A friend asked about the individual in Christianity. Here is what I dashed off:
It is a big topic of course so here is where I typically begin. We now live on the other side of the Enlightenment. It sought to make the self sovereign.
The “self as individual” idea emerges which is a novel one for understanding personhood.
Westerners now look at the Bible through a lens that over privileges the individual (literally undivided one).
Yes, every single person is precious, a sinner, and in need of redemption, but groups and various associations are talked about a lot in the Bible. Groups of people are talked about both favorably and unfavorably. In those groups when one sins (Achan at Ai) all suffer.
Yes, there is still individual accountability per Ez 18, but nations will also be judged. Americans do not have a great way to understand all this other than those who believe large sections of the Old Testament no longer applies to Christians.
I’m afraid our exegesis is at times more beholden to John Locke than John Calvin!
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!”
I am sixty-two years old. I am white. I was not responsible for either of these two things, but I am responsible for many other things.
A good friend asked me what we as Christians in the majority culture here in America can do with respect to the racial crisis. There are many things, but here are a few in no particular order, except for the last which is of first importance.
*We Christians need to stop being so consumed and/or afraid with how terrible we believe America is at this point in its history. Instead, we should spend our time making sure we are clear on all of God’s truth, compassionate to every person, and courageous even if it is costly. This will keep us Christians plenty occupied. It is animated by the reality that “judgment starts with the household of God.” (I Peter 4:17)
*It is great to have African American friends, but you will not have much to offer any friend if you are not grounded theologically. I used to give disclaimers whenever trying to promote the study of theology for all Christians. No longer. Knowing what and why you believe the Christian faith to be true is the most practical pursuit of life. This leads to my next thought.
*If you unable to give compelling reasons for why the trinity has much to offer not just with the racial conflict in America, but with many other pressing matters, please study up before you go out representing what Christians believe. The unity and diversity of the trinity has far-reaching implications for all sorts of things. Again, get studying if you can’t articulate in compelling and clear language all that the trinity (and other Christian beliefs) has to offer.
I have asked several Christians why the trinity is compelling including a Dallas Seminary trained pastor. Except for my wife and a handful of others, I typically do not receive a great response. Most Christians sign their church’s doctrinal statement with a thin understanding of what they are agreeing to. I concur with J.I. Packer that the most pressing issue for the church is robust education. Again, no apologies.
*We must make concerted efforts to get out of our echo chambers. Most of us live in some sort of echo chamber. In addition, we should avail ourselves of theological education that is increasingly aware of two thousand years of Christian reflection not just what happened after the Protestant Reformation. All the major Protestant Reformers would agree with me on this!
*There is a good chance many of us have significant homework to do. Homework is another word I used to apologize for when talking with adults! To quote President Bush #41 “Not going to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”
If you have not read it, begin with reading Narrative of a Slave by Frederick Douglass. There are many more things I would add, but that is a good place to start.
*Be aware of false dichotomies. Believing that people need to trust Jesus as Savior is not at odds nor diminished by acknowledging “structures of evil” or “institutional racism.” Or “white privilege.” If we want to be biblical, we will need to juggle many truths at the same time.
We Americans do not tend to be the most thoughtful people. The great observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, appreciated several things about America. However, he saw the problem of superficial thinking in our country almost two hundred years ago. American Christians are not immune from the tendency to emphasize one (many times valid) truth at the expense of other truths.
*Last, but obviously most important, we will need God to convict, direct, and motivate us to do these things, things many of our fellow Christians either denigrate or worse still, do not think about at all.
I am grateful to my friend, Dr Vince Bacote of Wheaton College, for his input on this post. As it is always said at such points, but with good reason, I alone am responsible for the content. I am glad that Vince agreed that what I wrote should be “common sense” among Christians. Sadly, foundational truths should not be assumed in our day and age.
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.
My favorite way to meditate/study the Bible is simple.
Read and reflect several times on the particular book of the Bible.
Take out a legal pad.
Grab a cool pen.
Bombard the text with questions, connections, musings, etc.
Put my most significant thoughts in my two study Bibles. One for each one of my sons when I kick the proverbial bucket.
Meditate throughout the day on at least one overall lesson. Possibly meditate and then commit to memory a verse or two.
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,
Wonderful, prophetic word:
My piece just went live on Patheos: