Author Archives: lewinkler

About lewinkler

I am a professor of theology and ethics at the East Asia School of Theology in Singapore.

Are all religions alike? Responding to Religious Pluralism

I heard it again the other day.  Someone confidently stated that all religions are basically the same and that all roads ultimately lead to God.

On the face of it, the statement has contemporary plausibility, if for no other reason that it’s been said so frequently in popular culture, it no longer sounds strange or untrue.  The basic claim is that all religions are roughly equal in terms of their truth content (metaphysics), moral ideals (ethics), and overall purposes and goals (teleology).

What does sound wrong and offensive to contemporary western ears is this statement: “I believe that my religion is the only true and accurate one, and that all others are false and misleading in critically important ways.”  How can we evaluate the claim of religious pluralism that all religions are roughly equal?  Can we still cling to the conviction that our religion is actually correct and that some religions are closer to the truth and exhibit greater moral goodness than others, or is this hopelessly naïve and out-of-date?

There are a number of ways to proceed from this point.  Any fair and comprehensive defense of a specific religious viewpoint is a massive undertaking and one that cannot be provided in a simple blog post like this. What can be done, however, is a simple comparative look at some of the central claims of five major world religions.  This will help us see more clearly how similar—and dissimilar—they really are.  This is necessary because many religious pluralists are happy to state and hold to their ideology but have seldom taken an honest and accurate look at the actual claims and tenets of the major world religions.

ReligionFounderGodJesusProblemSolution
HinduismN/A
3,000 B.C.
Brahman
Many gods
Just a ManSamsara
Ignorance
Good Works
Knowledge
Devotion
BuddhismSidhartha
Guatama
583 B.C.
Irrelevant
Nirvana
Just a ManSamsara
Ego-centered
Desire
8-fold path
to Nirvana
Good Works
JudaismAbraham
Moses
2,000 B.C.
MonotheisticJust a Man or
Even a False
Prophet
Impurity
Alienation
from God
Repentance
Observe the
Divine Law
(Good Works)
ChristianityJesus ChristMonotheisticThe God-ManRebellion
Sin
Separation
Trust in the Life
and Death of
Jesus Christ
Free Gift/Grace
IsalmMuhammad
AD 570
MonotheisticA ProphetDisobedienceSubmission
5 Pillars
Good Works
Comparing Five Major World Religions

I could pursue several other lines of interest including moral, teleological, and eschatological claims, but the aforementioned aspects are sufficient to show that while there are some similarities, the major religions are, at their root, fundamentally at odds with one another, especially with respect to Jesus and the meaning and way of salvation.  All attempts to reconcile them either fail to represent them faithfully or tend to ignore or paste over these essential disparities.  In short, all religions definitely do not teach the same things.  They are frequently and fundamentally at odds with one another at numerous foundational points. We may try to become an advocate for the truth and goodness of this or that religion on the basis of evidence, life-change, historical significance, personal preference, or some other set of rationales.  We may even deny the efficacy and truth of all religions, looking to some other source and means for our hope and well-being.  But one thing we cannot sensibly continue to claim is that all religions are roughly equal and generally teach the same things.  They decidedly do not!

Do I love God on His terms or mine?

We live in an age of extreme individualism and self-worship.  Traditionally, idols were concrete physical representations of “gods” made by our own efforts and in our own images.  In the contemporary world, our idols are often not external to ourselves but nothing more than the enthronement of our own ideas and (especially) desires.  We give ultimate homage to whatever we think and want and feel.

As Christians influenced by this culturally-encouraged and popularly-celebrated narcissistic idolatry, we can be tempted to serve God, but only on our own terms.  If God reveals or asks something of us that does not coincide with our own thoughts, feelings, and expectations, we are tempted to ignore or even reject God’s leading as unreasonable, uncomfortable, unimportant, and therefore (Dare I say it?), ungodly.

At some level, we want to live for God, but only to a certain extent.  We want the adventure, joy, and security of living our lives in God, but we’d rather bypass the discomfort, difficulty, and detriment that may well be part of obeying all that Christ commands.  We want a crown without a cross, exaltation without humiliation, and resurrection without death.  We want God, but only when it’s convenient.  He tells us to take up our cross and follow Him.  Instead, we want Him to take up His cross and follow us.

When God reveals His expectations, He does not invite us to come to Him on our terms.  Instead, He enjoins us to plunge into the thrill of His resurrection life through the crushing and humiliating experience of death—death to self and all that we hold dear.  That is the great and loving invitation, as well as the unfathomable and unshakeable hope, that through this ministry of dying to self and living wholly for God, we will rise again.

I Want an Easy Life

I want an easy life.  For all my blustering claims about being willing to “sacrifice all for Jesus,” at the end of the day, I long for ease and comfort.  I suspect most do.  Christians seek comfort rather than Christ because we do not really believe He is worth any amount of suffering and sacrifice in this exceedingly fleeting life.

It’s one thing to want an easy life from God, but another thing entirely to expect and demand it.  Philippians 1:29 reminds us that we have been granted to not only believe in Christ, but also to suffer with and for Him.  This means that it is a gift and a grace to suffer for the sake of the gospel!  Later in chapter 3 of Philippians, Paul goes on to say that knowing Christ is, for him, better than anything or anyone else.  But in so saying, he expresses his longing to be like Christ in every way, including the way of His suffering and death.  Why? Suffering is the path to maturity and growth, and death is the path to resurrection life.

It is also inherent to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ—He suffered and died for us.  We are therefore called to complete His self-sacrificing suffering as the church, His body (Colossians 1:24).  We suffer because we are different than and hated by the rest of the world—insistently, incessantly, and explicitly so.  And we suffer because Jesus suffered, giving an example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21).

I’m not saying that persecution is a wonderful thing, but at the same time, God is not averse to letting it happen—in some cases to a shocking degree, even unto death.  We may at times stand aghast at the depths of evil God allows in a world marred by sin and where a genuine degree of human freedom has been granted.  But we also have to guard against the secular humanist claims that given the chance, human beings will naturally be kind to one another, and that the goal of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

In the end, people are often willing to suffer for something or someone they believe to be worthy of great hardship and sacrifice.  In our church here in Singapore, for example, when one of our attenders became a member, his family literally held a funeral for him.  He clearly understood that knowing Jesus now and being a member of God’s family for all eternity was in this life worth the complete loss (for now) of his earthly family.

As Christians, we must honestly wrestle with our willingness to experience difficulty and hardship for the sake of His greater honor and glory.  Even a cursory look at 1 Peter makes it clear that suffering for the greater glory of Jesus Christ is both normal for and expected of the believer.  In fact, as Acts 5:41 makes clear, it is a glorious honor.

Jesus promised that our lives would be troubled and difficult precisely because we are His followers (John 15:18-20).  As such, we should not sell people a false bill of goods when sharing the gospel with them or calling them into genuine discipleship.  Quite frankly, if you want to follow Jesus, you’re asking for trouble in this life, but you’re also promised His presence and peace alongside eternal life with Him in the life that is to come.

It is only in the light of eternity that we can appreciate the true nature of our sufferings here for Jesus’s sake.  That is why Paul calls them “momentary and light” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  They are real enough, but they pale in comparison to the magnificent things God has in store throughout eternity for those who have come to know, love, and trust Him now.

I want an easy life, but even more, I want Jesus to be glorified in and through me, and that means experiencing suffering for His sake.  What kind of life do you want?

The Happiest Place on Earth

In a recent study (and contrary to the hopes and claims of the Disney corporation), Finland was recognized as the “happiest place on earth.” It is, incidentally, also one of the least religious places on the planet. While nominal Christianity is widespread at around 70%, only 8% of the population attends church services on a monthly (or more) basis and only 3% attend weekly.

When I began walking more closely with Christ in college, I was told that people without Jesus were, deep down inside, unhappy. It didn’t matter how easy their life was, how much money and things they possessed, or how happy they appeared on the outside. If they didn’t know Jesus, they had to be miserable. Perhaps they were dishonest about their misery, rushing to allay and cover over the existential sadness with money, sex, fame, power, experiences, and relationships. Or perhaps they were somewhat unaware of and blind to their inner turmoil, needing to be shown the bankruptcy of their life apart from a right relationship with God. Regardless, they simply couldn’t be happy without Jesus.

I believed this assessment largely because it was true in my own experience: When I wasn’t walking with God, I was deeply dissatisfied with life. The longer I’ve lived, however, the more I’ve come to realize that while there are many unhappy non-Christians in the world, there are also a fair number who appear to be genuinely happy and self-satisfied.

Does any of this fundamentally challenge the significance, truth, and power of the Christian gospel? In fact, in some ways, it reinforces it, because it demonstrates sin’s blinding power and how the world can deeply deceive those who love it and want nothing more than what it has to offer. As Lennox and Gooding point out in The Definition of Christianity, people who have worldly power, wealth, and respect have a strong vested interest in maintaining their place in this world. In short, “The world, as it [is, is] good enough for them. They [cannot] see all that much wrong with it.” This also shows how much human beings can put their hope in vain and worthless things, oblivious to or in direct denial of the dangers that await when their lives are ultimately called to account by a holy, just, and all-knowing God.

For struggling Christians, it can be easy to forget the fate of unbelievers, particularly when their lives seem filled with joy and ease, when they appear to be in control, and especially when they arrogantly and openly deny and disdain the God who made them. But as Asaph points out in Psalm 73, there is more to the story than first meets the eye. After seeking the Lord and regaining his perspective, he concludes, starting in verse twenty-five, this way: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”

To be sure, there are many unhappy pagans in the world searching high and low for something or someone greater, better, and more meaningful. May they find the one and only God who can bring true joy and satisfaction in their quest! But for those like the Finns who seem genuinely satisfied with their life apart from God, the real reckoning may not come in this life.

One day God will judge the living and the dead and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth. All who trust in Him will know and experience the everlasting hope of being intimately loved by the One who gave Himself as a living sacrifice. Only then we will live in the fullness of joy. And only then will we realize that all other so-called felicities pale in comparison. On that day, and forevermore, we really will be living in the happiest place in heaven and on earth.

Why can’t we be colorblind?

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In 1992, Michael W. Smith released the popular Christian song, “Color Blind,” claiming “we could see better” if we’d all be colorblind.  The idea sounded noble enough.  After all, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., we were supposed to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.  But even way back then, something about the notion of colorblindness bothered me.  Of course, in one sense, this points to the notion of equality.  I get and affirm that.

However, trying to ignore ethnicity tends to discount the significance of a huge part of our embodied humanity.  Contrary to the “melting pot” theory, the solution to race relations is not racial denial, abolition, or fusion.  Pretending we see no colors is both dishonest and unhelpful.  The colors are there, and they are beautiful in God’s sight.  They can be beautiful in ours as well when we openly and honestly celebrate our rich ethnicities and variegations.  We are not monochromatic but polychromatic.  To extend the metaphor to sound, we are not monophonic but polyphonic.

So far, so good.  But inevitably, some criterion or criteria must be used to determine what constitutes a beautiful symphony and a great work of art.  Postmodernity suggests that the unrestrained celebration of radical diversity is the only way to find our identity and live well in community.  There is a suspicion toward all who would suggest some sort of evaluative meta-principle or overarching narrative that might lead to and support exclusion or inequality.

Historically (and, I believe, intrinsically), human communities naturally form around standards of similarity and resemblance.  We tend to become tribal and exclusive when we simply do what is most comfortable to us, instinctively gravitating toward those who look, talk, think, and act like us.

This kind of “tribalism” was actually the default mode for most of human history.  Groups of similar people banded together for the sake of protection, survival, and general wellbeing.  But it was almost always on a small scale unless some great totalizing leader or movement fought against the natural slide toward fragmentation.  In ancient times, these were the Romans, the Ghengis Khans, the Alexander the Greats of the world.  They sought to actively impose their vision of the good life and what it means to be human upon the conquered and subjugated as well as those who willingly agreed to submit.

But this was not a blended harmony and mosaic masterpiece.  It was hegemonic domination and imposition of one cultural and ethnic vision over all others.  Similarly, many modern nation states seek to overcome small-scale tribalism by means of enforced and educationally indoctrinated nationalistic values, rituals, languages, and laws to promote unity, revenue, and power.

As a Christian, I believe in the doctrine of human sin and depravity.  It has been said that historically, it is the most easily verifiable doctrine of Christianity.  People, when given the unrestricted opportunity, will more often than not use power to oppress (rather than empower) others, especially those who are different from themselves.  As the old adage states: power corrupts, and absolute power (when possessed by anyone other than God), corrupts absolutely.

So, how do we respond to racial and social differences and the inevitable tensions they create?  First and foremost, we have to be in genuine dialogue with one another.  People who are very different from each other are less apt to depersonalize and vilify one another if they try to become friends, or at least have ongoing conversations with one another.  Looking to governments and programs to create racial harmony is only effective when individuals and groups of citizens are committed on a smaller and more personal scale to try to understand and appreciate each other.

There’s a catch, of course.  We all know that close interpersonal conversations are no guarantee of peaceful relations.  Dysfunction and hostility are not just found between insiders and outsiders.  They are frequently intercommunal and interfamilial.  This points us back to the reality that small is not inherently better unless the small is informed by and infused with more transcendent and godly values and concerns.  Again, as a Christian, I am convinced (against the postmodernity) that there are shared human values which are both transcultural and trans-temporal.  These values are grounded in and revealed by the character and purposes of God as well as His divine image stamped upon every human being.

Notions of transcendent values and the image of God lead to a second requirement for promoting racial harmony: We need some legitimate and thoughtfully arrived at reference points for interracial justice.  For example, how can we genuinely care for one another?  How can we empower and protect minorities?  How can we check and limit the powers of the elite?  And how can we do this without destroying a significant portion of everyone’s dignity and freedom?  Such ideals cannot be based within human communities (or powerfully persuasive individuals) alone.

Any notions of justice that are solely grounded in human conversations and conventions are destined to fail because they lack (and sometimes even deny any possibility of) transcendent resources for producing enduring unity in diversity.  Apart from the guidance of overarching ideals, human conversations consistently digress into shouting matches and power plays since no one can refer to anything outside of the community (or the self) to substantiate notions of goodness, fairness, and justice.

Because we all bear God’s image, every human being possesses an inherent moral sensibility and intuitive notion of justice.  These are often skewed and misaligned by sin, but by God’s grace, they are nonetheless still present.  Consequently, a lot of historical accord concerning these overarching moral principles is evident.  Still, they must be grounded beyond the physical realm in order to be truly binding and compelling.  In short, they need what philosophers and theologians call a metaphysical basis.  Unfortunately, we live in an era when metaphysics and transcendent theology has fallen on hard times.  Not many want (or are even willing) to believe that some things are trans-temporally and transculturally better for a community as a whole, especially when they might oppose and make it harder for some inside and outside that community.

In the postmodern context, I am deeply pessimistic about coming to any real consensus of shared human values.  Everyone wants to believe that paying greater attention to minority and marginal voices is a sufficient condition for finding real agreement, but it cannot (and never will be) in view of sinful human tendencies.  What makes racial and interpersonal harmony possible are enduring values like selflessness, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, and compassion, alongside prudence, self-control, and a conviction to protect the downtrodden, disregarded, and distressed.  These ideals require supportable and well-grounded definitions alongside living examples that can only be adequately applied on the basis of a moral source beyond the material realm.  Many in the contemporary context will howl and scream foul at this point, but inevitably someone’s will and moral vision will be promoted and enforced.  The only reasonable concerns here are: Which vision?  Whose will?  And why?

Contrary to what some would claim, Christianity’s devotion to the Bible firmly grounds its commitments to racial reconciliation, respect, equality, and harmony in the transcendent character of God as love and His divine image within each human being.  Against some recent revisionist histories and the “new atheists,” Christians have a long and proven (though certainly not infallible!) history of elucidating and successfully applying viable and time-tested communal virtues that create, promote, and sustain flourishing societies with more harmonious and respectful intercommunal and interracial relations.  As Jürgen Habermas (an atheist) reminds us in his 2005 book, Time of Transitions, “Egalitarianism from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life of solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . .  To this day, there is no alternative to it.”

Even more than this, far from being colorblind, the polychromatic vision and polyphonic symphony Christians hope in and look toward comes to us from beyond not only our world but also our time.  Revelation 7:9 tell us about a magnificent future when “a great multitude that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [will stand] before [God’s] throne” offering a multiethnic concert of unbridled praise to the One who created, unifies, and rejoices in this delightful diversity of difference.

This grand gathering is both the source of and continued inspiration for our longing to see every human being appreciated and respected for what they are: divine image bearers beautifully expressing their uniqueness in multifarious unity under the loving Lordship of our glorious and gracious Savior, Jesus Christ.

From Heroic to Demonic: The Defacement and Destruction of Memorials

56401737af6c43a89576d1b493c59027_18In recent days, we have seen widespread defacing and destroying of many local and national statues and monuments.  It would seem that many names and faces of the past are being subjected to a barrage of contemporary scorn, derision, and opposition.

To be sure, some of these memorials have enshrined people and ideals that probably should never have been celebrated in the first place.  They are, in many ways, reminders of a time of racist oppression and godless subjugation.  As such, an honest admission of wrongly hallowing past evil-doers and the need for corrective action to be taken are positive signs of repentance and restitution.  Perhaps some could be moved to museums and we could learn from their wrongdoings and shortcomings, while still recognizing their positive societal contributions.

But having said this, just how stringent should our standards of enshrinement and retention be?  And when past heroes become disgraced by the changing winds of time, what contemporary criteria are we using to disgrace and discredit them?  One problem with judging the past through the lens of the present is that the blind spots of our age can become the embarrassments and sources of shame in the generations that follow.

One example comes quickly to mind: How will future generations judge our confused obsessions with gender and sexuality?  I suspect, for example, that many of the things we find so noble and defensible in these arenas might well be deemed downright decadent and devious by future generations.

Judging the past with criteria from the present is not wholly illegitimate, but it should always be done with circumspect humility and caution versus a bold and reckless sense of self-righteous indignation.  The standards with which we judge the past will often come back to haunt us in the future.  Our contemporary heroes can just as easily be weighed and found wanting in the scales of future generations since many of the standards are based on the ever-changing spirit of the age.  As such, what is considered heroic in one era is often deemed demonic in the next.

All of this highlights the fact that we should be careful and calculated when we start defacing and destroying long-standing historical monuments.  In a recent example, the Black Student Union and the (rather ironically named) Student Inclusion Coalition are now calling for the removal of a statue of Abraham Lincoln from the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  To be fair, Lincoln was not a perfect man and he only became a Christian later in life.  He had to make hard decisions and compromise politically to preserve a fragile union that all Americans (regardless of race) still benefit from today.  Over the course of his life and career, there was plenty to find offensive and questionable.  After all, we are all deficient and if scrutinized closely enough, will be crushed by the demand for perfection.  The only ones who can stand up to the standard of flawlessness are figments of our own imaginations.  And even these figments will compete with one another if they are not grounded in a transcendent standard of determining who or what is truly perfect.

So, if you are looking for dirt on someone, rest assured, look hard and long enough and you will find it since we are all sinners.  No one but Jesus has led a perfect life, and even He gets a bad rap for the misuse and abuse of His name amongst His followers.

In the end, people are not perfect, but they can add value and teach us important lessons, nonetheless. There is a limit here, of course.  We cannot and should not immortalize just anyone at all.  But we can appreciate those whose lives were worthy of emulation and appreciation for the ways they helped change the world for the better, even if there were things for which they should be ashamed.

It is widely known, for example, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer.  His honorable work for civil rights, however, overshadows this immoral aspect of his life.  It doesn’t hurt him much right now since adultery (and fornication, I might add) is not currently considered especially immoral when weighed against the sins of racism and racially-motivated murder, for example.  Every generation has its pet moral outrages regarding certain sins and its blind spots and passes toward others.  In our time, extra-marital sexual expression is deemed more akin to authenticity and normalcy than it is to unfaithfulness and betrayal.

Again, regardless of how you assess his sexual lifestyle, Martin Luther King, Jr. was so much more than that.  He was a hero for his moral courage, his persistent vision of equality, his brilliant wisdom in organizing and standing up peacefully and non-violently against the vicious racism of his time, alongside his willingness to suffer and die for what he knew was right.  We should not overlook his serious flaws, but neither should we overlook his many virtues simply because he was also an imperfect sinner.

One of the beautiful features of scripture is its deep honesty about the multifaceted character of its heroes.  The Apostle Peter was a loud-mouthed, boastful, and cowardly betrayer.  King David was a murderer and adulterer.  But the Bible also tells us what these men (and many more like them) became through the process of humble repentance and glorious redemption.  Their colossal failures did not end up defining them wholesale.  God was able to not just see beyond their sins but transform them for His greater glory.

The irony of all this is that no matter who we choose to glorify and remember, every statue and monument will ultimately fall prey to the eroding sands of time.  Percy Shelley’s haunting poem, “Ozymandias,” poignantly remind us of this:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell its sculpture that well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Rest assured, time will pulverize into powder every attempt to immortalize the merely momentary.  And yet, there is hope.  You will be permanently remembered if you surrender your life to the Risen One who was nailed to a cross to die for your sins and your failures.  And when you trust in Him, He will forgive you and transform your life.  Not only that, at the end of the age He “will also give [you] a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).  That stone and that name will never fade away and are reserved throughout eternity for all who love and trust in Jesus.

Am I a racist?

Am-I-A-Racist

Growing up in the USA in the 1960’s, because of men like Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a lot of talk about racial equality and the Civil Rights Movement.  I’m deeply grateful that my parents and the church we attended repeatedly and insistently taught that all people are made in God’s image and are of infinite value and fully (not separately) equal.  More than fifty years later, it’s easy to forget that those were also times of deep anger, unrest, and social upheaval.  Looking back now, it feels like in some ways like we have made real progress while in others, we have only come full circle.

No matter how you assess the contemporary situation, racism is much more than conceptual, theoretical, and systemic.  For many, it is deeply emotional and personal.  Sadly, when talking about racism, one of the first things that must be done is to define it since some increasingly popular definitions are not only unhelpful and unproductive, they are downright deceptive and dangerous.

For example, many today suggest it is impossible to be a racist if you live in a context of poverty, oppression, and discrimination.  The assumption is that racism is inherently tied to power, and only those with social power and influence can possibly be racist in the truest sense of the term.

In response, I would suggest that while it is certainly easier for the powerful to express and uphold certain aspects of racism, especially systemic ones, this does not mean that racism, properly understood, is confined to social systems and influential segments of society alone.  Racism involves more significant moral elements like attitudes of moral superiority, hatred, and distrust.  Mindsets like these are not confined solely to those who are influential and well-connected.

Pride in anyone leads to and reinforces a sense of moral superiority.  For example, it is just as easy to believe, “I am morally better than them because although I am colored, poor, oppressed, and powerless, they are immoral because they are rich, oppressive, powerful, and white,” as it is to claim, “I am morally better than them because I am white, smart, and hard-working, and ambitious while they are they are colored, lazy, stupid, and unenterprising.”  One glories in their victimhood and difficulties, the other in their white privilege, but neither can claim an absence of racial or classist pride.

In addition, hatred gives anyone and everyone a sense of power and ability to vilify and reject those who are different than themselves, regardless of their socioeconomic or political situation.  To suggest that the poor and oppressed are merely innocent victims of the powerful, unable to exercise any personal and social influence at all, is not only to dehumanize them but also to obscure the potential for racism that cuts across all social lines and lurks within the soul of every human being.  It’s also a sure-fire way to harbor and justify self-righteous feelings of resentment and ill-will toward any and all who are different, especially those possessing greater power, opportunity, and authority.

Ultimately, feelings of hatred and suspicion lead to a deep sense of moral superiority as well as an active rejection of those who are different from oneself.  Again, racism among the powerful and privileged is much more noticeable and systemically impactful, and that’s an enormous problem that must be actively addressed and redressed.  But if those with less obvious positions of power refuse to recognize the potential presence of pride and hatred in their own hearts, the opportunity for real change at all levels of society will ultimately be lost because at its heart, the solution to racism is both theological and societal.  The reason is that while societal structures and systems must be reviewed and revised, racism can only be holistically eradicated through an active pursuit of reconciled relationships characterized by mutual forgiveness, love, and respect, values that are deeply theological.

When calls for solutions to racism are made, I frequently hear that racism is both systemic and learned. While undeniably true, a centrally important third aspect frequently gets left out, namely the natural or innate aspect.  In short, because of sin, racism is inherently easy for each and every one of us, regardless of our race or socioeconomic status.  Thus, racism manifests itself both socially and personally.  It is both learned and intrinsic, external and internal.  Failure to admit and recognize all (and not just some) of these aspects will ultimately result in incomplete solutions to a larger set of problems.

Far beyond the systemic and learned aspects of racism, we naturally gravitate toward and are most comfortable spending time with people who look, act, think, and talk like us.  Taking the time and making the effort to understand and befriend those who are different—simply because we are all human beings made in God’s image possessing infinite value—involves constant sacrifice, inconvenience, risk, and discomfort.  It is something we must remind ourselves and others of continually.  And we also must actively and intentionally move toward, listen to, and even embrace those with whom we disagree and who are very different from us.  As we do, in the midst of the difficulties and discomforts, we will find deep joy and mutual enrichment as new friendships are forged, new understandings are found, and new pathways of growth and change are fashioned.

Throughout this process, each and every one of us should be willing to keep honestly asking this hard but important question: Am I a racist?  The possibility of being or becoming one is always there beneath the surface, whether we are rich or poor, black or white, powerful or weak.  Why?  Because we all have the capacity and tendency to hate, belittle, and diminish the value of those who are different from us and strongly prefer the ones most like us.  Self-admission of this is a helpful place to begin in the process of actively moving toward real solutions to racism.  In this way, people can not only be taught against racism, they can also work with tirelessly humility toward reconciliation and reparation at all levels of society—social, political, economic, educational, and personal.  But reconciliation is fundamentally a theological concept with a theological grounding.  It takes people transformed by the gospel of Jesus who have first been reconciled to God to model that radical reconciliation with one another.

Thus, the goal for Christians is not mere recognition and affirmation of equality for all but the vigorous pursuit and realization of interracial community and communion.  And this can only happen if we first humbly listen and seek to understand, entering into the pain, anger, and grief of those who have suffered from the ravages of racism.  After that, we can more compassionately join in and work for viable solutions and lasting change together.  Without true compassion and participation, we tend to only feel pity and attempt to alleviate our guilt by making token overtures that cost us very little and involve us only minimally.  Real and lasting change requires getting our hands dirty, making real sacrifices, and taking genuine risks for the sake of the greater wellbeing of others.  If Christians are unwilling to make these kinds of sacrificial choices, others will, but they will do so in promotion of very different visions for what justice and change should look like and how they should be brought about.

In closing, I often hear the phrase, “But we’ve come so far already.”  And I think we can affirm that real progress has been made, but have we come far enough?  One of the great myths of enlightenment rational liberalism is that social progress is cumulative, unidirectional, and inevitable.  Real social progress is never any of these things.  It takes constant work and intentional effort to push against the ever-swelling tides of racism, classism, tribalism, and all kinds of other sinful “isms” that are present not only in the hearts of the powerful but also in the heart of every man, woman, and child.  These are the things that tear us and our societies apart, and unfortunately, are still at work in our midst.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Racial injustice, inequality, and discrimination remain to this day both within and around us.  And as long as they remain, we have still not come far enough.

Am I a disciple of Jesus?

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I just watched the film, “Tortured for Christ,” and many years ago read the book of the same title.  It’s about Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand.  Opposing the Communist regime, he was imprisoned for fourteen years and repeatedly and brutally beaten for his refusal to forsake his Christian faith.

In his own words, “It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners.  It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating.  A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their [the communists’] terms.  It was a deal; we preached and they beat us.  We were happy preaching.  They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy.”

While watching the film, I was deeply convicted that I have suffered almost nothing in order to follow Jesus Christ.  When Jesus told us to make disciples, He did not tell us to build large buildings and put on entertaining services so that we could fill them with passive pew-sitters.  He told us to go and make disciples everywhere we went.  And before that, He called us to be disciples ourselves, not considering our lives as precious, but giving them away and pouring them out in service of Him for His greater honor and glory.

I have to ask myself often and honestly, am I really and truly a disciple of Jesus?  The reality is, being His disciple, as well as making disciples, is extremely difficult.  It is backbreaking, heart-rending, self-effacing work.  And following Jesus involves more than theoretical sacrifice.  It involves making concrete commitments and costly choices to follow that might result in becoming uncomfortable, being fired, straining relationships, and losing popularity.  For some, it could even mean far more—a significant loss of freedom and/or the forfeiture of one’s life.

When Peter and the apostles were arrested and questioned by the Pharisees for sharing the good news about Jesus, Acts 5:40-42 tells us that the Pharisees “beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.  Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.  And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”  They were willing to suffer and even die for Jesus because they trusted, loved, and wanted to honor Him.  Any difficulties endured for His sake were a privilege to thank God for, not a hardship or humiliation to be avoided at all cost.  And as they obeyed Him, they experienced deep and genuine joy.

While I know in theory (and by limited experience) that there is great joy and fulfillment in following Jesus, no matter the risk or cost, I am still constantly tempted to make my life more comfortable, less arduous, and inoffensive.  I often love the world more than God, because I do not really believe he deeply cares for me and is a loving, gracious God.  I constantly think I know better how to live my life because I do not really believe God is wiser than I.  I repeatedly give myself over to sin because I do not really believe that the holiness of God is what I was designed to reflect and exhibit in this world.  And ultimately, I continue to fear hardship, suffering, and death because I love the things of this life more than the eternal things of God.  I don’t really believe that heaven will be magnificently, indescribably better than even the sweetest and most joyous moments in this life.

Am I a disciple of Jesus?  In the broadest sense of that term, I hope I can answer yes.  But in the concrete daily struggle to be faithful, I must admit, I am a continuous and consummate failure.  And yet, in His grace, He still offers the promise that He is with me always, even to the end of the age.  For all my foibles, failures, fears, and faithlessness, He remains faithful and promises that He will never leave or forsake me.  He is still in the process of making me His disciple and, praise God, the journey toward joy is only just beginning!

Lament and Imprecation: Feeling with the God Who Feels

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In my recent journey through the Psalms, I’ve been struck by the frequency of both deep laments as well as harsh and angry expressions made by some of the writers.  I’ve also been contemplating many of the gross injustices of our world today and find myself frequently sad, angry, and disgusted by some of the morally repugnant attitudes and actions of our age, but also the ones I see deep within in my own heart and soul.

Psalmic laments (expressions of deep sadness) are fairly well-known, as when David in Psalm 6:6 cries, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.”

Something perhaps less well-known but just as important are the Psalmic imprecations.  The word, “imprecate,” means to invoke evil upon or to curse, and there are at least 18 imprecatory Psalms.  They include major portions where the author calls upon God to do something terrible to the wicked and ungodly.

Consider these examples:

Psalm 10:12, 15: “Arise, O Lord; O God . . . .  Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer.”

Psalm 52:5, “But God will break you [the wicked] down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.”

Psalm 58:6-8: “O God, break the teeth in their mouths . . . O Lord!  Let them vanish like water that runs away . . . .  Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.”

Psalm 83:16-17: “Fill their faces with shame . . . O Lord.  Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace.”

Psalm 139:19: “O that You would slay the wicked, O God.”

Growing up in evangelicalism, there seemed (at least to me) to be a predisposition in our worship and scripture readings toward celebration and praise.  And that’s all fine and good.  God is certainly worthy of celebratory praise, but I’ve increasingly come to realize that while celebration, praise, and thanksgiving are centrally important to a healthy Christian life, some other important aspects were neglected or even ignored.

I somehow got the impression that being sad, upset, and outraged by morally reprehensible views, attitudes, and acts was more of an “Old Testament state of mind.”  Jesus had instituted a happier, kinder, and gentler era.  We were told to “consider it all joy,” “turn the other cheek,” “overcome evil with good,” and “bless those who persecute us.”  Of course, all of these responses have their place in Christian living, and vengeance is properly delegated to God alone since He has all the information necessary to make just judgments.  Still, it remains appropriate and healthy for Christians to grieve and be angry at what sin is and does in our time, seeking to be part of a movement toward bringing about the justice of the kingdom of God.

I think a reluctance to respond with raw and honest emotion to the ravages of evil gives at least a partial explanation for some of the mass exodus (some estimates suggest nearly 80%) from church by the current generation of youth raised in evangelicalism.  Many were raised in a culture of brokenness and pain.  In church, however, they only experienced a culture of superficial happiness and celebration that did not seem willing or even able to explore the depths of anguish, anger, and injustice that have become a daily experience for many in our world today.  Because they found no culture of genuine brokenness, distress, and compassion, they turned away to the world around them, a place where there was a willingness to openly admit and express imperfection, anger, and grief.

As the Psalms plainly show, grief and anger over injustice alongside a cry for justice is a very real and legitimate way to relate to God on a deeper level.  Still, it shouldn’t stop there.  The psalms show that these expressions are ultimately tempered and redirected by the humble recognition and acceptance that it is God who must act on behalf of the victimized and oppressed.  He is the one who is continuously called upon to comfort the afflicted and right every wrong.

This does not mean we do nothing in the face of injustice and pain, but it does mean we look to God first and foremost as the One who hears our outraged cries and then enables and empowers us to labor faithfully for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Thus, as important as they are, raw expressions of emotion are not enough.  Our angst, anger, and anguish must be offered up to the God who feels with us, the God who hears and cares, the God who is angry at sin yet weeps with those who weep.  And in the deep empathy of this Holy and emotive God who became flesh and dwelt among and suffered with and for us, we find real hope, genuine healing, and the wisdom and strength to actively and intentionally make the world a better place.

 

The Critical Flaw in Critical Theory

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The recent unjust and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are truly tragic and reprehensible.  They represent a growing list of needless deaths in a culture of hate.  As individuals, communities, and a nation, our hearts should be bowed down in empathetic grief and enflamed with righteous anger.

Beyond the legitimate emotions, many are also trying to assess the reasons for the profoundly problematic social realities leading to such deaths.  Foremost are claims of oppressive and systemic racism as well as corporate greed among those in positions of power in America.  This may well be true, but at the grave risk of sounding insensitive and uncaring, I believe such appraisals remain secondary to a much deeper question, namely, the best way to solve these kinds of socially systemic issues.

Contemporary Critical Theory claims to answer the problem through three very basic means: 1) A full reversal of power, demoting previous power-brokers and putting the previously oppressed into positions of influence and authority, 2) Widespread restructuring of oppressive social systems, and 3) Compulsory redistribution of goods and services (i.e., wealth).  To be sure, all three—the redistribution of power, restructuring of systems, and reallocation of wealth—are important problems to address, but they are also very often hard to bring about in a fair and just manner.  The first and third, however, can be achieved fairly quickly, so long as those currently in power can be pushed out of the way and the wealth of those with much can be seized and given to those with significantly less.

This is why Marx and other communist theorists (who form the ideological infrastructure for Critical Theory) had no problem with social coercion and, if necessary, violent armed revolution, to accomplish the so-called “greater good” of a “more equal” society through the forcible redistribution of wealth and power.

There are many ways to argue for or against such goals and means, but one of the most critical flaws in Critical Theory is simply this: At best, it provides an inadequate and (at worst) inaccurate understanding of human nature.  Suggesting that whole classes and races of people in society are, for example, primarily victims or villains fails to admit the root problem—we are all simultaneously victims and villains, damaged and damaging, oppressed and oppressing.  Why?  Because we are all sinners: rich and poor, privileged and impoverished, strong and weak, young and old, male and female, black and white—and everyone in between.  You cannot solve social problems by changing social structures alone.  You have to change the social beings—each and every one of us—that constitute, create, perpetuate, mediate—and even deny or ignore—these unjust social systems.

In short, changing human nature is much more radical and difficult than changing social structures and inequalities.  And changing the latter is extremely hard to do at all, let alone morally and patiently.  Consequently, the proposed solutions of Critical Theory and closely related socialist ideologies consistently fail in practice primarily because the diagnosis of the problem excludes a vital aspect of human nature: No matter who we are, we are far too prone to selfishness, tribalism, and abuse of power than we care to admit.

If these internal problems of greed and hatred are not dealt with deeply at the heart-level, they will fester and grow in the lives of those with influence and resources, no matter where they started in society.  This is why when reversals and redistributions occur, even with the best of intentions, those in positions of power almost always become just like the people they previously condemned for their selfishness, tribalism, and abuses of power.

As David Gooding and John Lennox point out, “A movement, while still a minority, will clamour for the right of free speech and protest against its removal; but when that same movement becomes the majority movement, it will in turn seek to suppress all other minority movements.”

Does government need to be involved in trying to assure a fair and just system of opportunities for power and wealth acquisition as well as their distribution?  Of course.  The solution is not a libertarian divestment of all governmental intervention with the assumption that people will do what is right when big government gets its nose out of everyone’s business.  That falls into the same trap of misunderstanding sinful human nature and our need for constant external and internal regulation—something Christians call accountability.  But since those who govern, just as much as those who are governed, are prone to selfishness, greed, and abuses of power, they also must have systems of accountability—real checks and balances—in place to keep them humble, honest, just, and selfless.

The framers of the US constitution believed in the propensity of every human being to turn great possibilities for good into terrible opportunities for godlessness.  In short, they believed in the doctrine of total depravity.  It was this conviction that led them to create a tri-fold system of checks and balances—legislative, judicial, and executive—so that no one person (or class of persons) would gain too much wealth and power and have the potential to become a tyrannical mass-oppressor.

Critical Theory fails and will continue to fail for many reasons, but the primary reason is that it does not understand who we really are—all of us—as human beings.  We are, first and foremost, sinners in need of a loving Savior, not classes in need of a political revolution.  And this is why John Adams, the second president of the United States, rightly noted, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . .  Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  This is why we need repentance and redemption, not merely reparation and revolution, for our lives and our world to truly change for the better.