SEEKING HEALING: On March 31, congregants prayed for slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin and his shooter, George Zimmerman, during a service at the First Church of Seventh Day Adventists in Washington, D.C. The prayer was focused on racial healing and asked that people exercise patience to allow the judiciary to follow its course to bring about justice. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)
Many words have been and will be written about the death of Trayvon Martin, and the cocktail of grief, outrage, and confusion will likely linger long after the matter is resolved in one way or another. The circumstances of this unfortunate event have directed our attention to some of the challenges we face as a nation and as human beings, with considerable focus on the persistent difficulties connected to race. Whether or not Martin was racially profiled, this tragedy presents the opportunity to take paths that will lead us to better expressions of our humanity.
As director of Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics I had the privilege of participating in an event entitled “Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War” (co-sponsored with The Raven Foundation). Two points raised at this thought-provoking conference can be helpful as we consider the long shadow of our history with race, particularly for followers of Christ. First, I continue to hear the echo of the following statement (paraphrased here) from Luke Harlow of Oakland University: “At the time of the Civil War, white supremacy was essentially held as an article of faith.” By this, he meant most citizens in the United States, North and South. Upon hearing this, I thought, No wonder it is so difficult for us to overcome the negative legacy of race.
The fact that racial superiority was so unquestioned suggests that the social, cultural, and political fabric of the Modern West in general and the United States in particular was constructed with a view of human beings that could be generalized as “whites” (or ethnic Europeans, who admittedly had their clashes) and “others.” Though the latter were identified according a range of racial categories, they definitely were not regarded as equal to “whites,” even among Christians. Of course there were those who did regard all humans as equal, but this was truly a minority report.
While many changes have occurred in the 150 years since the Civil War began, race consciousness remains in our social and cultural DNA like a stubborn mutation, rendering it difficult for us to truly and consistently regard “others” as equal before the eyes of God and fully human. This problem of otherness is not new, but it has manifested in a particularly malevolent fashion in the construction of racial identity. Today, this means that though great changes have occurred that would have been unimaginable 150 years ago, much more needs to change if we are to really live together as caring neighbors, at least in the church if not elsewhere. Yet this is an area where Christians continue to struggle, and many find themselves exhausted in reconciliation efforts.
The stubbornness of our race problem could lead us to despair, but taking a long view in light of where we have come from instead reminds us that we must have great patience as we pursue fundamental change. This patience is not the twin of apathy, but the disposition of steadiness and faithfulness in the face of at times imperceptible transformation. Change has occurred and can occur again.
Second, and more briefly, Dr. Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton College’s history department, urged us to consider the difference between moral judgment and moral reflection. Whether it is the views held by most citizens 150 years ago or today in moments of racial conflict, moral judgment is the easy path which leads us to say “I can’t believe they held/hold such views and did such things.” Moral judgment keeps us separate from those we find reprehensible or disappointing. With moral reflection, while we may be surprised, disappointed, or offended by the ideas and actions we see in others, we are also prompted to consider our own moral architecture. In the question of race and otherness, moral reflection helps us to ask: What would I have thought if I were living at that time; how do I think about those that I readily regard as “other” from me; and does someone’s “otherness” make it easier for me to conclude that they are deficient in their humanness in some way and thus make it easier for me to disregard Christ’s command to love my neighbor as myself?
Moral reflection does not refuse to identify moral failings, but it leads us to look for them in places we might not peer otherwise. Moral reflection can prompt us to look at ourselves, our church, and our world in a way that brings us to a place of repentance that leads to transformation of life and even society.
Steady, faithful patience and moral reflection hardly exhaust our strategies for changing how we honor God in addressing the problem of race, but I find them helpful. What helps you?
This essay was adapted from an article at The Christian Post and was used by permission.
ON THE HOT SEAT: Last month, Bishop T.D. Jakes discussed his views on the Trinity with Elephant Room leaders James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll. (Photo: The Elephant Room)
There has been considerable discussion regarding the Elephant Room 2 in light of T.D. Jakes’ invitation and appearance. For those unfamiliar with the controversy, check out UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller’s roundup of reactions to the event. In short, the Elephant Room is a gathering of evangelical megachurch pastors who discuss the theological and ecclesiological “elephants in the room.” The second convening of the event took place on January 25, and the headlining “elephant” was Bishop T.D. Jakes and his beliefs regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.
Much has been written about the strange interrogation Jakes endured and the wisdom of inviting such a polarizing figure in the first place. Here are a few more thoughts:
1. While there is admittedly something intriguing about the concept of the Elephant Room, where prominent church leaders with significantly different approaches to ministry come together and speak frankly with each other, I wonder how much all of this plays into the problems of celebrity evangelicalism. It is good to get successful leaders together in settings like this, but do these events also run the risk of suggesting that certain forms of success in ministry also equate with the highest levels of biblical and theological expertise? I don’t know the various educational backgrounds of all the participants, so I can’t make any claims about their theological backgrounds, but it is worth asking how we grant authority to the opinions of successful church leaders, particularly given the populism of evangelicalism.
2. I don’t know the circumstances of Jakes’ invitation, but some of the controversy relates to whether his presence at the Elephant Room 2 was a tacit endorsement of his ministry and whether he truly preaches the gospel. I wonder what would have been the kind of circumstance where his invitation would have been okay with everyone and where there could have been not only a conversation about the Trinity but also the other elephant that lingers — Jakes modified, marketable, and therapeutic version of the prosperity gospel. The conversation needs to happen, but how does that occur? What event could have been created to have this conversation without the cloud of controversy?
3. Race and evangelicalism remains massively complex. Some applaud Bryan Lorrits’ comments on his blog and on a video regarding the centrality of white leaders in this movement that tacitly claims to speak for all evangelicals and (for some) the apparent desire of the approval of such leaders in the critique of Jakes. While there may be truth to Lorrits’ comments, here is why this is difficult. Any African American who comes into evangelicalism and attends seminary will be primarily taught by white professors, and if they embrace what they are teaching and then have some critique of the black church (not that there is one tradition, because there are many), of course it will seem like their critique is one that gets “approved” by white leaders. It is certainly possible that some desire this approval, but it is also true that some bring their critique on the basis of convictions that they fully embrace apart from any affinity for white approval (this is not only about Reformed theology — it can happen with Arminian theology or other traditions as well).
What makes this so complicated is the fact that the ripple effects remain from centuries of racism, and the issues of power, respect, and control all hover around situations like this one, making it difficult to see where this is simply about disagreements about correct doctrine/practice or about participation in contexts that remain largely white (whether it is the Gospel Coalition or any other evangelical institution/group).
Perhaps there is opportunity in this to look more closely at these complexities and then make some real progress on issues of race — we may have taken some steps forward but we have miles to go.
I hope constructive conversation lies ahead.
Without a doubt, one of the top religion stories of the past month has been the release of Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The big question that most inquiring minds have wanted to know is: Has Bell officially departed the ranks of solid Christian orthodoxy and gone all universalist on us? Prior to the book’s release, many were convinced he had — and they let him hear about it.
In my previous post regarding Bell, I stated that it is important to think about both the intended audience for the book as well as the opportunity this presents for us to act Christianly in the context where disagreements and passion merge around very important issues of Christian belief. Now that the book is out, we can identify the primary audience and I can try to make the most of this opportunity to live out the second greatest commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself” — Matt. 22:39) while writing a review with affirmations and critiques.
Bell (left) describes his audience in the preface: “I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’ ” Both the beginning and end of the book make it clear that Bell wants people to come to Christ and to the church, especially those who are turned off by a version of the gospel that states that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” Later he similarly states regarding the way that some present the gospel as a rescue project:
God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.
Bell correctly identifies the truth that many people within the church and without have questions about how to understand the gospel as good news, and how to understand the character of God in relationship to salvation and judgment if Scripture tells us that God is truly loving. While Bell is primarily concerned about those “turned off” by traditional presentations of the gospel (or, in my view, bad presentations of the traditional gospel that seem so focused on the specter of God’s judgment that it puts it in tension with His love), all of the questions he asks in the book are raised by many Christians, including a number here where I teach.
Were I a betting man, I would wager that even a strong Calvinist who bows before God’s sovereignty wonders about how they will finally understand the economy of God’s justice when we get to the other side. If we surveyed the people in the pews regarding what they know about our eternal destiny and what they wonder about or hope for, chances are we would find that people at least wonder about those who seemed to live like Christians but either never confessed Christ or never heard of him. Even if they believe that after the final judgment there will be a final separation between believers and unbelievers, they wonder about who will be the surprises in the population of God’s consummated kingdom.
What of heaven, hell, and final judgment? Love Wins presents a challenge for this reviewer: on the one hand, Bell is pastor and not an academic theologian, and the book is not written like a scholarly treatise, though it does wade into that realm briefly at times. On the other, Bell pastors a church of 10,000 and has influence on many thousands more, so he has a tremendous burden of responsibility because of his platform. He cannot say, “I am a pastor, and not a theologian” because his preaching and writing frames the Bible reading and theological reflection for many; this is part of his job as a teaching pastor. Now, some affirmation and critique.
Getting What We Want
Bell states correctly that throughout the history of the church there has been a range of belief regarding the final destiny of unbelievers, from the traditional view to positions such as a limited duration of judgment that either ends with annihilation of those outside the kingdom or a second chance to be reconciled to God, to the view that ultimately all humans will be reconciled to God in the end. While there is much discussion today and more adherents to the latter views, Bell is quite wrong to suggest that anything other than the belief in eternal conscious punishment was the dominant view for at least the first 19 centuries of the church. The consensus was that there is a final judgment followed by some unending experience of separation. There were notable exceptions (Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Clement of Alexandria), but they are in the great minority, and Origen’s views are condemned at the 5th ecumenical council in A.D. 553.
Regarding heaven and hell, Bell rightly states that there is a present experience of eternal life (John 3:16 and 5:24 tells us eternal life begins at conversion), but the future reference of life beyond (whether we used the word “heaven” or “eternal life”) is prominent in the New Testament. I think Bell wants to get past the idea that salvation is only about our future experience, to which I heartily say “Amen,” but we need not swap one overemphasis for another. The same is true regarding hell. Yes, life apart from God’s design can be “hellish” in the present, but the warnings about hell and judgment have in view a future experience of existence (or “non-life”) apart from God.
What about Bell and the universalism question? He has stated that he is not a universalist, and while there are passages that suggest he leans in that direction, his emphasis on human freedom does not allow him to clearly conclude that all people will be reconciled to God. As many have already stated about the book, Bell’s view on hell is like that of C.S. Lewis (not a surprise: he directs readers to Lewis’ Great Divorce in the back of the book): people get what they want.
Explaining Heaven and Hell
One more important critique: When talking about the cross, Bell refers to the range of metaphors used to discuss how salvation works for us: ransom, sacrifice, redemption, etc. He seems to be suggesting that blood sacrifice is only a metaphor borrowed from the ancient context. I think this is an error, because Christ is the culmination of the entire history of Israel with its priestly system that includes sacrifice, and it is hard to make full sense of Christ’s work if we only regard sacrifice as a symbol. Christ cannot be our priest and lamb who reconciles us to God without sacrifice as a reality that also has symbolic import. We need to talk about more than sacrifice, but not less. If it doesn’t resonate with modern ears, then the pastor’s task is to explain how it all works.
Books & Culture editor John Wilson’s Wall Street Journal article on the book reminds us that in the last few decades, there hasn’t been much of an emphasis on sin and hell in evangelical circles. In that light, Bell’s book is a catalyst for addressing what is likely a problem even in churches most conservative on this issue: the ability of those other than the leadership to not only confess beliefs about sin and hell, God’s love and justice, but also to actually be able to understand and explain it. I wonder how many in the pews can help their skeptical friends understand how God is truly loving yet also just in the final judgment as well as what exactly the Bible means when it talks about hell as a place of eternal punishment. Even the most ardent critic should see this as an opportunity to bring to light biblical teaching about the seriousness, darkness, and malevolence of sin with its consequences and God’s nature as truly loving, holy, and just.
Is Bell off the reservation? No. Is C.S. Lewis or Richard John Neuhaus? (On the latter, see this article from First Things.) Bell is right to tell us that love wins, but we need to be clear that so do God’s holiness and justice. God’s nature isn’t only love.
Does this debate matter? Yes it does. While it is not the most pressing issue for those in urban contexts (issues of immediate justice have as much or greater import to many in our cities or underserved areas), it is important because we need to constantly think about how we can better seek to understand the God we worship and the gospel we proclaim. We all tell some gospel story in the church, and we can always refine and deepen how we speak and live out a faithful witness.