Late last night, I was overcome with grief. The tears were not expected.
It is impossible to digest properly all that happened yesterday. As I write in my forthcoming book Stuck in the Present, we need the longer view of history for that, so I am heeding my own counsel.
Over the years, I have heard warnings to not take the American experiment in democracy for granted. It is sturdy in one sense, but still fragile. I remember hearing that each generation of Americans must commit to it. I thought it was good to issue such a warning but was never too worried. No longer.
Have things been this bad before in America? An argument can certainly be made for that and the antebellum period is the one historians typically mention.
Are our cluster of present problems unique to the more modern period of American history? Again, I think the 1960s offers another example of serious strife and deep division.
My deepest sadness, however, is not over our country’s present chaos and strife.
My deepest sadness is over the state of the Christian faith in America.
For many decades I have witnessed Christians who are apathetic about knowing God’s Word, loving one’s enemies, an unwillingness to suffer for Christ in the most modest of ways, prayerlessness, and much more.
Most Christians are poorly prepared for times of crisis. We love the church programs that meet our insatiable desires. We adore our celebrity pastors. We are biblically and historically illiterate, but more than willing to offer our superficial opinions on the most vexing issues of the day.
This sad state of affairs is due to a lack of making long-term discipleship and serious grounding in the Christian faith our priorities. These simply do not take place in many churches (or parachurches for that matter). We have sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. We should not be surprised where we find ourselves.
Things are not going to be any better by avoiding these realities. Things also might not be any better if we face these realities but at least we will have been faithful.
I pray for God’s mercy, but I do not find myself too sanguine. My lack of “optimism” is not because the culture is so bad. Rather, it is because many of us Americans claiming the name of Christ have become dull of hearing.
God’s Word makes it clear that Christians can lose their influence (Mt. 5:13; Rev. 2:4,5). We are kidding ourselves if we think this is not happening right now.
All of us who claim the name of Christ need to ponder and consider Peter’s dire warning:
Indeed, none of you should suffer as a murderer or thief or wrongdoer, or even as a meddler. But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?… (I Peter 4:15-17)
I added this in the reply link, but will also add it here:
Again, to underscore the biggest point of the post: Yes, shock over the events of yesterday, but I am much more worried about the state of Christianity in America. And my concerns go way back before Trump or any other politician.
We must look at ourselves!
Some Encouragement/Final Reflections
Like you, I have plenty to do, so will make this my final (at least for the time being) post on the racial crisis. My correspondence was heavy these past days. I am grateful for all those conversations but must pivot to other matters including the final edits of a book my publisher is waiting on.
Here you go…
I reject Critical Race Theory (CRT). Full stop. For those who know me, that will come as no surprise.
When I use “white privilege” I don’t have in mind the various tenets of CRT. I am a Christian who is seeking to think biblically and theologically about this issue. And historically. No claims to perfection about my reflections, but I am trying to make sense by writing (Augustine said writing clarified his thinking and writing showed him what he thought).
I’ve had many good conversations in the last couple days. Some have helped me to think in clearer ways about this issue. Some have shown me that there are differences of emphasis, and some have reminded me that complex issues are not resolved overnight.
One difficulty with any complex issue is that groups are hardly monolithic. Saying all people in a certain group believe x is not reflective of what exists in any group: a myriad of perspectives.
My use of “white privilege” as I mentioned in a quick blog post on June 6 was “not a punt to liberal, political ideology, but rather the manifest witness of God’s Word.” Manifest may be the wrong word because we can disagree how clear that emerges from the pages of Scripture.
Here is where I should say more about “white privilege.” As one friend said, since the term is used in a certain way by those who hold to CRT, perhaps another term is needed. I think that is good counsel. I am looking for a way to communicate that some/many (certainly not all) of us white people can be oblivious at times to the struggles those from other backgrounds face.
Making sweeping assertions is a constant temptation but should be resisted. If you are familiar with the conditions of many whites in Appalachia, you will know that they have less “privilege” than affluent African Americans in the suburbs. Class is not being talked about enough these days, but it is also worthy of our attention. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a good reminder of this reality.
One last word for all of us: Let’s not get weary in well-doing. That is clearly biblical! See Gal. 6:9. We must fight the tendency to hunker down in our own world and so leave the messy problems for others to address.
In modern life there are more controversies than any one person can address. You may be called to other things. All of us need great wisdom to discern where and how our time should be spent.
We Christians have a huge advantage because we have God’s Spirit to empower and direct us. We don’t go it alone. We also can shout the glorious truth that our God is triune. The beauty of true unity, but never at the diminishment of diversity, really does exist and is worthy of emulation.
I’m planning to design a t-shirt that says, “MAKE THE TRINITY GREAT AGAIN!”
Carl Trueman’s writings always deliver. In the fall, I will be interviewing him on The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I get loads of books from various publishers, but there is no book I have more looked forward to reading.
For a taste of Carl’s writing, check out this recent essay in First Things:
I will only speak for what I know best. The white, evangelical community traffics in various false dichotomies. Yes, individuals sin, but so do nations. The Bible is full of such teaching. On the other side, individual people are tied to communities. Consider how one person, namely Achan, brought a group into judgment.
Also, keep in mind that “the person understood as an individual” (literally undivided one) is a staple of the Enlightenment not the Bible. Before the Enlightenment we understood who we are as persons as we look to something bigger than ourselves: our community, family background, ethnicity, and religion. That idea has been lost both in the broader, secular culture and sadly among many Christians.
I agree with CJ Rhodes.
It is my study of the Bible that leads me to believe in “structures of evil” and “white privilege.” This is not a punt to liberal, political ideology, but rather the manifest witness of God’s Word.
In a minister’s recent sermon (outside our hometown), he made a common error that I have heard many Christians make. I thought it important enough to write him. To his credit, he responded favorably. Here is what I wrote:
In today’s sermon, you mentioned the importance of looking back rather than forward. I agree but was concerned about where you described our spiritual anchor should be placed. You instructed us to look back at times “where God was faithful.” In that regard, you mentioned two things: your wife rebounding from a perilous situation, and your friend receiving a favorable answer with unexpected help.
I certainly believe God answers prayer. My journals are full of many examples. I don’t think it wise, however, to tether God’s faithfulness to getting the answers we want. I know you don’t believe this, and you later said bad things happen, and we die, but it was not clear that God is faithful irrespective of whether the circumstances turn out in our favor.
This is why I try to steer clear of using the word “when” with God’s faithfulness other than describing the completed work of Christ. Asking about “when God was faithful” at least raises the question of when He might not have been.
God certainly answers prayer in the ways we desire at times, but what about when He doesn’t? He is still faithful. Thinking about God’s faithfulness with when He answered a prayer in the way we desired results in at least wondering whether God is faithful when the favorable answer never comes. Again, I know you believe God is faithful irrespective of us getting a favorable answer to prayer, but I don’t think it was clear.
I’ve heard many times, as I am sure you have, a fellow Christian describe how God favorably answered their prayer with the commentary “Isn’t God good?!” or simply “God is faithful.” Yes, God is, but not just when He answers one’s prayer favorably.
Yes, we look back, but we look back to the finished work of Christ. That is where our anchor should be placed. Nothing or no one can take that from us no matter how bad things get (Hab. 3:17-19).
Your evident desire to honor God made it easy to send this note, so for that, THANK YOU!
Your Brother in Christ,
The Black Plague (1348-49) brought terror on an unimaginable scale, wiping out up to half the population of Europe. One work, Piers Plowman, written shortly after the disaster, included these arresting lines:
Kings and knights, emperors and popes;
Death left no man standing, whether learned or ignorant;
Whatever he hit stirred never afterwards.
Many a lovely lady and their lover-knights
Swooned and died in sorrow of Death’s blows…
For God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us,
And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.
(As quoted in Norman F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Black Plague)
Sadly, the conclusion that “God is deaf” does not comport with what we find in Scripture. Circumstances, as many of us were well reminded this past Sunday by Pastor Andrew Forrest, are hardly an accurate gauge to determine whether God is with us or not. As Andrew said so well, Genesis mentions several times that “God was with Joseph” when Joseph’s circumstances were dire.
In a much earlier epidemic around 260 AD, Christians believed they were the hands and feet of Jesus. Bishop Dionysius described them this way:
Many of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took care of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen…
(As quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity)
Perhaps our responsibility will not involve loss of life, though we should never count it out. We do know that it should include kind gestures and acts of everyday generosity. And we should never fail to tell stories to one another. The therapeutic effects of good storytelling are attested throughout human history:
The Italian Renaissance author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the wake of the plague outbreak in Florence in 1348. The disease ravaged the city, reducing the population by around 60 per cent. Boccaccio described how Florentines “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbors’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses.”
According to Pace University’s Martin Marafiot, Boccaccio’s prescription for an epidemic was a good dose of “narrative prophylaxis.” That meant protecting yourself with stories. Boccaccio suggested you could save yourself by fleeing towns, surrounding yourself with pleasant company and telling amusing stories to keep spirits up. Through a mixture of social isolation and pleasant activities, it was possible to survive the worst days of an epidemic.
(As quoted in André Spicer, “The Decameron—the 14-Century Italian Book that Shows Us How to Survive Coronavirus,” accessed at www.newstatesman.com)
The Decameron tells bawdy and humorous stories. It sought to help people keep their wits about them during a time of great upheaval. Christians may not believe in telling bawdy stories, though some of us feel more freedom in that regard than others! Wholesome humor, however, is always a good idea.
Telling stories to one another ought always to be part of our spiritual repertoire. The greatest story is of a God who comes near, suffers for us, and one day will fix all that is broken. What a hope not only during the challenge of coronavirus, but for each day no matter how catastrophic the circumstances.