Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Regarding Reparations (Part Two): Is it right and who should receive reparations and why?

In the first post of this four-part series, I explored some biblical themes surrounding the idea of reparations.  In this second part, I take a more focused look at some of the broader moral and practical concerns raised by this increasingly popular notion.

Before we begin, let me emphasize that there are many other problems and issues deserving serious consideration and attention which will not be raised here.  Instead, I will only address four interconnected issues, two in this post, one in the third, and one in the fourth.

Here we will address two questions: 1) Is it right to give reparations? and 2) Who should receive them and why?  Let’s begin by asking the first question, namely, is it right?

Is it right to give reparations?

Of all our concerns, this is probably the one of greatest import.  If it is morally right, then some way should be found to provide the necessary resources and enact the needed changes and means to bring about a more just society.

Virtually all agree that what was done to African slaves in America (to highlight one obvious example) was utterly wrong.  Who, however, is ultimately responsible for past moral failures and today’s social systems? How has history shaped these realities and to what extent are people alive today guilty of ignoring, implicitly supporting, or even overtly promoting such immoralities?

We have already noted in the previous blog that our lack of direct responsibility for past wrongs does not fully absolve us from the responsibility to rectify the sins of our predecessors.  However, contrary to the claims of most Critical Theorists, it is not at all obvious that there is a clear class of people who are wholly innocent and in need of reparations while there is another, definitively privileged class, that is guilty of creating and/or perpetuating unjust social systems, and who is simultaneously able and obligated to seek greater justice through reformative reparations.

Reparations should not be unidirectional handouts to those minorities in the lower class on the simple assumption of their state of moral innocence.  If and when they are given, they should be given in such a way that empowers and affirms their humanity as well as their personal responsibility.  Anything else is dehumanizing and dependency-producing—both things that are morally wrong and socially destructive.

Americans, with their strong sense of individualism, tend to bristle at the thought that we are somehow responsible for the actions of a whole class of people, especially when this class of people is only related to us historically.  Do we really want to say that when my great, great, great grandfather murdered or beat or raped someone (and presumably got away with it because he was part of a privileged class), that I must now be punished or held accountable for what he did 150 years ago?  But what if he did it 30 years ago?  Or how about 3 years ago before his recent death?  Does the smaller time-gap make me more culpable, even if I did nothing to directly aid and abet his evil?

In short, how blameworthy are we today for evils, both systemic and personal, that we had nothing to do with creating or committing in the first place?  Certainly, we are responsible to try and make the social systems of our time more just, and we are personally responsible for our own wrongdoing, but beyond this, we are not directly responsible for the evil done by our ancestors any more than we can take personal credit and be rewarded for their praiseworthy deeds.

All of these concerns need to be wrestled with, but let’s just assume a case can be made for pursuing, at some level, some sort of reparations.  After all, as was emphasized in the first part of this series, Christians recognize that we do have some level of responsibility for not merely changing unjust systems in our own time, but righting past wrongs done within and because of those systems along with the choices of those who took advantage of them.  In that light, it would seem that some form (or forms) of reparation(s) should be pursued in order to try and make our society a more just and god-honoring one.

But having said that, we must raise another crucial question, namely, who receives them and why?

Who should receive reparations and why?

Who, exactly, has been wronged and to what extent?  Is it only the descendants of black African slaves who should be eligible?  What about the Japanese Americans interred during WW II, or the Irish Catholics who were deeply discriminated against when they first arrived in the US?  What about the native Americans who lived here long before it became the USA?  It is obvious that the US institution of slavery was utterly wrong, but there are numerous other racial and religious wrongs perpetrated upon our American ancestors that deserve some serious attention in these matters as well.  And what about those who are no longer “pure” in their ancestry?  History shows that determining your genealogical and legal connections to certain segments of the US population can be controversial in and of itself, especially when those connections may result in significant advantages and benefits.

For example, when the native Americans were given gaming rights in Southern California some decades ago, a big fight broke out over who exactly was a member of which tribe since the subsequent promise of major monthly revenues was directly linked to genealogy.  Another example might be Rachel Anne Dolezal who claimed to have African American ancestry and used it to her advantage until 2015 when her claims were proven to be wholly fallacious.  Inevitably, when money, power, and privilege are involved, there will always be a lot of people who make claims to their advantage when they have little or no evidence to support or commend them.  Sorting out who actually deserves reparations and to what extent are extremely knotty issues and are made exceptionally more complex when a lot of self-interest is at stake.

Again, I am not pretending to offer any definite solutions here, but I am raising the questions in order to show that the simple affirmation that reparations should be provided is not easy to fulfill in a fair and straightforward manner.  Not only that, reparations raise additional questions, two more of which I will briefly address in the next two posts.

Regarding Reparations (Part One): Some Initial Biblical Perspectives

There’s growing chorus of people in America supporting the notion of reparations.  It may come as a surprise to some that reparations, at least properly defined, are not inherently anti-Christian.  In fact, concern for social justice and doing something concrete and measurable to right past wrongs (something more commonly called “restitution”), is an important component of revealing and advancing God’s kingdom on earth.  Of course, what requires restitution and the best means to that end are far more complicated questions to answer.

I wish I could give some real and reasonable solutions as well as provide some sense of closure for these multidimensional as well as very convoluted and complex, yet deeply important matters in a brief series of blog posts, but I honestly can’t.  Instead, this series will mainly raise concerns and questions in hopes to spark some deeper interest in and movement toward a better society and a godlier church.

Before raising these questions, I want to give some important biblical perspectives since most westerners (Americans especially) are deeply influenced by the individualism of a post-enlightenment rationalist set of values that push very hard against some of the scriptural aspects pertinent to these matters.

Solidarity with Our Ancestors

First and foremost, the idea of sharing some sense of solidarity with our ancestors is foundationally biblical. Although many tend to skip over them, genealogies are common in scripture and become centrally important for present concerns with respect to such things as the Levitical priesthood (e.g., Ezra 2:62) as well as the Davidic line leading to messianic hope in Jesus Christ (e.g., Matthew 1:1-17).  Our ancestors are deeply important to understanding our connections to the past as well as our responsibilities in the present and trajectories for the future.  In individualistic societies, we are not nearly concerned enough with our predecessors.  We often lack a healthy and biblical sense of our connection to, knowledge of, debt (good and bad) toward, and reliance upon our past.

Second, if we affirm (and I recognize some Christians do not) that in Adam, everyone sinned, and that in Christ, everyone who believes has been made righteous (Romans 5:12-21), our personal guilt is also tied to our ancestral guilt in a way that makes us helpless and hopeless apart from the mercy and grace of God made known and available through Jesus Christ.  In short, we are guilty and deserve eternal death not only because we ourselves have sinned, but, first and foremost, because our patriarch, Adam, sinned first.  This guilt is real, and while it has been called many things, I consider it to be a genuine and “inherited” guilt before God.

Third, and closely related, suffering the consequences of our ancestors’ poor choices is also overtly biblical (e.g., Exodus 34:7).  No one arrives in this world unstained or untouched by prior acts of evil.  All previous generations have contributed to the injustices of the current one, and sadly, we ourselves will also contribute to and leave some behind for subsequent generations to rectify as well.

Daniel’s Confession

Fourth, there is an intriguing passage in Daniel 9:1-19 where righteous and faithful Daniel, pours out his heart to God over the sins of his ancestors, considering their guilt as his own.  If anyone could claim to be an innocent victim of the sins of prior generations and a personally righteous person in spite of it all, Daniel would be that one.  And yet, he repeatedly identifies with (note his repeated use of “we”) and confesses the sins of his ancestors to God as His own.  As I understand it, such confession does not mean we are directly and personally guilty of the sins of others in the same way as if we committed them ourselves. Deuteronomy 24:16 is clear that we are not directly responsible for the sins of our ancestors.  But this kind of confession is healthy, godly, and important for at least three reasons.

First, it recognizes our solidarity with those who have come before us in this world.  To some extent, we do share in their guilt because we come from their stock.  Again, this does not mean we are guilty in the same way they are guilty, but it does mean that we share a certain burden of responsibility to admit and recognize the wrongs of what they have done.  For the purpose of clarity, I am going to call this sense of guilt that stems from our solidarity with our direct and recent ancestors, “corporate guilt.”  It is not the same as personal guilt (mentioned above) and does not make us culpable in the same way our direct offenses and involvement do.  Failure to appreciate this runs the risk of subverting Deuteronomy 24:16 and holding us responsible, as if we had done certain evils in some direct and conscious way.  Still, the burden of sorrow and sense of connection are real—or at least they should be—in some important sense.  We not only mourn over the wrong those related to us have done, but we willingly take on a level of responsibility for the harm it has caused and continues to cause others because we are directly connected to them through our ancestry.

There is a second reason why confessions like Daniel’s are biblically important.  It demonstrates humility and a genuine willingness to see and admit that there really is a problem.  I suspect that at least some of our resistance—even defensiveness—over the idea of reparations stems from a refusal to admit that there are and were real and profound past systemic restrictions imposed upon certain communities and people-groups—simply because they were members of a certain ethnicity or class.  Perhaps we are ashamed; perhaps we are ignorant; perhaps we want to protect reputations or personal interests.  To admit that we have some connection to the matter is to bring us to a humbling and uncomfortable place of recognizing some level of genuine responsibility to do something to right such wrongs.

And this idea leads us to the third reason why such biblical confessions of this kind are so important for us to highlight.  It heightens our sense of present responsibility in terms of our need to turn to God in humility and look to and trust in Him—not just to political, educational, financial, and social programs—to provide the strength and wisdom to rectify the wrongs others have done.  Why?  Because this reflects the purposes, plans, and character of God Himself.  Thus, sharing some sense of responsibility for rectifying past sinful choices of others does have an important place in Christian thought and is therefore directly pertinent to questions about reparations.

Zacchaeus’ Reparative Transformation

Before tackling some of the pressing questions surrounding reparations, one more story from scripture bears mentioning.  When Zacchaeus came to faith in Jesus, his life was transformed in a very practical way.  He not only recognized he had done evil and was part of an unjust system of Roman taxation, he actively sought to give back everything and more to those that he had cheated.  I suspect it was a very costly commitment, but he understood that his faith in Christ was not mere assent.  It was the motivational source of transformation alongside a completely different set of values and way of life.  This new life not only reached out in the present to a radically alternative future, it reached back into a sinful and unjust past in order to practically and materially rectify blatant injustice and sin toward others.  In short, a life changed by Jesus was immediately and lastingly characterized by the observable values of repentance, regret, restitution, restoration, and reparation.

Of course, Zacchaeus’ responsibility for wrongdoing here was his own, and his actions to rectify those wrongs was wholly voluntary. No one forced him to make restitution for what he had done, and they were given directly to those that he himself had wronged, but his behavior shows that seeking to repair past wrongs should be a natural outflow of a truly transformed life in Christ.

Having begun by looking to the scriptures, many practical problems and crucial questions need to be addressed before any real movement toward making just reparations can be seriously considered and enacted.  It is to just four of these we will turn our attention in the remainder of this series.

When the Mighty Fall: Reflections on the Ravi Zacharias Scandal

With the recent Ravi Zacharias scandal, many are sharing their thoughts and laments about his improprieties and sexual sins, so I wanted to add some brief reflections.

Our trust is in Jesus and the truth of His gospel.

For many, Ravi was something of a spiritual mentor and hero, instrumental in leading them to Christ and/or helping them strengthen their faith in the face of opposition and doubt.  But because Ravi claimed to represent Jesus and be living out his Christian walk with moral integrity, his double life and godless infidelity has served to strain the gospel’s credibility and deeply shaken the faith of some.

Whether we like it or not, the credibility of the message (not necessarily its truth value) is often directly related to the credibility of the messenger.  That credibility increases or decreases depending on whether or not the life of the messenger matches at the claims of the message.  This is why Paul repeatedly calls believers to live lives worthy of the God and the gospel (Phil 1:27; Eph 4:1).  At the same time, Paul makes it clear that even if the gospel is preached pretentiously by people with selfish and impure motives, as long as the message remains the gospel, he is glad it’s being shared (Phil 1:15-18).

Thus, despite the deep disconnect between Ravi’s personal life and his gospel message, we can still depend upon the truth of the gospel.  Why?  Because its persuasive power and transformative nature ultimately and finally rest upon the trustworthiness and perfection of God in Jesus Christ—and nothing and no one else.  He alone is the guarantor of the gospel’s reliability.  As Romans 3:4 reminds us, God and His gospel are dependable even if everyone else is a liar.

All sins are not equal: Some sins really are more egregious than others.

In the aftermath of Ravi’s indecencies, some have claimed that “sin is sin,” and that Ravi was, like all of us, just another “sinner saved by grace.”  While this may be true, putting it this way so soon after the revelations downplays the truly despicable nature of his sin.  Yes, everyone sins, but certain sins produce far greater social and moral impact and damage than others.  While all sins are wrong before a holy God, alienating us from Him, it’s not hard to see that the sin of murder (for example) has a far greater impact on one’s conscience and society as a whole than stealing a pack of gum.

Suggesting that Ravi was “just another sinner saved by grace” profoundly minimizes the tremendous authority and power he possessed.  It also dismisses the ways in which his deceitful abuse and misuse of these in order to gratify ungodly sexual desires makes the ramifications of his sin that much greater.  This is precisely why James 3:1 warns, “Do not become teachers in large numbers, my brothers, since you know that we who are teachers will incur a stricter judgment.”  It is also why in the Old Testament some sins incurred greater consequences than others—sometimes even death, because they had a much greater societal and moral impact on the horizontal level.

Saying Ravi was “just another sinner” also suggests that what happened to these sexually abused women should just be “forgiven and forgotten” so we can just move on and get it over with.  That’s easy for the unaffected to say but shows little concern or care for those (including Ravi’s immediate family) who have been profoundly hurt and damaged by his deceit, misuse of funds, sexual duplicity, and predatory behavior.  While we recognize the power of and need for God’s forgiveness and grace, when serious and egregious wrong has been done, we must also make real restitution and provide genuine care for those who have been wronged.  We should not use flippant calls for “grace” and “forgiveness” to undermine or minimize the horrific nature of what has been done and try to avoid any responsibility to make proper amends.

Was Ravi actually a Christian?

I’ve heard the question raised, “Was Ravi a true believer or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?”  For some, even asking this question is shocking and inappropriate.  Given his repeated claims to be a genuine believer in Jesus alongside the powerful ways God used His ministry, the answer might seem obvious: “Of course Ravi was a true Christian!”

But before we rush to make such definitive conclusions, I think it’s fair to admit there is some conflicting evidence here.  By all outward appearances, Ravi’s faith was sincere.  However, the ongoing level of deception, the despicable nature and extent of the sin, as well as Ravi’s complete lack of public or private remorse and repentance—even when facing his impending death, means that ultimately only God, the perfect and righteous Judge, knows if Ravi was sincere or was merely “peddling the word of God” (2 Cor 2:17) for his own selfish ends.

At the very least, passages like Matthew 7:21-23 and 23:25-27 should be sobering reminders to us all that even successful and seemingly righteous religious leaders can actually be wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15).  We should not be too shocked or devastated when respected religious leaders who have thriving ministries and who may even look morally impeccable on the outside (just like the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time) turn out to be filthy and ungodly on the inside.  Ravi’s life is one more reminder that we should not be too enamored by someone’s giftedness and ministerial success.  Just because someone is brilliant, exceptionally talented, and powerfully used of God does not prove they are right with Him or living a holy life.

Ravi was not given adequate accountability, and we are also susceptible to such sin.

The many ongoing failures of the RZIM ministries to provide appropriate accountability structures for Ravi give a sobering and gravely negative example that every Christian and ministry organization can and should learn from.  But because we might be legitimately outraged and angered by what Ravi did, we also need to be very careful here.  The great temptation is to look at Ravi or the ministry and be disgusted and judgmental without realizing that we need to take a hard and honest look at our own hearts.  As humbling as it is to admit, none of us are immune from the possibility of becoming just like Ravi—or even worse, if we fail to put moral safeguards into place.

I suspect that Ravi’s life and ministry started out well enough.  Over time, however, small and secret sins crept into his life, sins which remained unrevealed and unconfessed.  These eventually and progressively became larger and more horrific.  As he simultaneously became increasingly powerful and popular, more was at stake and there was greater temptation and pressure to hide his mounting moral struggles and failures.  Over time, his conscience was seared, and his heart became callused and hard.

Instead, we need to be utterly honest about and constantly seeking to eradicate even the so-called “little sins” in our lives, sins that could easily lead us down a similar path of destruction and moral degradation.  Are you hiding something out of fear and shame?  Don’t let it remain hidden!  Bring it into the freeing light of confession with a trusted friend and let the power of that secret sin finally be broken (James 5:16)!

At the end of the day, the lesson is clear: We need God’s daily grace, a deep desire for humility and holiness, as well as close friends and genuine accountability structures to help us avoid suffering the same fate as Ravi.

What will your legacy be?

My final challenge is to carefully consider the legacy you are leaving for the generations that follow. Everyone is an example.  What kind of example are you setting for others, a good one, a bad one, or perhaps somewhere in between?  And when you are gone and people sift through the hidden aspects of your life, what will they ultimately find?  What do you want them to find, and how will you make your public and private life coincide with each other?

It’s too late for Ravi, but so long as you are living, there’s still time to turn your heart toward the gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ and through confession and repentance experience His cleansing power to forgive and redeem any and all sin, public or private, known or unknown.

“Free” Education Is Not Free

There are rumors that the Biden and Harris administration plans to make at least some public higher education free.  Is this a good idea?  What are some of the potential problems and how might they be mitigated?

One of the first concerns is cost.  Whenever you promise to give something for nothing, it always comes with a price tag, no matter how hidden it may be.  At some point, someone has to pay.  “Who?” and “How?” must be answered with hard data and real money.  This means there will be strings and standards attached to any offer of “free” public education.  It won’t really be free for all; it will only be free for some while others have to pay.

On the other side of this equation is the “How?” question.  Affordability must be faced honestly and realistically.  The contemporary answer is almost always that “taxes” will pay for it—not spending cuts, not greater efficiency, not fiscal responsibility, and not making university campuses less like spa resorts and more like basic educational institutions.

Taxes, however, will only take us so far, and the available resources will never be infinite.  Inevitably, there will be limits to how much is given for higher education.  With limited means, only certain students will be allowed to get educated for free.  At the very minimum, time limits will have to be placed on how long a student can have to get a degree, and herein lies one of the great dangers of so-called, “free” education.

Virtually everyone wants the poor and disenfranchised to be able to get an education they otherwise could not have received.  But there are dangers lurking here since the no-cost offer tends to remove incentives to work hard for that educational opportunity. It also often lowers the standards to the level of those who are neither able nor inclined to pursue an advanced degree.  There will have to be limits placed on who can actually qualify and how long a student can remain at school cost-free.  Otherwise, given some of the campus facilities built in recent years, it might become an extended spa-resort vacation for students to socialize, exercise in state-of-the-art sports facilities, be housed and fed, entertained, and play online video games year after year.  Education might be thrown in there somewhere, but why work too hard to get out in four or five years when you’re having so much fun at someone else’s expense?

The solution seems simple enough: Students must be enrolled full-time and complete their degree in five or perhaps a maximum of six years while maintaining a minimum GPA.  Fine and good, but the moment you place enforceable standards and limits on the educational process—even ones that seem eminently reasonable—you immediately produce a stratification of the system.  Yes, some will take full advantage of the opportunity to be educated, but many others will not.  And then we will be right back where we started, facing the charge of discriminatory practices against those who are, to varying degrees and for various reasons, arrested and delayed in their ability and/or motivation to pursue a degree in higher education.

All of this points to the fatal flaw in much of contemporary thought, namely that people are essentially good.  It is often assumed (without challenge) that when given the right environment and opportunities, people will choose the good and shun evil.  Beyond the contemporary and historical absurdity of this claim, Genesis 2-3 demonstrates that creating a perfect environment and sharing a simple standard of expectation is not a fool-proof way to make human beings do what is right.  We may still choose to ignore or refuse to pursue what is in our best interest in order to fulfill our own (sinful) desires instead.

At the end of the day, we still must talk about incentivizing education, and not simply about making it free, because over time, human nature doesn’t respond well to getting completely free handouts.  Of course, some really will benefit from not having to cross the formidable financial hurdles of contemporary higher education, but the way to make this happen is not by making everything free.  Instead, the solution is to create real and reasonable incentives and opportunities for people to work hard and improve themselves and their situations so that they can actually succeed in life.  This is the difference between a fully free handout and an empowering hand up.  Free handouts only dehumanize us and disincentivize those things that encourage us to become better people.

Mark my words: “Free” education is not free and thinking that it is, is a pure deception.  In the end, limits must be set, standards must be met, and prices must be paid.

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.

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?

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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!