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 isĀ 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.

 

The Day Fred Phelps Died and Jesus Christ Lived: What should the Christian response to the “Westboro Baptist Church” look like?

Fred Phelps is dead.

Phelps is best known for heading up the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). The WBC is infamous for preaching a message of hatred toward homosexuals (“God Hates Fags”) and picketing the funerals of United States military.

An Emotional Response to a Spiritual Problem

Most people are shocked and appalled at the WBC. I do not fault them for that. However, I do fault them for substituting their subjective emotional responses for sound intellectual responses to the WBC. In a society where feelings matter more than substantial thought, even most Christians are satisfied with the purely emotional response to the WBC. But they should not be. The Christian response to Phelps and the WBC has, for the most part, looked no different from the wordly response to Phelps and the WBC. And that’s a serious problem.

When facing the WBC cult, Christians have recourse to a much stronger argument than expressing their own personal feelings about the WBC. They also have more than a cold intellectual reply available to them. They have the Word of God. The Christian response to the false teaching of Fred Phelps must be more informed by the Word of God than it is informed by knee-jerk emotional reactions.

I have watched countless Christians fail to provide any substantial response to Phelps. He was far more evil than those with mere emotional responses give him credit for. Phelps preached half-truths and deceived countless people both inside and outside of his little religious cult. Many Christians are among those who are deceived.

A Biblical Response to an Unbiblical Message

Unfortunately, the WBC has been exceedingly successful in furthering a false message at the expense of the true message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here’s how:

1. They promote unbiblical feelings of hatred.

The WBC promotes unbiblical feelings of hatred, but not always in the manner most people think. They make you mad. The WBC loves that you respond to them with anger. Their actions are intentionally provocative. They promote a message of hate, and people respond to them with hatred. They have been exceedingly successful in getting people to hate each other.

As Christians, we should hate sin, and hate the wickedness that is condoned and practiced by the WBC. However, we must remember that anger itself is most often an expression of our own sinful ways, not the emotional worker of righteousness we so often trick ourselves into thinking it is. We cannot cease to approach those who practice wickedness with grace, though we absolutely condemn their damnable practices. Otherwise we are no better off than the WBC.

2. They promote an unbiblical view of God.

The WBC promotes an unbiblical view of God, but not always in the manner most people think. By focusing in on the wrath of God to the exclusion of other attributes of God, WBC has sparked a response that focuses on the love of God to the exclusion of other attributes of God. The idea that “God is Love” has become a rallying cry for those opposed to all manner of morality, not just those who are rightly quoting it from Scripture.

As Christians, we must remember that God is a God of wrath. God does hate sin. God even hates sinners. That much is the clear teaching of the Word of God. (Ps. 5.5, 11.5; Prov. 6.16-19; etc.) Responding to the WBC by claiming that “God is love” or “God loves everyone” is joining the world in a partially true, unbiblical proclamation of God’s supposed approval of sin. Let’s be clear that unrepentant sinners will face the absolute condemnation of God in hell for eternity. That is not owing to God’s love for those individuals, that is owing to His hatred for them. That same hatred, or wrath, or anger of God towards sin was poured out on Christ Jesus on the cross for all of those who will turn from their sins and trust in His perfect propitiatory sacrifice. The WBC has done an excellent job of making a mockery of this biblical message of judgment and grace found in the cross of Christ through their unbiblical message of the mere hatred of God.

3. They promote unbiblical methods of ministry.

The WBC promotes unbiblical methods of ministry, but not always in the manner most people think. The WBC wants to make it clear to people that God hates sin, will not tolerate it, absolutely condemns it, and the like. People most often respond to the WBC by dismissing their message, calling them a hate group, and attempting legal action against them. Yet their message is partially true, as already mentioned above. Moreover, warning people about the coming judgment for their sins is one of the most loving things anyone could do. The WBC has made the aforementioned argument, and I dare say it is difficult to disagree. Unless, of course, the message of sin, judgment, and wrath are altogether dismissed. And that is precisely the way many people have responded.

As Christians, we must remember that people stand condemned before God, dead in their trespasses and sins. We justly deserve the righteous wrath of God. We are sinners. The only way to avoid the judgment of God is to be saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The WBC errs in preaching a message of the hatred of God toward sinners while assuming they know the identities of the non-elect, those who will ultimately never repent, but remain reprobate, thus ensuring that the WBC will never preach true repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ as the only way anyone can ever avoid the judgment of God for sins that the WBC is so fond of trivializing through their insensitive arrogance, crude language and gaudy placards.

The “Gospel” of Phelps versus the Gospel of Christ

The message of Fred Phelps is not the same as the message of Jesus Christ. However, the most potentially dangerous part of the message of Phelps is not what he got wrong, but what he got right. A tidbit of truth is enough to poison the minds of many, leading them to either imbibe the lies of Phelps in their entirety, or else to reject even the very Word of God which makes its occasional appearance in the attempted justifications of this wayward religious cult. The message of Jesus Christ is the good news about His death, burial, and resurrection for our sins. We do not hear that message associated with the followers of Phelps, because they are false teachers. May we as Christians address them as such, rather than joining the unbelieving world in dismissing them because we find the WBC ignorant, offensive, or otherwise icky. May we continue to preach and defend the true gospel of Jesus Christ with boldness and humility even when it is not politically correct to do so.