Gospel This and Gospel That: Reflections on the Evangelical Response to Ferguson

Empathy Matters More Than Ethnicity

Years ago my mother took a short-term missions trip to a predominantly black town in South Carolina. She had the great privilege of leading a little girl to Christ. Upon conversion, the little girl had many questions. One of those questions was, “Will we all be white in heaven?”

My heart breaks for that little girl. Years later, I still cry when I think about that question. My mother did her best to explain to this little girl that she was beautiful the way God created her. She told the little girl that God loved her regardless of her skin color, and that when others did not love her, they were doing wrong in God’s sight. But this little girl knew her own background far better than my mother, and this little girl knew that the lives of those at this “rich white church” seemed somehow superior to her own. She did not want to be black anymore. That tears me apart.

Now allow me to tell you an unrelated story. One night I was driving my car on a busy road in my hometown. A police cruiser came up behind me and turned his light bar on. I pulled into the closest parking lot I could find, parked, and turned my car off. After running through the usual questions posed by police officers, I was asked to get out of my car. I obeyed. I was asked if I had any weapons. I answered. I was instructed to remove my jacket and place my hands on my car. I obliged. By this time, three other police cars had pulled into the parking lot with their lights on. I was frisked. My car was searched. The process took about 45 minutes. Did I mention this was in a parking lot on the side of a busy road? Many of my friends saw me that night. They probably assumed the best. Many who were not my friends saw me that night as well. They probably assumed the worst.

Since I was never an alcohol or a drug user, and since I did not even own any weapons that I would have had on my person or in my car, the lengthy search turned up nothing. A few of the police cars turned off their lights and pulled away. My wallet was finally returned to me. I received a ticket for tint on my rear quarter windows that was too dark. It was an honest mistake on my part. The officer told me that if I peeled the tint off and went to court, I could probably get out of the ticket, although he could not promise me anything. I did as he said and the ticket was dropped.

Now, I will freely admit that I do not know all of the laws and police procedures that are relevant to my story. I will say that, intuitively, things did not feel exactly right that night. Understand, I am not accusing anyone of breaking any laws or procedures, and I am not complaining about the police officers carrying out their jobs. I have every bit of confidence that they did everything exactly as it should have been done that night. I have every bit of confidence that, in the flesh, I did not particularly like what they did that night. But that does not make any of it wrong. That just makes me someone who had to live with the undesirable consequences of being ignorant of the law.

There have been other instances of me getting in “trouble” with the law when I was not really in trouble at all. One night I was pulled over and my car and its passengers checked for absolutely no reason at all. No ticket, no explanation, just curiosity on the part of the officer. Another night I was pulled over and ticketed for having a tail light out. One big problem. I asked the officer to show me which one he was referring to. When I stepped out of the car, he could not show me where any of my lights were out. I was ticketed anyway and had to appear in court, though the ticket was dropped. And perhaps my favorite story involves being frisked against a palm tree by a police officer who was not in uniform. The officer was upset that I was walking off when he rode by on a golf cart. There were no charges or tickets and I had done nothing wrong, but I did catch a glimpse of a red-faced officer.

Whenever I think back on these experiences, I sort of chuckle. They are funny stories. Especially to the people who know me on a personal level. While I was definitely nervous when these events happened, and while I had qualms with the way some things were handled, and while I felt somewhat violated in a very small way, I can look back on these experiences as a set of amusing stories. But part of the reason I can tell these stories is that there is one thing with which I have never associated them. I have never, ever associated the events described in these stories with my skin color. The thought has never once crossed my mind.

But my skin is not black. If it were, would I have associated the events I described above with my skin color? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But what I can tell you is that I believe that little girl in South Carolina. She had no political motivations when she asked my mother that question. She had no one telling her what to say when she genuinely expressed her very real feelings. She hated being black, and she thought she had good reasons for it. I do not think she was just making stuff up. I believe that little girl. And that bothers me a great deal.

I do not know what it is like to grow up in the United States of America as a black male. I am thankful for close friends who do know what it is like. I am thankful for those who want to open the lines of communication so that more people have at least some sort of understanding of what it is like. But I am afraid that much of the commentary on Ferguson is having the opposite effect.

Will you allow me to explain?

Truth Matters More Than Ethnicity

As an apologist, I care deeply about truth. And as someone who is in the ministry, I am learning how important it is to present the truth in love. I value facts, and I value sensitivity in handling them. Virtually everything I do depends on it. That having been said, I am deeply disturbed by some of the responses to Ferguson from the evangelical world.

For example, there have been a number of comments that imply we should not believe that actions have consequences. I understand people hurt. I understand that people give smug responses. However, if someone told me that the reason my grandfather died was because he drank and smoked too much, I would heartily agree. And even if I did not agree, and even if that someone stated his or her words in an insensitive and unloving way, nothing could change the truth of what that person had just said. Alcoholism and smoking often lead to death. Truth does not change based on our feelings about it, and it is especially important to know and tell the truth, even when it hurts. Sometimes especially then. I understand the need for tact, the need for compassion, and the need for sensitivity. But it is crucial to understand that being gracious and loving is not the same thing as postmodern emotionalism. It is neither ungracious nor unloving to point out actions have consequences. Sometimes it is ungracious and unloving not to! I have seen people being called out because they mention that reaching for a police officer’s weapon has serious consequences. But that statement is absolutely true. It is neither unloving nor ungracious to state it.

Which brings me to the next point that facts really do matter. I have read, again and again, that even this statement apparently reveals how very white I am since, in general, blacks are not as interested in the facts of the Ferguson case as they are in understanding those facts against a background of racial profiling. Or so people have said. But facts matter with respect to racial profiling too, do they not? You can call it cold and calloused if you want, but if reasons, evidence, facts and the like are sacrificed at the altar of emotion, then we will never progress toward any peace. God gifted us with both intellects and emotions, and they must both be used in truthful tandem for the glory of God.

It does not help to point out that people view facts through different presuppositions. While there is nothing wrong with that statement in and of itself, and while the statement is most certainly true, only one set of presuppositions can be correct. We do not view the world in terms of our little ethnically defined fish bowls without reference to an objective reality. That sort of thing is postmodernism, and it constitutes a false and harmful approach to any topic.

If we care more about issues of ethnicity more than issues of truth, then we lose the only thing we had going for us in speaking to issues of ethnicity.

Words Matter More Than Ethnicity

While we are on the topic of truth, reality, and facts, it should be noted that caring about facts, asking about facts, and using facts to build an argument for one’s position is not indicative of the ‘side’ a person is taking in the Ferguson discussion. When people are visibly angry at the suggestion that we ‘look at the facts,’ or that the ‘grand jury looked at the facts,’ or that there actually is a reasonable, rather than purely emotional approach to the questions before us, there is at least one major problem. That problem is that communication has not been encouraged at all, but rather discouraged in the strongest sense. An unwillingness to reason shows an unwillingness to discourse concerning such important topics as surround Ferguson.

Some have claimed that in even asking how Ferguson is a race issue, people unknowingly answer their own question. Huh? I freely admit that I am not the sharpest guy, and I am generally light years behind on most social issues in the media, but the statement above not only fails to make sense to me, it fails to open the lines of communication regarding Ferguson, and instead closes them. The statement also raises suspicions, right or wrong, that there may not really be a good answer as to how Ferguson is a race issue.

Finally, I am extremely disappointed in the type of rhetoric and name calling used by those I would consider otherwise godly and respectable people. When blog posts start out bemoaning the ignorance, naivete, prejudice, hatred, and racism of white people in general, there’s a serious problem. Yet, those who have been calling for empathy have consistently called others “naive,” “ignorant,” “racist,” and the like. How is that helpful? I do not care how much a person believes he or she is just misunderstood, it gives that person no place to insult the intelligence and moral character of those who are doing their best to try and make sense of a very difficult situation.

The Gospel Matters More Than Ethnicity

What relevant differences exist between Christian and non-Christian responses to Ferguson? Perhaps Christians are slower to riot (let the reader understand), but I have actually seen anger paraded and even encouraged. How does that sort of thing work the righteousness God requires of us?

Beware of making your commentary on Ferguson sound exactly like the world’s commentary on Ferguson. Christianity has a unique response. Merely citing your Christian faith, merely citing vague references to love or empathy or justice, merely citing your favorite Christian celebrities, or merely citing the gospel, but never actually explicitly stating or applying God’s Word or the gospel to Ferguson is akin to theological liberalism. You are pushing for some social cause under the banner of Christianity while substituting mere human opinion for the Word of God. That is so dangerous!

Those who have pointed out that sin is the root cause and problem in all of this mess are undoubtedly correct in their assessment. But what is the solution to sin? If the gospel is the only solution in Ferguson, then why isn’t anybody talking about it right now instead of just paying lip service? Again and again one sees so-called “Christian” responses to Ferguson, even “Gospel” responses to Ferguson, but more often than not they end up focusing almost exclusively on the issue of “race” just like the world does rather than coming out with the gospel. It is an unfortunate product of Neo-Calvinism, but not a sufficient response, to label one’s approach to something like Ferguson as a “gospel” approach without so much as setting forth even the framework of the gospel. If we are to speak of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ, his righteous life of obedience, his death, burial, and resurrection on a bloody cross to atone for our sins – then may we of all people be exceedingly clear about what the gospel actually is and how it applies to situations like Ferguson.

May we not only believe, but cherish the sweet truth that “as many [of us] as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” and “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28 ESV) What should be most black and white in the Christian response to Ferguson is unity in the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I have not seen much of that.

 

A Christian Philosopher’s Thoughts On “God’s Not Dead”

A Movie I Should Love

I am, by the grace of God, a Christian.

I am also, by the grace of God, a Christian philosopher.

I have, by the grace of God, survived the rigors of a non-Christian education in philosophy.

Finally I have, by the grace of God, participated in a number of public moderated debates on the existence of God with professing atheists.

The movie God’s Not Dead seems to be right up my alley. A lot of people have suggested I go see it. I probably will.

But I am not looking forward to it. In fact, the trailer alone really concerns me. Here is the movie trailer followed by some reasons why the trailer concerns me.

 

 

To Me, It’s So Postmodern

If you want to make what you say really palatable to society at large just add two little words to the beginning of everything you say. Those two words are “to me.”

You see, as soon as you preface your statements with the words “to me” you make the truth of those statements relative to you. Let me explain.

If you say, “God exists,” then you have stated, quite simply, that God exists, and that God exists out there, outside of you, and that He exists for everyone as it were, and not just for you.

But if you say, “To me, God exists,” then you have stated something quite different. You have stated that God exists, but not that God exists out there, outside of you. You have said nothing about whether or not God exists for everyone. Rather, you have only claimed that God exists for you.

Another way to put it is that you have said, in the second instance above, that your truth is that God exists. Other people may have other “truths” about God’s existence, but for you,God exists.

This is postmodern thinking pure and simple. Postmodernism is a pervasive anti-Christian philosophy. In postmodernism, truth is relative. Truth depends upon our beliefs. But that’s crazy. Just because I believe I can fly does not mean I can actually fly.

Moreover, in our society truth is often thought of as subjective. This means that truth depends upon our emotions. Truth has nothing to do with whether or not a statement is factual. If something feels good, then it is true. Sound familiar?

At least three instances of postmodern thinking loom large in the trailer.

At the 10 second mark in the trailer, a woman stands in front of the Christian Contemporary Music group Newsboys. She mockingly says, “In a few minutes you guys are going to go out there and sing about God and Jesus as if they are as real as you and me.”

Much to my disappointment, Michael Tait, the lead singer for Newsboys, replies, “To us, they are as real.”

No Mike! Truth does not depend on your feelings. Truth is not relative to you. “God and Jesus” are not just real to you. God and Jesus are real, period. (By the way, I am not sure why, but the phrase “God and Jesus” is used throughout this trailer in such a way that it sounds as though Jesus is not God.)

At the 1:30 mark in the trailer, the main character, “Josh Wheaton,” referring to God, says, “To me, He’s not dead.”

No Josh! Truth does not depend on your feelings. Truth is not relative to you. God is not just alive to you. God is alive, period!

At the 2:12 mark in the trailer, the Newsboys sing, “God’s not dead, He’s surely alive. He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”

No Newsboys! Truth does not depend on your feelings. Truth is not relative to you. God is not just alive inside of you. God is alive, period!

God is Never on Trial, We Are

At the 1:40 mark in the trailer Josh boasts, “We’re going to put God on trial.” The great Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis was spot on in his description of this mixed up methodology.

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is in the dock.

Not only is this approach to defending the existence of God methodologically problematic (for reasons I will not get into here), but it is exceedingly arrogant. Romans 9.20 comes to mind. “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” God is not to be judged by us. We are to be judged by Him. God is not on trial. We are on trial.

But I Can’t Judge a Movie by Its Trailer

Or can I? The two methodological concerns I have pointed out above are significant concerns. They are, in and of themselves, enough to destroy the apologetic value of this movie. Based on the trailer, I would have a hard time recommending this movie to young, impressionable Christians. Perhaps the movie will change my mind, but I doubt it. I have three other comments not mentioned above. I discuss them below.

First, what is the target audience for this film? The Christian? The non-Christian? The academic community? The target audience is not immediately clear to me.

Second, those who believe the statement “God is Dead” is some sort of rallying cry that atheists run about and spout (or require on student “papers” for a passing grade) need to do a bit more research into the origin and meaning of the phrase.

Third, at the 2:27 mark in the movie trailer Josh claims, “Science supports His existence, so why do you hate him?” If this line indicates anything about the philosophical substance of the movie, then the movie is awful. Aside from the fact that Josh is talking about science in a philosophy class, and aside from the suspicion that Josh has not actually provided solid scientific evidence to “support” the existence of God, why does Josh think his question about the professor’s supposed hatred of God has anything to do with scientific support for God’s existence? Plenty of scientific reasoning supports my existence, but that does not prevent people from hating me. (For example, if you liked God’s Not Dead, then you probably dislike me at the moment.) More importantly, why does Josh feel it necessary to physically move toward the professor in a threatening manner, screaming at him as he does so? If a student were to approach me the way this “Christian” approaches his philosophy professor in this movie trailer, I would promptly dismiss class and call campus security. (Then again, I’m no Hercules.)

If God’s Not Dead teaches Christian students to fear their professors (and, gasp, philosophy professors in particular), and if it teaches them to make relative statements, and if it teaches them to think sinful students and professors are in a position to put the Creator on trial, and if it teaches Christian students to respond to unbelieving professors the way Josh approaches his atheist professor, then God’s Not Dead is just generally unhelpful. Perhaps I will change my tune once I see the movie. But I’m not getting my hopes up.