Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race (Part 4)

Bible and Race Title 1Peter W. Wielhouwer, Ph.D. (June, 2015)

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (Col 3:14)

In this essay I articulate core principles of a Bible-based worldview of the concepts of humanity and race.

[Because this essay is long, I divided it into four parts, and each part builds on the principles developed in the previous parts]

GO TO FULL ESSAY / PART 1 / PART 2 / PART 3

 

IV. PRACTICAL HEALING OF RACIAL SINS

Christians are obligated to resolve our conflicts. But to truly do so, our community’s race-based conflicts must be acknowledged as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes.

Dr. Tony Evans notes,

“But once you admit that racism is a sin problem, you are obligated as a believer to deal with it right away. As long as the issue of race is social and not spiritual, it will never be dealt with in any ultimate sense.”[23]

Recent events have revealed the deep faultlines that divide American society by race. The riots after Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore’s riots after Freddy Gray’s death in police custody, and the shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston in 2015 make clear that we have a problem. Now, I am not claiming any easy solutions or trying to pile on white guilt-feelings per se, or absolve trouble makers from being held responsible for the trouble they have made. But…

Christians—especially white Christians—must be brutally honest about the role that racism and corrupted Christian teachings have played in excavating the racial faultlines in our long and complicated history.

While it is true that racism begins as one individual’s sin, the sin of racism was aggregated, legitimated, and institutionalized so that the sins of many “ones” multiplied. And the legal, social, and political consequences for our African-American brethren were profound. Social structures supporting racial injustice were created, and therefore those social structures had to be dismantled.

Scripture and churches were corrupted by sketchy theological interpretations designed to support the worldview of white supremacy and keep slaves and later, free black people, quiescent. Frederick Douglass observed in 1846,

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

It is from the pulpit that we have sermons on behalf of slavery…I have heard sermon after sermon, when a slave, intended to make me satisfied with my condition, telling me that it is the position God intended me to occupy; that if I offend against my master, I offend against God; that my happiness in time and eternity depends on my entire obedience to my master. Those are the doctrines taught among slaves, and the slave-holders themselves have become conscious about holding slaves in bondage, and their consciences have been lulled to sleep by the preaching and teaching of the Southern American pulpits. “There is no place,” said an Abolitionist in the United States, “where slavery finds a more secure abode than under the shadow of the sanctuary.”[24]

Those unbiblical scriptural interpretations and messages had to be undone and untaught, and some of that work still needs to be done. (I will have more to say on that that in the next couple of posts.)

We must also acknowledge that the damage to the family of God has been deep. Often the social and legal changes were imposed before the sinful attitudes that created and laid the foundation for Jim Crow were addressed, generating resentment and anger that remains. The work of restoration and healing is not finished, and cannot ultimately be finished by statute.

As I have written elsewhere, social science has established clearly that white Americans and African Americans view racism differently. White people tend to view racism as an individual attitude (I have argued that it is an individual sin), while black people tend to view racism as a characteristic of our political and social system (making it a collective sin). As should be clear, these are two edges of the same sword. White Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their African-American Christian brethren. And Black Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their White brethren. Many of us ignorantly push forward attitudes that do nothing to pursue and improve the unity of the Body of Christ. Instead, we steadfastly (or stubbornly) refuse to consider changing the way we think or our preferences for the sake of others and the sake of Christ’s Bride.

The broader problem, however, is that as America moves away from a common understanding of sin and humanity’s intrinsic sinfulness, the real basis for racial reconciliation becomes more elusive. If we don’t agree on the concept of sin, healing becomes difficult, because clear and truthful communication about the real problem will be hindered. It is thus the responsibility of members of the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to initiate and follow through on racial reconciliation and healing based on its real and actual causes. We must set aside our own preferences for the way we wish things were, or the way we have come to identify with our personal heritages.

Healing and Reconciliation is individual and group work

Scripturally there are clear processes for resolving interpersonal conflicts between Christians, and some of that work must be done. There is much written on this, and I don’t have the space to address it here, but it includes:

  • The sinner repenting and seeking forgiveness;
  • the victim forgiving the sinner;
  • the sinner pursuing the victim to seek reconciliation and forgiveness;
  • the victim pursuing the sinner to seek reconciliation and offer forgiveness; and
  • a spirit of mutual love and respect as co-equal children of God and followers of Christ.

It does not include, as one African-American brother in the Lord put it, browbeating others into submission.

As a side note, the non-Christian world will not understand this, they will marvel at it! This week I was watching The Rundown (MSNBC) host José Díaz-Balart interview Pastor Stephen Singleton from Charleston, South Carolina, where a few days earlier nine black churchgoers were murdered in church by a white man hoping to start a race war. Díaz-Balart seemed genuinely perplexed by Christian family members’ willingness to express forgiveness toward the shooter so soon:

“I was struck over and over again how they said ‘We forgive you.’ What kind of a person does that? How is one able to have so much forgiveness against evil?”[25]

Brothers and sisters—the government can’t do this. The NAACP can’t do this. The other church down the road can’t do this (alone). Islam can’t do this. Social do-gooders can’t do this. We, the followers of Jesus Christ, must do this. It is the right thing to do, to imitate Christ, to set aside our own self-interest and put others’ interests above our own (Phil 2:3-15), and work together for healing, pursuing the unity of the Body.

We must work together toward the common goal our Lord has set for His Church in human history, both setting aside our personal histories and leveraging those histories to strengthen the work of the Body. These histories include our ethnicities. As Tony Evans recently wrote,

The reason why we haven’t solved the racial divide in America after hundreds of years is because people apart from God are trying to invent unity, while people who belong to God are not living out the unity that we already possess….Unity can be defined in its most basic of terms as oneness of purpose. It means working together toward a common goal….God has a team. It’s made up of African-American, Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and a variety of other people and cultures. He never wants you to make your distinction, your history or your background, so precious to you that it messes up His team. Nor does He want you to ignore or diminish your distinction, your history or your background, thus leaving little with which to contribute to His team.

At the individual level, if you know that what you do has a very negative effect on another person, STOP IT!

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Seek forgiveness from your neighbor or co-worker or your kid’s teacher. Legally, do we have to change our hearts? No, we’re free to continue on, but as Russell Moore points out, “we should not prize our freedom to the point of destroying those for whom Christ died. We should instead ‘pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’ (Rom. 14:19).” For example, New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson relates how a white friend, who, without asking, took down his Confederate battle flag, simply because he came to realize that Watson found it offensive and hurtful. No demands, no screaming, no protests, just friends learning to love one another in harmony. How good that is!

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Conclusion

Once Christians acknowledge the foundational biblical principles of a human self-concept based on creation and equality before God; once we decide to leverage our already-existing unity, and apply principles of peace-seeking and reconciliation to damaged relationships; once we have really begun implementing spiritual chemotherapy against the cancer of racism; and once we operate from a position of biblical orthodoxy and not liberalism, broader social changes and healing are bound to follow.

 

GO TO FULL ESSAY

———————————-

This essay is the first of three parts in a series promoting racial healing. In this essay, I have articulated a Biblical Worldview of humanity and race. Next, I address the twisting of scripture that produced the so-called “Curse of Ham,” which has been used as brutal weapon in the cause of white supremacy against people of color and against the unity of the Body of Christ.

———————————–

 

[23] Kingdom Agenda, 364-5. See also Ron Miller, 2015, “Make Us One: Looking at race through the eyes of God,” PowerPoint presentation, personal copy.

[24] Frederick Douglass, “Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance: An Address Delivered in London, England, on September 14, 1846.” London Inquirer, September 19, 1846 and London Patriot, September 17, 1846. www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1083.htm

[25] “Emanuel AME Church holds Bible study for first time since shooting,” MSNBC Broadcast June 25, 2015.

Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race

Bible and Race Title 1Peter W. Wielhouwer, Ph.D. (June, 2015)

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (Col 3:14)

In this essay I articulate core principles of a Bible-based worldview of the concepts of humanity and race.

[Because this essay is long, I have a version in which I divide it into four parts. If you want to read it in shorter chunks, keep in mind that each later part builds on the ideas developed in the earlier parts. To read it part-by-part, start with PART 1]

Why? Current events reveal to us that American society, including Christians, continue to be divided over race and racial thinking, problems and solutions. For nearly twenty years I have been studying these questions systematically, both as a scholar and as a Christian. This is the latest in my efforts to contribute to an ongoing discussion about the origins and solutions to the United States’ race problems.

As a teacher of the Word of God, I believe it is important to lay out the truth about a topic before introducing alternatives and problems, just as the Secret Service trains agents how to spot counterfeit bills by first making them experts on real bills. My audience is mainly Christians, as I want to educate my faith family about what the Bible says about humanity and what we call race. Then I want to expose them to major ways in which the Bible has been twisted to support un-Christian and un-biblical thinking about race. I have been surprised and saddened to learn how pervasive non-biblical ideas continue to be used to contort and disfigure the biblical narrative of human history.

Let me preview my central line of thinking for the present essay. Based on the Bible, we know that

  1. God created two human beings in His image, from whom are descended all other humans that have ever existed.
  2. As God’s created “image bearers” each member of humanity is inherently equal in the eyes of God, and He judges people based on the state of their heart or spirit, or orientation toward Himself and His Son, Jesus Christ.
  3. To the extent we evaluate others’ intrinsic character or assign them value on any other basis than God’s, we sin by dividing ourselves artificially; thus, showing favoritism on the basis of social class or physical appearance (including what we call “racism” nowadays) is a sin problem.
  4. Since racism is a sin problem masquerading as a “skin” problem, Christians are obligated to resolve race-based conflicts as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes. This must take place at both the individual and the corporate levels.

Some Definitions

The idea that different “races” of humans exist is unbiblical. Historically “race” has referred to a biological species with a common ancestor. For example, Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary primarily defines race as “The lineage of a family, or continued series of descendants from a parent who is called the stock. A race is the series of descendants indefinitely. Thus all mankind are called the race of Adam.”[1] Nowadays, however, the general way people use the word “race” is more like “Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.”

To distinguish ourselves on the basis of an idea called “race” is also inaccurate scientifically. For example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health acknowledges growing skepticism about the idea that there are different human “races,” based on analysis of the amount of genetic differences between different populations of the human species:

“research reveals that Homo sapiens is one continuously variable, interbreeding species. Ongoing investigation of human genetic variation has even led biologists and physical anthropologists to rethink traditional notions of human racial groups. The amount of genetic variation between these traditional classifications actually falls below the level that taxonomists use to designate subspecies, the taxonomic category for other species that corresponds to the designation of race in Homo sapiens. This finding has caused some biologists to call the validity of race as a biological construct into serious question.”[2]

And from a social science perspective, Professor Michael Jeffries suggests that the idea of different “races” is a mere social invention.

“Race” is rooted in false beliefs about the validity of observed physical differences as indicators of human capacity or behaviors. Human beings build categories and make distinctions naturally. But there is no biological basis for racial categories and no relationship between classification based on observed physical characteristics and patterns of thought or behavior. Humans do not have separate subspecies or races the way some animals do…The company line among academics is that “race is socially constructed,” meaning that it is an idea produced by human thought and interaction rather than something that exists as a material fact of life on earth.[3]

Therefore, I and many others tend to believe that there one single human race, which has historically been divided on the basis of geography, language, and culture. Instead, More specifically, I try to distinguish between race and other social divisions known as ethnicity, defined as “a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition,” which can include a common language, dialect, or religion.

Ethnicity, being a function of nation, culture and language, is also related to our ancestral regions of the world. Ethnic differences are often marked by differences in physical appearances, such as skin tone, hair texture, eye color, eye, nose, and mouth shape, because across humanity these differences tend to be geographically concentrated. Physical characteristics sometimes give us simple cues about another person’s culture and ethnicity. It is often difficult, however, to discern ethnicity based solely on external physical characteristics (such as telling the difference between Koreans and Japanese, or Iranians and Saudis). People really create problems when they assess character, morality, intelligence, and worth based on appearances. As I learned in fourth grade, this is the very definition of prejudice, pre-judging another based primarily on their appearance. When we use physical characteristics such as skin tone, hair texture, and so on to make such judgments, we encounter the problem of what our culture calls “racism.” Racism as used in our times is commonly defined (here by the Oxford English Dictionary) as:

1 Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior;

1.1 The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races

It is important to see the difference between these two definitions; the first is a set of actions based on a belief, while the second is the belief itself. As Christians it is important for us to frame our understanding of race and racism based on biblical principles and concepts. These address first the notion that one of the so-called “racial” groups has value or is intrinsically superior or inferior compared with others; and second actions or behaviors that extend from those beliefs. You will note, therefore, that much of the discussion below addresses what race is and what it is not, and assumes the current social context, in which racism (as defined above) exists in our culture.

On to the four principles of a biblical worldview of race…

 

I. CREATION: WE’RE ALL RELATED

Our Creator-God purposively created the first two people, whose descendants are of “one blood” (Gen 1:26-27; 2:7; Acts 17:26). Thus, all diversity in the human race is genetically derived from the original two people.

This view of human origins has long been held by Jews and Christians, and historically provided a biblical basis for human equality. It was not until relatively recently (between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment) that alternative theories of separate creations, multiple creations, or macro-evolution significantly impacted these worldviews, weakening the traditional biblical view of humanity’s unity in creation.[4]

What about differences in physical appearance, such as skin color? Biologically, there is nothing odd about the wide variation in skin color, which is mainly determined by genes that control the amount of melanin present in skin cells. Of course, evolutionists hold that this is due to natural selection,[5] but the explanation for these differences needs not rely on evolutionary thinking.

In Judaism and Christianity, the oldest explanation for geographic differences in skin tone is based on the redistribution of humanity by Noah’s sons after the flood (Genesis 9-10). Briefly, Genesis 10 describes the regions of the ancient world where Noah’s descendants settled; the first century (AD/CE) Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the second century Church Father Hippolytus largely reinforce these distributions.[6] (The Genesis passage also influenced Arabic Islamic thought.[7]) Additionally, the names of Noah’s sons have traditionally (sometimes apocryphally) been understood as descriptive of their appearance. Thus there is an ancient perceived connection between the sons and the regional distribution of people with different physical traits.

Based on Genesis 10 and Josephus, the tradition has been:

  • Shem means ‘son,’ ‘marked with a sign,’ or ‘dusky;’[8] his descendants settled Persia, Assyria, Chaldea, and Syria. They were known as Semites, and Shem’s descendants included Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; thus the Israelites/Hebrews/Jews are Semitic in origin. Even today, persecutors of the Jews are known as Anti-Semites.
  • Japheth (Yepheth) means “fair, light,” “opened” or “spread out;” [9] his descendants settled Europe and western Asia.
  • Ham means “hot, dark, burnt” or “sunburnt;”[10] his descendants settled Africa (Ethiopia, Libya, Egypt) and southwest Asia; the descendants of his son Canaan settled what is now modern-day Israel, on the east coast of the Mediterranean.

That quite different skin tones could exist among three sons of the same parents is entirely plausible, and is occasionally observed in modern times. While I am not a genetics genius, here is a genetic Punnett Square presenting a simplified example of how a father and mother with medium skin tone genes can produce a wide variety of skin tones in their next generation.[11] All that is necessary for larger populations to exhibit predominantly darker or lighter skin is for them to “be fruitful and multiply” primarily with other group members with similar skin tones.Punnett Square Melanin 3The tradition of three sets of differently skin-toned descendants of Noah often produced maps like the one below, printed in 1878, which revealed the geographic distribution of predominantly light-toned people (of Japheth, in pink), medium-toned people (of Shem, in green), and dark-skinned people (of Ham, in tan).

 

Table of Nations Cases Bible Atlas (1878)

Favoritism based on skin tone

While some favoritism based on social class appears in early Christianity, the New Testament author James, the half-brother of Jesus, specifically warns against class-based favoritism (James 2:1-9); and Paul’s letters express the idea that that day’s social divisions were to be set aside within the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 3:11). Until the Middle Ages Christian expressions of skin-tone-based favoritism appear to be mainly due to a “somatic” preferences. This simply means people idealized their own people-group’s appearance, not that they believed in the natural superiority of their group. Thus, medium-toned people, dark-skinned people and light-skinned people all saw their own skin tones as the ideal and different skin tones as something less than ideal. In general there did not seem to be a value assigned to people based on their skin tone, however.[12]

Later, through the Late Middle Ages (until about the 1300s AD/CE) Christian, Jewish and Islamic explanations for humans’ different physical appearances also hinged on perceived environmental effects,[13] but again the explanations were extrabiblical. It was thought that the more southern peoples were more exposed to the sun and lived where it was hotter, and therefore were burned a darker color. The more northern peoples were less exposed, and therefore were lighter due to less sun exposure. (Some Islamic legends suggested that the heat in lower latitudes caused children to be overcooked in the womb, and where the climate was cold, babies were undercooked.[14]) Of course, the discovery of the New World in the 16th century and its medium-toned people at the same latitude as Old World dark-toned people profoundly undermined this idea.[15]

In short, the Bible clearly describes a purposive act by God to create human beings. In the early Christian traditions, variations in skin tone were not usually related to differences in people’s perceived value before the Lord or their social position.

 

II. CREATED EQUAL, BUT SINFUL

Because our two common ancestors were created by God in His image (Genesis 1:27-28), each person has inherent dignity. Biblical teaching on humanity’s unique creation from a single couple produced a strong tradition that God sees all of humanity as being in the same fundamental situation.

Though created in God’s image,[16] all of humanity falls short of God ideals and expectations, and we are all sinful, fallen, and separated from him (Romans 3:22-23). God, out of profound love for us, extends His redemptive plan to all people, via his only begotten Son Jesus Christ (John 3:16-17; Acts 4:10-12; Acts 17:30-31; 1 Tim 2:3-7; Titus 2:11).

There is extensive biblical support for the principle that Christianity and salvation are not constrained by ethnicity, nationality, sex, skin tone, or social status. To cite just a few examples…

  • God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to bless all nations through their descendants (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 22:15-18; 26:4-5; 28:13-14) are generally taken seriously in the New Testament as actually meaning all nations (Acts 3:25; Gal 3:8).
  • Among the Israelites, non-Semites were sometimes elevated to positions of equality with the Hebrews, such as
    • Manassah and Ephraim (Gen 41:50-52), sons of Joseph’s wife from On, a city in North Africa (the area settled by Ham’s son Mizraim). Jacob (Israel) declared them equal to his own sons (Gen 48:5).
    • Moses married a woman from Cush (Num 12:1), a region of Africa named for a son of Ham who settled in West Africa.
    • Solomon, whose mother was Bathsheba; Sheba was a tribe of Cush, son of Ham (Gen 10:7).
  • Jesus’ Davidic genealogy in the first verses if Matthew’s gospel includes four descendants of Canaan and Ham (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Solomon);
  • Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:22-28), while initially being an apparent reinforcement of the curse of Canaan (Gen 9:24-27), has long been interpreted actually as rescinding the curse.[17]
  • Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan (mixed “race”) woman (John 4:1-26) makes clear that God’s salvation comes through the Jews, but will eventually be based on whether people are “true worshippers,” not one’s heritage.
  • Jesus’ Great Commission commands the disciples to go to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20).
  • The Apostle Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:25-40).
  • Peter received a vision from God that there are no people who are unclean, and therefore the gospel ought to be spread beyond the Jews (Acts 10).
  • A major theme in Paul’s epistle to the Romans is the extension of salvation beyond the Jews to the Gentiles.
  • Paul taught that in Christ the region’s major social divisions and classes of the day were to be set aside among Christians (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 3:11).
  • Revelation states that Jesus’ blood purchased salvation for all people (Rev. 5:9).
  • John’s vision of heaven included believers from all nations who had come through tribulation: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-10).

The Fundamental Equality of All People Before God

While God evaluates people based upon their heart and spirit and orientation toward himself and His Son (e.g., Romans 2:12-16; 3:21-26), people tend to judge others based on external factors, such as the way we look (2 Sam 16:7). Nonetheless, the view of historic Judaic and Christian thought is grounded in the essential equality of all people before God, regardless of their ethnicity, external appearance, sex, or social status (e.g., Gal 3:26-29).

While most Christian theology verifies this historic accessibility of salvation to all people, the point has long been evident even to secular observers, such as Stanford University professor George Frederickson, who observed,

“the orthodox Christian belief in the unity of mankind based on the Bible’s account of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humans was a powerful obstacle to the development of a coherent and persuasive ideological racism.”[18]

Frederickson also observes the odd counterpoint of skin-tone based racism that emerged in the Middle Ages against the core message of Christianity and the Cross:

“What makes Western racism so…conspicuous in world history has been that it developed in a context that presumed human equality of some kind. First came the doctrine that the Crucifixion offered grace to all willing to receive it and made all Christian believers equal before God. Later came the more revolutionary concept that all ‘men’ are born free and equal and entitled to equal rights in society and government.”[19]

In short, though ideally humans are created equal and in God’s image, every human’s sinful state before a holy God means that every person needs salvation, and Christ’s death makes that salvation available to all people. The differences in human appearances or economic status are unrelated to one’s status before God. Divisions have appeared, of course, in spite of this principle of equality.

 

 III. WE DIVIDE OURSELVES FOR THE WRONG REASONS

Although God divided people supernaturally by giving different groups different languages at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), and called Israel, and later, Christians, to be a separate and holy nation (Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Hosea 1:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12), people also have a tendency to divide themselves, but on a sinful basis.

Sin is self-centeredness, ignoring God’s will, and missing the mark of God-ordained behavior and attitudes.[20] Thus, when people place themselves above others on the basis of some external characteristic, such as social class, we impose our own idolatrous self-will over and above God’s standards for judgment; we say that our standards are better than God’s (e.g., James 2:1-9).

The clear inference is that sinful attitudes include a belief in one’s own (or one’s group’s) superiority based on social, economic, appearance, ethnic, or “racial” categories. This is not the same thing as recognizing that important differences may exist within and between groups, or that cultures differ across ethnicities. But our heart and attitudes regarding those differences are the central issue. This is especially the case when we use physical characteristics to assign different levels of value or desirability or dignity to another person or group, whether we do this consciously or subconsciously.

As Dr. Tony Evans puts it,

“racism is not first and foremost a skin problem. It is a sin problem.”[21]

Individual sins have collective consequences

Now, the problem of sin is at first an individual problem, but sin usually has collective consequences. For example, a father may sin against his wife, but their children often experience the effects of that sin, though they have done nothing wrong. The Bible is full of examples of people bearing the consequences of another person’s sinful actions. In fact, it is the very nature of sin; from the beginning, Adam’s and Eve’s individual sins wrought consequences for all of their descendants (Rom 5:12-20).

Moreover, when individuals with a bent toward sin are given authority over others, they may be prone to manage that relationship unjustly. (This is why the Bible spends so much time limiting and constraining the power that can be exercised by fathers, elders, kings, employers, and slave-owners!) For example, God gives fathers authority over their households. But a father who establishes an unjust disciplinary system in his home violates the authority with which he has been legitimately entrusted. His family management system must be adjusted in order to realign it with God’s will and plan for the Christian home. The first step may be converting, educating or correcting the father. But if the father doesn’t change the old system, even his redeemed soul will continue to exact injustice in the household via the old rules. No, the rules and system must be changed in order for a just family order to prevail. Moreover, the damaged familial relationships must be restored and healed.

The analogy may be applied to race-based divisions. Those in authority may legislate unjust laws, even if the legislator is or claims to be Christian. The general concept of an unjust law was expressed by Martin Luther King in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote,

“How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”[22]

Christians see the Bible as a revelation of God’s eternal moral law. So it provides, if rightly understood, general principles and guidelines for establishing just human laws. If the legislator who sets up an unjust law is shown the error of his or her ways and changes his or her behavior and attitudes, that is good! But it doesn’t change the fact that the earlier attitude was institutionalized into the community’s social norms and legal codes. These must be changed as well.

Source: CNN

Source: CNN

In the case of American racial and ethnic history, men with unbiblical views on race were often the ones writing the rules (such as constitutions, laws, and municipal codes), and they often incorporated those views into the systems with which they had been entrusted. Sadly, there are many examples of this, such as the nation’s toleration of slavery, northerners profiteering from the slave trade, California’s anti-Chinese laws, and so on. (The use of the Bible to justify and defend American slavery is an extremely complicated topic, beyond the scope of this essay, and much has already been written about that.) One of the most egregious and widespread examples was the notorious “Jim Crow” system of comprehensive race-based social and economic stratification included in the legal codes of most of the US southern states after the post-Civil War Reconstruction. These were perhaps the most damaging of all, because they were often specifically justified and defended, as slavery had been beforehand, through the misinterpretation and misapplication of God’s Word.

It becomes clear that laws that encoded racist values into society were unjust, for they did not align with God’s basis of dividing humanity, and instead were based on sinful attitudes of racial superiority and favoritism. It is important to identify laws that continue to implement racist thinking and undo them; there is, of course, great political disagreement about how to identify such laws and what the remedies are. Such an extensive discussion is beyond the scope of this essay.

But it is possible to identify the principles of a strategy for undoing unjust laws. Such a strategy takes two initial steps, for which there is no ideal order, followed by two secondary steps.

  • The heart of the legislator(s) must be realigned with God’s will.
  • The laws must be realigned with God’s eternal law. It is acceptable to realign the law regardless of whether the legislator’s heart has been realigned.
  • Reconciliation between groups must take place, both at the individual and collective level. For example, those who imposed the racist legislation must repent of their sin and reconcile with those whom they oppressed, and the oppressed must forgive the former racist. Collectively, this might look like the Southern Baptist Convention repenting and seeking forgiveness for its racist origins and history.
  • Finally, part of the reconciliation may include an evaluation of the extent to which principles of restorative justice ought to be implemented to address the long-term consequences of the unjust laws on individuals. The longer the unjust regime was in place, the more profound the effects may be, and thus the more expensive the restitution is likely to be.

 

IV. PRACTICAL HEALING OF RACIAL SINS

Christians are obligated to resolve our conflicts. But to truly do so, our community’s race-based conflicts must be acknowledged as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes.

Dr. Tony Evans notes,

“But once you admit that racism is a sin problem, you are obligated as a believer to deal with it right away. As long as the issue of race is social and not spiritual, it will never be dealt with in any ultimate sense.”[23]

Recent events have revealed the deep faultlines that divide American society by race. The riots after Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore’s riots after Freddy Gray’s death in police custody, and the shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston in 2015 make clear that we have a problem. Now, I am not claiming any easy solutions or trying to pile on white guilt-feelings per se, or absolve trouble makers from being held responsible for the trouble they have made. But…

Christians—especially white Christians—must be brutally honest about the role that racism and corrupted Christian teachings have played in excavating the racial faultlines in our long and complicated history.

While it is true that racism begins as one individual’s sin, the sin of racism was aggregated, legitimated, and institutionalized so that the sins of many “ones” multiplied. And the legal, social, and political consequences for our African-American brethren were profound. Social structures supporting racial injustice were created, and therefore those social structures had to be dismantled.

Scripture and churches were corrupted by sketchy theological interpretations designed to support the worldview of white supremacy and keep slaves and later, free black people, quiescent. Frederick Douglass observed in 1846,

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

It is from the pulpit that we have sermons on behalf of slavery…I have heard sermon after sermon, when a slave, intended to make me satisfied with my condition, telling me that it is the position God intended me to occupy; that if I offend against my master, I offend against God; that my happiness in time and eternity depends on my entire obedience to my master. Those are the doctrines taught among slaves, and the slave-holders themselves have become conscious about holding slaves in bondage, and their consciences have been lulled to sleep by the preaching and teaching of the Southern American pulpits. “There is no place,” said an Abolitionist in the United States, “where slavery finds a more secure abode than under the shadow of the sanctuary.”[24]

Those unbiblical scriptural interpretations and messages had to be undone and untaught, and some of that work still needs to be done. (I will have more to say on that that in the next couple of posts.)

We must also acknowledge that the damage to the family of God has been deep. Often the social and legal changes were imposed before the sinful attitudes that created and laid the foundation for Jim Crow were addressed, generating resentment and anger that remains. The work of restoration and healing is not finished, and cannot ultimately be finished by statute.

As I have written elsewhere, social science has established clearly that white Americans and African Americans view racism differently. White people tend to view racism as an individual attitude (I have argued that it is an individual sin), while black people tend to view racism as a characteristic of our political and social system (making it a collective sin). As should be clear, these are two edges of the same sword. White Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their African-American Christian brethren. And Black Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their White brethren. Many of us ignorantly push forward attitudes that do nothing to pursue and improve the unity of the Body of Christ. Instead, we steadfastly (or stubbornly) refuse to consider changing the way we think or our preferences for the sake of others and the sake of Christ’s Bride.

The broader problem, however, is that as America moves away from a common understanding of sin and humanity’s intrinsic sinfulness, the real basis for racial reconciliation becomes more elusive. If we don’t agree on the concept of sin, healing becomes difficult, because clear and truthful communication about the real problem will be hindered. It is thus the responsibility of members of the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to initiate and follow through on racial reconciliation and healing based on its real and actual causes. We must set aside our own preferences for the way we wish things were, or the way we have come to identify with our personal heritages.

Healing and Reconciliation is individual and group work

Scripturally there are clear processes for resolving interpersonal conflicts between Christians, and some of that work must be done. There is much written on this, and I don’t have the space to address it here, but it includes:

  • The sinner repenting and seeking forgiveness;
  • the victim forgiving the sinner;
  • the sinner pursuing the victim to seek reconciliation and forgiveness;
  • the victim pursuing the sinner to seek reconciliation and offer forgiveness; and
  • a spirit of mutual love and respect as co-equal children of God and followers of Christ.

It does not include, as one African-American brother in the Lord put it, browbeating others into submission.

As a side note, the non-Christian world will not understand this, they will marvel at it! This week I was watching The Rundown (MSNBC) host José Díaz-Balart interview Pastor Stephen Singleton from Charleston, South Carolina, where a few days earlier nine black churchgoers were murdered in church by a white man hoping to start a race war. Díaz-Balart seemed genuinely perplexed by Christian family members’ willingness to express forgiveness toward the shooter so soon:

“I was struck over and over again how they said ‘We forgive you.’ What kind of a person does that? How is one able to have so much forgiveness against evil?”[25]

Brothers and sisters—the government can’t do this. The NAACP can’t do this. The other church down the road can’t do this (alone). Islam can’t do this. Social do-gooders can’t do this. We, the followers of Jesus Christ, must do this. It is the right thing to do, to imitate Christ, to set aside our own self-interest and put others’ interests above our own (Phil 2:3-15), and work together for healing, pursuing the unity of the Body.

We must work together toward the common goal our Lord has set for His Church in human history, both setting aside our personal histories and leveraging those histories to strengthen the work of the Body. These histories include our ethnicities. As Tony Evans recently wrote,

The reason why we haven’t solved the racial divide in America after hundreds of years is because people apart from God are trying to invent unity, while people who belong to God are not living out the unity that we already possess….Unity can be defined in its most basic of terms as oneness of purpose. It means working together toward a common goal….God has a team. It’s made up of African-American, Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and a variety of other people and cultures. He never wants you to make your distinction, your history or your background, so precious to you that it messes up His team. Nor does He want you to ignore or diminish your distinction, your history or your background, thus leaving little with which to contribute to His team.

At the individual level, if you know that what you do has a very negative effect on another person, STOP IT!

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Seek forgiveness from your neighbor or co-worker or your kid’s teacher. Legally, do we have to change our hearts? No, we’re free to continue on, but as Russell Moore points out, “we should not prize our freedom to the point of destroying those for whom Christ died. We should instead ‘pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’ (Rom. 14:19).” For example, New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson relates how a white friend, who, without asking, took down his Confederate battle flag, simply because he came to realize that Watson found it offensive and hurtful. No demands, no screaming, no protests, just friends learning to love one another in harmony. How good that is!

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Conclusion

Once Christians acknowledge the foundational biblical principles of a human self-concept based on creation and equality before God; once we decide to leverage our already-existing unity, and apply principles of peace-seeking and reconciliation to damaged relationships; once we have really begun implementing spiritual chemotherapy against the cancer of racism; and once we operate from a position of biblical orthodoxy and not liberalism, broader social changes and healing are bound to follow.

———————————-

This essay is the first of three parts in a series promoting racial healing. In this essay, I have articulated a Biblical Worldview of humanity and race. Next, I address the twisting of scripture that produced the so-called “Curse of Ham,” which has been used as brutal weapon in the cause of white supremacy against people of color and against the unity of the Body of Christ.

———————————–

[1] Although Webster’s 1828 also acknowledges that “race” may allude to descendants of a specific person, such as “the race of Abraham.” This meaning is secondary to the primary concept of the race of humans.

[2] National Institutes of Health (US); Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. NIH Curriculum Supplement Series [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health (US); 2007-. Understanding Human Genetic Variation. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20363/

[3] Michael P. Jeffries, Paint the White House Black (Excerpt), accessed at http://genius.com/Michael-p-jeffries-paint-the-white-house-black-excerpt-annotated/ 26 June 2015.

[4] George Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002), 52

[5] http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/skin-color

[6] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, Chapters 5-6; Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book X, Chapter XXVII.

[7] Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (Oxford University Press, 1990), 44-45.

[8] Strong’s H8034 and H8035;; T.G. Pinches, “Shem,” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (1939), accessed at <www.blueletterbible.org>

[9] Strong’s H3315, H6601; Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon; Pinches, “Japheth,” ISBE.

[10] Strong’s H1990, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon; Pinches, “Shem;” ISBE.

[11] I sent a more rudimentary version of this Punnett Square to a friend of mine with a Ph.D. in genetics just to be sure I was communicating this point accurately. He wrote, “The image you sent is a Punnett square which is helpful in understanding how certain gene combinations are inherited. Melanin is the most important gene for influencing skin color, but there are many more genes that interact to determine a person’s skin color. Therefore, the chart is an oversimplification, but could be useful for illustration purposes.” For a more complex Punnett Square example see http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-teachers-06.htm

[12] David M. Goldenberg, “The Curse of Ham: A Case of Rabbinic Racism?” In Struggles in the Promised Land, ed. Jack Salzman and Cornel West (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Accessed via cached version through Google.

[13] For example, see Tony Evans, The Kingdom Agenda (Nashville: Word, 1999), 356-7.

[14] Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, 45-46. The American offshoot of Islam, the Nation of Islam, developed its own bizarre theory of how different skin-toned people groups were created, called “Yacub’s History” (Malcom X and Alex Haley, [1964] Autobiography of Malcom X (Ballentine Books, 1992), pp. 164-167.

[15] Goldenberg, “The Curse of Ham.”

[16] By “in God’s image,” traditional historic Christianity does not mean God’s physical image, but that humans bear the imprint of God’s character on their soul and spirit.

[17] For example, see the Introductory Note to The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3, Ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Christian Literature Company, Buffalo, NY 1885) (E-Sword STEP edition).

[18] Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 52

[19] Frederickson, Racism, p. 11.

[20] E.g., “Sin,” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.

[21] Evans, Kingdom Agenda, p. 364.

[22] King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 16 April 1963. Accessed at www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[23] Kingdom Agenda, 364-5. See also Ron Miller, 2015, “Make Us One: Looking at race through the eyes of God,” PowerPoint presentation, personal copy.

[24] Frederick Douglass, “Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance: An Address Delivered in London, England, on September 14, 1846.” London Inquirer, September 19, 1846 and London Patriot, September 17, 1846. www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1083.htm

[25] “Emanuel AME Church holds Bible study for first time since shooting,” MSNBC Broadcast June 25, 2015.

4 Reasons for Parents to Keep Reading

© Pamela Hodson | Dreamstime Stock PhotosIt was the kind of question that makes parents quake in their boots!

The other day my 13 year old daughter was reading Leviticus—on her own!—and came across a passage that perplexed her:

16 The Lord spoke to Moses: 17 “Tell Aaron: None of your descendants throughout your generations who has a physical defect is to come near to present the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect is to come near: no man who is blind, lame, facially disfigured, or deformed; 19 no man who has a broken foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has an eye defect, a festering rash, scabs, or a crushed testicle. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a defect is to come near to present the fire offerings to the Lord. He has a defect and is not to come near to present the food of his God. 22 He may eat the food of his God from what is especially holy as well as from what is holy. 23 But because he has a defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar. He is not to desecrate My sanctuaries, for I am Yahweh who sets them apart.” (Lev 21:16-23)

Because we are advocates for Down Syndrome adoptions [read more here and check out Reece’s Rainbow here] and have many friends with special needs, my daughter began wondering whether this passage means that God does not find people with special needs acceptable as ministers. And then she asked me if her thinking was right.

What a perceptive question! I am so proud of her for thinking through this passage of scripture, and I told her so.

But let’s be honest: Even though it is a good question, it is a very hard question. How would you have answered? I mean, Leviticus is often perplexing because many of the social and theological issues it deals with are so foreign to us. Who among us could pull a correct answer out of thin air?

In God’s perfect timing, I have been reading Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, which addresses exactly these kinds of questions. Though Copan is dealing with New Atheist misconceptions about God, he lays out some specific ways God expressed his will that Israel understand holiness, and did so through the rules and regulations we find in Exodus and Leviticus. And (praise the Lord) he also deals with the passage that challenged my daughter!

Because I had been reading this book recently, I had a good answer for my daughter.

But I wasn’t off the hook! The next night at dinner, my other two daughters had equally grown-up questions:

The seven year old asked, “Why did Eve want to sin and disobey God?” In God’s perfect timing I had listened to a sermon that morning that addressed this exact question in a way that provided me with new insight that dovetailed precisely with the way she posed the question.

She then asked, “How can we be God’s children and He be our Father when he doesn’t have a wife?” And then the eleven year old asked, “How did people get saved before Jesus died?”

Can I tell you—these are important questions with which Christians have been dealing for two millennia. And they were asked by my tween kids, over a single meal! This is why as parents we have to be continually feeding our own minds, growing our own faith, and building our grasp of the deeper things of the Lord. Four points come to mind.

It is important to keep reading and studying…

  1. So you can learn and grow as a Christian. This might seem obvious, but the ability to answer your own questions and those of others requires some self-education. Reading the Bible is mission critical to your own preparation. But you should also be reading other materials to give you insight as to how major themes of scripture and theology work together. (For example, the Bible itself does not tell us how its manuscripts were transmitted to us; the Bible does not tell us when the Trinity became an accepted doctrine in Christian history; nor does not provide much explicit information about the social and political contexts of first-century Judea, though its narrative corresponds well with what historians tell us, for example here).

The right materials can help you learn how to think biblically about your world. Scripture admonishes us to move from spiritual “milk” to spiritual “meat” or “solid food” (1 Cor 3:1-3; Heb 5:11-14); this means we are to seek deeper answers to deeper questions, on more challenging topics than you were satisfied with as a new believer. Moreover, you are responsible for your own spiritual education in this process; maturing believers are not just sitting back and letting their preacher do the work for them, letting them simply dump information into their heads for 20 or 30 minutes each week and then call it good. We often speak of our kids having to “own their own faith” once they leave their parents’ home, but adults also have to own their own faith, too, and part of that is taking responsibility for learning.

  1. So you can answer questions from your spiritual children. As parents, our biblical obligation is to disciple our children—to pass on to them the knowledge of God and His ways to future generations. A central part of this is the children’s questions! (See Exod 13:11-15; Deut 6:20-23; Josh 4:5-7; 4:19-24.) Even if you’re not a parent, or if your kids are gone, the longer you’ve been a Christian, the more likely it is that someone else will see you as a spiritually-knowledgeable person. Therefore you owe it to them to be prepared. Again, you are responsible for seeking understanding and wisdom for the day in which you get asked that question.
  2. So you can be known as one who seeks truth. Your children will observe you feeding your mind and faith with the Bible and excellent materials that help you understand the Bible and God. As a father or mother, your children need to know that you are growing in your faith, so that they see that you believe growing in the faith is important. Not only will they tend to emulate you, but you will become known to them as a person who is trustworthy enough to ask difficult questions! In my children’s case, I also have to be honest about when I don’t know the answer to a question, and then seek out the answer.
  3. So you can listen thoughtfully. When you know what is true, you can more easily identify what is false, and this is a critical skill for Christians. If you are not feeding your mind with the truth, you will be less able to discern falsehoods that you will hear from the culture, from critics, and even from some teachers. How can you discern whether the teachings of Joel Osteen, Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism), Rob Bell, Billy Graham, or your pastor are true or false? By learning and educating yourself on Bible truth and the truths accepted by orthodox Christians for twenty centuries, you equip yourself to provide a reasoned defense of God’s truth and the gospel (1 Peter 3:15-16); to not be captured by this world’s false philosophies ((Col 2:6-8); and to critically evaluate false teachers (Matt 7:15; Matt 24:10-24; 2 Peter 2:1).

A few cautions…

Be sure that you are seeking God’s truth. Since the early days of Christianity, heresies have cropped up that, grounded in the spirit of anti-Christ, have pulled believers away from the straight path of godly knowledge and wisdom (1 John 2:18-24, 1 John 4:1-6). Truth does not just make you feel good about yourself, or confirm what you already believe (Heb 4:12), but is to teach us, rebuke us and train us out of incorrect behaviors and beliefs (2 Tim 3:16). And second, be humble and gentle, because you are accountable for what you teach others about the Lord (James 3:1). This is another reason to be sure that you are learning correct doctrine—you want to pass on correct doctrine, lest you be held accountable by God for perpetuating heresies and false doctrines, risking the souls of your children (Heb 13:17).

Thinking back to my daughters’ questions…I have found that God knew exactly what I needed to know and when I needed to know it. Through consistently reading and studying the Bible itself, as well as reading books and listening to sermons and apologetics podcasts, God prepares me to answer the questions that arise about our Lord, His Word, and His Kingdom.

4 Steps to Staying Christian Through College

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Christians can survive college with their faith intact. A major theme in my Biblical Worldview & Apologetics classes and seminars is preparing students for the challenges they will hear to Christianity and central Christian doctrines when they’re in college. Once they know what to expect, I think, they will be better prepared to put the challenges in context and then be equipped to think through the underlying assumptions and evidence at stake.

An article came across my newsfeed this morning (via the fantastic worldview and apologetic website The Poached Egg) that addresses the problem of students who believe in creationism (regardless of whether that is Old Earth Creationism, Young Earth Creationism, or Intelligent Design Theory) but are sitting through courses in evolutionary biology that are the norm at colleges and universities. This article, “Talking Back to Goliath: Some Advice for Students in the Evolutionary Biology Classroom,” is written by Paul Nelson, Ph.D. of Biola University and the Discovery Institute.

How should students respond to professors who assert the “truth” of Neo-Darwinian evolution?

His central piece of advice, which I heartily endorse, is

First, no aggression. David slaying Goliath is a justly famous account of bravery, but that was a literal battlefield. Your task is to persuade, not harm. Your sling and stones should be the evidence — or its conspicuous absence.

We have to be honest that the environment at colleges and universities is increasingly antagonistic toward traditional Christian beliefs and doctrines. That means that while some professors are nobly tolerant of diverse ideas like those of biblical Christianity, most are not. Thus the battlefield of the classroom is generally one in which the profs have the power and the podium, while students have no power and only as much podium as the prof is willing to yield.

Christian students must remember that aggression in social relationships like this are very unlikely to yield positive benefits in the form of a conciliatory or evangelized professor who will concede the significant gaps in evolution evidence. (Here is an article with links to some evolutionists who will admit this.) Keep in mind that your professor’s career and job security most likely depend on their continued belief that evolution is true.

Next, Nelson recommends that students in biology courses review the scholarly literature in the field, to evaluate the claims of Neo-Darwinian evolution for themselves.

Choose any complex structure or behavior, and look in the biological literature for the step-by-step causal account where the origin of that structure (that is, its coming-to-be where it did not exist before) is explained via random variation and natural selection.

You’ll be looking a long time. The explanations just aren’t there, and this fact is well known to evolutionary biologists who have become disenchanted with received neo-Darwinian theory.

In this context, my general advice to students is this.

1. Know your audience. This is not primarily your professor, but your fellow students. They don’t have the personal investment in evolution being true, unlike your prof, and you can build personal and relationships with them over coffee, via study groups, and so on. Knowing your audience also means you can ratchet your expectations as to what you can accomplish in that class context over the semester.

2. Learn and be able to articulate the evidence and the evidence gaps in evolutionary theory, not just the evidence that supports creationism. By understanding the perspectives and holes in the dominant theory, your faith will not be shaken, and your ideas will have credibility among your peers. (Again, your professor is not your peer!) Moreover, you must be able to articulate the arguments that are used to support evolutionism for a very practical reason–you want to pass the class! This is not the same thing as conceding that evolutionary theory is true. It is comparable to learning the central doctrines of Islam in order to understand its theological gaps to effectively respond to their claims; learning what they are is not the same thing as thinking that they’re true.

3. Learn how to be winsome in the way you undermine others’ faith in Neo-Darwinian evolution and then communicate the opposing view. For a strategic approach to this, I highly recommend the book Tactics by Greg Koukl and other approaches related to conversational apologetics (examples here and here). In fact, I have adopted Koukl’s book for my upcoming class.

4. Develop a support system. Find professors at your school or at other schools who will support your faith as well as who know the literature and theories. Chances are, Christians student fellowships will be able to tell you who some of the Christian profs are on campus. You may have to connect with faculty who are experts in their field at a Christian university, such as Biola or Bryan, or through apologetics groups such as the Christian Apologetics Alliance or Ratio Christi. Connect with Christian student fellowships and a local church that treat the Bible seriously as a historical and theological document. Don’t isolate yourself from other Christians, don’t give up meeting together with other believers (Hebrews 10).

Keep in mind that even though the popular image of David facing Goliath (1 Samuel 17) is that David was a young child, scripture tells us that when he went to meet the giant, David had already honed his battle skills through combat with lions and bears (17:34-37). Don’t wait until you get into the class to prepare your heart and mind for these challenges.

Christian students who go to college often have their faith undermined by new ideas and idealogues who are increasingly intolerant of ideas outside the mainstream–that is, Biblical Christianity. By staying respectful, intellectually engaged, winsome in your conversations, and connected with other Bible believers, you can keep your faith.

 

Why I am Convinced God Exists 2: Assumptions and Evidence Standards

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In attempting to answer the question “Does God Exist?” I had to make some assumptions. In this post I discuss the rationality of my process, and lay out the handful of assumptions that underlie my broader analysis. These assumptions are, I believe, entirely reasonable: 1. I exist. 2. I can reason. 3. There are true answers to many questions related to God’s existence. Based on these, I discuss specific standards of evidence and proof used by various disciplines.

Previous Post: Introduction

In my previous discussions, I’ve used the term rational a couple times, and so it’s important that I tell you what I mean by that. Rationality is a term used in economics and political science to describe a process of thoughtfully pursuing goals using reason. That is, a person is considered rational when she has a goal she’d like to achieve, is able to reason through a set of options for pursuing that goal, and follow a path she believes will help her achieve that goal. This evaluation and path selection assumes she has enough information to make those judgments, and that she can reason through the consequences of selecting different paths. This doesn’t require perfect or complete information, but having enough credible information to make a reasonable prediction.[1]

Here, my goal is to conclude whether God exists, and rationality refers to my reasoning through the various paths that come up on that journey. As a result, I haven’t specifically addressed every question that could possibly be asked about what the world would be like if God doesn’t exist. Rather, I’ve selected the most pertinent lines of inquiry that I reasoned would help me answer the question for myself. Other people will probably have other lines of inquiry that will satisfy their intellectual curiosity on this question. If they’re rational, they’ll think systematically, too, and will pick questions that will, on balance, enable them to more or less objectively answer the question. The alternative is to cherry-pick paths that will lead them to the answer they want to be true, which is intellectually faulty and dishonest.

After I wrote about 12 single-spaced pages of analysis, I stopped. Had I made unreasonable assumptions that would inexorably lead me to the conclusion I wanted to be true? That is, since I want God to exist, did I frame the whole set of questions in such a way as to inevitably lead me to the conclusion that God exists? As I thought about it, I backtracked to my initial questions to figure out my underlying assumptions. I concluded that they are reasonable and realistic and need not lead to the conclusion that God exists. They are:

  1. I exist. By implication, this also means the material universe, what Carl Sagan called the cosmos, exists.
  2. I can reason. That means I have the intellectual ability to think through a series of questions and answers, imagine contrary views, evaluate contrary arguments, compile and evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions based on that process.[2]
  3. There are true answers to many questions. Some statements are true and other statements are false. By true, I mean true in the conventional way that people use the word and its partner, truth. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a true statement or belief as “Consistent with fact; agreeing with the reality; representing the thing as it is,” and truth as “Conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought).”[3] So the true answer to whether God exists has to be consistent with the facts, agreeing with the reality of the way things are. Ascertaining the truth of a statement involves the exercise of reason (see my second assumption, above).[4]

That’s it—those are the core assumptions from which I’m working. Fundamentally, this is a search for the true answer to the question, Does God Exist?. Again, I don’t claim especially comprehensive or specialized knowledge in some areas, but I know how to evaluate many facts, I know how to compare and contrast ideas, and I know how to think reasonably logically.[5] I think I’m competent to evaluate whether an idea, concept, or statement conforms to reality within the normal bounds of normal human intelligence.

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Now that I have discussed my basic reasoning and assumptions, let’s turn to specific issues related to the standards of evidence or proof one might need in any area of study.

Standards of Evidence

Convincing someone of something depends on the standards of evidence the first someone requires. What kind of evidence would be adequate to prove that God exists? Logic, legal reasoning, experimental science, statistical reasoning and historical reasoning all provide input into addressing this question. In the end, I conclude that science and experimental reasoning provide language but not tools for evaluating whether God exists, because they are only appropriate for testing material things and processes. Since no one makes a serious claim that God is a material being, materialistic methods for “testing” for God simply aren’t appropriate.

There are many common standards used and familiar to many of us, and different disciplines make use of different proof standards. The “proof standard” leading to the conclusion that my ancestor Caleb Albee fought in the Revolutionary War is different than the proof standard that education affects the probability that a person will vote. The legal standard expected of juries for convicting criminals is different from the experimental standards for concluding that the rate of chemical reactions varies based on changes in the ambient temperature in which the chemicals interact.

Some common proof standards

Beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the burden of proof a prosecutor must meet in a trial in which someone is accused of a crime. The jury must find the evidence and reasoning so strong that any reasonable doubt about the accused’s guilt must be overcome. Note that this doesn’t eliminate any doubt, or any possible other explanation for a crime. Even though this sounds really difficult to understand, thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens are able to apply this proof standard every year in nearly every jury trial held in our nation.

Preponderance of the evidence. This is the burden of proof that must be met for someone suing someone else in a civil suit, such as breaking a contract or agreement, or that the tree branch that fell on my car is your fault because the tree is on your property. Lower than the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard, this simply requires a jury to assess whether, when all the relevant evidence is considered, someone broke a contract or ought to be held responsible for some bad outcome. Again, thousands of our fellow citizens apply this proof standard in civil jury trials every year.

Reasoning to the best explanation. This is a proof standard for drawing conclusions about historical events and relationships, such as in my hobby, genealogy.[6] This leverages documentary and archaeological evidence about the past: events and people, their lives and relationships based on contemporary accounts, documents and circumstantial evidence. This is fundamentally the basis for the discipline of History, which seeks to document whether, where, how, and why certain events happened. Since for most of human history there are no eyewitnesses now living, everything we know about the past is based on reasoning to the best explanation. (I have recently come to learn that in Logic, this is called abductive reasoning.)

Scientific statistical reasoning. This is based on probability and sampling theories, in which the likelihood of outcomes and relationships can be calculated; and hypothesis testing.[7] There are normally two major types of errors to avoid: rejecting a true statement instead of accepting it as true (a Type 1 Error), and accepting a false statement as true instead of rejecting it (a Type 2 error). Probabilities can be calculated for avoiding those errors. (In terms of God’s existence, a Type 1 Error would be rejecting the statement “God exists” when it is in fact true. A Type 2 Error would be accepting the statement “God exists” when it is in fact false.)

  • The standard point at which a statement is normally accepted as empirically supported is at the 95% probability level, though that standard is arbitrary. You have seen this used when the news presents public opinion poll results that include a margin of error notation (such as ± 3%). Billions of dollars in spending each year hinges on people applying this proof standard to marketing and political decisions. The important thing about this kind of reasoning is that it hinges on a probabilistic standard of proof rather than an absolute standard; even if we obtain a result for which we are 99.9% sure, we still allow a small probability (0.1%) that our conclusion is wrong. The lower that probability, the higher the confidence that we’ve correctly identified a true statement or rejected a false one.
  • Explanatory power is the statistical concept that permits us to calculate the proportion of variation in some phenomenon that is explained by a set of independent variables. Any group of explanatory factors will explain some amount of the differences in a thing we’re trying to understand. In my research, for example, I often am trying to explain why people vote or do not vote. The outcome is easy to understand: either a person votes or she doesn’t vote. If I have 10 variables that are plausibly related to that behavior, I can calculate rather precisely how good a job each one does individually. I can also calculate how good a job they do collectively.[8] One important point here is that even in the most rigorous analysis of individual behavior we never even come close to explaining 100% of the variation in anything (aggregated social statistics are an exception).
  • So as a social scientist using statistical and econometric methods, I am comfortable with (1) finding explanatory factors that are plausibly, logically and statistically related to a phenomenon I’m trying to explain. (2) Thinking probabilistically about how likely they are to actually be related to the thing I’m trying to explain, and being comfortable with that probability being a good deal less than absolute certainty. And (3) happy when a reasonably high level of explanation is provided by my factors without even coming close to explaining everything. I am satisfied with sufficiency and coherence, rather than incontrovertible proof, and every social scientist and economist that uses statistics operates on the same principles.

Experimental evidence of physical objects and processes (that is, conclusions that are based on the process of hypothesis testing, controlled experimental manipulation, and replication). Since this particular proof standard requires the ability to manipulate and replicate experimental conditions, it is inadequate to evaluate claims that cannot be subjected to experimental replication or manipulation. For example, we can’t replicate the creation of something from nothing, in which there is by definition nothing to vary or manipulate in the experiment; thus creation ex nihilo is an event not subject to scientific experimentation. On the other hand, experimental evidence is adequate for learning all kinds of things about the way the material world operates.

Basic Logic, including the Law of Noncontradiction, which says that “No proposition may be simultaneously true and false” and its partner, the Law of the Excluded Middle, “Every proposition must be either true or false.”[9] (Note that is a more formal restatement of one of my underlying assumptions.)

Understanding these standards of evidence and proof helps me reason about God’s existence in three specific ways.

  1. First, I can be okay with not having 100% proof of God existing, but with finding sufficient arguments and evidence for me to conclude that some things are very likely to point to God’s existence. Admittedly, this is a bit subjective, and the question is not subject to actual probabilistic calculations at all! But the principle is that in the rest of my intellectual life I don’t expect or get absolutely perfect or complete explanations for anything, so I’m comfortable with some gap between what I successfully explain and a perfect explanation.
  2. Second, a variety of kinds of arguments and evidence can be brought to bear on the question of God’s existence. When I teach students about methodological variety, I use the metaphor of triangulation, in which methods and accumulation of different kinds of evidence provide a process of narrowing the set of potential explanations to those that seem most plausible.
  3. Third, given what I observe in the world around me, I can reason out which theory and factors best provide a comprehensive, if not complete explanation for the world and for human behavior. Do the principles of an atheistic worldview do as good a job explaining things as the principles of a theistic worldview? If not, which theism provides the best or most reasonable explanation, or demonstrates the greatest explanatory power, for the way the universe and human beings actually operate? Again, I don’t need absolutely complete explanations, just logical, plausible, sufficient, coherent, and (hopefully) parsimonious ones.

In particular, I think it’s interesting to note that none of the legal or scientific standards of evidence requires 100% elimination of every other possibility every time in order to conclude that a person is guilty, that an historical event happened, or that an hypothesis is supported or refuted. On the other hand, the Law of Noncontradiction allows us to identify logical options and eliminate directly contradictory statements as equally true, so we can organize the logical outcomes in certain situations.

Extraordinary Evidence?

Finally, let me address the famous objection put forward by atheist astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”[10] I have two responses to this. First, I am interested in evaluating extraordinary claims, such as “God exists” using evidence that is available. And the evidence one requires must be appropriate for the question one has. As I discussed earlier, as a political scientist my research questions drive my research methodology, and the same principle ought to to the question of God’s existence. It seems to me that what Sagan sought was the kind of scientific evidence that is simply inapplicable to the question with which I’m dealing. But my second thought is that I am willing to apply the principle within analytically-appropriate knowledge domains. So I think it is reasonable to expect extraordinary evidence to support Dr. Sagan’s claim that “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[11] Or that nonliving matter spontaneously became living. Or that the universe started all by itself, creating everything from nothing, for no reason, or that it has eternally existed, or that the multiverse is actually scientifically provable.[12]

In conclusion, in seeking to answer the question Does God Exist?, there are several standards of evidence that come into play to some degree. Few, if any, of them hold absolute proof up as even possible to achieve. So whenever I think it’s possible to do, I will lay out my best understanding of the logical options for an issue. (For example, in the next section I’ll point out that on the question of God’s existence there are only two possibilities: Either God Exists or God Does Not Exist; there is no in-between state.) So there is a true answer! Then, thinking through other related questions, the various standards of evidence will come into play in ways that seem appropriate to the particular aspect of the questions at hand.

Does God Exist?

In this post I address a relatively simple yet profound truth: God either exists or God does not exist. There is no in-between state. What we believe about God’s existence is entirely irrelevant to whether God exists. And whether we can even know about God’s existence is also irrelevant. The fact of the matter is, there is a yes or no answer to this question. The real question is whether we can acquire sufficient reasons to conclude that one of these two is more likely to be true than the other.

Yes or No

Does God exist? There are only two answers, Yes and No, and they both can’t be true. That is, either God Exists or God Does Not Exist. Therefore, I have to evaluate which one of those answers corresponds to reality and the way things actually are, can be logically supported, and is evidentially supported.

Let’s lay out the logical options as a big picture roadmap for my analysis.

  1. One of these two statements is true, and the other is false: Either God Exists or God Does Not Exist.
  2. The question of God’s actual existence is independent of my belief about this. That is, it doesn’t matter whether I believe it or not, God either exists or does not exist.

Therefore, any person’s belief that God does not exist has no bearing on whether God actually exists. Similarly, any person’s belief that God does exist also has no bearing on whether God actually exists.

After I made these points at a recent talk, a young man suggested that there might be a third option—that we can’t know whether God exists. He was confusing knowledge about God with God’s actual existence. (In philosophical terms, the question of God’s reality is ontology, but the question of acquiring knowledge about reality is epistemology, and this was the difference.) Thus, it’s useful to address a third point related to knowing whether God exists:

  1. God’s actual existence does not rely on my possessing knowledge about God or about God’s existence.

What this means is that God may exist even if I don’t know it. Not knowing it does not bear on God’s existence.

It also means that God may exist even if I possess incorrect information about God. The relative correctness of my information does not affect God’s actual existence or actual nature, only my understanding of God.

Finally, it’s important to note that if God exists, there may be evidence of God’s existence. God may or may not have intentionally conveyed information to humanity about himself (or herself, or itself). Even if there isn’t evidence we can perceive, that doesn’t affect whether God exists, only that our knowledge about God doesn’t have evidence. On the other hand, we might be able to perceive at least some or all of the evidence for God’s existence.

(There are some important implications for the answer to these questions, and a person who concludes that God exists or doesn’t exist has some more work to do in accounting for the way the world works, or for explaining God more thoroughly. That set of questions is beyond this series, but are on my agenda to address down the road.)

My First Conclusion: God either exists or does not exist. The arguments and evidence must point me to which one of these statements is true, even if I don’t attain 100% certainty.

In my next post, I will address an important aspect of God’s existence. Most human conceptions of deities suggest that there exists a realm or dimension beyond the physical realm. If this realm is nonmaterial, it is one in which nonmaterial beings or deities could exist. Is there evidence that the non-material realm or reality exists in which a being like God could exist?

Next Post: Let’s Get Real(ity).

[1] An irrational person is someone who ignores the evidence and information and then follows a path unlikely to end with her goal being achieved, or that she just wanted to follow despite the evidence. So it would be irrational of me to use materialist methods to study nonmaterial things, because the method would not reasonably be expected to provide evidence about the subject.

[2] All of this begs the question, “How can a mere collection of neurons, blood vessels and electrical impulses actually do this and have any confidence in the result?” Late in my process I discovered the so-called “Argument from Reason,” which I’ll discuss later. I believe this provides a compelling argument for an intelligent, creative, reason-based being behind everything. But at first I just intuitively believed that I had the capacity to reason to a true conclusion.

[3] OED Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 20, 2014.

[4] Again, this raises the question of how a mere collection of neurons, etc., determine whether a statement is true or false and then trust themselves that they have come up with the right answer.

[5] Thanks especially to a couple of computer programming courses back in the 1980s, and to Dr. Valli Koubi who took the time to walk our International Conflict class systematically through the logic of Expected Utility Theory when I was at the University of Georgia.

[6] See, for example, Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997).

[7] See, for example, Gujarti, Basic Econometrics (McGraw-Hill, 2003); an accessible introduction is Cuzzort and Vrettos, The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason (St. Martin’s, 1996).

[8] This is calculated with a statistic called the coefficient of determination, which is the proportion of the variation in the probability—technically the logged odds—of voting explained by the variables.

[9] Horn, Laurence R., “Contradiction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Accessed at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contradiction/ August 29, 2014

[10] Sagan, Carl (writer/host) (December 14, 1980). “Encyclopaedia Galactica”. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Episode 12. 01:24 minutes in. PBS. Cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan#cite_note-74, Accessed 2 November 2014.

[11] Sagan, Carl, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.

[12] See the excellent discussion of this claim by Rob Lundberg, “Responding to the ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences’ Objection,” at http://roblundberg.blogspot.com/2014/01/responding-to-extraordinary-claims.html.

 

Understanding Ferguson’s Fires (updated)

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

[Updated: I updated this post to incorporate other responses published since I wrote the original.]

In Ferguson, Missouri a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot a young African-American man last summer. When the decision not to indict was announced protests and violence ensued, with several fires set as some residents expressed anger and frustration, and other protests occurred around the country.

In a blog comment reprinted on Christianity Today, African-American pastor Bryan Lorrits wrote,

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just “get over” [events perceived as involving racism]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

My purpose with this post is an attempt  to explain this difference in perspective to my white brothers and sisters (of which I am one), and to help people understand why there is often an angry reaction to situations such as that of Michael Brown and Ferguson. In pulling together this post, I draw on what I have learned by studying race and American politics for more than twenty years. I also suggest some solutions from a Christian perspective. As you might imagine, it’s often complicated, but here goes a blog-length attempt.

Why are they angry?

There are obvious immediate causes: the unarmed African-American man[1] shot by a white police officer; the decision not to indict; the militaristic environment after the shooting, and so on. But the reality is that there are longer-term factors at work here. First, there is the perception (or reality) of racism on the part of the authorities in the situation. Second, there are race-based social and economic frustrations in many of America’s communities. Let’s take these apart carefully.

Racism

White people view racism quite differently than do black people. When whites are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “when a person treats another person badly or negatively because of their race or ethnicity.” But when African-Americans are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “a system in which racial groups are treated differently.”

The reasons for these two different views are socially and historically complicated. White people in general do not define themselves in terms of their ethnicity, nor do they view themselves as a social, economic or political group that has any specific common interests. (There are obvious exceptions to this, such as those whites who do view their race as their main relevant social characteristic. These people often end up in white supremacist groups, but are a very small portion of the white American population.)

African-Americans, on the other hand often see their primary relevant group characteristic as being their race or ethnicity. They have a high level of what social scientists call “group identification,” a strong psychological attachment to their group. This leads to a strong feeling of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to one person in their group is likely to be relevant to one’s own life. So when a black person is shot by a white person, there is a psychological link made between that event and an awareness that this could happen to anyone in the group, including oneself.

White Americans simply don’t think this way based on our racial category, but we sometimes do in other areas. For example, as a home schooler, when I hear about a bad event (child abuse, or social worker’s abuse of powers), I often will say to myself, “I really hope that wasn’t a home schooler.” Why? Because I perceive that what happens to other home schoolers could also happen to me because I am a home schooler. Or if a child abuser is a home schooler, that reflects badly on home schoolers generally and makes us more likely to be viewed badly by society. This perception is due to my strong social identification as a home schooler and my sense of linked fate with other home schoolers.

The System and its Outcomes

Because African-Americans have higher racial group identification and attitude of linked fate, they view their relationship to the American political and criminal justice systems differently than white Americans do. A very important historical fact to remember is that for at least two centuries in the US, the legal and political systems did in fact define people and their status in society in race-based terms. In the South especially, the “Jim Crow” social environment used the law specifically to treat blacks and whites differently, and unequally (See an excellent article on this here). Thus one major reason the African-American community defines itself in that way is at least partially because the political system did so for so long.

While whites might optimistically hope that several decades after Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts the group-oriented mindset of African-Americans might have lessened, the reality is that group identity and linked fate still are quite important. To say that they shouldn’t be important is to miss the point that they still do matter to our neighbors.

In fact, the system itself seems to reinforce the sense that the group is systematically disadvantaged, not due to problems of individual motivation or a sense of entitlement, but because of intractable, long term social and economic outcomes in society. Here are just three examples:

The public education system, which is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, is a particularly harsh environment for black (and Latino) boys. See a report here).

Family income in the black community is persistently lower than other racial or ethnic groups. This is illustrated in this graph:

Racial differences in household income, 1967-2012 Source: businessinsider.com

In terms of interacting with the criminal justice system, the legacy of race-defined unequal treatment still rears its ugly head. See this op-ed on crime statistics.

Differences like these produce the perception that the system is largely rigged against people of color, and persistent differences reinforce those perceptions.

That is not to say that this perception about bias in “the system” is universal among African-Americans. For example, following Ferguson, Pastor Voddie Bauchum reflected on his own experiences, writing,

“for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.”

There is, however, in the black community a broad tendency to blame the system because of low trust in the system, for which there are plausible historical reasons. It is true that social, economic, educational, and political advances of black Americans occurred through governmental involvement. Nonetheless, there is a broad perception of stagnation in that progress over the last forty years. Whether white people think this it is unreasonable for black people to think this way is entirely beside the point.

Why Political Solutions Fail

In the big picture, political efforts to solve these problems will fail, because politicians are notoriously bad at changing peoples’ attitudes and hearts. More to the point, I have become convinced that there are individuals and groups in politics and society who have no interest in pursuing genuine healing and solutions to America’s longstanding race problems. They make their money, sell their books, and win elections by taking advantage of black anger and frustration and white complacency, resentment or ignorance. They are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. If the “race problem” goes away, so does their income stream and their political advantage. So we can’t look to politicians and talking heads to get us out of this mess.

Christian Solutions

The solution, it seems to me, is just as complicated as the problem, but that is not an excuse to ignore it. As a Christian, what am I to do when Ferguson situations come up? And how am I supposed to think about these problems? I think the Bible speaks in two specific ways—to me as an individual, and to the church as a social organism. The solution is not going to be borne out of a crisis, but out of a long-term systematic commitment of people of faith and their churches.

As an individual, I am to be an instrument of peace (as the old Catholic prayer goes) in my community (Matt 5:9; James 3:18). I can do this by praying for peace in communities where there is unrest, but also in the hearts of people whose hearts are broken or hardened. I must humbly check my own attitude and seek understanding of others’ situations (Phil 2:3-4). This is one area where the social justice movement of Christianity is correct—we are to strive for justice in our communities and to work on behalf of those who are oppressed in God’s eyes (e.g., Psalm 10, Psalm 146). Am I trying to be understanding of the frustrations of others, or do I just view Ferguson-like violent outbursts as unruly mobs engaged in unjustified riots? Am I personally working to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21) across racial and ethnic groups in my community?

Our churches are supposed to be voices of truth and reconciliation in our communities. Is your congregation making opportunities to partner across racial and ethnic lines where you live? Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” If your congregation is virtually entirely of one race, is your church leadership doing anything about that?

As Christians we must continue to acknowledge that Christians sometimes were on the wrong side of race conflicts; that some Christians twisted scripture to support their own personal racist beliefs; and that some of those wounds are still painful to brothers and sisters and neighbors. And yet, Christianity provides an extraordinary—indeed a supernatural—means of reconciling the races, and unifying people in our communities. In the Bible we are repeatedly instructed that the arbitrary social groups of society are supposed to be set aside in the church, where

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. (James 2:1)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Instead of being angry or looking on in disbelief, pray for peace, walk humbly, and strive for understanding and peace in your own communities.

[1] I use the terms African-American and black interchangeably here. I also use the term race (and variants) to refer to different groups even though I believe there is only one race—the human race—with different ethnicities and skin tones.

How to Pray for the ‘Hobby Lobby’ Case

US Supreme CourtOn March 25, 2014 the United States Supreme Court hears the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood case against the Obamacare requirement that employers provide abortion-inducing drugs as part of their health insurance, in spite of religious objections of company owners. The results of this case will have far reaching effects on all business owners of faith, and is more than just about health care. If business owners are forced to violate their conscience on this issue, then the legal argument WILL be extended to every other area of the business.

You’ve probably been reminded to pray on the day of the Supreme Court hearing for the case, but I would urge you to pray over the next three months. While the arguments before the court are heard on one day, the justices actually vote on and write the court’s decision and reasoning later on. It is these parts of the process where Christians really need to petition the Lord for favor.

  • Pray for the Lord to soften the hearts of justices toward religious liberty.
  • Pray that the fundamental right to freedom of conscience to tip the balance against the right to free birth control or abortifacients.
  • Pray for the religious liberty of all Americans, including business owners.

Celebrating Image Bearers with Down Syndrome

Today, March 21, is World Down Syndrome Day. While our family has no member with Down Syndrome, over the last few years we have become advocates for orphans with the condition internationally. Specifically, we strongly support the efforts of Reece’s Rainbow, an agency with a mission to raise money for children abroad who are waiting for adoption and adopting families. My wife and daughters fundraise for these children in an entrepreneurial spirit through handmade crafts, my wife’s Etsy Store and Lilla Rose franchise, which she started so we could increase the amount we give without further taxing our family’s budget.

Our motivation is loving compassion born out of awareness that people with Down Syndrome are also created in the image of God, as you and I are (Gen 1:27-28). Therefore they are worthy of respect and dignity. We also are encouraged by the many passages of scripture in which orphan care is praised and commended to us as part of living out our faith (e.g., James 1:27, Psalm 82:3, Psalm 146:9). Moreover, since we have also been adopted by our heavenly Father:

when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Ephesians 4:4-5)

when we adopt or support those who do, we are living out God’s image stamped on our spirits, and are working out our salvation (Eph 2:10).

Today, on World Down Syndrome Day, consider what you can do.

1. Encourage families with members who have Down Syndrome. This video is an encouraging reminder that even those among us with cognitive disabilities have tremendous potential for, and therefore deserve happy lives.

Here is another touching video along the same lines. // And another one.

2. Consider supporting families who have a mission and calling to adopt special needs children. In most areas of the world, these young ones are thrown away or abandoned due to social stigmas or superstition, even if their parents are still living. Moreover, many orphanages around the world are simply horrific, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia. We can help! Check out this before and after shot of a beautiful girl rescued from an Eastern European country in February of this year!  

JoJo 1 month homeReece’s Rainbow  is a great organization that targets and collects money toward children’s adoption grants; when a family comes forward and commits to adopting a child they can be reimbursed from the child’s account.

Friends who have adopted or are adopting can be found here and here and here. (If I missed your page, email me and I’ll add you to the list!)

The opportunities are not international only. In the United States people with Down Syndrome also need support, and sometimes adoption. On the other hand, the US Government’s expansion of prenatal testing coverage, which with the medical community’s negative attitude toward DS is sure to reduce the rate of Down Syndrome in the population through the only way it can occur medically: abortion. (State prenatal programs even had the goal of reducing the DS population!) So even though less “enlightened” countries deal with special needs children by committing them to orphanages and mental institutions, in the “civilized” USA  we simply kill them—at a rate of 90%!

3. Learn about Down Syndrome and educate the people around you. Teach your children or the kids in your sphere of influence that people with cognitive disabilities are children of God, too. Recently the medical community agreed to eliminate the phrase “retarded” and “mentally retarded” from their diagnostic manuals; let’s eliminate those and the word “retard” when we’re talking about people, shall we?

4. Encourage your church leaders consider how they can come alongside their church families that have members with cognitive disabilities. Many of these families feel rejected by their churches, even though churches should be where they find support. Growing up in Connecticut, our church was involved with a group home a block away, in which several young women with Down Syndrome lived, and they attended worship services and many church events. Is your church a welcoming place for “the least of these” and the family members who care for them?

Me with our friend Daisy

Me with our friend Daisy

My family has been blessed by our interactions with children and young men and women who have Down Syndrome. I pray that you will take this day to seek out this blessing as well. You’ll be glad you did!


Three (More) Reasons Worldview Matters

In a recent blog, Trevin Wax points out three reasons that our worldview (the way we understand how the world works, what God is like, and what our purpose is) matters, and his reasons are worth re-posting.

Some Christians shrug off any effort to study philosophies and “isms.” They say things like, “I don’t worry myself with what other people think about the world. I just read my Bible and try to do what it says.”

This line of thinking sounds humble and restrained, but it is far from the mentality of a missionary. If we are to be biblical Christians, we must read the Bible in order to read the culture.

He points out that a Christian worldview matters

Because it sets us apart from the world…

Because it aids our spiritual transformation…[and]

Because it helps us know how to live.

He’s exactly on-point here. Jesus’ Great Commission sends us out in to the world in order to build His Father’s kingdom.At the same time, we’re not supposed to be exactly like the world–there is supposed to be something unique and special and attractive about the way we live and think.

Executing our mission also means that we also have to understand those around us. There are at least three points critical to understanding why our worldview is important for our mission.

First, we have to know what we believe, and why. How does a “biblical” worldview understand the world, its nature, and why people have the problems they do? Bumper-sticker theology like “God said it, I believe it, That settles it” only makes us look like ignorant rubes. In reality, we have a reasonable, rational set of reasons for our faith, based on different kinds of evidence and experience. If we don’t understand it well, we won’t be able to explain it.

Second, we have to understand other people’s perspectives. Not because all viewpoints are equally true, but so that we can understand how others view themselves. For example, if I know that a friend thinks the Bible is just a book of myths, constantly quoting scripture to “sell” Christianity to him or her just won’t fly. If another friend doesn’t believe in God, then saying God directed the selection of the books for the New Testament won’t make them any more satisfied with the exclusion of the apocryphal books or gnostic gospels.

Third, we have be able to communicate with them in a winsome but intelligent way. If we are rude or coarse while we’re trying to explain the gospel or some other point related to Christianity, our credibility suffers. As a teacher, I have to understand how my students see the world in order to explain it to them in terms they can relate to.

This is why seminars like my Worldview & Apologetics Seminar (as well as others that are out there) are important–they’re designed to help Christians see how the various parts of the world in which we live make sense, transform our lives, matter for our day-to-day living, and have eternal consequences.

 

Where is your citizenship?

US-Green-CardAs a student of politics I’ve been thinking about my citizenship. I love the United States, and I love our history, our diversity, and our shared values. At the same time, as a Christian I get frustrated by what I see in our nation’s evolving culture. While some changes have been good, many cultural changes have not been good, in the sense of being objectively good the way God sees things. If the US ever was a “Christian Nation,” we certainly aren’t anymore (even back in the 1970s Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer labeled the US as “Post-Christian.”).

It’s useful, then for me to return periodically to a biblical definition of where my loyalties actually ought to lay. That is, when I look at the culture of death that is growing in our nation, the intractability of human trafficking, the passing away of our society’s moral standards and fabric that for so long supported our culture, and the growing antagonism toward traditional Christianity in the public square, I wonder whether being American is all it’s cracked up to be. If I travel abroad and meet up with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, would I be proud to say I’m an American?

As usual, scripture must guide my thinking, so what does the Bible say about being an American? Nothing directly, of course. The British colonies were just a twinkle in Europe’s eye when the canon of scripture closed. But the apostles Peter and Paul both address citizenship in interesting ways. In Phillipians 3:20, Paul writes that “our citizenship is in Heaven,” which enables us to bear earthly problems with a heavenly mindset. But Peter provides a more thorough teaching.

Nestled between the metaphor of The Church being a building of “living stones” with Christ as the cornerstone and instructions on submission to governing authorities, such as the king or one’s employer, Peter writes,

But you are a CHOSEN RACE, a ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, a HOLY NATION, aA PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9-12, NAS)

The capitalized letters tell us that these phrases are quotations, and these are from the Old Testament—phrases that were used to describe the nation of Israel (e.g., Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Deut 14:2; Hosea 1:10, 2:23). This is consistent with other New Testament passages demonstrating that Christianity is an extension of Judaism, Israel’s spiritual heritage and co-heir to the promises God made to Abraham (this is a major theme of Galatians and Romans, for example).

Our National Identity. But in the context of Peter’s first century letter the phrases suggest that Christians have a distinct national identity, just as Israel did…now Christians are the chosen race, the royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession. The identifying mark of our national identity is that we once weren’t unified (we “were not a people”) but now we are unified as “the people of God.” Our nationhood is based on the mercy we have received through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We now have received mercy—the undeserved forgiveness for our sins—and that is what distinguishes us from other people groups, not circumcision, skin color, sex, socioeconomic status, or nation-of-origin.

Our National Mission. Peter provides a mission statement for this nation: “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This means the purpose for our existence is to proclaim the truth of God’s excellence to those around us, and the most excellent thing we could proclaim is the gospel message. Thus, we are to be about acting out Jesus’  Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). By definition, this means we ought to be known by our unusual message, wherever we are. If we are going out and making disciples our values are going to conflict with the culture where we find ourselves. This is likely to be uncomfortable and it will sometimes get us killed. (Just this week the North Korean government executed 13 Christians for obeying Christ in this way.) If we compromise this message and the teachings of the Lord out of some sense that we don’t want to be offensive to others or “old-fashioned” or intolerant (the values of a certain nation in which I happen to reside), we will be soon be off-track in obediently pursuing our true mission.

Our Immigration Status. Peter then uses two interesting words to describe us: “aliens and strangers.” These actually are two legal terms in the Greek.  The word translated “alien” is paroikos, “a stranger, a foreigner, one who lives in a place without the right of citizenship,” while “stranger” is parepidēmos, “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives” or “sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner.”

Did you catch that? Christians are foreigners wherever we live. We have come from our home country into a place that is not our home to live side-by-side with the natives. Our loyalty must not be displaced: we are Christians who happen to be living in a foreign land called the United States, China, Nigeria, or [insert where you reside]. This helps us make sense of our mission, because we don’t have to proclaim the excellencies of God to our countrymen, because we already know about them. It’s the citizens of the nation where we temporarily reside that need our message, so they will want to acquire naturalized citizenship and we can help our King grow our nation.

Our testimony in a foreign culture. We serve a different king than whoever is in charge of the country where we happen to reside, and we therefore represent Him where we live.  In the same way that we observe foreigners and make judgments about their people group or nation, our behavior reflects on our King and the rest of our nation. Thus, Peter instructs his countrymen to “abstain from fleshly lusts” and “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles.”  Why? Because when we speak and act just like the people who belong to the country where we live, there won’t be anything special about us. If we’re thinking and acting just like the Gentiles around us, adapting the teachings of our true nation to the values of our temporary lodging, why would any of them see the need to change their citizenship?

Our good deeds are supposed be evidence to counteract what our opponents will say about us. Imagine living in a country where your motives are questioned, your language is defined as “hate,” you’re accused of being a threat, and your values are so unusual that people will trash you and say bad things about your home country. They’ll slander you because of your foreign ways and values; you won’t talk like them, act like them, you’ll disapprove of things they tolerate, and this will earn you their ire. UNLESS your good deeds outweigh your weirdness. It will be our good deeds that testify to why we sojourners are good to have around, why our King is righteous, and why it’s worth renouncing one citizenship for a better one. As Jesus put it, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Fellow Christian, you are part of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, diverse, chosen, redeemed, holy nation of priests, who are temporarily residing in a foreign country. If you’re pursuing the mission our King has assigned us, expect to be rejected and hated, because His ways will contradict the ways of this land. Nevertheless, live uprightly and do good in this land so that your King and citizenship in His Kingdom will be attractive to others. In the same way that the United States was for two centuries the destination of choice for people around the world because of its freedom and opportunities, let us make citizenship in our true Kingdom a desirable thing.