have sometimes morally objected to various behaviors, it doesn’t stop me from tapping my foot to a tune they wrote. I may have disagreed with their religious commitments, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been thrilled at their skills and abilities.
This doesn’t mean that I am assuming these very great and talented people all went to heaven. Just because I liked them, or liked their product, or even have really positive feelings about them doesn’t assure me that they are in heaven in God’s presence. In fact, to tell the truth, I usually assume the opposite. An even harder thing for me to admit as a fact (of my beliefs) is that I assume most people go to hell.
It seems to me that it is even a bit scandalous to admit that I believe in such a thing as hell. I think it would be almost universally condemned to say out loud that any specific celebrity went to hell, especially when so many are declaring so-and-so is now welcoming so-and-so in glory and positing other sentimental scenarios.
Evidently America has a growing number of people who define themselves as Atheists, people who say there is no God. These are not people wondering if there is a God, admitting that God might possibility exist, no, they claim he does not and they are absolutely sure of it. Some of them mock those who still claim to believe in a living God. Yet, I am stuck with a commitment to the idea that there is a real God, who has revealed himself through a written word we know as the Bible, and I believe that word to be true. Therefore I accept that when the Bible says, “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.” That this does in fact describe Atheists, that they are fools indeed.
What does this have to do with heaven and hell? Well, quite a bit if the Bible is true. Atheists are not going to heaven in my understanding due to their lack of belief in God. It would be strange and a bit ironic for an Atheist to be angry at me for saying such things, since he or she couldn’t believe what I say to be correct or have any basis in reality. Hell for the Atheist is to be finally in the place where they cannot live any longer in the comfort of their denial, and that must be really hellish.
They might still feel insulted at my saying that they will go to hell, and it might make me look like a rather negative person and rather intolerant. The issue of how tolerant or intolerant I am by personality has nothing to do with my belief and adherence to my religious convictions, about which many modern people do not seem to have the perceptive ability to differentiate. I am, I hope, a very tolerant person who believes in an absolutely intolerant God.
In fact, according to the Bible, a whole lot of people are going to hell and not just Atheists. Everyone in fact, except those who have been specifically forgiven by the Holy Father for their sins, is going to face an eternal judgment that will be very unpleasant. But what about people who have done so many great and cool things, and entertained us, and seemed such nice people (at times)? Christians who do believe the Bible have to politely (and there is almost no way it will be accepted as such) remind folks that there is no one who does not sin, and that the payoff for our sinfulness and our sinning is death, and that everyone who dies faces a judgement, and that judgment not only implies further consequence (either heaven or hell) but the Bible pretty clearly spells it out as a nasty place called the Lake of Fire.
Again, what about people we like, or are popular, or who have done some really great things? Here is where our society has no clear grasp of goodness or holiness, nor does it have a clear understanding of not only how inadequate we are compared to the standard of absolute righteousness, but the actual and real depth of our common sinfulness and evil. Liberal social policies and humanistic empathy for common failings doesn’t lower the standard for a moral judgement from a completely non-compromised Divine being. Our society is moving as fast as can away from the concept of retributive justice, while we naturally and innately all still want it personally for our own revenge. Polite people don’t admit this until something happens to their child, women, or puppies.
But, someone might object about someone who has died that they had their own religion and surely they were sincere in it and so who are “we” (Bible believing Christians) to judge? I personally have no right to judge anyone, only to be faithful to the God I believe in, and to what He has revealed as truth. But it sounds like judgment to be sure when I say that if the Bible is true, which I believe it is, then only those who are forgiven in Jesus Christ get to go heaven. I get it, it sure does sound harsh, and exclusive, and intolerant. It is, but I accept that God himself has the right to make his own determinations about entrance or exclusion from heaven.
Somewhere along the way our religion became so personalized that it seemed it was correct for people to avoid the unpleasant things about which their religion professed. It was as if we could craft and shape our religions to fit in with polite society which people do when they say such things as, “my God would never do that.” Or, “I could not believe in that kind of God.” As if any of us really have a choice if there is in fact only one true and living God. He is what he is, and not what we want to make him, and you and I cannot escape the reality which he has created.
Well, where is the love and kindness stuff? It is certainly not in hedging the truth to fit in with the popular narrative. There once was a prominent professional narrative among medical doctors that they didn’t have to wash their hands or be sterile when delivering babies. So it was that lots of women and babies died because bacteria create infection and thus kills. Popular narratives don’t create or change truth, except the truth that people seem to hate facing reality.
We Christians don't really show our society, neighbors, or friends any real compassion by continuing to be silent about an approaching looming precipice for them in falling into the hands of a Judge who knows all. People today don't seem to deny the reality of dying, the fear of death seems to vary among individuals, but they seem less and less to fear God which is their great mistake.
Truth is not hateful, but truth is intolerant of non-truth, and may feel hateful to those who don’t want to hear it or deny it. The love and kindness stuff is that no matter the hard reality that there will be a payday coming for all of us in facing the judgement for our sins, God has paid the penalty for all of us in the gracious giving of his son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. This is what some describe as an obnoxious intolerant exclusivity of Christianity, which in actual fact is a universal offer of mercy to all who will believe.
God’s rigid adherence to his standards, thus his intolerance, is exhibited here as mercy when he declares that we, because of our faith, are now his children, forgiven, and inheritors of everlasting life and nothing can ever separate us from his love. Not only can I live with that idea, it is the only way any of us get to live, eternally, at all.