Tuesday, February 13, 2018
I have been thinking some about the role of Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Post Modern ideology concerning prevalent ethnic and racial justice and injustice issues. I have been thinking of the rhetoric of cultural and social critics, the presumptive attempt to be “prophetic” in speaking to social problems, and the difficulty of pointing out hard and unpleasant realities, while at the same time maintaining a Biblical attitude and behavior. For the Christian to be prophetic in this day and age must mean that not only he or she has the courage to speak truth to power, or truth to institutions, but also that both the truth that is expounded, and the manner in which it is expounded be grounded and understood from Biblical absolutes. This means our attempts to speak the truth have to be practiced in the context of Christ, Gospel, and grace.
We live in a world of social and cultural criticism. Much of this criticism is media driven, often through the use of humor and especially using satire, sarcasm, and mockery. Some of this criticism arises from pain, from real racial hurt, and from both the results of oppression as well as current acts and attitudes of racism and injustice.
To cut off social criticism from a God’s eye point of view of truth, love, and eternity inevitably leads to all kinds of errors. Some of these errors create darkness in our own souls as we can be crushed by the despair caused by the oppression of societal sin in the world. We can attempt to face the unjust realities of the world without faith and that just keeps us angry, traumatized, and ultimately burned out. We can attempt to face social and economic realities with some kind of jury-rigged earthly analysis, and as brilliant as they might seem or as militant as they may make us feel, they have no hope. Some of that societal sin is the sin of the unjust or unwise State, some is tribal and ethnic oppression, some is collective economic exploitation, some might be the oppression of cultural dominant groups either by design or ignorance, and some of course is familial and interpersonal, i.e. individual to individual.
Believers need to be cultural and societal critics, or at least some leaders in the church have to be. To be “in the world and not of it” means that we are called to some discrimination, some discernment, to know what is happening around us, to us, or to others. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we have no knowledge, concern, or empathy for them. We cannot adequately preach the Gospel to the poor if we don’t know who they are. We cannot throw off the yoke of oppression if we don’t know what oppression is, who is being oppressed and how, and where. It is not always easy work to be culturally discerning. The secular philosophical world can sometimes give us helpful ideas, clues, and even slogans or phrases to help sum up what has happened in history or culture. Common grace allows all human beings to tell a bit of the truth, and it certainly allows them to pick up pretty quickly what they feel to be just and unjust.
Evangelicals have studied, discussed, and written about trends in philosophical culture. They have studied and strategized about generational culture. Some are beginning to add an ethnic and racial analysis to culture, which is long overdue in the American context. Evangelicals have preferred moral criticism and sometimes divorced it (shamefully and embarrassingly so) from justice. As I have read and listened to some of the (Evangelical) modern cultural critics I have been concerned about the amount of polarization that has taken place. For some polarization seems almost to be an achievement, and I am concerned, and sad about that. If we give criticism we have to be able to receive it, and this is often hard for us to hear especially when we feel so right about our stance on the issues. Some seem unable to hear criticism about their views or rhetoric, or have possibly tied their egos to their platforms, and as we should all know, it is hard to disentangle oneself from a run-away band wagon once we are tied to it with our pride. This is as true for the conservative wing of Evangelicals as it is for the more liberal side of Evangelicals.
Here are some of my concerns, i.e., criticisms, and observations about recent conversational trends and they are not to be taken as universal, they are of course generalized but not appropriate for everyone in the conversation.
· Asserting that historic behaviors of past injustice, responsible for residual effects, must all still be at play.
· Asserting that racism is an extremely rare attitude and behavior within specific individuals and is having no significant current impact on culture, society, or politics.
· Inserting racial, ethnic, and tribal rationalizations to explain all inequities.
· Allowing one’s frustration with seemingly implacable societal realities to create theories of systemic, systematic, and intentional conspiracy about those realities.
· Asserting that anyone who describes society and culture in terms of group/class antagonism, or attempts to discuss or describe social injustice must be a Marxist. [There are Marxists, then there are others who are members of the Communist Party (they are not necessarily the same) and then there are others who borrow Marxist social criticism terms and phrases in their speech and writings, but certainly are not consistently Marxist in their ideology.]
· Avoiding and denying subject (individual) responsibility for the creation of cultural and ethnic distortions in equity.
· Avoiding and resisting group (or group representative) responsibility for the reality of privilege and the exercise of power.
· Interpreting even the “well meaning” (but failed) solutions to social problems with the most negative and racist explanations.
· Ignorance of how the radical rhetoric of group condemnation will motivationally affect the opposition, or giving the results no concern.
· Assuming that even in the midst of pointed and emotional speech against perceived evils that the speaker is exempt from giving honor to everyone, especially leaders, love to their neighbors, and especially to what one may assume is an “enemy.”
· Creating the myth that the language of ethnic triumphalism can replace individual moral responsibility, or group activism, on the ground.
· Allowing ethnic and racial identity narratives to harden into tribal narrative competition.
· Failing to see that creating a negative world of personal bitterness and condemnatory speech with an oppositional isolation is an inadequate path for survival, and deprives one of a necessary social and cultural interaction in a multi-cultural world.
· Failing to realize that the language of love is a necessary component of love.
· Creating the false narrative that reconciliation is only a product of the full realization of guilt, confession, repentance, restoration, and reparations or leaving the alternative… permanent condemnation or retribution.
· Creating the false narrative that reconciliation is either accomplished or not, thus denying it as a process that has both emotional and relational beginnings, as well as realizations and actions.
· Creating rhetoric that denies grace to the ignorant and the transgressor (and failing to define the difference) while removing the necessity of faith, humility and responsibility in the response of the victim, thus denying them inherent dignity.
· Failure to see the power of love and mercy to cover a multitude of sins and bring healing even without adequate self-knowledge, self-realization, and personal acceptance of blame and responsibility from the privileged.
· Conflating a Marxist and Post-Modern dialectical tribal analysis to construct a narrative of conflict and competition that alienates rather than reconciles.
· Conflating a conservative political and economic world view, with its attendant patriotic civil religion, with Biblical Christianity.
· A practical rejection of Biblical anthropology and God’s sovereignty in the historical ordering of mankind to bring about his eternal and eschatological purposes.
· An attempt to convey real and honest history with an incisive and unapologetic exposure of injustice and oppression without much hope or Gospel, and without a rhetorical acknowledgement or commitment of the tenacity of the Church to prevail against the gates of hell.
Monday, February 5, 2018
I’ve recently had some opportunities to speak about money, sacrifice, and the poor. I often speak on poverty but it gets a bit more personal when I speak to “the poor” and to “the rich.”
Over the last decade or so I have heard preachers and speakers on the radio and other places mention the fact that the Bible talks a lot about money. After they mention this fact I seem to hear either a discussion about getting out of debt and achieving sound financial management, or from another direction I hear a sermon urging me to believe in the “prosperity Gospel.” Usually those sermons don’t use that phrase but instead encourage me to go after my "money miracle, my breakthrough, my blessing, or to enlarge my tent." Both sides seem to encourage me to be pretty self-focused, it is all about how I use, tithe, sow, or save “my” money.
I don’t hear from those sources much about the poor, except to encourage me not to be counted among them. I also don’t hear much from those preachers concerning a rebuke, command, or charge to the rich, except that if God was truly blessing me then I would be one of them.
One of the great joys of my preaching ministry has been to sometimes speak to very poor people, in places where almost everyone in the room, tent, hut, field, beach, under the stars, or church building was poor. Telling them that God cares about them; that they are indeed loved in Christ and that they can become fellow heirs with Christ has filled me with joy. This joy is sometimes because I see and feel the joy in them, as I hear them sing in faith, as I see them encouraged that God actually loves them in their poverty, and notices their condition. I see them take joy in their exalted position. It is a joy, but it is sometimes simultaneously heart-breaking.
One of the great challenges of my ministry is preaching to and relating to the rich. The challenge is how to love them while calling them to make purses for themselves that will not wear out, to not wear themselves out to be and stay rich, to not trust in the temporal nature of their wealth, to lay up their treasure in heaven where moth and rust don’t corrupt and thieves don’t break in to steal, to share their bread with the hungry, to be generous and ready to share, to glory in their low estate, and to be rich in good works. I have to command them not to be arrogant and not to put their hope in their money. I have to warn them that they can’t serve God and money at the same time. I have to do this while still loving them and not making the false assumption that material things are bad in themselves or that God doesn’t want any of us to enjoy life and the things he has given us in this world.
One of the great tasks of my ministry is to put these two kinds of people in touch with each other, sometimes personally, and sometimes simply through resources. When it happens I get to see two different kind of Christians receive a blessing and I see the Gospel at work.
There are temptations in this kind of work. One is a subtle kind of coveting, not so much for the stuff of wealth, but for the power of it. Why doesn’t God just give me all that money so I can give it directly, which surely I would do? One conclusion is that God doesn’t put any confidence in my humility; that with the power to decide on distribution would come an insufferable arrogance. This would lead to a conviction that I didn’t need to pray, no longer to trust God, and no need of working at relationships that might be difficult. Having money can give one the illusion that they don't need other people or accountability.
As the writer of Proverbs (30:7-9) prayed,
“Two things I ask of you, O Lord, do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches,
But give me only my daily bread,
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my god.”
Another kind of temptation is to be afraid of the faces of men. My ministry seems to be dependent on the generosity of God’s people so maybe I had better be careful not to "bite the hand that feeds me"? (I have actually heard that warning from people who didn’t like my social or cultural application of the Scriptures). What if the wealthy cut me off, what if they don’t like me, what if they no longer support me, give me their money to help others, or won’t share some of their very nice homes, cars, and company?
You might notice I used the word “seems” when I talked about depending on the generosity of God’s people, and there is certainly nothing strange or wrong about receiving support from God's people. As an itinerant preacher and teacher Jesus received generosity from the wealthy. The Apostle Paul was supported by the gifts of God’s people. They also sometimes went without, in danger, exposed to the elements, no place to lay their head, etc. The truth is that they didn’t depend on God’s people; they depended on God the Father. So should we all, and to do otherwise will certainly compromise our courage and our message.
The standard of my calling is to be true to God’s Word and never use it to manipulate people. My calling is to be a man of integrity in how I teach it and live it, and to love everyone as I meet, preach to, encourage, and live among them. Part of that standard is to be humble, and that humility is to be both an inner conviction and an outward appearance.
Another part of my calling is to say like Amos, “the lion has roared who can but tremble, the Lord has spoken who can but prophesy?” And so like Jeremiah I have to say, “but if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” And like James I have to tell people, “show me your faith by your works.”
I am called to be both humble and bold. Being prophetic about poverty and wealth might cause some to think of me with annoyance which can then lead to avoidance, especially when I speak of injustice and the necessity of sacrifice. The reality is that I am no hero, and I have suffered very little abuse in trying to be faithful to the calling God has given me. I consider myself immensely blessed. Yet, I know sometimes I make people nervous.
To, and for me, the cross calls us to discipleship, to the cost of it, and to proclaiming and living out the Gospel of the Kingdom. I have absolutely no ability to carry that cross, no innate spirituality or moral strength to carry it. I find myself to be a person who has contradictions; holding powerful convictions and too little holiness, a powerful message and too much selfish weakness. If Jesus doesn’t help me I won’t make it. If God’s grace doesn’t empower then the cross is too heavy. Yet in that cross is all my help, all my cleansing, all my deliverance from sin and self. The cross begins with justification but it has all these sanctification implications that keeps nailing me to it.
The conclusion is fairly clear and direct for all of us, from the poorest to the wealthiest; we can’t continue to be afraid and let worry make us hold onto material possessions for our security. We have to learn to live in contentment by faith, and we must learn the amazing and wonderful experience of sharing, generosity, and sacrifice in caring for the poor and loving our neighbors. All of us can and must do that, as hard and even as impossible as it seems, as Christ empowers us. It is want He wants.